Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Best Classic Arcade Game

Sometimes all the elements just come together and I know that the Muses are with me. Take today. I'm driving into work, listening to the news and eating my Cream Cheese Toaster Strudels (The Breakfast of People Who Would Have Been Champions Except They Went A Different, More Cream-Cheese Filled Route Instead) and thinking about what I'm going to nominate today, and I start just thinking about Asteroids, and I remember how much fun it was to play and decide that I'll name it The Best Classic Arcade Game.

Then, I get to "work" and I'm sitting at my computer and as usual my first task is to fire up iTunes and begin surfing the Internet, and the first song I hear is The New Pornographers' "Adventures In Solitude."

That's when I realized that Asteroids would not just make a good classic video game (The Best, as it turns out) but also it would make a great movie. And "Adventures in Solitude" would both open and close the movie.

It would begin with a shot of a small space capsule floating in space as the song began. The capsule would float and tumble and drift and as the song went on, giant asteroids would begin appearing, more and more and more so that the song's peaceful background would begin to seem more and more ominous, while still providing a source of hope to the viewers because the song has that optimistic chorus: We thought we lost you; welcome back.

I haven't gotten farther than that in plotting it out, so that'll be a good little project to distract me from the things sitting on my desk waiting to be done at "work."

Also, I just googled "Asteroids The Movie" and didn't see any similar projects in the works, so don't go stealing my idea.

The inspiration that Asteroids gave me for what will surely be the hit summer movie of 2009 shows the staying power and awesome might of what is both the simplest, and the most addictive, video game I can think of. That inspiration and staying power also show just how dumb and misguided most video games are today.

I mostly don't play video games any more, aside from every now and then playing Madden against The Boy. I mostly don't play them because they're far, far too complex for me. The last video game I remember playing was "Battlefront," a game that promised to let me replay all the Star Wars' movies battles. Here's what that game looks like:

That game did not let me so much recreate the Star Wars battles and live them for myself as it did make me think that I had some sort of neurological problem that was interfering with my ability to see and react. The controllers for the game have twelve buttons and two joysticks and the way you hold or move the controller can also affect things, I think. The game itself makes you learn to lift and change weapons and move and sight them and fire and look at radars and things, all at the same times.

When I actually played the game, against The Boy, I spent most of the time running into walls and shooting at the floor. And getting shot, a lot. At the end, I think I had shot one Imperial Stormtrooper during the time The Boy had wiped out my entire Rebel Alliance.

It wasn't at all like recreating the battles; it was a lot like trying to re-type a Russian novel using a Japanese keyboard, and about as much fun. The only video game I've ever seen that was less fun was The Sims, because in that game, you can't even try to shoot people.

Asteroids, by comparison to the amazingly detailed, incredibly complex games that kids take for granted today, was amazingly simple and completely lacking in the graphics department. I'm pretty sure it was hand-drawn. There were only five buttons that I recall: rotate left, rotate right, thrust, shoot, and I believe there was an option to teleport every now and then.

You as the player were a little triangle adrift in an asteroid field whose only goal was to survive. The plot was: shoot everything that's not you.

That game could be played for hours. Days. It was amazingly addictive, and maddening as you'd try to shoot that last tiny little asteroid, drifting around and rotating and firing your little dot-specks in a circular motion. Then, when you did it... you got all new asteroids with the creepy, thumpy sound effects starting up again.

Asteroids, like a lot of early videogames, had to survive on that kind of addictive, challenging game play because the graphics and storyline wouldn't keep you coming back. In that lies a lesson for today's videogame makers: make it fun to play. You can have all the realistic simulations of Death Stars, all the fictional cities filled with gangsters driving cars, all the neighborhoods filled with kind of creepy looking people talking gibberish and thinking in symbols that you want, but it's all so much window dressing if the game is too complicated or too hard to master or no fun to play.

I know that most people are dismissing me as someone who is simply nostalgic, who doesn't "get" the new videogames, who's too old to master them and so he complains about them instead. While it's true that I'm nostalgic and can't master the new games, I'm also right, and here's what I'm especially right about:

Asteroids, like all good games, will be around for as long as there are people who like to play games. The Sims, Grand Theft Auto, Battlefront: those will fade out and be forgotten just like Strat-O-Matic Baseball.

You remember "Strat-O-Matic Baseball," don't you? No, you don't -- because it was complicated and boring and required doing a lot of things that people don't want to do to try to recreate something people do want to do. To recreate playing baseball Strat-O-Matic required all kinds of paper and statistics and drafts and other dumb stuff, and the game never really caught on beyond a devoted few fanatics. Now, it's faded away to be replaced by fantasy baseball leagues and real baseball.

That's what'll happen to The Sims and those other games. They try to recreate something and in recreating it, they leave out the fun. They're Frankenstein's Monsters of video games -- simulations of real life that have no spirit or zest or fun.

Asteroids, on the other hand, really had no basis in reality. There was no backstory (that'll be for my movie) and no goal, no unlocking extra levels, no cheat codes, no online multigame players. Just shoot and move and shoot and move. But it was fun.

It seems like our lives get more complicated and more full of detail and information everyday. We've gone from having three channels on TV and phones that were attached to the wall by a cord to having hundreds of satellite channels, the Internet, iPods, cell phones, digital radio stations. As we complicate our lives, we complicate our video games, too, trying to make them more and more like some version of "real life" the way we think of it, or "real life" the way we'd like to temporarily try it.

But games should not recreate the complexities and challenges of life, and they should not be so hard to play and involved that they become either a substitute for or a simulation of my exact life. When I get to the office, I have to go through a series of steps just to begin "working:" I have to plug in my cell phone to charge, turn on the computer, check the phone messages, hit "ctrl/alt/del" to open up my computer, open programs, type in passwords, review my emails...

Why would I want to do all that to shoot a stormtrooper? I don't. When it comes time to play a game, I want to relax and have fun and not have firing my rifle involve a combination of four buttons, a joystick and a UN investigation.

There's an awful lot to be said in favor of the simplicity of a triangle shooting dots at random shapes, but the two best things I can say about it are it's simple and it's fun. Those aren't two separate ideas; they're two sides of the same coin: life is complicated; games are simple and fun. Today's video games are complicated; Asteroids, The Best Classic Arcade Game, is simple and fun.

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