Video games are a part of modern culture. Whether you like it or not, they are here to stay.
I know I’ve written about the downsides of gaming in the past. But I’ve also written about the creative aspects and how, at least in my mind, they really are a type of art, particularly in the music department. But what I haven’t talked about much is that, while I’m definitely a casual gamer these days, how much I love what are now called “retrogames.”
Seriously. If I’m going to fire up a game, it’s going to be an old NES, SNES, Genesis, or PC title from the 80s/90s. There are some PlayStation 1 and 2 games I have a fondness for, the PS2 being the last system I was really in to. I got a Wii as a gift, and do own a DS, but aside from a handful of games on each, I haven’t touched them in years.
But a funny thing happened on the way to adulthood: Many of these games remain an inspiration.
Especially in my writing.
I’ve made no secret that I’m an aspiring author. I’m serializing my short novel Reset, chapter-by-chapter, on this blog every Sunday, and I’ve shared the first chapter of my soon-to-be-published novel The Rust Man. I’m also working on a new novel as we speak, and have a previously finished one I want to clean up.
What I haven’t talked too much about is my inspiration for these things. I do consider myself peripherally attached to both the Pulp Revolution and the Superversive movements, though both represent ideas that I found myself holding long before the movements came into being.
On the PulpRev side, while I haven’t read that many of the Appendix N, the ideals behind the “old” stuff appeal to me, as does the sense of fun, adventure, and “anything goes,” unconstrained by genre labels or conventions and served with a healthy slice of heroism and goodness.
And as far as Superversive, let’s just say that I’m not a fan of nihilism. At all.
So where do video games come in?
What if I told you that The Rust Man is, in large part, what I think a Castlevania book or movie should be, and indeed was originally conceived of as a fanfic? And the book I’m writing now is inspired by both a game and a word my son and his cousin made up, and this screenshot:
This is the title screen of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and it’s a beauty: The music, the visuals…all of it. Just gorgeous.
You’d call me crazy, right? An overgrown child? But retro games still hold a huge sway in my imagination.
I think it’s more of a combination of playing these games at an impressionable age and that the graphical, gameplay, and musical limitations focused the designers to create as tight and fully fleshed out experience as possible.
Look at the original The Legend of Zelda: The aesthetic is cohesive, the puzzles all make sense in the world, and the structure and pacing is perfect. Add to that music that enhances every experience, and it’s no wonder the game is still mind-blowing. Not a single pixel is out-of-place.
The original Castlevania is a marvel of game design–it’s basically a puzzle game with an action veneer. They used the protagonist’s deliberate walking speed, limited jumping ability, and strange manner of attacking to craft situations that use these limitations. And it fits with the overall vibe of the game: classic, lumbering monsters come to life.
Mega Man 2 is similarly perfect: The score and graphical style compliment Mega Man’s rapid movements and ability to use his opponent’s weapon. More so than any other game in the series, every weapon in Mega Man 2 is useful, and will be needed to overcome the various obstacles.
And then there’s Zelda II, the game that inspired my current novel. So many hate this game for not being a clone of the original. But Zelda II is expertly designed with its own internal logic, look, and feel. Playing through it again recently, I’m blown away by its tight structure. Sure, the difficulty spikes at some points, but overall it has an excellent pacing and isn’t nearly as cryptic as many make it out to be (“I am Error” notwithstanding). The palaces are designed with just as much care as the original game’s labyrinths, and the sword-fighting mechanics are far better implemented than the critics say.
But what strikes me the most about Zelda II, and these old games in general, is how cohesive they are. The good ones, at least.
Zelda II‘s palaces remind me of ancient Greek temples . . . just with underground levels filled with monsters and deathtraps. How couldn’t this be imagination fuel for a kid already reared on Tolkien, comic books, and ancient history?
And I love the plots of these games.
“Plots? What plots?!” you might say. But that’s where you’re wrong: the old games gave just enough of a framing story, and required the player to fill in the gaps.
So back to that screenshot. That cliff with the sword stuck in the rock overlooking the ocean . . . those shooting stars and that vibrant night sky . . . that haunting theme, speaking of the promised adventures to come . . . I imagined ruins of some Greco-Roman palace on the cliffside and there was the setting for my story.
All from an old video game.
Look at some of the plots to these old games and tell me they’re not pulp as hell:
- Faxanadu: Elf returns to his hometown at the base of the World Tree after a long journey, finds that a meteorite has corrupted the dwarves which threatens the World Tree, and travels through the various kingdoms inside the World Tree to stop the mad, mutated dwarf king.
- Ninja Gaiden: A ninja must avenge his father’s death using the magical sword passed down through his family. Through the course of the series, he fights common ruffians, evil monsters, and giant robots. Oh, and in at least one of the games he fights through the underworld, aka Hell.
- The Guardian Legend: The giant, artificial, planet-sized interstellar habitat Naju has been corrupted by aliens and is hurtling towards Earth. A lone guardian, armed only with various weaponry like lasers, grenades, and LIGHTSABERS must travel to Naju and activate the self-destruction method from the inside. Oh yeah . . . she can turn into a friggin’ spaceship.
- Little Samson: Samson, a bell-throwing adventurer, allies himself with a fire-breathing dragon, a super-strong golem, and a bomb-dropping mouse, to fight the evil magician threatening the land.
- Kickmaster: The younger brother of a slain knight must rescue the princess of the realm from an evil witch who is terrorizing the kingdom. Oh yeah, this prince is a martial artist who kicks skeletons and demons in the face.
The list goes on. So many of these premises are so insane that they have no choice but to work.
From the plots to the aesthetics to the mechanics, these old games captured my thoughts when I was a kid, and they still do now. The imagination that went into them, before the days of massive budgets and mainstream acceptance, is truly remarkable. Perhaps it was this lack of expectation that allowed the makers to take risks, tinkering with mechanics, storytelling, and puzzle design?
Or perhaps they just wanted to make the games that they would play, hoping that the audience would be willing to come along for the ride.
That’s not a bad credo for a creator, now, is it?