Retro pixelly goodness

What is it about pixels that makes Original Gamers like me all gooey and nostalgic? Show us mid-90s polygons and we’ll go, “Ugly! Get it outta my sight!” Show us one of the original Space Invaders, or Inky, Blinky, Pinky or Clyde, and we get teary-eyed as if we’d just seen the first glimpse of our PC after having been held hostage by computer-hating luddites for six months. Mix it with those bleepy sounds of yesteryear (or, more accurately, yestercentury), and we’re back in the past, back at school where we consider ourselves much cooler than the Chess Club set but are just as incapable of getting a date… but at least we’ve got a firm grip on our joysticks, haven’t we?

There’s an entire branch of computer-based painting called Pixel Art (and if anyone goes Ebert on the term, I’ll make sure that they wake up gnawed at by an army of rabid hamsters) that is all about using the limitations of pixels to nostalgic effect. Pixel art isn’t necessarily as rough and basic as the original Donkey Kong – higher resolutions mean more pixels – but it tends to have a similar style as those Where’s Waldo? books. Check out this Pixel Art London (click on the pic for the full effect):

What is it about pixels that has that effect, at least on those of us who’ve been playing games since the heady days of the C-64, NES or Spectrum ZX? Is it the Lego-combined-with-OCD look? Is it a hankering for simpler, better times when we didn’t need to upgrade our computers every year to make games run well, when we didn’t need to download half-a-gig patches just to make the games work that we’ve just bought? What makes a good instance of pixel art much more charming than 90% of current-gen polygons (other than the fact that all too many current games cater to frat-boy, jock-straps-and-boobies tastes that never did much for me)?

I don’t know, but I want to leave you with this video – one month later than the rest of the internet, mind you:

He may be easy, but he’s a prince

What makes a video game enjoyable? It’s obviously different things for different gamers: some like non-stop action, while others prefer games to be slower, more cerebral experiences. Some are graphics fetishists, while others say that gameplay complexity trumps visuals every time. Myself, I like a good narrative in a game, but I also want the gameplay and storytelling to be intertwined.

In the end, however, what it boils down to for most people, and in the most circular fashion at that, is that most people want games to be fun. They want to be taken out of their everyday lives for a while. Obviously that’s one of the reasons why so-called ‘casual games’ have been a major success in the last few years. Whether it’s Peggle or Plants vs. Zombies, or indeed one of the gazillion variations on the theme of Mah Jong, they’re all making money compared to what they cost that make most ‘non-casual’ games cry into their DVD boxes.

Is it just me, or is casual gaming more sexy than sweating, bespectacled nerds hunching over their gamepads for whole weekends? Or is that just evil advertising messing with my brain?

Now, old-school gamers like myself, who remember the times when a pixel was bigger than your head and the height of gaming was yellow pill addicts running through mazes and frogs crossing the street… Many of those gamers have nothing but disdain for casual games. Why? Because they’re easy. There’s little to no challenge in Puzzle Quest, they claim, so even your grandmother can play them and succeed. The most embarrassing examples of such old-school gamers will then go on a rant about the evils of instant gratification and those horrible people who feel entitled to winning a game every now and then without serious training.

Myself, I like a challenge every now and then – but to be honest, next to working 100% and having a relationship, I definitely see the appeal of games that are not punishingly hard. I see the fun in games that you can pick up, play for 15 minutes and drop again feeling that you’ve had a good time and cleared your mind.

However, there is such a thing as a game being too easy. I’m currently playing Prince of Persia, a reboot of a reboot of a classic gaming series back from the days when computers were big as houses and joysticks had one button. It’s a beautifully crafted game: it looks and sounds gorgeous, and it tells a nice story to boot. But, honestly: if I wanted a game that practically plays itself, I’d watch a DVD.

Behind every weirdly dressed man there's a woman with glowing hands. Or something.

It’s a real shame, because the game could easily have been as much fun or more while still providing a bit of a challenge. As it is, you never feel like you’re controlling your character – and for me, that’s one of the big things when it comes to good games. If it’s there, you never think about it, but the moment that control is taken from you, you can’t help noticing. In previous incarnations of the Prince of Persia series, your character performed the most amazing free-running acrobatics, but the controls were tight enough to make you feel that you were the one making the Prince run along walls, parkouring his way through Arabian Nights-inspired worlds. In this game, however, it’s enough to run roughly in the right direction and press a button at roughly the right time, and hey presto! you’re running along walls as if gravity was completely optional.

Without a bit of a challenge, without the feeling that you’re actually controlling your character, the gameplay actually becomes a bit of an annoyance much of the time. It’s like watching a film on DVD (or Blu-ray, of course!), and every time you get to a new scene you have to play Tic Tac Toe against an idiot. You’re sure to win, but it breaks the flow of the game. At what point does a game become so easy that it might as well consist of one button: “Press X to watch the next cutscene?”

But yeah… the game is oh so pretty. Behold (and if you’re a fan of the final episode of Six Feet Under, you may want to brace yourself for a tune you know very well – once you’ve accepted this as something other than utter blasphemy, it actually works quite well):