Back To Basics Or Bust

This article, by local journalist David Wolinsky, is the first in a series of video game related guest posts by local writers and press.

Somewhere around August 2000, Nintendo solidified its position as the gaming industry’s indisputable pioneer when EarthBound 64 got the axe.

I’ll give you a moment to process this, but it’s true. Look at what came after the N64: tiny little discs, motion controls, and an iPad with handles. None of these are gaming’s future. I won’t speak out of turn or stray too far from the topic at hand, since some of this is due to Nintendo’s highly secretive nature, but last year at E3, I spoke to oodles of developers who were perplexed by Nintendo’s new console thingy. I explained the Wii U to developer after developer in private demos – where they had to be instead of Nintendo’s press conference – and after a translator would state my question in Japanese, in one case, a developer of a triple-A game looked up at me, laughed, and shrugged. In plain English: He couldn’t think of a way to implement it in a game.

There’s a reason why. Well, two reasons. One was that the technology is awful new, but also because we don’t need it. Likely the Wii U’s biggest hit will be Spy Party, and then it will go back to the closet collecting dust next to your Wii. I don’t say this as a Nintendo hater, because I’m not – I’m the 1995 Blockbuster store champion of Donkey Kong Country – but rather because we should’ve all seen this coming in 2000.

The Nintendo 64 was hardly the company’s most popular or even successful system. Sure, Mario 64 blew everyone’s minds — I remember marveling at how you could nudge the joystick slightly to make Mario tip-toe or throttle it to send him huffing and puffing. It was amazing. — But the third dimension doesn’t automatically make all games great: EarthBound 64 is perhaps one of the first glaring examples of this.

The game was canceled, officially, due to bugs and other problems, but also, look at these screenshots of the game. What’s missing? The magic of the SNES version. The whimsy. In all cheesiness but accuracy: its heart. Even if the game came out in its original iteration, who knows how it would have been received. But I think the message here is that the world didn’t need a 3D Earthbound.

The game later came out in 2006 as a Game Boy Advance version that has become a massive hit, and not just because it’s an EarthBound game. That’s surely part of it, but as anyone who downloaded the translated ROM knows, its charm is in its colorful pastel sprites and strong writing. Not bloated 3D graphics.

So what’s my point?

Games don’t need to blindly embrace or buckle themselves into the seat belts of the latest technology’s coattails. Nintendo dipped into the motion-control pool first, and even though both Sony and Microsoft mocked the move, they later quietly skinny-dipped there, too. But I defy you to name five great games for the Move or the Kinect. Can’t do it? How about five essential games for both of them combined? How about five amazing 3DS games?

Now, I realize I’m probably coming across somewhat as an old fuddy-duddy who hates new things. I’ve certainly reviewed enough games in my day harshly enough to support that image, but I think instead it positions me as someone who has played a lot of games and seen a lot of the newest, latest, hottest, buzziest, whatever-iest games and know what’s worth playing and what’s not. And I’ll tell you what I’m playing more of these days: Super Crate Box for the iPhone, notSkyrim.

I don’t really have a “take” on the whole “casual-gaming thing,” but I know both from my own opinion and conversations with my fellow critics that I’m not alone. There’s a reason why people got so fired up about Skyrim and then so bored of it, and it’s the same reason: There’s too damn much to do in the game. Skyrim does many, many great things, like making the story you weave in the game uniquely yours (I joined a super-secret cannibal organization that none of my friends even found), but that’s also it’s greatest downfall. It gets tiring. You can sink hours, weeks, and even months into the game, and even though you’ve racked up a bunch of achievements, what have you really accomplished or done? Have you finished the game? I honestly can’t even remember what level my character is at. I will make my way back to the game sooner or later, but I don’t feel strongly inclined to.

Why? The answer is simple, really: simplicity. That’s what makes games great. Not tacked-on multiplayer modes or half-baked game+ modes. Those are nice to have, but not essential. Look at Apple. This is a company that has clawed its way back from bankruptcy because it has stripped away everything inessential to get at the core of what people want.

Consider Fez. Why do you think it was hyped up so much? Because it was bold enough to do one thing really well. Ignore the 8-bit allure. There were no enemies, just one mechanic explored fully. And the game knew when to call it a day. Game+ mode aside, the game knows exactly what it is and makes no attempts to be anything more than that. Games like this and Proteus – an 8-bit free-roaming island, also with no enemies – signal that some players and developers alike are ready to embrace “retro” gaming not just as a visual aesthetic but also as a design principle. Mario 3 was awesome because it thoroughly explored platforming and managed to keep players guessing all along the way. Super Mario Sunshineshowed what happened when you mess with what’s special and try to chase trends.

So, as a developer, ask yourself: Do you want to do everything and please a handful, or do a few things very well and drop the jaws of your devoted new fans?

Or to put it a little more cheesily: Don’t chase trends, follow your heart.



David Wolinsky writes for NBC Chicago, Adult Swim, and teaches Comedy Writing at Second City.  He can be found on Tumblr at and on Twitter as @davidwolinsky.