I Miss How Weird Games Used to Be

The best part of retro games is how different they are from each other.

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Nov 16 2017, 4:12pm

Screen shot of Super Sprint

In my article about Need for Speed: Payback yesterday, I wrote about how, when I play racing games, I’m always focused on how the game I’m playing is differentiating itself from other games in genre:

Instead of worrying about how tight to slalom down one of Payback’s serpentine freeways, I’m thinking about how the turns of this world feel mundane when compared to the cartoonish curves of Burnout: Paradise. Instead of working out whether I should save my nitrous for fourth or fifth gear, I’m comparing the signage of Payback’s fake Subway sandwich shop to the ones I remember from The Crew. Instead of trying to win, I’m trying to parse: What is this, specific race car fantasy?

When I was growing up, I struggled with a lot of racing games. Partly, this was about brashness—the young Austin didn’t really understand why you’d use brakes in games that were about going fast. But it was also because there was such a broad understanding of what a “racing game” should look and feel like. Isometric and top-down games like Super Off Road and Super Sprint didn’t just “feel” different than behind-the-car racers like OutRun or side-scrollers like Excitebike; they presented fundamentally different versions of racing, where pressing “left” on the controller might not actually mean “going left.”

Today, things are a lot more consistent. We still have outliers, of course— Tiny Trax is one of the most unique games I’ve played this year, period—but by and large, contemporary racing games share a basic blueprint. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this fall’s major racing games— Need for Speed: Payback, Gran Turismo Sport, Project Cars 2, and Forza Motorsport 7—are identical. But they differentiate themselves in structure, nuance, and aesthetic instead of in the more fundamental ways that racing games did a couple of decades ago.

Excitebike screen courtesy Nintendo

While the moment-to-moment racing of GT Sport and Forza Motorsport 7 are comparable, Sport’s focus on scheduled and rules-regulated multiplayer races appeal to players interested in virtual sportsmanship and professionalism.

All of this is fascinating to me as a critic and a fan of games. Because so little genre convention had settled into place, the first few decades of video games were filled with a feeling of re-invention and experimentation. To be clear, that hasn’t fully left our scene (just look at the games we highlight over in our Free Play section), and it’s cool to see AAA devs work out ways to define their games from the competition, too. But when I look at the variety of racing games from the 80s and 90s, I can’t help but think about how exciting (and challenging) it must’ve been to conceptualize a new way to represent “driving fast” with a screen and a controller.

What are some of your favorite examples of games that represented action in a totally unique way? Let me know over in the forums!