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Whatever Happened to Originality in the Video Gaming Industry?
Written By: Siou Choy

Like it or not, it's time to face up to facts. An inordinate proportion of games in current release are somewhat lacking in creativity and imagination. As in the music and cinematic genres, videogame makers have succumbed to the bane of true artists (and their connoisseurs) everywhere: the dreaded "cookie cutter" mentality. When you have a hit, milk it dry. If you're looking for a sure bet, copy something that is a hit, in the hopes of basking in its reflected glory. Even games once considered new, different and unique have been (or are in the preliminary stages of being) made into sequels. Remember when Tony Hawk Pro Skater first came out? It was like a breath of fresh air, wasn't it? It brought skateboarding games into the limelight, and paved the way for the U.S. release of Sega's excellent (not to mention subversive) Jet Grind Radio. Now, Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 is knocking at our doors. While I'm sure it will still be fun in and of itself, will it really be that much different from the original? Beyond a few anticipated graphic enhancements, essentially we're facing the exact same game recycled in the hopes of extending it's sales curve.

If you want to talk about milking a series dry with "updates", you need look no further than your very own shelf. I'm sure you have a few copies (unless you already sold them off) of your favorite baseball, basketball, football, or hockey video games from EA or Midway. Yeah, yeah, I know, the stats, players, graphics, and AI are updated every year. But take that away and what do you have? The same damn game as the last 5 versions previous. And let's be honest, here. Does it really make that much of a difference how close the player looks to their real-life counterpart?

Even nastier, there's the "dumbing down" factor that seems to go hand in hand with graphic enhancement, which for argument's sake, we'll refer to as "Square's Law". In layman's terms, it goes like this: in exchange for better graphics and FMV you have to lose originality and, in essence, any effort whatsoever towards a good plot in exact inverse proportion. Final Fantasy VIII is a prime example. The game looked beautiful graphically, with absolutely gorgeous character designs (despite the fact that they were, essentially, swiped from sundry earlier FF games), truly stunning cut scenes, and some exceptionally nice Guardian Force animations. But in exchange for this, we got a lousy, drawn out plot, some really bad characters who are almost impossible to care for, a particularly bad Faye Wong song, and perhaps worst of all, found ourselves forced to sit through the same lengthy animations dozens of times over just because some clown wanted to show off how good of an animator they are. Mind you, I have no problem with watching computer generated animations, but if I wanted to sit through hours of it, I'd go rent a movie, not play a video game. There are limits to this sort of thing, which is something Square seems to have utterly forgotten since the hoary days of FF VII. Perhaps they should have marketed it as the world's longest, most boring interactive CGI movie instead? (Then again, they may have already outdone themselves in that department, with The Spirits Within.)

Not convinced yet? OK, here's a little test to prove my point. Can anyone list a game, any game, that you loved in your youth that hasn't had a sequel or been "redone" for one of the newest and latest systems? Pacman? Nope. Frogger? Sorry. Breakout? Try again. Spy Hunter? It's on it's way. Mario Bros.? Please. Have you ever tried counting all the crappy sequels and variations, the entire franchise built around Mario?

I know it's hard to take something considered to be a classic, and while attempting to remain faithful to the original, revamp it for today's market. But the gravy train has been a' running at full speed and will continue to do so until someone out there can come up with, much less get corporate backing and support for, a truly original game idea.

While I love good computer animation as much as the next person, I would gladly trade some graphic refinement for a more simplistically rendered, yet intrinsically fun game. Indeed, after the demise of the Dreamcast, instead of running to the newest and latest system for my gaming fix, I found myself brushing the cobwebs off my 8-bit Nintendo. The reason is a simple one: because the games there were, and more to the point remain, vastly more fun than the crap in current release (Sony, with its anemic trojan horse the PS2, being the worst and most blatant offender). Sure, the graphics on the NES may appear somewhat crude by today's standards, but the fun factor easily beats the hell out of recent, visually grandiose losers like Zone of the Enders or The Bouncer. I guess that's why retro gaming has increased in popularity as of late; to wit, the GBA, which appears to be gambling its entire future on such fare. And to be honest? Given the alternative, that may not be such a bad thing after all.

Posted: 8-27-01
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