(Here is an editorial I wrote for MyGamer.com in 2004. Enjoy!)
What Defines a Classic Game?
Every so often, I happen to stumble into an old-school gamer moment. For me, it often involves glassy-eyed reflection or wistful longing for the gaming days of yore. Ignorant gaming fanboys and shoddy sequels tend to evoke the bitter old man within with disastrous results. Lately though, it has been marketers and brainwashed kids claiming the newest mega-hyped game to be the next big thing. When I see how similar those games are to everything else, I yearn for the times where no one rushed to proclaim a game as the offering from the divine gods of digital entertainment.
Recently I had such a moment, but it wasn’t the usual heady rush of reminiscence. I was watching my 10-year old cousin play I-Ninja, and it was about two minutes in that the gears started turning. The borrowing of ideas from better games like Super Mario 64, the bonus games of the Sonic series, and the “pull the switch” tedium of every by-the-numbers adventure game reared their head. Now wide awake, Grandpa Old-Timer was mighty upset! “How can anyone like this durn game? It’s rehash! There’s no way it can be a classic! I’m tired and gassy.” True, the warmed-over escapades of bland ninja-platforming were a stretch, but I somehow snapped out of my tirade. The next-to-last sentence struck a nerve. Why did I care if this game could be compared to the gaming greats? Why would it matter?
I’m sure that it didn’t matter to my young cousin, who hopped and slashed away happily. But it got me to thinking. Somewhere along the line, it did begin to make a difference. I started grouping the newer games in their own category. Subconsciously, I was comparing the recent generation as if they were challenging the gaming throne. I was putting an unnecessary asterisk next to their accomplishments. Of course I played and liked most of the current greats, but the question still festered beneath the surface: “Can these games be considered classics?” And I knew that I had to find the answer.
Before I started my quest, I consulted my dictionary for the definition of the word “classic”. Webster’s “Wal-Mart 97-cent special” defines the word as: belonging in a certain category of excellence, or having a lasting artistic worth. Not much, (after all, it is a Wal-Mart edition) but it was a good place to start. Both definitions contain the idea of esteem and merit; something that you won’t find in the millionth ad-blurb of big-name magazines. We tend to value something that holds special meaning to us, or stir up a fond memory. More often than not, we deem an item of quality to be of merit. After all, there is a reason that few people loved Superman 64 (and those who did should book a few sessions with a therapist).
Now is a good time to really grasp what is worthy of being classic. We are often bombarded with the word, to the point where it has lost the discriminating nature of its definition. Those magnificent (or malevolent) marketing ad-wizards of the media somehow managed to put the word in our daily vocabulary. Networks like “ESPN Classic” market recently played thrillers as “instant classics”. Everything from movies to food products and computer programs carries the word somewhere in its advertising. Someone wisely figured out that the word “classic” carries prestige, so why not use it to promote pork rinds or “You Got Served”? With all the hype surrounding nearly everything with money riding on it nowadays, it takes something truly special to earn the title.
The first definition, belonging in a certain category of excellence, holds up well. If we were to compare games to cars, would you want the gaming equivalent of a Kia Rio or a Lamborghini? Would you rather have the game that was crafted with love and care, or the economy model that does everything poorly? Any sane person would want the best gaming for their dollar, and games are a pretty penny. So then a classic game would embody the qualities that people seek out in a game. It might have great graphics, a good soundtrack, involving storyline and a healthy challenge. More than that, though, it would be fun to play. And above all else, it would rank up there with the best years down the road. Not many Kia’s could claim to compete with sports cars (not that they do), but a Lamborghini is a lasting favorite that does most things well.
The second definition, having lasting artistic worth, is a little iffier. Art carries a different meaning to different people. There are fans of horrifically-bad movies, giving them gratuitous cult-status. Therefore, artistic can be interpreted in numerous ways. When it comes to games, an extraordinary work is one that pushes the envelope in its aesthetics. Games like Yoshi’s Island obliterated the notion of 2D games, with a living and breathing storybook world that still amazes today. The Final Fantasy series offers warm, enveloping soundtracks that are timeless, as is their engrossing storylines. Super Mario Bros. 3 forever changed the way we view and play plaforming games, with a captivating adventure, dozens of helpful items and powers, secrets upon secrets, and loads of imagination. These games are often ahead of their time, and do not get their due until years later.
A great game a few years back may look and feel dated now. This is often the case with sports game franchises, in which the sequel often outclasses the previous model. For example, try playing Madden Football ’93 after a few quarters of Madden 2004. Meanwhile, another might play as well as back in the day because of the tried-and-true game play that launched a thousand copycats. A classic game is one that stays true to the age-old credo: simple enough to pick up, difficult to master. The true sign of a classic game, or any great game for that matter, is one that you can pick up and play years later.
The main key a game becoming a classic, like anything else, is time. In life, there are few greats and even fewer legends. Eventually, most only remember the true icons from past generations. The greats that are outstanding in their prospective qualities are those remembered down the line. The games that we love as kids are the ones that we wax the nostalgic about years later. They’re the ones that we drag out and dust off the old system to play. Out of thousands of potential options to choose from, the ones that brought us joy are those that we hold dear. As kids, we don’t find ourselves hung up on defining a great game, but we remember having fun playing it. The little things add up. And those rare games that deliver the complete package are the crowning achievements.
And that’s when it all came together for me. A classic game is one that stacks up well against those in its genre and its generation. The pieces of the puzzle- graphics, sound, play control, challenge, and replay value- work together in such a way to deliver a fun experience every time you pick up the controller. A classic game might not have the best visuals or tightest controls in comparison to others, but the combination of all the little details make it well worth playing. It is a game that makes a bold statement that sings to your soul. There is at least one aspect that always, and I mean always, brings a smile to your face when you play it. And that is worth more than its weight in hype.
So as I watched my cousin flip another switch in I-Ninja, I sat back and watched his intensity as he played the game. Maybe this will be his classic game, and maybe it won’t. If he’s still playing it five years from now, then that is cool. But as long as he is having fun with it, then that is all that should matter. That’s what gaming is all about, right? “You’re darn right, you crybaby!” the old-timing gamer shrieked.
At least I can agree on that.