This may be a localised phenomena, but in the early late 90’s and early to mid 00’s there was a consensus that ‘a real game’ was something that had it all; great graphics, voiced characters and an expansive story, while gameplay was kinda a secondary thing. Pretty much what modern Triple A gaming has become, which should make sense, as people who grew up in that era are now making games. This was also the era where arcades died, and simple games seemed to be relegated to the Internet as Flash or Shockwave titles, and to few collections released on consoles. This mentality wasn’t anything new, it can be argued that it stemmed from the mid-90’s 3D and FMV craze, which was also driven by the fact that Saturn wasn’t exactly allowed to have 2D titles on it in the West, in favour of 3D. The idea of something being old and past its time was something that few would argue against, despite some companies putting outs absolutely fantastic 2D works out during this time, like Castelvania: Symphony of the Night and the Street Fighter III series.
This doesn’t exactly hold water nowadays anymore, with the whole retro scene being popular and all that. Old stuff is not regarded as junk any longer, but rather something of value. However, it is clear that what has replaced the old-and-busted mentality is raw mentality of value. By this I mean that the games that were considered as ‘real games’ have now become a sort of gold standard, not necessarily just Triple A as I mentioned, something that simply seemingly has more value. Take the whole thing with 2D and 3D Mario as an example, where Nintendo themselves clearly consider 3D Mario a more valuable title and type of game. Those titles get the budget and big bang releases, the effort and the marketing. 2D Mario on the other hand gets repackaged and overall just doesn’t have the same respect towards it. Perhaps this is because the 90’s 3D craze did leave a scar of sorts on gaming overall, with PC culture furthering things with its hardware fetishism. For whatever reason, a direct 2D game rarely can be just games, despite some smaller titles on the indie stores fighting against this trend. Very few 2D title follows the arcade original examples of almost pure distilled gameplay, and have opted to ‘expand’ the content their offer.
By expansion I don’t mean something like expanding the game’s landscale, more levels and such. It’s a case where a title suddenly gets a full-fledged story scenes, extending the game’s length by interrupting the play and other elements trying to find ways to add more ‘content.’ Content’s the wrong term, but close enough for our use. Take Mega Man 7 and Mega Man X as examples. On the NES, Mega Man games had no story sequences outside opening and ending, with one or two Dr. Wily reveals. Three stops in a whole game is not a whole lot, when nowadays you have to sit back more than thirty minutes just to play Pokémon. Changing gameplay elements is another, as Mega Man as a franchise has constantly kept itself next to what the era tried to be about; X added armour collecting trying to mimic RPGs, Legends jumped to 3D as that was the trend, Battle Network revised the whole shebang and followed the collecting/trading card scene, Zero remodelled the series with darker tones and heavier emphasize on story (something each X-series game did as well) and the with action-adventure in ZX/A titles. Then back again to the roots when retro was at its raviest. It didn’t exactly work as intended, as the franchise was put into ice until this year, essentially.
To use a more modern example of trying to expand an existing game series with more ‘content’ would be Umihara Kawase. The first three games are very style-pure titles. Direct to the point, stage by stage. The series expanded itself in a natural way with completely new stages each time with slightly reworked mechanics. Sayonara Umihara Kawase added new characters with gameplay gimmicks to stop time or similar function, which honestly didn’t sit too well with the series’ puristic approach. However, the latest title in the series, Umihara Kawase Fresh does what pretty much every 2D game did in the 90’s; adds more ‘content.’
Rather than having stages, narration here calls it an open world game, which works much better as a descriptor than metroidvania. Because of this change, the game’s progression is now based on Time Attack and Quests, and rather than having environment being your best ally and threat, failure of contacting enemies is not punished my losing a life or confused state, but by gaining damage to the Hunger meter. This drastically has changed how the game is approached to a decree. Then again, this title does carry Fresh in it, which more or less means Sayonara was the last of classic line of Umihara Kawase games. These changes exist solely to add more value to the title and differentiate it from its predecessors. It has more stuff to play, more stuff to extend the play time with necessary plot scenes and other sequences and now you have to managed two different gauges rather than just try and clear a stage. It’s a whole open world.
Can a game stay at its purest anymore, or does it need to have all the bells and whistles bolted to it in order to sell better?
This would seem to be the case. A game that has a puristic approach to video games seems to be left behind in terms of value to the point of being relegated to digital-only title. If it’s not a title like Sonia Mania Plus that has already showcased how well it can sell, there seems to be surprisingly little on the way. While physical releases seem to be going the way of the dodo, but we still got time before that happens, especially if people are waking up what digital ownership really means.