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Heritage: The Seventh Generation's Greatest Gift

With motion controls on the horizon and analysts hesitantly predicting that the current lineup of hardware may last well into the new decade, it seems that the seventh generation of consoles has a healthy chance of breaking the five-year clockwork cycle of upgrades that the video game industry has followed since inception. It’s certainly an exciting time to be a gamer, with our numbers steadily growing and mainstream recognition (both positive and negative) becoming more and more commonplace. But if we imagine looking back at where we stand from ten or twenty years down the road, what will truly define this moment in gaming history? Is it the continual upgrades to graphics and immersion that make games more controversially “cinematic”? Is it the advent of motion controls to engage casual and hardcore gamers in new and exciting ways? Honestly, I don’t think so. If there’s one thing that the gaming industry is doing now that I can unabashedly support and point to as an indication of progress, is it this: gaming is finally learning to respect its past.

Now before you brush this blog off as another retro fanboy’s slavering celebration of the “good old days”, hear me out. Idly watching (and mostly being bored by) the Golden Globes ceremony a couple of weeks ago, I got to thinking about Martin Scorsese and his work with the Film Foundation. This group is dedicated to the restoration and preservation of classic films, with the intention of preserving the medium’s legacy and making it available to new generations of film audiences, creators, and scholars. A while later, my percolating subconscious started to draw some parallels with this sort of effort and the recent advent of classic game distribution. Yes, almost exclusively within this generation, all of the video game “majors” have been exploring this new venture.

- Nintendo led the charge with the Virtual Console service, essentially creating a legitimate and officially sponsored means of access to classic games. Previously, the only way for many to play these games was through illegal emulation; now, although cost and profit have entered into the equation, we get the benefit of quality control and a satisfied conscience. Additionally, the VC is slowly shaping into a platform where previously unavailable or untranslated games can be released to the public for the first time (i.e. Sin and Punishment).

- Not one to be left behind, Sony has slowly begun to shape the PSN Store into a sort of preservation for classic and hard-to-find PS1 games. Unfortunately, the weak link of their platform is PS2 games; we need not retread the messy story of PS3 backwards compatibility, and it doesn’t appear that there are any current plans to offer them as digital-only downloads. Hopefully there will be some way to bridge the gap before long.

- Microsoft has the least to offer in the classic game department, if only because they are the most recent contestant to enter the video gaming battlefield. However, their Xbox originals service is a step in the right direction, providing easy access to last-gen games without subjecting gamers to scavenger hunts on eBay or dubious backward compatibility. They are also are undergoing a unique experiment with Games on Demand, providing current-gen releases in a digital-only format akin to Steam.

- And of course, there is Steam itself, the big bad monopolizing digital platform for PCs. Steam is also an invaluable resource for finding and playing classic and out-of-print games, and often at absurdly low prices for gamers looking to round out their classical education.

All of these platforms have only been around for a few years or less, making them a development unique to the seventh generation of gaming. But what does it mean? A cynical view would be that it’s just another way for the overseers of gaming to gobble up our money, albeit in smaller, easier increments. I don’t think that’s really what we should be focusing on, however. No one is required to go back and cough up five bucks to play Ice Climbers again. However, for those who are so inclined, the option is there, and the simple fact of a given game’s availability to us is something to be celebrated and encouraged.

I realize that the comparison is incredibly overwrought, but to bring the film industry into the discussion again, the official re-release of classic games reminds me of an undertaking similar to the Criterion Collection of DVDs. Making these games available for (arguably) affordable prices is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the history of gaming (either as a craft or an art form, depending on which side you take on that whole debate). In my opinion, it also helps to legitimize the entire industry. By acknowledging the contributions of the past and the heritage that these games represent, the video game makers of today are showing a great deal of respect and reverence to the history of the medium. Nobody today raises an eyebrow at the notion of film preservation; the medium has almost unanimously become a legitimate art form in the public eye. By taking the first steps towards classic game preservation, perhaps we’re laying the seeds for total mainstream acceptance of gaming in twenty or thirty years. Who knows?

For my part, I want to see this trend continue and grow exponentially. Unfortunately, the gaming industry is more fundamentally divided than the film or record industry, so we don’t have any kind of universal play-all medium akin to the DVD or CD. Therefore, the dream of a magical, officially sponsored play-all-games-ever console is something that will likely never happen, or at least not for any foreseeable future. However, things are still looking optimistic. Nintendo is working to bridge the gap by featuring off-the-beaten-road consoles such as the TurboGrafx-16 and NeoGeo, and I only want them to take it farther. Maybe someday you’ll be able to download a classic game and have it come with a short documentary or an essay about its significance, akin to liner notes for a CD or the extras we come to expect on a DVD. I really think that this is an important and historic undertaking, one that is extremely relevant to old and new gamers alike. Here’s hoping that the video game titans realize it too, and make it a priority alongside their photorealistic graphics, motion control, bajillion-selling franchise games, and whatever else they throw their money at these days.
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About Prince Wendellone of us since 7:39 PM on 08.13.2009

23 years old, Chicago

I was a Nintendo purist while growing up, but fortunately I wised up eventually. Now I have a 360 in addition to a lot of older-generation consoles and games, but hopefully a Wii and PS3 will be in the cards as soon as finances allow.

Update: Finances allow! Wii Get! Badow.

Trying to reconcile adult responsibilities with diehard gaming is a challenge, but it's a day to day process.
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