Over the years, console generations have come and gone. Most of them and their respective devices are impressive in at least a few ways at first, but few manage to retain their initially impressive sheen as bigger and better things ultimately replace them. This constant cycle of intense and encouraged hype followed by abandonment wears on a person, and the ability to impress with what we’re told to believe is new and exciting slowly dissipates. This endless chase after the next big thing often leads to an unsatisfying, near-nothing.
Gaming’s entrenchment in trends has never been more apparent than it is today, and the biggest modern releases feel more and more like some sort of homogenized product, rather than anything indicating a shred of identity. Massive corporations churn out their new open-world-stealth-shooter-rpgs at least once a year, each pushing the limits on how much a player can possibly be expected to do before the seams burst and the illusion of the ever sought after immersion is destroyed.
It feels more and more like the ideal of the perfect game to both modern gaming enthusiasts and the giant corporations are reaching some sort of convergence – where everything will eventually be the exact same combination of violence, instant gratification, and unending experience bars. While superb games are still certainly being made, the exposure they receive is usually drastically low. And the forefront of our culture, by and large, makes it obvious what they worship and what they want – more of what they’ve already been getting for years.
It’s apparently a great time to be a “gamer,” whatever marketing has come to dictate that is, but there’s hardly been a worse time to care about video games. The relative few it feels we are that are not engrossed in the disgusting conglomerate gaming has become are constantly at odds with each other, attempting to reach out but then recoiling immediately at the hostility, aggression, and constant call-outs.
I’m certainly responsible for this and can’t pretend to be above it, but it doesn’t stop me from taking a step back to look at how harmful this bigger picture is. I complain frequently, and the idea of contributing becomes scarier and scarier as I create impossible standards for myself to reach and dig myself into a hole where my creative output is nil, but I still desperately want to contribute to changing this culture for the better.
Looking back at the very late eighties and early nineties, we see the birth or renaissance of many genres still going today. Yes, we do see trends emerge and become toxic, but we also see an amazing amount of designers establishing their own identity and experimenting with games in ways that are rarely learned from, today. Truly brilliant, modern classics like Undertale pave their own way and establish themselves as having their own sense of self, but they also learn from what has come before them and apply that to the best of their ability. And, like with the classics we once celebrated, it’s especially loved by a younger generation who will grow up to sing its praises like we do now.
Gaming has forgotten or rejected its roots in all but the most superficial ways. You can look and see obvious influence from certain older games in modern titles, but they often copy them in the cheapest of methods possible. What have we learned from the early Metroid games, for example? Not atmosphere or exploration, but ways to gate the player and grade their progress. What have we learned from the early Mario titles? Not the precise execution of momentum or the delight of movement, but that we feel good when we grab items and hear noises.
Here and there we’ve seen games learn from titles like those and capitalize on what they did best, but by and large, their influence is mostly seen in being copied in the worst ways possible. Creativity and cultural growth have stagnated as we become hung up on repeating the superficial, on the cheapest gratification possible in the greatest quantities available. We, as a culture, consider going back to playing games from older generations only enjoyable by viewing them through the rosy tint of nostalgic yearning, yet our modern blockbusters reveal where nostalgia and petty attachment has truly tainted our judgment.
The Game Boy, at least in my eyes, represents gaming in one of its purest forms, before the onset of trends that left popular genres becoming more entrenched and astonishingly stagnant for decades. It’s an incredibly restrictive piece of technology, and yet there was some utter brilliance in the design of titles available for it. Through strict limitation, titles had to rely on more than just budget to attract bigger crowds, and creativity was given a far more eager reception.
Many remember the Game Boy as just having handheld versions of games they loved… Watered down versions of “real” games they could have the luxury and convenience of playing portably. It would be a lie to say that this memory is not accurate to how many treated the Game Boy even in its heyday, but many designers showed a proud, keen defiance of being pigeonholed to just making Popular Game, but now portable.
Several series that were popular back during that timeframe saw some of their best installments on the device, and many more original titles dared to try and push copies without the safety of name recognition. Some of the best Game Boy titles out there failed to sell well and seeped through the cracks, but they have not gone entirely forgotten. Though handheld gaming did of course exist before the Game Boy, I don’t think it really took off until it came around.
My relationship with the brick of a device has lasted nearly my entire life, and I’ve traveled in and out of phases of interest thoughout it. What I had available to me as a child was quite the limited number of games, but the appreciation of its aesthetic and design philosophies has always been there… If sometimes more subconsciously than other times. Some of my favorite games are those I had the pleasure of playing as a kid, but even more are those I’ve only played for the first time in the last six or seven years (a few as recently as within the last few months).
