Let me start this conversation with a couple of disclaimers.
I’m not a PlayStation child. I’m not a Nintendo 64 child. I’m not mocking older games for holding their childhood memories to their hearts. I grew up on a Nintendo Entertainment System. I started playing Nintendo games when I was two years old. This is not a “it happened before I was born so it must have sucked” rant.
I also have a level of respect for Twin Galaxies, whose organizers and followers busted ass to become the authority on competitive retro gaming. They did for little reason other than “passion for the product”. Look at the effort I’ve put into this web site. You think I have room to play the “takes gaming too seriously” card? I’m also not claiming that with some time and effort, I could trump their records. I’ve said it before: It doesn’t matter what genre it is. You need some moxy to become the best at a single video game or genre. I’m not calling out retro gamers to a duel. I’m calling out retro gamers on their philosophy.
I can sum this discussion with a quote from Walter Day, who collected data from arcades to post a “National Scoreboard” in his Twin Galaxies arcade. Day seems like a decent human being. He has a really cool beard, I’d buy him a beer, and so forth. We’re both fans of competitive gaming. You’d think we would be on the same boat. According to his wisdom featured in the 2007 documentary The King of Kong, we ain’t.
“Those [Golden Age arcade games] challenged eye-hand coordination, mind-body coordination, fast reaction time, comprehensive thinking, on a level that modern games don’t.”
If you’re into gamer culture, you’ve heard the story. There is a belief that twenty-plus years ago, video games required a greater range of skills than they do today. That brutal death penalties, a lack of proper save systems, and a range of unintuitive or confusing game mechanics (all collectively known as “Nintendo Hard”) built better gamers. Let’s think about that. Retro gamers (those with a preference for the product developed during the Golden Age of Arcade Games and the Nintendo Entertainment System) swore off video games as they became increasingly and depravedly complex during the mid-nineties. Amongst many claims, retro gamers argue the games got too easy. To affirm this, the most competitive of retro gamers began dominating the record books for the video games they grew up on. They are still dominating those games as they reach their mid-thirties for little reason other than “they’re the only ones playing the games”. In the competitive gaming communities with significant turnaround (the communities still attracting new talent and young players), the best players are on the downsides of their career by the time they hit the age of twenty-five. And somehow, the “big fish, small pond” community of retro gamers convinced the world that becoming a skilled gamer has gotten easier since the Nintendo days. That is complete bullshit.
Do not argue with The King of Kong’s graphics overlays. You are wrong.
Debunking the cult of “Nintendo Hard” is only daunting if you don’t know your video games. This story is part game design, part technology, part psychology, part perception. Technology and the internet rewrote the rules of game design, which redefined the roles of challenge and difficulty. Today, “Nintendo Hard” sits in the back of the bus while “Jaedong Hard” and “Daigo Hard” get all the girls. And by willfully ignoring the evolution of video games, retro gamers never came to terms with that. Sound complicated? It probably is. This ain’t no eight-bit storytelling.
Before the history lesson begins, we need to talk about challenge and difficulty. These terms are tossed around and nobody knows what they actually mean.
Later installments of Dance Dance Revolution feature what is ironically known as Challenge Mode. You play four to six songs in a set order. Every time you score below “Great” on a note, you lose a life. You have three lives to work with. Sound tough? It damn sure can be. This health system is far less forgiving than the game’s standard life bar, which offers more margin for error and allows the player to regain health. Challenge Mode is a substantial increase in difficulty. But it is no more challenging because you are using the same skills to conquer the same songs with the same gameplay mechanics.
Quite simply, “difficulty” is the restrictions imposed on the player by the game. How little margin for error does the game grant the player in completing the task? That’s why they call them difficulty levels. Difficulty levels adjust variables. How hard enemies hit, how many lives you get. Difficulty is an integral part of game design. The proper difficulty level encourages and facilitates the intended use of the game mechanics. If the game is too easy, you end up with Cave Story, where you can ignore the game’s fascinating weapon mechanics and gung-ho your way through the game world. If the game is too hard, players will shun diverse combat schemes in favor of the “cheapest” attacks, a reboot of Ninja Gaiden where the Flying Swallow becomes your only friend.
