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It isn’t revolutionary if they have to tell you

by Tom Zjaba, February 14, 2001

Editor’s note: We at MacEdition would like to welcome Tom Zjaba, author of Retrogaming Times to to our site.

Sometimes, in order to understand where we’re going, we have to know where we’ve been. That’s true for word processing apps and hardware as well as games, both video and otherwise. Tom Z kicks off his stint as another voice in the Game Cage (joining our own ZMonk) with his look back at “revolutionary” change in video games. Inside this is a lesson for everyone who tries to break the rules, hoping to hit The Next Big Thing.

A word you often hear tossed around in the video and computer market is “revolutionary”. You hear how this new medium or trick will revolutionize video games. These marketing people go on and on about how much this game will change the industry and how you have to buy this game if you want to be on the cutting edge. Well, you wanna know something? If they need to tell you it is revolutionary, then it isn’t. Nope, no way, no how.

Think back to the early days of the CD-ROM format. Remember those full-motion-video games that were billed as revolutionary? You know – the Sewer Sharks, Night Traps and other dreck that came out and was supposed to change the industry. Were they revolutionary? Did the whole video game industry merge with Hollywood and make FMV games? Thankfully, no. While games like Night Trap wanted you to believe that you were in control of a movie and offered great gameplay, in reality it offered you a gaming experience that was as dull and predictable as an episode of “Different Strokes”. You did not have full control; you could not do what you wanted to. Instead, it offered gameplay that was on par with Dragon’s Lair, a game that came out before anyone even knew what a CD-ROM was. You were given a few choices and the outcome was based on your choice. Think of it as an advanced version of Paper, Rocks, Scissors. For the most part, you could memorize the game, and defeating it became a matter of memory and not your actual ability as a game player.

The point is that the truly revolutionary games, the ones that define a genre, are not the ones that are billed as such. They are games that usually come with little fanfare, with few expectations. Games like the original Doom, the game that not only made first person shooters the hot genre, but was also largely responsible for the “try before you buy” policy that is still very much in place. Games like Street Fighter II, the game that created the demand for the slew of fighting games that followed it. Despite a hundred clones, Street Fighter II still remains one of the most enjoyable and best-loved fighting games ever made. Both of these games offered incredible gameplay with tons of replayability. They created an experience for gamers that until that point had not been available. There is a reason they are among the most copied games.

Another misconception with revolutionary games is that they have to be the first. This cannot be further from the truth – the last two examples I gave you, Doom and Street Fighter II, weren’t the first of their genres. Wolfenstein 3D preceded Doom, but it did not have the impact that Doom had. Part of this difference was the more immersive feel of Doom, and part was due to the improved graphics. While Wolfenstein was staged in a very plain-looking castle with one room looking like the next, Doom put you in a huge world. With tons of atmosphere and creatures that literally jumped out at you, Doom sucked you into its world in a way that Wolfenstein never could.

The same can be said for Street Fighter II. Other fighting games preceded it, like Karateka, but none of them offered such a large stable of unique and interesting fighters, who not only looked different, but also fought differently. Street Fighter II was one of the first fighting games that created characters and breathed life into them. Add in the combo moves and the different arenas, and you had a fighting game without equal. The impact that Street Fighter II had on the industry has never been matched. Since then, games have moved to 3-D and offered more fighters, weapons, tag teams and tons of other filler, but when you boil it down, they are all just variations of Street Fighter II.

Revolutionary games, at least according to public relations departments and overzealous magazines, are almost always linked to new technology or new features. Whether it be motion capture, 360-degree scrolling or the first CD-ROM or DVD game, these poor games are usually nothing more than a gimmick with a game slapped onto it. What some developers to this day still do not get is that these new technologies only aid a game, not make it. First and foremost, a truly revolutionary game needs to have great gameplay. It needs to be unique in design, nearly flawless in execution and stand apart from any other games like it.

A good example is Dungeon Master, a game for the old Atari ST. While there were dozens of dungeon-crawling games that preceded Dungeon Master (most notably the Ultima series and the Bard’s Tale series) this game completely changed the market. The first difference was it moved a genre from being solely turn-based to real-time. Gone was the time when you sat and decided what you were going to do. Now the monsters were coming for you, and you didn’t have time to think about what you were doing. Also, you had to worry about things that were not relevant in other dungeon games. Before, you could carry as much as you wanted with no restrictions. But in Dungeon Master, you had to pick and choose what you carried – you had restrictions on how much you could carry, and it affected your speed and your food consumption. This game completely changed the genre and you can still see its influences to this day. It came on floppy disks and didn’t offer any new technology, but it relied on a new way of playing a tried-and-true genre and offered a more realistic and believable experience.

Possibly the best example of a revolutionary game is Tetris. With simple graphics, basic music and nothing at all “revolutionary” about it, it is possibly the most played, copied and recognized video game of all time. It didn’t need any hype or crazy technology – just addictive gameplay and simple-to-learn game controls. It is one of the few games that has appeal to all gamers, regardless of age, sex or skill. It also helped to explode the puzzle game market from a very small niche market to one with tons of games and lots of imitators.

So keep this in mind the next time you hear about the next revolutionary game. When you read all the hype in a magazine or on a Web page, chuckle to yourself and know that the odds of the game actually being revolutionary is slim. A fancy Web site with pretty screenshots and a demo trailer does not a revolution make. Rather, it will be one of the games that is poorly promoted and over-hyped that will end up being the next revolutionary game.

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