Earlier this week I attended a presentation given on jobs in the video game industry. While most of the presentation was geared towards employment in the industry itself (a great gig if you can get it) one area of interest that did come up was graphic and computing power in modern games. As gamers know, game graphics have improved in leaps and bounds over even the last few years as computing power has continually increased. But does all that graphical power of looking good really make the game that much better? I would argue that it really doesn't in the long run. This is part of the reason older games still hold a sway.
I've thought about this topic before, but it wasn't until Megaman 9 was announced that any serious application of 'graphics VS gameplay' was applied to the market. I'm not talking about games that have less graphical power then others as they are made, or even old re releases, because we already expect that from them. No, Megaman 9 is different because it was a conscious step 'backwards' when the drive is to always move forward. When has any other company deliberately made their game less graphically intensive?
If you haven't played or even seen Megaman 9 yet, its a blast to behold. Megaman has been around for 20 years, and over the years there have been many iterations of his character and his gameplay, but there was always a new Megaman. Unfortunately,Megaman was one of the series that didn't fare quite as well once systems improved and the visuals got better. Quite the contrary, while visuals got better, the games started getting worse.
At some point, someone at Capcom decided that the whole series needed a reboot and shocked the world by showing off a new, modern Megaman game that was oldschool to the extreme, right down to the classic, blocky 8-bit graphics. Forums (online whiteboards that anyone can write on) blazed with people both hailing it as a great step back towards its roots or cursing it as the worst decision ever made.
Of course, its since been released and although we don't have the official numbers, Megaman 9 is dominating.
So what does this go to show? That deep down, you really don't need all the fancy graphics or amazing visuals to simply have a fun game that makes you smile when you pickup the controller and then make the hours fly by. At the core, the game itself stands independent of showy graphics, and stands or falls on its own merits.
Of course, graphics can also add and subtract from a game, no matter how good they are. Some games released these days overwhelm players by calling far too much attention to their visual details, overloading the player and ruining an otherwise fine game because of good graphics that are too prominent. Some good games, even while being great, fail by simply making too much detail and too many visual effects for the player to sort out what is needed and what isn't.
Personally, a great example to me of great graphical use was Retro Studios Metroid Prime. Whenever I played I was always struck with a sense of awe at the world, it seemed living, breathing and real, and despite the fact that the games graphics are nowhere near today's high standards, the game still feels more real. I puzzled over it for some time until I noticed the attention to subtle detail. Butterflies flying around, dust flickering in the sunlight, small raindrops on your visor. All of these effects made the world so real precisely because they didn't scream 'look at me', but rather slipped into your subconscious and dwelled there.
My time is short, but what anyone should take away from this is two things.
A) A game is built on its gameplay, not the brilliance of its graphics and visual flair, but more importantly...
B) Flashy graphics in the end, loose out to the small subtle touches.