“Challenge” is the range of skills required to master a game. Think reflexes. Pattern memorization. The ability to process information quickly. The ability to memorize and execute strategies. The more skills that are required to master a game, the more challenging it is. (This doesn’t mean games with a shallow challenge level are easy to master. The rhythm game genre is deathly primitive. But you’re not topping that flawless playthrough on YouTube. You can’t, you won’t. Don’t bother trying.)
The debate over Nintendo Hard is a fundamental split in the opinion of what makes a video game enjoyable to play. Video games in the eighties used difficulty as the test of skill. Even though Nintendo games required a small range of skills (typically limited to pattern memorization and reflexes), they required players to master those skills. On the average, video games are less difficult today. There’s absolutely no debating that. I consider challenge to be the test of skill. That proving you can master a wide range of skills is the meal ticket. And in the twenty-plus years since retro gaming became a cultural statement, technology and complicated gameplay systems have redefined the beast. Games have become far more challenging. I consider that to be a very good thing.
Video gaming in the early eighties had a serious technology issue. Home console gaming was bad enough. But even the arcades were years away from universal arcade motherboards. The chipsets were still being hard-wired into the cabinets. Retro gamers will insist that video games were more innovative for this very reason; that the limitations of technology forced developers to milk every transistor for the exuberant prices that they were worth. The developers of the day were so innovative that video game market crashed under the weight of crappy knockoffs in 1983.
Let’s talk about what actually happened. Three decades later, Ms. Pac-Man is still a classic. And until the release of 2007’s Pac-Man Championship Edition, Ms. Pac-Man was the undisputed king of the maze genre. Wait, what? Maze genre? What the hell is that? All you knew is that lady Pac-Man had some game.
Pictured: Mother fuckin’ innovation!
That’s right: Video game developers were so creative that they all ripped off Pac-Man. Let’s put it into perspective: Blizzard Entertainment has zero recourse against the Chinese makers of “World of Lordcraft” and social gaming empire Zynga never found an idea that it couldn’t steal. Namco Atari (Editor’s note: Whoops! Atari had the home console rights and they were the ones to drop the hammer.) successfully sued Magnavox for their release of Pac-Man clone K.C. Munchkin. In fairness, Munchkin was a pretty good game. So were Ladybug and Mouse Trap (pictured above). But eventually, it got so bad that dog-food maker Purina commissioned a maze game by the name of Chase the Chuck Wagon*, a product based on a series of famous commercials run by the company. Why? Because it was a video game. Some guy in a suit thought it would sell.
Why was the maze genre so popular? When the famous French movie director Georges Méliès introduced A Trip to the Moon to the then-fledgling medium of motion pictures in 1902, it was completely unlike anything most people had ever seen, an epic tale of the moon-and-back clocking in at an unprecedented fourteen minutes. Approximately a decade removed from the first commercial video games, Golden Age programmers were doing their best Méliès impression. They simply didn’t have the technology to realize massive worlds or complicated gameplay systems. But more importantly, the programmers didn’t possess the body of knowledge. Their body of knowledge was built around making the most profitable product for the most profitable distribution method of its time, the arcades. And developers learned one lesson very, very quickly: If a player could master a game with twenty-five cents, what incentive would he or she have to come back and play it again? There wasn’t any. So developers did what they had to: They cranked up the difficulty level. They cranked it as high as audiences would tolerate. Years before the Japanese unleashed the Nintendo Entertainment System on American audiences, the world of “Nintendo Hard” was born.
Then 1983 occurred. The American video game market imploded under the weight of Atari’s horrible business decisions and a saturated market. Two years later, the Japanese released the Nintendo Entertainment System in the United States and won back audiences with massive, colorful worlds. The maze genre died a horrible death, but the body of knowledge built by arcade developers did not. Developers now had the technology to realize larger universes. But in the world of fifty-dollar, pay-to-own Nintendo games, arcade economics lived on.
