I’ve been a gamer for a good, long time now. I’ve probably been been an avid gamer much longer than most geeks reading this right now have been alive. In fact, one of my earliest vivid memories is playing on one of those old Pong consoles with the knobs and shooting at a bouncing square with a light gun rifle. Because I’ve been playing video games for so long, I’ve seen how much the gaming experience has evolved for the past four decades or so. I’ve seen the scene blossom from simple dots representing characters and indistinct bleeps and bloops for sound effects to realistic pre-rendered graphics and fully voice acted characters and it’s kind of mind-blowing in a way.
There are times when I do play a modern game and I realize how many hoops I had to jump through just to hunker down to play. However, looking back at these aggravating moments, I still can’t help but think that it was these issues that made me appreciate games even more. There are even times when I look back at them and think that these problems made the gaming experience just a little bit more fun. So, with that being said, here are five old-school video game inconveniences that were actually fun to do.
1. Imagining the nitty-gritty details of the story
Why it sucked: Contrary to popular belief, we did have games with some truly epic stories before everyone started inserting full-motion cutscenes and vocal performances into them. Not every game was like Pac-Man or Berzerk where all you did was do the same thing over and over again until the game wipes out all your lives. You may be thinking about games like Super Mario and Contra wherein, after you go through a gauntlet of stages and you finally take out the final boss, you get a brief ending screen, congratulating you for beating the game. No, I’m talking games like Zork and other text adventure games of that type.
Yes, there was a time when there was hardly any “video” in our video games and we actually had to visualize the game in our minds. Instead of being able to look at something like a tree, a house or a mailbox through the game actually showing it to use through the use of graphics, games like Zork would blurt out a long string of words and sentences describing whatever object you wanted to see and then, get this, we had to imagine what it looked liked in our heads based on that description. Madness, right?
Why it’s missed: Well, we actually got to use our goddamn imagination! This meant that the games always looked incredibly great as long as it would give the player clear and concise information about whatever it is! It’s incredibly easy for a graphic artist to give us his own rendition of whatever the games wants us to see but then, that’s it. We don’t get to add our own special touches to it. Essentially, the game was a little more of our own because of the way we used our imagination to see the “graphics.”
2. Taking down notes and making maps
Why it sucked: Imagination can only get you so far in something like a text adventure, however. You also needed a pencil and a whole bunch of paper by your side while you play them since you’ll be taking down all sorts of notes and drawing maps while you explore the area. You don’t really need to do this anymore with most games as they’ll usually give you some way to look up important information you’ve encountered within the game and you can easily bring up a map of the area at the press of a button.
The thing that made all this note-taking and map-making suck is you might overlook some important detail and fail to jot it down or skip over an area in your map by mistake, rendering your carefully sketched out illustration of the area useless. Oh, and there’s also the matter of having a lot of paper strewn all over your gaming area. I remember the area around my PC cluttered with pieces of paper with a lot of quick footnotes strewn all over the shoddy map of games like Quest for Glory and Police Quest. What makes things worse is that my mom didn’t understand that I had a certain filing system to the apparent chaos and she would then “fix up” these pieces of paper in an order that didn’t make sense anymore. And, yes, there was an order to them!
Why it’s missed: This is fun when the notes that you take down actually come up in the game and you were “smart” enough to deduce that earlier so you wrote it down. It’s kind of like a detective who follows a trail of clues to figure out who the murderer is. You know a piece of information will come in handy so you take it down. When it does prove to be useful, you can’t help but feel like a genius!
Regarding the mapmaking bit, this actually makes exploring an area much more interactive. You go to a new area, you chart it on the map and list down specific features that may be of interest. Then, when the game prompts you to go to a certain area, it’s now up to you to figure out where exactly to go. We didn’t have a blinking cursor directing us on the specific location. We had to figure it out ourselves and, when we did, we felt like geniuses again!
3. Going through the manual to bypass the copy protection
Why it sucked: We all hate copy protection. We understand it’s the developer’s way of making sure they get paid for giving us the game. Fair enough, but do they have to make us feel like criminals while they do so? Copy protection today is both better and worse than before. It’s worse now because of all the schemes the gaming industry is having us so, such as “always online” technology or bits of software built into the game that can cause the game to crash or, even worse, doesn’t allow you to play the game because of a bug. However, on the other side of the coin, copy protection nowadays is much less intrusive to the player as they’re all happening behind the scenes. You boot up the game, the software goes through its copy protection program and you’re up and running… as long as the program works.
This wasn’t the case with older games. To prevent the piracy of games before, programmers and developers would have the players confirm they purchased the game by going through actual documentation and the manual that came with the software. A lot of the time, you have to enter a specific word from the manual before you get to play. For example, in Sierra’s King’s Quest IV, the game will ask you to enter the third word from the second paragraph on page 8. Now, imagine searching for a new word each and every time you boot up the game! It gets really tedious real fast!