The adoration I hold for the Game Boy has never been stronger than it is today, and it’s largely through discovery of what I missed that it has become something I so love and appreciate. No appreciation is going to be objective or universal, so the look I want to take at these games is going to be very personal, to me. Still, I feel as though with any appreciation, it can spread when put well enough.
What you’ll see as you read further is a collection of games that have reached out to me on a deeply personal level, and few are those that I haven’t played within an inch of their life as to try and best understand what makes them so outstanding. Some choices are more personal than others, but I feel like each of these brings something worth talking about to the table. Whether it be aesthetic superiority, pure mechanical competency, atmospheric excellence, or just a je ne sais quoi that’s caused the game to really stick with me, I’m going to do my best to try and relate the beauty I’ve perceived.
As you read, please consider that the discussion has been spread out via chronological release of the games discussed. I try to look at the Game Boy as it grew, and reading from the beginning is going to be important to the bigger picture.
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Super Mario Land
(JP April 21, 1989; NA August 11, 1989)
One of the original Game Boy launch titles, Super Mario Land is a game that stands out in the diverse library of Mario games for reasons beyond the arbitrary importance of it being the first big handheld title. Its bizarre visual design has made it well remembered decades after its release, and it’s sometimes even considered a kusoge among various fans of the long-running series. Certain elements of the game like the player character’s unpredictable momentum, wonky collision detection, and simplified visuals make it feel as if it wasn’t quite completely finished, and that it was perhaps rushed out the door.
Despite that, however, beneath the rough exterior lies a thoughtfully designed and enduring game that is delightful to return to. When you compare the Game Boy as a device to the NES/Famicom, it has a lower resolution. This means that it can ultimately display a decent chunk less than an NES screen can, at once. Super Mario Land was one of the first games to attempt to pioneer a way to make the very most of that space by simplifying the designs of familiar objects into smaller representations.
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This resulted in freeing up enough space to allow for much more than what would have been if graphics had simply been imported from the NES original, Super Mario Brothers. Years later, on the Game Boy Color, we saw what that would look like in Super Mario Bros. DX – a remake of that NES classic that visually relayed so little to the player that it completely disrupted the feel and momentum of the original. While Super Mario Bros. DX wasn’t necessarily awful or an entire failure, it did show why Nintendo originally opted to make a different game with Super Mario Land, instead of just giving you a watered-down version of what already was.
Rather than rely entirely on the design established by the first Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Land chose to take things in a different direction and create its own identity. Familiar enemies like the Koopa did return, but now with a different behavior. Rather than turn into a shell to kick around, they turned into a bomb and exploded shortly after being jumped on, as if to proudly and defiantly say, “hey! This is different!” The Koopa is an incredibly ubiquitous enemy throughout Mario history and one of the first enemies in most major games. This change is perhaps even more jarring looking back on it now than it was at the time, when you consider how little they’ve changed the enemy’s behavior over the years.
Super Mario Land was obviously created to capitalize on the success of Super Mario Bros. and help solidify the popularity of the character, but the game set a precadent for Game Boy games to come by not just being a handheld version of the title it was clearly meant to evoke. Mario went to new and strange places outside of the Mushroom Kingdom, and took a wild journey by land, sea, and sky outside of the established boundaries.
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While the visual language of Super Mario Land never really caught on and developers went in different directions to rise above the space restriction (with the exception of the odd title or two, like Sunsoft’s Batman), its aesthetic has never really entirely been forgotten. While nothing is particularly impressive from a technical standpoint compared to what came after it, the care that went into its visual and sound design remains apparent to those willing to look beyond its initial roughness.
Its play is also carefully crafted, with surprisingly thoughtful level design meant to give you more than just one method of approach to the end goal. Deaths sometimes feels nearly unpreventable with the slightly bizarre control you have over Mario, but the game is generous enough with its extra lives to forgive the occasionally frustrating death that felt slightly beyond your ability to prevent. In addition to that, it also features two levels similar to horizontal space shooters of the time, which feel like a much nicer change of pace than the swimming levels in the original Super Mario Bros.
My first experience with the game was roughly five years ago (I had mostly grown up on its sequel, which I’ve come to view as incredibly tepid by comparison to this one), and I went into it largely viewing it as a quirky piece of junk that Nintendo had thrown out there just to have a Mario title at launch. Something tells me Nintendo executives might have even seen it somewhat the same way, but it’s clear to me after giving it a fair chance and letting my experience sink in that those who designed it were determined for it to be more than just another launch title.