As the SomethingAwful gag proclaimed, games earned the Nintendo Seal of Approval by requiring that “players die enough to make the cost of the game equal to the amount they would have spent beating it at the arcade.”* Developers had to justify the cost of a fifty-dollar video game. A perfect playthrough of Contra takes about twenty minutes. And you’re not getting a new video game until next month. Your mom bought that Nintendo to babysit your ass. So the player got a handful of fuck-ups to beat the game. And if you didn’t own a Nintendo Power? Too bad. Your mom doesn’t care if the game “cheated” or not. The only way you’re exploring any new worlds on your Nintendo is to shut up and get better at the game(s) you already own.
The Nintendo Entertainment System milked this philosophy to earn the most impressive American market share of any home console until the PlayStation 2. But the arcades? They were in serious trouble. And not just in the States. The tech superiority of the cabinet was being trumped by the convenience of being able to play the games in your own home. And nothing was going to stop it. Arcade developers could only stop the bleeding. The format needed a shot in the arm.
In 1987, developer-publisher Capcom released a game by the name of Street Fighter. It was probably designed to cash in on the popularity of 1984’s Karate Champ, then a rare example of a financially-successful head-to-head arcade title. Street Fighter wasn’t much of a game, but it had a solid gameplay base. Standardized health bars (Karate Champ used the karate point system), a wide cast of characters, and “special moves” that could be executed with a specific button combination. The problem? Street Fighter may have had multiplayer, but was limited to two characters with similar skill sets. Four years later, Capcom released the sequel. You could play as eight different characters with varied and specialized skill sets. (Ryu and Ken’s identical skill sets persisted and were eventually diversified in future titles.) And it played very, very well. Street Fighter II blew up the fucking bus and changed the medium forever.
Everybody forgets that multiplayer dominated the industry’s earliest years. The pre-commercial history of game development is highlighted by 1958’s Tennis for Two and 1962’s SpaceWar!. And after 1972’s Pong rendered 1971’s single-player Computer Space a historical afterthought, the video game market (at least its electronic and home console segments) transformed into Pong and Pong knock-offs. Limited gameplay aside, it’s probably why multiplayer fell off a cliff after the release of 1978’s Space Invaders and 1979’s Asteroids. Those games were breaking new ground after six-plus years of Pong. And more importantly, these new single-player games were making lots and lots of money. Why buck an emerging model if it’s making people rich?
1991’s Street Fighter II brought multiplayer back and cornered a market that no game had been able to touch. It let nerds know what it was like to punch another man in the face. And it did it with the unapologetic competitive aspect that got nerds thrown in lockers to begin with. Yeah, you could play against the computer. No problem with that. But anybody could plug coins into the second slot at any time and make you play for the machine. By adopting the “winner stays” rule seen on any basketball court in the United States, you could theoretically earn hours of practice on a single play. After years of settling differences with “high scores”, your optimal performance, players now had to bring their game every time somebody called them out.
Head-to-head multiplayer saved the arcades for nearly a half-decade, allowing developers to reap billions in quarters and then strike their own iron with a delayed home console release. Street Fighter would eventually have its selling point justified by the first-person shooter renaissance of the mid-to-late nineties. But even as Street Fighter was changing the culture of competitive video games, the soon-to-be-fading mentality of single-player competition persisted. One only had to watch as Nick Arcade followed in the footsteps of Starcade and Video Power, affirming the long-standing legacy of head-to-head, “beat the score” competitions.***
It didn’t take long for players to discover the true selling point of head-to-head multiplayer. At first, multiplayer could prove frustrating. Nobody understood Street Fighter, or StarCraft, or Call of Duty, or whatever game got their interest. In the early play history of a competitive video game (single-or-multiplayer), it appears a single strategy can become a panacea for any situation. And many considered these strategies cheap. Hey, single-player games “cheated”. Why couldn’t another human opponent? The games that couldn’t hold up to human input fell to the wayside. The rest? Their player base collectively sounded like this:
“Throws are bullshit. Complete bullshit! I hit the block button and my guy doesn’t block them! Oh, wait. What if I…hey, that counters throws. Maybe they’re not–what the fuck? He countered my counter-move! How the fuck am I supposed to beat that? So wait, if I do this, and…oh. This is why this game is so much fun to play.”
