Nostalgia vs Game Design

That’s fine if it was better executed.

A lot of good (read: Unofficial) emulators have some pretty good filters, but I’ve never felt like “Sharp pixels” has ever been on my list of complaints about old games.

I had a lot more slides about pixel art and era-specific design decisions made due to technology limitations originally. But I couldn’t find a way to incorporate them without really bogging down in actual technical details. It would be better served by being its own talk.

One of the threads I looked at was people who like the pixel aesthetic, but implement it poorly due to not understanding how low-resolution pixel graphics actually worked. E.g., they’ll have large “pixels” that move on-screen at sub-pixel resolution. Or, they’ll have higher-resolution assets on the screen (a menu, a cursor, etc…) at the same time as low resolution pixels.

Thus, the games looked “shitty”, but it wasn’t obvious why.

There was a whole thing about how when Square Enix ported Chrono Trigger to PC, they didn’t use the original graphics and smoothed it out, which prompted a huge outcry and they eventually patched the game so it would look like the SNES version:

If you want pixels, make a game on PICO-8.

This is a nice description of how a few pixel-resizing algorithms work.

Yeah, but that is taking something that was created a long time ago, back when the displayable pixels were impossible to make smaller, and interpolating to be able to display more information. It’s fine, I guess, though not really true to the original intentions.

I find the opposite to be more annoying. There are plenty of restrictions that are current with today’s technology that could be used for focusing creativity. But instead of those, pixel art games take pretend that a restriction exists, and then use that only as style choice. It really annoys me that many games I’ve played have pixel art sprites that rotate, and the pixels also rotate! Or the pixels get bigger and smaller compared to other pixels. That’s not how pixels work! You’re only aping the superficial look of pixels, and not actually using the constraints for creativity.


1 Like

Exactly that.

I’ll use the slides I started making for this in another talk someday.

Restrictions like that shouldn’t be a prison. They are a tool for creativity, but if they get in way, I’m all about bending them. For example Shovel Knight, it’s base point was nes graphics, and it has the feel, but it also breaks the rules of what was possible on nes in several ways to make it look as good as it can.

Ultimately, I think it’s the end result that really matters. Following strict rules and doing something great is impressive in a way, but it’s not some only true way.

But the original NES designers weren’t “following strict rules”, they were working with the restrictions of the technology of the time. It wasn’t a “prison”, just the limits of what was possible.

There are other restrictions today that could be used to prompt creativity in game design. But they aren’t interested in those restrictions. They just want a filter that screams “nostalgia” even if, like some games manage, they make it look good.

It’s the difference between game design and mere graphic design.

I mean, the NES cartridge could have an entire modern computer inside of it doing whatever it wanted with the interface to the NES itself. Look at how radically different the capabilities of a cart with no memory mapper were compared to, say, the MMC5 chip. Balloon Fight vs Castlevania 3.

The original NES without MMCs wasn’t materially more powerful than an Atari 7800 at launch. It was a better platform overall than the 7800, but it wasn’t actually that powerful and had some pretty extreme limitations.

I think this is largely my relationship to the question as well - games are hallmarks of a time and place in my life. Like, I think Super Meat Boy is an objectively better platformer than Super Mario Brothers, but I have an emotional bond to Mario that no other platformer has ever touched. I play it and I remember all those glorious times I had playing it and other NES games as a child.

Sometimes, I think a designer hits on a timeless, nearly-perfect design; the Heroes of Might and Magic series is my go-to example of that. The formula was really brought into final form in HOMMII, perfected in HOMMIII, and has since just been tweaked and modernized but not really made appreciably different. HOMMV makes me feel like I’m 12 again. Still though, I wonder if that design is successful primarily because it appeals to the past by making it relevant again.

1 Like

I think the moment games started to get away from what I pine for is the size restrictions being lifted. Now you game could be hundreds of GB and not bat an eye, so why not put everything in it? With smaller spaces it forced the games to find the one or two things they wanted to do and laser focus their attention on that.

One of the most interesting restrictions on game design was mentioned a few posts back. Time!

When playing all those old games like Natural Selection, the time everyone had to spend in the game was the same. No matter who you were on the team, or how much you were contributing, you stayed until the end. Even if you were losing, or were clearly going to lose, you stayed until the end.

With Counter Strike, if you died early in one battle, you stayed until the end to take part in the next round… and then stayed as many rounds it took to win or lose the overall match. But again, the same for everyone.

This was just how games work. You fill up a server, and most people just keep playing until… they are done. At the end of the match they would stay on the server for the next match, and some people would swap in and out and the server would stay pretty full.

This has all changed with the Battle Royale concept. As soon as it is impossible for you to win (You are dead) you leave the game and leave the server. Want to play again? Sure! You’re not signing up for a 40 minute game where you spend most of it dead.

No matter if you win or lose, it takes exactly the same time between one game and the next, which is the time it takes to go to the main menu, join a server, and then wait 60 seconds for the game to start.

This means that so many game length issues are just taken care of. There is no balancing the game, or working out the number of rounds, or how many times you need to capture the flag, or all those other things.

