Around Christmas-time at my Grandmother's house, I sat and watched as my 10-year-old nephew opened a small slew of presents. I'm pretty sure that he opened a DS or Wii game about as regularly I opened a Vonnegut book (which is to say three or four) -- not counting the ones he already opened on Christmas morning. I'm not even sure if he noticed he got some of them (although I can't blame him for not caring about yet another LEGO Such-and-Such Beat 'em Up) -- but when I was his age, I eagerly anticipated new games. I knew exactly what games I wanted and if I only got one, it kept me busy for months. While this is no doubt related to an excess income his family may or may not be making, it still makes me think.
Being an avid reader of Nintendo Power since roughly the age of four (I'm quite certain that magazine taught me to read), I remember -- vividly -- the long level maps, and tracing my finger over them, imagining I was playing the game. I remember comparing the actual sprite graphics to the accompanying illustrations, and going on to draw my own Mega Man and Mario Brothers comic books. I remember reading and re-reading and imagining in my head that every section of the periodical played out like a hosted television show, complete with letters to the editor and cheat codes and tips and previews. Every page -- every word -- had so much value because it was the only connection I had to an outside gaming world. I remember waiting damn impatiently every weekday around 3PM for the mail to arrive, and in my head contemplating some kind of karma -- "Ohhh, I helped Gram do the laundry today, I hope it comes, I hope it comes!" And I remember bringing the current issue to school the next day for all of my close friends to scan almost as meticulously as I had the night before.
The Internet changed everything, of course. Sure, I guess there's still Nintendo Power. Maybe some kids are still having similar experiences to ones I had. But today's kids can hop on the Internet and get twice as much information about any given topic as in Nintendo Power, complete with waves of comments (many perhaps unsavory for children), videos, entire walkthroughs, and hell, demos.
We never had demos. We had shareware. For PC games. Sometimes.
I'm not saying my 10-year-old nephew won't grow up to be a cool kid that could appreciate a broad spectrum of videogames. Heck, he's really the only person that young that I even know, so my entire view of this is mostly based on my imagination. And don't get me wrong. I don't mean to sound like a "Well, back in the day we had to blow on our cartridges and write down passwords" d-bag, and I'm not even sure if any of this stuff is bad... but it's definitely different.
Portability is huge.
Nowadays it's hard to find anybody who doesn't carry a cell phone (let alone on their person 24/7). Granted, this is super creepy, but as we've seen with the iPhone, many of these devices can double as game platforms. As the technology becomes more affordable, larger touchscreens will inevitably be owned by many a person -- including kids. Gone are the days of parents not knowing where their kids are: they all have phones now. And they'll take them, because kids love toys.
I'm not saying iPhone games are necessarily bad. I've certainly played a few neat ones that take advantage of the accelerometer in ways that make sense in the context of the gameplay mechanics. And I'm sure it's easier to hook up for multi-play nowadays than having to carry around a Game Boy Link Cable wherever you go. That's cool. But iPhones don't really have terribly viable controls for many game genres, for lack of a better word. If you try and play something with a simple as interface as Sonic, for instance, your fingers are either covering up a large portion of the screen or you're letterboxing it to tiny proportions. You don't have any tactile feedback at all -- no pivoting D-Pad, no real buttons. Now, I'm all about emulation, but if this is the interface in which kids are gonna discover Sonic for the first time, I have a feeling they're going to feel more frustrated and less enthusiastic about these old 2D platformers. [There was a video posted to Destructoid recently of Tekken on a touch-phone. It looked downright painful to try and play.] Seriously, you know emulated games are going to sell on phones like wildfire just like on Nintendo's VC - and people sure as heck won't be playing them with real controllers, because slim portability is everything.
Yet on the other hand, there's the PSP and the DS, and more specifically the latter. I've observed a strange thing -- I don't know how many kids I've seen in a Wegmans with a DS in hand! Dozens! And not just boys -- I've seen lots of little girls with pink DSs playing away while their mum chats on the phone. So it's a good thing that gaming is becoming widespread like that. I do cringe at the thought of what they're actually playing, but in a few years' time, who knows? (At least they have a real D-Pad to use.) Nerdy little boys might actually meet some girls and have something worthwhile to talk about. I'm a little jealous.
In terms of computers and portability, I have only one comment to make. A laptop without a trackpad is a poor substitute for a mouse. Try playing an RTS or an FPS. Seriously. No, I haven't. And I never will.
Sprite graphics are awesome. I think of sprites as representations of characters rather than realistic depictions - they leave a lot to the imagination. And that's not a bad thing. Like I said before, I don't know how many stacks of my own Mega Man comic books or Mario 4 level designs I have in a basement somewhere, or how many times I went to bed dreaming of an episodic Ninja Gaiden in my head, or how often in the backyard my friends and I became Donkey Kong and the gang. I'm a little scared that kids today are going to use their imagination less since everything is perfectly detailed right in front of them; there's no room for interpretation. Of course, kids will be kids and I might be totally wrong, but I would bet they think NES games look awfully primitive in the future.
Now, digital distribution is making it easier for games like Cave Story and VVVVVV to reach a real audience, but these aren't the kind of games the "big guys" are making. They're spending millions and millions on realistic, 3D games, and that's fine. And I'm not saying it's easy to do good sprite artwork, but why is it that Nintendo just up and stopped making 2D sprite-based Mario games? Their development cost surely can't total the sum of the epic blockbusters or the motion control R&D we've seen major companies investing in lately. We got a few good GBA Metroids and Zelda's Minish Cap a few years back, but lately, the trend seems to be "3D graphics on a 2D plane" -- which is okay, but not nearly as appealing to me. Maybe I'm in the minority here. I'm sure our kids won't care.
The thing is, again, the whole imagination part. I used to get a huge kick out of my cousin's QBASIC games circa-1995, and I've always had a huge passion for making games. It's entirely possible, and I know it, and some day, I will. But kids in the future, if not exposed to low-res sprite graphics, might never have that moment of "Hey, I could make something like this!" Of course, I could be entirely wrong; there might be magical game creation software that makes developing games easier than baking cookies. It is the future, after all.
I should probably stop while I'm ahead. As I said, I don't mean to sound like a bitter old geezer (because I'm not) and really, I'm not that worried about the kind of gaming future our kids will have. Mostly because as responsible future (or current) gaming adults, we can make sure they play the classics in the best way possible, and enjoy innovation with them in the same way we did growing up. Except for us, our parents looked at us like we were crazy, wondered why they ever bought us that first NES, and wished we were interested in less expensive hobbies like soccer.
There's plenty of fun to be had.