Knowing the moves wasn’t enough. Knowing the combos wasn’t enough. Knowing the optimal strategies wasn’t enough. Why has chess endured for over eight-hundred years? Enter the metagame.
The Tiger Woods fetish and track and field the exceptions, every major sport utilizes head-to-head competition involving two or more athletes competing directly against each other. We love the human element. At the highest levels of play, raw skill isn’t what separates great athletes. It’s whether they have the ability to understand and adapt to adversity. That’s what sells tickets. There’s little drama in “man versus machine” unless “machine is finally catching up to man” becomes the storyline. And after Deep Blue finally got the better of Garry Kasparov in 1997, people stopped caring about chess-playing computers and got back to watching Michael Jordan push off Byron Russell.
StarCraft and Counter-Strike have the best-established spectator audiences of any competitive video game on the planet. That’s because they have blindingly obvious metagames. You can watch competitive StarCraft without knowing a single thing about the game. You can know that if a player’s head-first ground attack is being pummeled by siege weapons, the attacking player may want to change things up. And then it’s up to the defending player to anticipate that change in strategy. For anybody who’s played or watched sports, “What will X do to stop Y?” has a very familiar feeling. (That’s why competitive fighting games have a nasty habit of leaving outside audiences in the dark. Their metagame is occurring so rapidly (and across so many character-versus-character matchups) that you need to know the intricacies of the games in order to understand the action.)
Once man learned how to trap the centipede in the game of the same name, that game’s competitive lifespan was saved only by those who declared the tactic unethical. Against the eight-bit brand of artificial intelligence, it’s inevitable that one will eventually discover the “best build order” or the “best set of moves”. Hell, the existence of tool-assisted speedruns is predicated on that philosophy. No hacker ever saw a static security system that he couldn’t beat.
And even with today’s computers, there’s little demand for Call of Duty scrimmages against competent artificial intelligence. Not as long as online gaming continues to be a major selling point for consumers and a line of subscription revenue for developers. As dumb as most humans are, they can still do it better than an electronic brain. The only way for computers to keep up is to increase the difficulty level to the point where bots can shoot you through walls from the other end of the map. (Or as they call it in Counter-Strike, “BuyMyAimBot is cheating.”) In the eighties, gamers were matching wits with circuit boards that had less power than what you’ll find in a modern wristwatch. We now compete head-to-head against dynamic intelligence provided by other humans, and trumping that psychology requires a more diverse skill set than any Nintendo game could ever offer.
It’s best exemplified by the Moto Box, named for one of the most famous moments in the history of competitive Counter-Strike. The semi-finals of the Counter-Strike event at the 2004 World Cyber Games between Team 3D and SK Gaming was played on De_Inferno. On this map, there is a crate located next to one of the bomb sites. If you jump behind it, that’s the last movement you’re making for the rest of that round. You’re pinned against the corner of a wall. With such an action long declared suicide by the Counter-Strike community, Team 3D leader Dave “Moto” Geffon put the gun to his head. Seconds later, his teammates were wiped out. But SK Gaming had no idea Moto had hidden behind the crates. Who would be dumb enough to do that? At this level of play? And the rest was history.
Team 3D won the whole damn event and Moto’s accomplishment became so famous that the crate became known as the “Moto Box”. Moto won his spot in Counter-Strike history by considering all of his available options and then choosing the worst of them.