Why its missed: Does anyone else remember those cool pieces of paper that came with the game? You know, those booklets that contained tidbits of information about the story, the characters and even detailed how you use the controller? Those things were called “manuals” and they were really fun to leaf through. Those forgotten little stapled together pieces of paper had great illustrations about the game, little tips on what to expect and other good stuff.
Sometimes, a lot of this creativity also leaks into the copy protection of old. Remember I mentioned searching for words in King’s Quest IV’s manual? Well, you look up those words that actually detail the events from the previous entries in the series. Speaking of older games in the King’s Quest series, the manual was incredibly important in the game because it embedded a sneaky form on copy protection. In order to complete the game, you had to concoct spells to get past a few adventure game roadblocks. Guess what? The manual is the spell book! So, if you don’t follow the instructions in the manual or get the spells wrong, you can’t finish the game.
Some games even got more creative with their copy protection. StarTropics had the infamous “dip the letter in water” gimmick. The Secret of Monkey Island had the “Dial-A-Pirate” wheel. Yes, copy protection sucks in general but that doesn’t mean developers can’t make them fun!
4. Swapping out discs for huge games
Why it sucked: As games kept on getting better graphics and sounds, there was a need to also increase the amount of data that needed to be stored and that was a problem for a long while. However, technology finally kept pace with the requirements and now we have high capacity storage with the advent of DVDs and Blu-Rays, everything can be stored on a single disc. Sometimes, there isn’t even a need for discs as high speed internet and high capacity hard drives makes it easy to simply download even huge games that are gigabytes in size in the blink of an eye.
Games that are that large were rare in the ’80s and ’90s because you would need a large number of disks (as in floppy diskettes) and discs (as in CDs) to contain that much data. But that didn’t mean game publishers didn’t do so. There were a lot of adventure games that came in multiple discs. The largest I have would be, once again, King’s Quest IV as it came in nine floppy discs and you had to insert a new disc when you enter some parts of the map. However, the most notable example would be Final Fantasy VII on the original PlayStation. The contents of each disc was mostly the same with the only major difference being the pre-rendered cutscenes. Even so, you still had to swap out the discs when prompted once in a while when playing.
Why its missed: What was the first thing that came to everyone’s mind then when they found out that Final Fantasy VII had to be contained in three CDs? We all thought, “Wow! This is going to be an epic game!” I mean, how could it not be since it was so large it couldn’t be contained on one CD!
This was the feeling of every game we got that came on multiple disks and discs. There was instantly a feeling that this was going to be a grand experience. There’s also a level of anticipation as to when you actually get to use all them. With games like King’s Quest IV, we knew we were getting close to the end of the game once we finally used the last of the nine floppies. With games like Final Fantasy VII, we knew we had a lot of game to go even when we inserted the second CD. There was this level of anticipation of what we were going to see next.
There also came this weird level of accomplishment whenever you completed a disc. It’s like a little marker that told the gamer that you’ve actually progressed a lot and you’re ready to meet your next challenge. Sure, it was a bother to keep swapping discs… but there was also a palpable excitement whenever we did.
5. Waiting for gaming magazines to come out with the next hint/walkthrough/game preview/game review
Why it sucked: This is kind of a huge topic but I’ll try to cover the broad strokes.
Before the Internet came along, there was always a long gap in between gaming news as the only source then were gaming magazines. Magazines like GamePro, EGM, Nintendo Power and Computer Gaming World would come out once a month and give gamers a huge dose of video game related stuff. There were reviews of the latest games as well as previews of anything that were in development. Not only that, these magazines would give readers tips and tricks for some of the hottest games at the time, making them easier to beat. They would also sometimes give complete walkthroughs if you’re really stuck!
This gap between the release of new issues was troublesome, to say the least. You had to wait for the next issue of GamePro to find out if a game sucked or not. You had to wait until the next issue to learn the proper order to beat the bosses in Mega Man II. And, if you’re really stuck in a game, well, you’ll just have to sit on your thumbs until then!
With the Internet, every piece of knowledge is right at everyone’s fingertips. Having trouble with a boss? Get on YouTube and watch exactly how to beat him. Need trouble finding a specific item or going to a certain section of a map? Just google it! No waiting involved!
Why its missed: Because we really didn’t wait for the next issue for any of that because all gamers had gamer friends! We’d go hang out in the place where we’d get our games and talk about stuff like how to get past a certain section of a game or if a particular new game sucked or not. If none of us knew, we’d post the questions on the handy post-it board in the very place where we got our games and, most of the time, there would be someone with a reply or tip. No trolling here. Just good old fashioned help!
If worse came to worse and no one could figure it out and no one replied on the board, we did the thing that’s unimaginable today: we still tried to find that information ourselves! If we had trouble with a boss, we’d battle it for hours and hours, trying to figure out its patterns and weaknesses until we came up with a foolproof gameplan on how to beat him. If we couldn’t find an item, we’d search each and every spot on the goddamned map to find it. And guess what? Most of the time, we’d come up with a solution to all these problems!