Going Old School: Was Gaming Better In The 1980s?

16th March, 2016 by

Things were better in the old days, the purists always say. Gas lamps were better than sodium lighting, vinyl gave a purer sound than CDs, and computer games were more enjoyable when gameplay took precedence over graphics. The latter argument certainly has some merit – some of today’s PS4 and Xbox One titles do seem more focused on providing pixel-perfect backdrops than linear difficulty curves. But is it true that modern gamers are missing out on the sheer playable pleasures of old school titles?

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Firstly, we need to consider where domestic computer games began. Platforms like the Atari 2600 had simple one-button joystick interfaces, while the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64 were limited to running programs whose size extended to a few dozen kilobytes. With even wireframe vectors stretching their graphics capabilities to the limit, games makers like Activision and Codemasters focused on squeezing maximum playability out of every new title. The reward for five minutes of loading might have been monochrome and soundless (Ubisoft’s 1986 Zombi) or played out on a static black screen (Games Workshop’s 1985 Chaos), but these addictive classics were often played so much that their cassette tapes wore through.

By contrast, many modern games prioritise visuals over interactivity. Crysis 3 and Final Fantasy 13 are among high-profile titles criticized for placing rendering ahead of that all-important ‘just one more go’ playability. This was a mistake rarely made in the Eighties, although Digital Integration’s Extreme – their final game for the Sinclair Spectrum – deliberately prioritized graphics over gameplay to showcase everything they’d learned about this 8-bit platform.

Focus on Graphics

If you’re passively observing someone else playing a computer game, then it’s fascinating to see whether FIFA16 has positioned the Emirates Stadium’s big screens correctly, or whether raindrops realistically roll off car windscreens in Forza 6. In the latter case, anyone actually playing the game will have little time to notice darkening clouds when even straight-line acceleration can lead to fishtailing and barrel-rolling. The gameplay is as unrealistic and frustrating as the ambient weather conditions are lifelike and magical. It’s possible to win a race without having to brake once, which suggests guest commentaries from James May and the ability to spray-paint Ferraris took precedence over play-testing during Forza 6’s development.

Of course, there were disappointing games in the 1980s. To continue the motoring theme, Zeppelin’s 3D Grand Prix Championship ran like treacle and Test Drive II was practically unplayable. But these were mere aberrations. To justify the time spent loading – and the typical £10 game price thirty years ago – developers had to ensure that people loved their work. Advertising was less dominant than it is today, so screenshots carried less weight as a sales aid; what mattered was the level of satisfaction derived from defeating an end-of-level boss or finishing first. Today, it seems visuals are conflated with better games, which are expected to generate greater profits.

Is it all bad?

It would be easy to conclude that gaming was more enjoyable in the 1980s, and compared to modern console titles it’s probably true. However, it ignores the meteoric rise of smartphones and tablets, which also have to overcome small screens and limited graphics capabilities. Titles like Flappy Bird are as simple as anything seen on the Amstrad CPC464, yet this insanely moreish horizontal-scroller has bewitched millions. Plants vs. Zombies 2 evokes classic 8-bit games like Ballbreaker II with the diagonal-view action taking place on a single fixed screen, but its sheer playability matches anything sold in a cassette box.

Clearly, programmers haven’t lost their magic touch when it comes to making games fun. Companies who were around in the 1980s are often more focused on this than newer firms still in thrall to graphics packages like 3ds Max and Maya. Nobody can deny that League of Legends and Lineage II are hugely immersive, or that Destiny is endlessly playable, which demonstrates that gameplay can be combined with bold visuals and a credible storyline. More titles like these will help to persuade skeptics that modern computer games don’t routinely sacrifice personality for beauty, regardless of their platform’s technical abilities.

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