The Skinny: The Smithsonian gathered votes for its upcoming Art of Video Games and this week, I detail what I threw my weight behind. Part one is here. Part two is here. Part three is here. Today, I talk about my picks from the Genesis/Nintendo 64 era.
Era 4: Transition
Here’s where we officially get into “in recent memory” territory. The average age of most gamers is in the mid-thirties and the games of this era figure prominently in their collective memories. Maybe it’s the hazy college memories of skipping class to play Goldeneye for 24 hours straight with your friends or an unhealthy fascination with Lara Croft’s boobs, but these years mark the beginning of an era of gamers self-identifying as such. For my part, it took a lot of doing just to get a Genesis in my single-parent household and there was no way my mom was shelling out cash for a Nintendo 64 or a capable gaming PC on top of that. But, again, other nerds opened up the worlds of gaming on those platforms. This time period intersects with the beginning of my career as a journalist writing about games, but even before that, it’s when I started thinking about games as culture, not product. Here are the late 1990s and early 2000s titles that I think need to be part of “The Art of Video Games.”
Development on this game was led by Tim Schafer, who went on to further success with “Psychonauts” and “Brutal Legend.” But, the hallmarks of his particular brand of auteurism show up here: the skewed visual style, distinct comedic voice and off-center characters. It’s important to note that “Grim Fandango” is an adventure game, and one when the genre started to be eclipsed by more active alternatives. “Fandango” came at the tail end of a genre that would go on to have its ideas subsumed by other styles. Reflexes weren’t at a premium in adventure games, logic was. You might argue that something was lost with the wane of the point-and-click stye of gameplay. The cleverness of “Grim Fandango” illustrates that in robust fashion.
So, like I said above, this era starts to see the expanding influence of action games, particularly shooters, on the imaginations of gamers. But, the points of differentiation between various games were generally presentational and aesthetic. “Doom II” had dark environments, “Unreal” had crazy guns. But, while there was fun, there was little freedom. “Deus Ex” changed all of that. It’s the progenitor of the “thinking man’s shooter designation,” earning that distinction from the way that players could improvise their own solutions. It fused RPG skill trees, action elements and Play style matters.
For all the influence shooters started to have, that fiefdom stayed relatively constrained to PC games. The graphical requirements and precision control demanded by the first-person shooter genre in particular were severely diminished when attempted on the home consoles of the time. Rare’s “Goldeneye 007” changed all of that. It was only supposed to be a stupid James Bond movie tie-in game, but it became a phenomenon. A splitscreen mode let players hunt each other down in the games various levels, using famous Bond characters like Jaws and Chop Chop as avatars. More importantly, it was an FPS on a console and it just worked. Looking back now, “Goldeneye” served as a precursor to the kind of rabid multiplayer competition that’s a staple of console gaming now.
“The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time”
Nintendo’s adventure series often gets mentioned as the best game franchise of all time. And this particular installment ranks in the upper echelon of “Zelda” games. 3D gaming was still new to video games and “OoT” offered great solutions to targeting, along with context-sensitive actions that helped it flow smoother. And, learning to play haunting tunes on a magical Ocarina created an emotional bond with the game’s music that was hard to beat. The gameplay in the first 3D Zelda also gave gamers a smart time-travel plot that embedded ideas about maturity and destiny in a superlatively well-executed game. Where 2002’s “Ocarina of Time” really differed was by offering a surprisingly mature take on the franchise’s core myth, with Link’s adventures becoming a coming-of-age story. “OoT” was where the franchise matured, bringing along an entire cohort of players for the ride.
“Super Mario 64”
The kind of 3D that’s being inflicted on audiences now doesn’t really add anything to the movies, TV shows and video games saddled with it. Leaves, bad guys’ punched-out teeth or bullets floating in front of your face don’t fundamentally alter your engagement with the content. When 3D rendering came to games, exponential new possibilities came with it. “Super Mario 64” was the title that ushered in the third dimension. That’s fitting, since the outings of Nintendo’s most popular character exemplified the speed and verticality possible in the 2D platformer. With a 3D world, you could peer into vast landscapes or run into the horizon. That “Super Mario 64” sported the hallmark genius of Shigeru Miyamoto was just gravy. In short, it’s a game that changed everything that came after it. There’s no way this isn’t going into the exhibit.
“Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six”
Popularized tactical squad action, where telling other characters where to stand and who to shoot is as important, if not moreso, than where you stand and who you shoot.
Look, even non-gamers know that Lara Croft emerged as video game’s first sex symbol. A backwards glance at those pointy boobs and sex-doll facial features may make you how that eve camer about. But the real secret of Lara’s success is how it made the Indiana Jones Formula playable in a robust way. Other games before it had you playing adventurers and explorers but they failed in generating a sense of place. With “Tomb Raider,” you felt transported to exotic locales and into forgotten mythologies. I remember audibly gasping as I swam deep underwater and the light bloomed from below, revealing the architecture of lost Atlantis. The sense of globe-trotting wonder the game created in me was big. Much bigger than Lara’s boobs even.
Spearheaded by Tetsuya Mizuguchi, this sci-fi shooter became one of modern gaming’s cult hits. At one point, the hard-to-find disc was going for $200 on eBay, a 400% mark-up. Why the clamor? It’s because “Rez” drowns your senses in interactivity. You feel it, see it, hear it and play it so vividly that all the sensations blur together. Attacking the constructs in the virtual reality world you enter creating a sound that creates a burst of color that creates a vibration in the controller. That tripartite feedback loop changed how I perceive games. Like LSD, I have awesome flashbacks to the experience of playing “Rez.”
“Final Fantasy VII”
This breakthrough installment of the long-lived series introduced many to the idiosyncrasies of Japanese RPG design. But more than that, “FFVI” harbors an emotional moment that links a generation of gamers. It coupled the intrinsic desire to win with the far more elusive desire to feel, a potent combination that’s still the holy grail for a medium’s creators.
“Metal Gear Solid”
Solid Snake–the weary warrior around whom the Konami covert action series revolves–isn’t a revelation in character construction. Genre fans had seen his ilk before in movies, comics and TV show: the retired hero answers his nation’s call in their time of need. With Snake, it’s a giant robot that needs shutting down and he needs to sneak into a eadquartes No, what stood out from designer Hideo Kojima’s vision is the serendipitous intersection where the mechanics (stealth) dovetailed with the hero’s persona. It makes sense that a hero disgusted by the tactics of the government he works for would try not to be spotted. You can’t say that the combo’s accidental either, since Kojima’s gone on to produce more “Metal Gear” games. Each is more philosophical and grandiose than the last, leaving the loud, gung-ho antics to world-saving to gaming’s other protagonists.
Next time: The games of today and the-time-right-before-today, including my hardest vote ever.