Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Why “Bad Old Games” Matter

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 3, 2015

Filipe Pepe has an outstanding rant at Gamasutra about the disappearance of games from history. There is a similar article to be found on the subject to be found from Ars Technica. Shamus Young takes an interesting approach towards more recent games – how Windows-era games may soon become impossible to play.

As a person who both lived through that era and is fond of retro-gaming today, this is a serious consideration. While on a business and legal standpoint I understand the other side… but I’m still not happy about it.

Trespasser-coverBut in these kinds of arguments, we inevitably bring up the classics of the industry. The critical successes that were at least cult classics, if now somewhat forgotten. Those have the traction, at least among old-school gamers. You can invoke Mario and get the cheers of millions. Or Kate Archer and get a few hundred or a few thousand. And while not many people know or care about dnd as Filipe mentions, it’s still got a few rabid fans out there who will rise to its defense.

But what about the “bad old games?” The ones that sucked and maybe only not forgotten because they were truly and completely bad. Last week I talked about some pretty dang obscure little games that almost no one remembers (and a couple that would have a tough time finding defenders). These titles are currently spiralling down the memory hole, and it won’t be too many years before they could be forgotten forever. Do they matter at all? Do ancient games that never really moved the needle like Dungeons of Magdarr matter in the grand scheme of things? Do colossal foul-ups like Trespasser deserve to be remembered and archived? Or just moderately lousy ones like Tegel’s Mercenaries? What about those relatively pedestrian arcade games that really only cloned (or “ripped off”) better designs like Meteors, or Sega’s Space Attack? Does anybody REALLY need to play these games again?

Not that I’d wish Trespasser on anyone, but… you know where I’m coming on this issue, right? Of course they matter. Here are four good reasons:

#1 – One man’s trash is another man’s treasure: Okay, so maybe Meteors doesn’t matter to almost anybody today. Almost. But for someone out there, yes, it matters a great deal. Are we really equipped and prepared to make a permanent judgment on the worthiness of a game? I mean, most of the contemporary literary critics didn’t think much of Shakespeare’s plays at the time. It’s a good thing we didn’t rely upon their discretion for what survived to be experienced by later generations. Save ’em all (if possible) and let future generations sort them out.

#2 – You can learn more from a bad game than a good game: I worry that the modern crop of game designers have limited experiences on two fronts: They lack historical depth, and they lack experience in playing lesser-quality games. Without the contrast, it’s hard to know what a good game really did right. A designer may love Super Mario Brothers, but if they’ve never played any of the contemporary and preceding platformers of the era, they’ll will have a tough time understanding what it was that Super Mario Brothers did so right. Consequently, a designer may not realize what it is that they are personally doing wrong as they reinvent the wheel and go back along previously discovered dead-ends.

#3 – They may have nuggets of awesome: I don’t know of any game that is 100% terrible. Even the worst games may have sparks of creativity or brilliant ideas that were never adequately implemented. What might have been a throwaway, poorly-fitting feature in an old, lame title could be the seed of a whole new genre. Or at least inspirations for future titles. Which brings us to the next one:

#4 – These games may have inspired / informed the classics: Every game was built on ideas taken from elsewhere, especially other games. We all stand on the shoulders of giants… or really, really short, flawed giants. And the game developers you love may have been influenced by these same, crappy games. If nothing else, maybe they provided motivation in the form of the developer saying, “I can make something better than that!” That’s how Jeff Minter got his start, and I doubt the story is that unusual. Maybe they may not be the games that inspire a new generation of game dev heroes, but they have their place in the family tree.

If anything, I think it’s the crappy old games that need the protection and archiving the most. Mario, Pac Man, and Lara Croft are big enough to take care of themselves (for now). But the little games by little companies that might not even exist anymore – or worse, those by people who passed on and are no longer even available to comment on their creations – need to be preserved and playable. Maybe not for everybody. But for anybody.

Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    As a big retro-guy, I agree completely on all the points. I’ve learned more from bad games than I have any good one and many cases I’ve enjoyed the obscure more than the “Classics”

    Every game that survives for future generations is a potential lesson for it’s designers. We can create some amazing things, but we won’t do that by forgetting the past.

    By the way, The infamous “Die Hard” for the NES is a clear point. It’s an amazing and unique game, but modern players don’t understand it enough to appreciate it.

  • Namco said,

    “I don’t know of any game that is 100% terrible.”

    Yes you do.
    We just don’t talk about it anymore (hurts too much).
    Just as a reminder it’s: S_ _ _-F_

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Fortunately, I was only drinking water when I figured out what you were talking about. Yeesh.

    But again… Apparently lots of folks thought there was something of value there

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Even trying to play something like The Elder Scrolls: Redguard is particularly difficult (or impossible) now, and I think Mordor: The Depths of Dejenol won’t work on post-XP versions of windows. I seem to recall having to jump through various hoops to play Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat too, so I’ve no idea if you can play that on modern PCs.

    Too many games are completely forgotten about, and while that might be okay for the copycat clones of better games, there’s also plenty that offered interesting ideas that maybe didn’t work out. When was the last time you heard anyone talk about Ecstatica? I remember it being a big deal at the time, but now basically forgotten.

  • McTeddy said,

    Man Ecsatica grossed me out at the time. I doubt the mounds of corpses would bother me now, but I remember it was brutal.

    And Shaq-Fu was not THAT bad. Some of the ports were even fun to play. But I admit, the core versions were definitely not ready for the big time.

  • Weekly Links #73 « No Time To Play said,

    […] by Jason Scott. In the mean time, his story has made Ars Technica, and Jay Barnson points out it’s the bad old games that need saving. I won’t repeat his excellent points here, but I’ll add that we can only learn from […]