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More than the tech: Understanding game evolution through classic design

Whether just pure classic gameplay, or stunning innovation, these classics stand the test of time.
Whether just pure classic gameplay, or stunning innovation, these classics stand the test of time.Konami, Sony Computer Entertainment, Nintendo, Bungie, Microsoft, Universal Studios, Naughty Dog

To say, “Look at how far we’ve come” when discussing video games most often speaks to the increased graphical abilities of modern gaming. But understanding just how far we have come means more than just marveling at the visual capabilities and advanced technology available today. Video gaming, like any form of art, is constantly evolving and shifting. Games progress through landmark classics that either encapsulates the best experiences through rich, satisfying gameplay, or through innovative, groundbreaking new additions.

It’s this ever evolving and growing collection of classic titles that truly gives an appropriate sense of “how far” we really have come.

Classic Gameplay and Design

We can explore the various ways gaming exists as an expressive form of art—one fully capable of expressing and exploring the many sides of the human condition—but one of the most basic defining aspects of a game is the quality of its core gameplay. Titles and series that have lasted over generations now, even from the most humble of beginnings, are ones that from the start had solid, addictive gameplay that made them irresistible.

Pokemon Red and Blue is an excellent example of classic gameplay put to great use, as is another RPG classic, Final Fantasy VII. In some ways these titles were known for small amounts of innovation here and there, but largely it was the solid RPG mechanics that made them truly memorable. By using tried and true qualities that stem from tabletop role-playing games, a tradition that predates video games, these games became trailblazers in their genre.

While Final Fantasy may have had a more sweeping and epic storyline that captivated players, both titles focused on ways to creatively build and utilize different characters, abilities and items. Whether it was about hunting down, discovering and capturing new Pokémon, or collecting and mastering the art of magic through materia, both titles were about providing players an accessible, highly interactive and engaging method to shape the experience.

Classic forms of gameplay have also, at times utilized and relied on much simpler traditions. The original Crash Bandicoot stands out as taking a classic format, and then building on it to create a fun and addictive game. There’s nothing incredibly new or inventive about having a main character jump on enemies to take them out, collect items and power-ups; if done well, however, it’s a recipe for an excellent platformer—which is what Crash was exactly. There were a handful of traits that made the game unique in its own way, but its solid platforming experience and reliable gameplay is what the title will always be remembered for.

Innovative Classics

For many studios, going with what worked wasn’t enough. This manifested in the form of many games taking on risks and venturing out into newer directions, paving the way for future standards in their respective genres. Titles like the first Metal Gear Solid and Halo: Combat Evolved, offered things that at the time, no other had done before.

Metal Gear Solid is a game that is truly the sum of its parts, driven by the passion of its creator, Hideo Kojima. Known to be a lover of cinema, Kojima successfully brought the experience of a spy film to gamers. It wasn’t just the cutscenes and the dialogue; it was the collection of unprecedented features such as the introduction credits rolling as the game was being played, the need to avoid letting guards hear and see your footsteps or even noticing the condensation from your breath around a corner. Intense cinematic sequences like having to rappel down the side of a building while being shot at by a helicopter or fighting the antagonist hand to hand on top of Metal Gear Rex were crafted in such a way that they transcended the traditional concept of “levels” and “stages” previously seen in video games. Metal Gear Solid was focused on a vision much larger than gaming had previously dared to go.

While first-person shooters were nothing new at the time, Halo: Combat Evolved was a force that took a genre and tried to squeeze everything it could out of it: Inventive weaponry, vehicular combat, varied enemies, an interesting story and a plot twist that threw everyone for a loop. The game also ignited an interest in LAN parties and multiplayer gaming; it’s virtually the main reason first-person shooter games are so popular. It wasn’t focused on being the most realistic shooter experience out there but was instead trying to push the boundary of what could be done with the genre and made it fun, memorable and addictive.

The world of electronic entertainment is one where items are easily cast away after becoming obsolete. While the riddle of how games are to be best archived for future generations to enjoy is still one to be solved, we can still reflect on what has brought gaming to where it is now. It’s more than just the current technology, it’s about understanding what makes a great game, embracing it and advancing it.