And it has the added benefit that the longer you spend in a game, the more it means to you. Die in the first 30 seconds? Whatever. But if you are 30 minutes into the game, dying stupidly feels like a punishment, so your attention ramps up and so does the tension.

Tribes was my fps as a kid and later college student. When it first came out I didn’t have a PC that could run it, but a friend did, so I’d rarely get a chance to play at his house, and he was a bit of an asshole. I read that instruction manual cover to cover multiple times, and I think some important things about the game didn’t show up frequently when I actually played the game.

For example, maybe the official servers ran it, but I think most servers didn’t actually limit your teams energy/currency for gear. Like the game was designed around actual team play, actual load up apcs, use interceptors to shoot down enemies, plant sensors, turrets, cameras, even operate the mortar turrets, etc. But in practice there wasn’t much of this in pug games in dial-up conditions. I loved the idea of the game, but envisioned it like halfway towards planetside (no leveling, matches were for planets, there were four factions etc). That concept still remains a dream game for me. Something that never quite materialized among games I’ve seen.

I also played a lot of mods. Many were overpowered wtf mods. Better turrets, deployable bases, etc. Meltdown was my favorite mod, and it had damage types. Concussive weapons just knocked you around with force, so they could kill you by knocking someone into a hill or wall. The mitzi booster was essentially Pharah’s boop, so that’s one of the reasons I play so much Pharah and move so naturally with the boops.

1 Like

Tom7 did that. He runs Super Mario World on an NES.

Longer, making of video.

great talk, as always. The video game industry’s, for lack of a better word, incestuous relationship with it’s blockbusters and cult classics has quickly approached the film industry in terms of volume of ripoffs. It’s always interesting to me when these talks come up how big some of the nostalgia holes are though. Aside from Dragon Quest Monsters nobody has really tried to capitalize on the Pokemon formula, sure there are a bunch of monster raiser spinoffs but very few seem to try to incorporate the social appeal that Pokemon has, especially these days where any indie can whip up functional netcode.

It also amuses me whenever console shooters come up the kings are Halo and Goldeneye. Timesplitters gets tons of fans raving about yet it’s never mentioned as one of those console shooters. It’s weird to me that nobody has dropped a shooter with literally hundreds of characters to choose from, especially if all it takes is some modeler doodling around when he’s got free time.

Also might be interesting to explore the fact that with such large and talented modding communities some games never need a nostalgia rebirth because they never die. Even online only games will get fan run servers to keep it going if the company croaks. There is still a huge DOOM wad community. There are people still playing Gigantic

1 Like

Also let’s not forget the amount of hype bionic commando gives.

I often think about that when I delve into discussions comparing the NES and SNES to Sega’s contemporary hardware and the different design decisions made by the two companies.

As you said, the NES was designed in such a way where you put basically put a completely new console inside a cartridge, whether you’re using fancier hardware of the era or a modern-day hack to put something like a Raspberry Pi or whatever in there. The most extreme example of this during the NES’s original run was what Color Dreams (later to be known as Wisdom Tree, maker of shitty, unlicensed Bible-based games) intended to do for a Hellraiser NES game. The so-called “Super Cartridge” featured its own Z80 CPU (ironically the same as was in the Sega Master System), a bunch more RAM, and all sorts of other hardware that pretty much bypass’s the NESes hardware to allow for finer pixel and color controls.

Nintendo continued this pattern with the SNES with a design that also allowed the cartridge to contain all sorts of other co-processors and additional support hardware. This is how Star Fox was implemented as the native SNES hardware couldn’t do the polygon math needed for this game. In fact, I think even some launch titles like Pilot Wings also had additional support hardware in them.

The drawback of all of these techniques is that they increased the cost of individual cartridges due to them having additional hardware and not just a ROM chip containing the game code.

Sega, by contrast, didn’t seem to care much for the idea of having support hardware in the cartridges and theirs were pretty much limited to being ROM chips. The only one they did release with a co-processor, as far as I can recall, was Virtua Racing, which shipped with a polygon-crunching DSP and retailed for about $100. They instead seemed to be more in favor of the one-time add-on route, where you’d by an add-on device that contained the additional hardware and continue to buy simple ROM cartridges that worked with the add-on.

The Sega CD, for example, wasn’t just a CD-ROM add-on. It had a bunch of improved graphics and sound coprocessors as well as more RAM than the base Genesis had. Of course, the ultimate example of this was the 32X, but that was torpedoed due to it coming out so close to the Saturn’s release combined with the Sega CD not really doing well either.

In retrospect, despite there being some logic to the idea of a “buy once add-on to keep individual game costs down,” I think Nintendo with the per-cartridge co-processor support design made the better decision. While it may have been more “wasteful” to an extent, at least developers would know that if they needed some fancy co-processor to get their game to work, they could slap it onto the cartridge’s board and the entire SNES market would be open to them, provided that the customers were willing to eat the higher game cost. With a stand-alone hardware add-on, devs would only have the smaller market of those who actually bought the add-ons to develop for, and many may just decide “screw it, I’ll code for the least common denominator and make do with the base hardware.”

Imagine if we had cartridges today. NVidia would be having a field day as we would all be buying a new 1080 for every single game. Ridiculous.