How to Turn a Medium into a Genre: 8 to 16-Bit Video Games

So, I am not a programmer. I am not someone who games regularly–online or otherwise on computer and console–and as such I have not played many of the modern games that exist out there. I played all the way to the 64-bit and then the wii era. For all I haven’t played in a while or even having never been an expert player I am–like many children from the 80s–a Nintendo child.

I watched video games evolve into more or less what they are now. I know that there are some older than me who grew up in the 70s that saw what video games were like before and I have watched enough–and read enough–to see that they have come a long way in a lot of ways. I remember the day I saw my first Super Nintendo. It was at a friend’s house and the graphics looked like they were from a cartoon. They were lusher than the 8-bit pixels that existed before and possessed more expression. The music sounded less transparently synthetic and more … fuller in a lot of ways. I am not knocking or putting down 8-bit video game music however: after all, 8-bit tracks sound very expressive in how synthetic they are with clear beats, beeps and keening noises.

But when I saw the Super Nintendo I wanted it. I wanted it so badly. My brother and I scraped together everything we had to buy one. And we weren’t disappointed. The Super Nintendo and many of the games that followed on that console had excellent game-play, good graphics, wonderful sound, and in some cases some brilliant story-lines and expressive characters. There was a lot of innovation for gameplay and mechanics then as well. 8-bit was functional and fun but it was seriously like going from the second to third dimension. At the time, I thought that video games would improve and keep going up and up: that more realistic graphics symbolized this advancement.

There was a point where I actually stopped playing old games because I began to believe that they had become old-fashioned and obsolete: that something that didn’t look as realistic as it could be couldn’t be taken seriously anymore. Yes, back in the day when all one could do was make 8 to 16-bit games, it was all very well and good. But in a more modern age with newer games, I got into the habit of thinking there was no excuse to go back to those and that one had to advance with the times.

I was obviously wrong.

I found Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger long after their console was obsolete. Chrono Trigger in particular was one of those Super Nintendo games made towards the end of that system and it was so sophisticated and its pixels were made in such intimate detail along with its unique choice of game play that it made me happy to see it. There is something very archetypal about the pixel cartoon that others like Scott McCloud (at least with regards to comics) that to some degree one can relate to and emphasize with much more than the gritty and the realistic. They made me start to replay old games and instead of them making me depressed in that they were from the past and a time that didn’t exist, I just wanted to have fun with them.

If you ask me, I would say that my golden age of video-gaming was the Super Nintendo age. Even Sega’s competition added to that. Now fast forward a few decades. Now you have independent game makers and programmers, as well as those working on Internet and cellphone games, going back to those exact 8 to 16-bit forms. They do this for a variety of reasons, but the main one is that what was once a medium–the only way of expressing and symbolizing interactive programming in a game–has become a visual-audio aesthetic. In other words, an old medium has become a genre: it has become a creative choice and I think that is wonderful.

I mentioned that a month ago I went to the Toronto Comics Arts Festival and one thing that I made sure to see there was an exhibit called Comics Vs. Games: the result of collaborations between comics artists and independent video game programmers. I will admit that I have more than a passing interest in writing scripts for video games–and writing for video games–and what I saw and even played at TCAF was excellent.

One of the games that I actually played was The Yawhg: which was basically a game where you had to improve your skill-set before a cataclysm so you can help civilization rebuild itself. It had static screens with expressive backgrounds and artwork and a skill modifier number system: for example you got +3 if you completed a task you selected on a menu. It’s reminiscent of the Math Wizard game on the old computers at school, but it was so much fun because it made you use your imagination and the game mechanics were dynamic enough to make you want to play quite a few more times.

Then you had We’re No Angels where you play these 16-bit music celebrity sprites trying to escape from God and Heaven to go back to the real world and party. I didn’t really get to play the other two games, but as you can from the link they are very interesting. For example, The Mysterious Ambroditus is like an intricately illustrated Victorian Mortal Kombat game using a rock, paper, scissors method of card combat.

I’ll let you in on a secret. I actually enjoy watching people play certain kinds of video games. Often, you’ll find me watching Let’s Play videos on Youtube: particularly those of Boltage McGammar and HcBailly. But I haven’t played many video games myself in a long time. You can even ask my friends who had been trying like crazy to get me to play Knights of the Old Republic. But I played these games. They were even two-player and I played with them along with some random person I met at the Festival.

I know this entry seems a little random considering the other things I write about here, but I think it relates a lot to my mindset as a creator and as someone that enjoys interactive stories. I find it amazing what our time is doing with old games and cartoons from the 80s and onward: things that were once the present day of many of us and I like how there is new life in them. Old mediums are being made into new genres and new mediums and, you know what? I am glad to be here: just for that.

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