No Looking Back: Why Console Generation 8 is in Danger

Videogames have come a long way as an artform and a means of entertainment in these past short years. Major countries have started legally treating them as protected forms of expression similar to literature and film. Popular culture has begun to embrace the gaming community’s own plethora of jokes and inside language. And above all, in these very recent years the storytelling of gaming has evolved by leaps and bounds, breaking down the myths of the hobby being nothing but shallow entertainment. But, there is one appalling trend that has gone overlooked at best and encouraged at worst. Gaming’s past, or at least a vital part of it, is being destroyed.

Rumors have begun to surface about Sony’s Project Orbis, which may be the blueprints of the company’s Playstation 4. I will not quote the specs here, because despite the great computational power and rendering capability the hardware holds, there is one detail that jumped out: no backwards compatibility.

Not exactly a big deal right? Technology always progresses forward and looking back serves no purpose other than nostalgia, so why would the loss of such a feature be so prominent in my mind? It brings up the mirror image of another act on Sony’s part: the discontinued production of the Playstation 2. Officially selling more than 130 million units and having one of the most extensive catalogs of titles, as well as the ability to play DVDs, that modest black box still holds the title as the most successful videogame consoles to have ever been on the market. All of that potential realized… and it had backwards compatibility with Playstation 1 discs. The company that introduced the financial success of multiplatform media consumption and backwards compatible hardware over a decade ago is dropping the function completely for a marginal increase in hardware capability, sacrificing long-term convenience for short-term benefit; a mistake that wouldn’t be too serious if it wasn’t a major issue with the starting years of the Playstation 3.

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Microsoft’s project Durango, the possible next-generation Xbox, seems to be repeating this process, with hardware specs appearing to eschew any backwards capability. Once again, this news is ironic. The original Xbox console was designed with the express purpose of bringing the processing power and benefit of a high end (at the time) gaming PC and merge it with the convenience and reliability of a console. While the Xbox library of PC game ports, rise of Xbox Live’s online multiplayer, and the first-person shooter popularity explosion in the wake of Halo in 2001 made the experiment very successful, any attempt to capitalize on this back catalog was half-hearted on the Xbox 360 and then abandoned later on.

Nintendo has fared better in this regard, but not by much. For all of the issues of the Wii U surrounding its launch, its interface, and the criminal amount of time needed for basic initial set up, it remembers the past and preserves it better than most. On top of having the kind of hardware needed to play current-generation gaming software, the Wii U also features an emulator mode that allows one to switch to a “Wii mode” and effectively play any game from the Wii or the Gamecube, regardless of quality. As long as you have the discs, you could play Eternal Darkness, then switch over to the new Call of Duty in a heartbeat. Nintendo in this respect makes playing anything from last generation easy.

But what of the days of cartridges? How does such a device handle the older generations? In my eyes, poorly. Copyright issues aside, the blazing majority of items on hand on Nintendo’s eShop are port jobs of their reliable 1st party games (Kirby, Mario, Legend of Zelda, etc.), but not much else. In a lot of ways this makes them a more responsible developer than others, but what of the 3rd party material during the 16-bit era? What of the mediocre platformers? What of the brilliant sleeper hits that time has forgotten?

If this is sounding like a plea of nostalgia, then you have missed the point. Gaming, for all of its potential as a modern form of art is doing the worst possible thing to itself by charging headfirst with hardware in mind and nothing else; it is burning away its roots. The old always inspires the new, that is how art in every single form has passed on through the ages. Jonathan Blow’s Braid was inspired by 2-D side-scrolling platformer games, from the level design to the enemy design to the narrative emphasis on abstraction. Another indie darling, Cave Story, took cliff notes from the highly obscure NES game, Blaster Master. Bungie’s Halo: Combat Evolved took notes from older shooters which informed its creative changes to the formula, but arguably had more foundation due to Rare’s Goldeneye 007 and Perfect Dark for the N64 proving the technical and financial viability of a first-person shooter on a console. Bioshock, arguably one of the biggest high-water marks for interactive narrative this generation, was heavily influenced by the atmosphere of the older cyberpunk horror series, System Shock. These old games helped give us current generation masterpieces, but here’s the rub: why aren’t the old games better preserved? If you want to experience the games that helped influence some of the most acclaimed experiences we have witnessed, in the format as intended, you most own the original game console it came on, a copy of the game itself, and a means of set-up that is compatible with the hardware of a modern television set. Or, if the IP if popular enough, wait for a port to the next generation machine for a price.