Walter Day lauds the eye-hand, mind-body, reflexes, and game knowledge required to become a Donkey Kong world record holder. Starcraft, Street Fighter, and Counter-Strike share all of these skills. But thanks to the metagame, you’re also competing against short-term strategy and long-term strategy all being guided by your opponent’s best poker face. These competitive outlets are so challenging that there is simply no room for a Billy Mitchell who holds records on Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Donkey Kong Jr. at the same time. This is a universe where you’re lucky to become a world-class player with any of Warcraft III‘s four factions.
“But Mikey Lowell, I thought you said a video game with a shallow challenge level can still test skill!” It can. Rhythm games do that. Bullet hell shooters do that. They can do it because they have adaptable difficulty levels, where Dance Dance Revolution can feature thousands of songs that test players of all skill levels. That’s how a hate crime like 2008’s Ninja Gaiden II can still attract audiences and talented players. Pac-Man features two difficulty options: Adjust the lives, adjust the number of points required to earn an extra life. Technology in the eighties strikes again. The developers of the eighties had to strike a compromise on their difficulty level: They had to choose one. That single difficulty level had to appeal to an entire audience. Unfortunately, the games ended up being too easy for their prodigies and too hard for everybody else. One half of the retro gaming audience boasts that Donkey Kong is impossible and its superior side brags about reaching the kill screen.
Today, game developers only need to create games where the player becomes both the difficulty and the challenge level. Single-player is now designed to introduce the player to the weapons and concepts that will be used in online multiplayer; where Call of Duty‘s single player campaign can be a demo for the pay-to-play Xbox Live experience. And retro gamers never got that memo. But why? Part nostalgia? Sure. Everybody’s got their nostalgia crutch. But it’s also a matter of pride, and a matter of misunderstanding how big the world of video games has really become.
The 2005 release of Guitar Hero popularized the rhythm game genre in the United States and became the current video game universe’s lone tribute to the Golden Age of Arcade Games. Guitar Hero II‘s most difficult and challenging song is Jordan by Buckethead*. After the game’s November of 2006 release, its player base triumphantly declared that nobody would ever achieve a full-combo (no missed notes) on Jordan. But in late-2007, players realized they could convert Jordan’s brutal mid-round guitar solo into a piano lesson, using both of their hands to play the fret buttons on their guitar. In January of 2008, Jordan was beaten. A barrier had fallen. Next up was Through the Fire and Flames, Guitar Hero III‘s tribute to the bosses of eight-bit legend. After Guitar Hero III‘s October of 2007 release, the community declared this song was also unconquerable; that nobody could full-combo Dragonforce’s assault on the electric guitar. Seven months and a couple days later, Chris Chike (iamchris4life) got it on tape.
As milestones dropped, Guitar Hero fans realized the ginormous timing windows in the American-developed rhythm games assured there was no music on the planet that couldn’t be defeated. (Nothing anybody would want to play, at least.) In 2006, most Americans were very, very new to the guitar game. They had little exposure to the rhythm game. They didn’t know that Guitar Hero‘s scariest looked like candy and rainbows when stacked aside Beatmania‘s death marches. But by 2010, audiences were mature enough and skilled enough to understand the limitations of Guitar Hero‘s gameplay model. Guitar Hero‘s toughest music has since surpassed the difficulty of both Jordan and Dragonforce’s now-famous boss music. But those two epics were the ones that made the impression. They were the first challenges that Guitar Hero fans got a taste of.
For gamers who grew up on the Nintendo Entertainment System, the video game universe gave the same impression. Only this time, it extended across an entire video game lineup that was powered by an incomplete body of development knowledge. Gamers didn’t know the difference between challenge and difficulty, and neither did the developers. All players knew is that “There’s no way anybody could beat this level! It’s impossible!” With time and experience, those players got better. And if they played video games beyond the eight-bit era and got acquainted with Devil May Cry or the Ninja Gaiden reboots, there’s a very good chance they conquered single-player titles that were harder than what they played in the eighties. But for a large number of players, the Nintendo Entertainment System presented them with their first true tests. So those are the challenges that people speak of in awestruck tones.
