I don't choose you, Pac-Man!
A recent article on the CBC website by
In his concluding statements, Poplak argues that “in lieu of new games with mass appeal, the gaming industry must content itself with technostalgia,” where ‘technostalgia’ is defined as a “phenomenon for those of us born on the cusp of the digital age.” Fair notice to Mr. Poplak: the gaming industry is not contenting itself with ‘technostalgia’, but older gamers are showing a strong desire to play the great games of the past.
The rerelease of Pac-Man is hardly a new landmark in the industry. For years, older titles have been re-released, usually as part of mega-collections, such as the Sonic Mega Collection or the Mega Man Anniversary Collection. Nintendo even re-released a few of its original NES games (Metroid, Ice Climbers, the very first Legend of Zelda) for the Game Boy Advance a few years ago. Gamers everywhere want to play the games of their childhood. Myself, I like to fire up Donkey Kong Country and Mega Man X every so often, games that have been around since 1994, and I still have as much fun with them as I did as a nine year old boy. The modern Pac-Man phenomenon is no different; with the average gamer’s age being over 30 years, it’s hardly surprising that a game from the early 1980’s is being well-received by the general gaming public. If gamers are willing to spend money (or Marketplace points, for that matter) to enjoy the classics of the past, it’s no wonder that companies are increasingly turning to old favorites for additional revenue. The big N has even hinted that its entire roster of past releases will be available for download (for a fee, in all likelihood) onto the new Wii console; its controller wouldn’t look like this if there were at least some motivations to return to the roots of gaming; turn it sideways, and it looks like an original 1985 NES controller, no?
In any case, it’s not that any one blast from the past has any more or less wide-market appeal than Gears of War, it’s that people have already had time to enjoy and connect with that game and want to play it again because of the emotional experiences connected to that game. ‘Emotional’ in this context is analogous to the idea that everyone remembers and is proud of their best Tetris score (141 lines!) more than it implies one of actual emotional attachment to the animated video game character. If “it fully sucked when Pac-Man died”, that was because you would have to start over again to try to get a better score than your buddy, not because you genuinely liked seeing Pac-Man gobble up dots across the screen. Supposing that many people who played Pac-Man in its original form continue to play games today, they will cherish the opportunity to replay Pac-Man today for the same reasons they chose to play Pac-Man in 1981, and not because of a void of Pac-Man-like games in today’s industry.
A far more contentious and less supported theory of Poplak’s is that “there will never be another videogame with such sweeping influence”. Plainly, that’s simply incredibly short-sighted and bafflingly unreasonable. Without even thinking twice about it I could reasonably say Pong has influenced modern gaming more than Pac-Man has, and for one simple reason: Pong was a two player game. There is little doubt today that the largest success of gaming is its ability to bring everyone together in one fun activity. It started with Pong, then you had Ice Hockey, eventually Mario Kart came along and today you have entire online servers and communities filled with StarCraft maniacs and Counter-Strike addicts. You have people willing to spend a month’s worth of rent to fly to some small place in
(To be brief, I would argue that Pokémon was the beginning of a high degree of customization offered to a player that effectively allowed the player to choose his or her own way to play the game, incorporated basic two-player head-to-head game mechanics, established portable systems as a legitimate and sometimes even preferred form of gaming media, spawned an entire army of spinoff games and products, not the least being some 7+ seasons worth to TV shows, 9 full-length movies, a card game that was at some point as big as the electronic game and a Time Magazine cover that actually talked about the Pokémon phenomenon as opposed to using their iconic status to further a social opinion. It also got more girls interested in gaming than any game before it, something that is bound to start paying larger and larger dividends in years to come as those girls become women. As for emotional attachment, I’ve seen some pretty devastated kids that lost their level-100 Charizard when their little brother accidentally saved a new game over the old one. Also, for the record, I predict some sort of Pokémon rebirth around 2015 or so, when all those 8 year olds from 1998 are making money and have some clout as to what ‘retro’ gaming means.)
Now, to his credit, Poplak did give mention Pokémon in passing, so perhaps some more reflection on the matter will get him to reconsider his idolism of Pac-Man. Alas, the only broad point of agreement I would have with Richard Poplak is that having a small, cute yellow mascot seems to bring on a considerable following among the general public. For the time being, if Poplak is to bring any insight into the influences of past gaming, he should probably take a closer look at today’s biggest trends before attempting to convincingly describe their origins.