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Compare this predicament to other forms of media. At any time, I can pull out my smart phone, or any computer for that matter, and with just a few button presses have access to the complete works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, or J.R.R. Tolkien’s literature and read them. Alternatively I can sit down in a physical library, grab a book and start reading. With most video streaming services, you can watch film and television shows, the good, bad, and mediocre from just about any point in history, at anytime. Images of Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Matisse, Van Gogh, and Picasso’s work are a mouse click away. Simple access, no hoops to jump through, and it encompasses the work of centuries. Compare this to videogames which, depending on who you asked, began as early as the 1940s and as late as the 1970s, a mere forty to seventy years.

It isn’t just the old stuff. More recent games are at risk as well. In a lawsuit with Epic Games, Silicon Knights, the creators of Too Human, were demanded by court order to destroy any and all unsold copies of their games. As terribly received as Too Human was, total erasure from the social consciousness by court order says something about how the broader culture still feels about games as an art form.

But what’s worse than being demanded by law to erase your work? One word: laziness. Guerilla Games, the developers behind the Killzone series, showed an appalling amount of negligence when it came to finding the original copies of their first game for an HD re-release of their Killzone Trilogy. After frantic searching, they found the files in a shoebox deep in a basement that belonged to one of the original programmers. No other back-ups, no other versions available, just a bunch of discs in a shoebox.

And this is just Killzone. Killzone was a series pitched with the intent of being Sony’s answer to Microsoft’s Halo series, and could be seen in the broad scheme of things as a cliffnote in an age of trends. What of something truly transcendent? Silent Hill 2, a decade after release is still critically acclaimed as the greatest Survival Horror game ever: A tour de force in atmosphere, characterization, and psychological dread. What happened for Konami when it came time to blow the cobwebs off and give it the HD treatment? The game code, the very skeleton of the game, was incomplete. As a result, the “HD” version of Silent Hill 2 was released is a buggy shambling mess, a mere shell of what it once was.

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Has it really become too much to ask for us as consumers, as lovers of games, to hold the past in as high regard as the present and what the future can bring? For all of the hardware innovation made in the past few years, has it really become a hindrance to add emulation software? How can we be alright with the market being the sole motivation for what gets preserved when the creators themselves have had butterfingers with their classics? The Smithsonian Institute, along with many other museums, have preserved arcade cabinets from the 1980s and 1990s in their entirety, from Pac-Man to Splatterhouse to Street Fighter. PC gaming, for all of its hurdles in terms of hardware maintenance, can play the original DOOM one minute, then switch over to Skyrim a minute later. Consoles on the other hand have been shot in the foot with manufacturers and developers holding the gun between haphazard HD re-releases and lackluster retro libraries all while the consumers are telling them to keep firing until they hit a lung.

Videogames, for the sake of itself, must be able to have a history, and the only thing that dares to get in its way are those who claim to love it. I have seen great games vanish from existence because the hardware couldn’t be asked to look back, and that is beyond tragic. Games are an artform, and part of art is that everyone can enjoy them with as little interference as possible. The Retro enthusiasts are on the right track and the PC snobs have been doing this dance since forever. What is our excuse? A higher resolution image and prettier polygons? That excuse is flimsy and pathetic due to one solid fact: hardware is always limited by its time. Technology always moves forward because it keeps improving, but works of art, timeless works that epitomize the human spirit, are tantamount to immortality.

If these rumors are true, that Sony and Microsoft are going to enter Console Generation 8 with such short-sightedness, it will only be encouraged if we buy. Keep that in mind when the unveiling for these machines begin (seeming to be on Feb 20, 2013 by Sony) and instead of wondering what can be done now, ask yourself what will be forgotten next.

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