And in 1987, there was no internet to agree or disagree with our opinion. The internet was a smattering of university messaging systems. So in the same way that Kimbo Slice rose to fame by dooking on the hobo boxing circuit, climbing the ranks of Punch-Out! and defeating Mike Tyson meant a very real possibility you were the only person you knew that could do it. In your little pond, you were a fucking legend. If the internet was around in 1987, “I Beat Mike Tyson!!1” brag threads would be met with “Yawn. That’s nice. Now do it without taking a hit.” But without an internet, nobody was taking the breath out of your accomplishments.
The internet changed gamer culture. “I can beat all of my friends” used to be a statement of fact. Today, if you say it with any conviction, you will be laughed off of any message board or out of any game lobby. Most importantly, the internet took the Americans’ me-first discussion of competitive gaming and threw it out of the window. Americans no longer ignore the accomplishments of the Japanese, the Koreans, most Europeans, and any part of the world with the infrastructure and the talent to play video games at a high level. And if you know anything about rhythm games, nearly every real-time strategy game, and fighting games played on both sides of the ocean, you would know that Americans are very good at getting their ass kicked. Foreign accomplishments are no longer irrelevant like they were in the heyday of Twin Galaxies.
Today, the sheer sample size means there are a hell of a lot of gamers who are better than ninety-nine out of a hundred. Millions of amateurs now play Call of Duty on a daily basis. The best competitive games maintain communites that remain unwavering as presidents and politicians come and go. The best competitive gamers sustain modest-but-livable salaries to play video games. As in “they get paid to play these games seventy hours a week”. The internet did to competitive gaming what the National Basketball Association does to its bottom-feeders, where fans victimize and deride bench-warmers as “bad players”. “Bad players” who would score thirty-five points in your friends’ pick-up game to eleven. We now live in a world where Greg Fields (IdrA) is the on-and-off laughingstock of professional StarCraft, a player who gets as much recognition for his talents as his hates-to-lose attitude, practically lifted from the professional wrestling playbook. And he’s the best Starcraft player in the United States of America.
In the retro gaming community, the two decades since Street Fighter never ever happened. They won’t believe it. They didn’t see a fundamental change in how the industry conducts business. They’ve interpreted the introduction of multiple difficulty levels, “Super Guides”, and infinite continues as proof that video games have been “dumbed down”. (And if you’re going to claim that video games are “dumbed down”, that’s not where you start.) Retro gamers have locked themselves in their castles and declared “I didn’t lose any of my three lives not being able to hear you!” And thanks to modern technologies such as matchmaking systems that pit players against opponents of similar skill levels, the people who think “video games are too easy these days” will never ever know what it is like to get their ass kicked by a gamer worth their salt. All they’ll know is “That one Nintendo game was so hard, and nothing could possibly top it!”
Let’s reiterate: I’m not claiming I could swipe Billy Mitchell’s records. It’s not happening and that’s not the argument. What’s happened is that retro gamers are putting the video games on the throne. That “this game” or “that game” is unbeatable. They should be placing the accomplishments of the players on the throne. Where Jang Jae Ho (Moon) and Manuel Schenkhuizen (Grubby) dominated an exceptionally-talented competitive Warcraft III scene for over half a decade. I consider that a hell of a lot more impressive than programming a video game to stack the odds against the player. Especially when many programmers do it to cover for their sloppy game design. And until hardware manufacturers can mirror the intelligence of the human brain with a computer processor and attach it to affordable video game hardware, the players will get my props. Because beating those players requires a greater range of skills than any retro game ever did.
So let’s have a contest. Front me Defender. Front me Abadox. Front me a video or arcade game that I couldn’t possibly master.
I’ll front you Daigo Umehara (Daigo), the most famous Street Fighter player on the planet. He doesn’t play because he can make money off of it. He just does it because he enjoys fucking you in the ear. And we’ll see who conquers their machine first.
There’s going to be a lot of trial and error involved. So if you’re one of those retro gamers who grew up on “Nintendo Hard”, it may be your idea of a really fun time.