Something About E3: Imaginings from 20 years ago

[AwesomeExMachina brings us a Weekly musing blog about E3, talking about what we all thought the future of gaming would be like when we were kids, and how this E3 measured up. Now that E3 is finished, gather up your thoughts and post your own musing on the show — we will be promoting E3 blogs for the rest of the week. — JRo]

When Arthur C. Clarke imagined the year 2001, he saw us ceiling-walking our way all over space ships like it was no big deal. When the actual year 2001 rolled around, we weren’t kicking back in cosmic moon shuttles on a daily basis at all. Unless you’re an astronaut or a super millionaire, the closest you’ve made it to setting off into space has been watching a shuttle take off on TV with that ponytailed guy who made Ultima Online inside.

But don’t go tossing rocks at Clarke’s gravestone in revenge. He’s not the first to be off the mark with predictions of how technology would take the reins of the future. If sci fi books or movies from the 60s and 70s are to be believed, we’re all really slacking on the whole laser gun thing.

It’s difficult to predict the course of things to come when you don’t have all the facts. What so often comes from trying to make predictions about the future is simplistic exaggerations of current trends under the assumption that such things will never die. But, disco never did quite make it and, thankfully, neither did those awful Zubaz pants from the early 90’s.

Like any child clutching a controller and dreaming of the next release of your favorite franchise or console generation, you probably had delusions about where video gaming technology would end up in 20 years. And you were probably just as off as Mr. Phillip K. Dick or the guy who wrote Lost In Space. Whoever that was.

So, to explore this I asked around amongst my gamer brethren and got a rough idea of what their tiny brains had surmised about gaming those two decades ago. I also got my hands on some old issues of Nintendo Power circa 1990 to round out my reverse predictions about what gamers from 20 years ago would have guessed E3 2010 would have been all about. Hit the jump to read on.

Virtual (Boy) Reality

What We Had
The actual Virtual Boy system wouldn’t hit the market for another 5 years. So, kids desperate for vicious headaches and irreparably damaged depth perception would have to just go to their local grocery store and stare directly into that checkout laser for 20 straight minutes. It’s safe to say that when the Virtual Boy did come out, it didn’t end up being the revolution of 3 dimensional gaming that children everywhere had anticipated. But it was certainly an illustration of where the market was heading.

You could argue all day about what constitutes actual 3D graphics. Is it full holographic figures represented in a 360 degree plane? Is it simply 3D vector models on a 2D plane? I have no idea. I majored in English. Is it Proust? No? Well then, I really have no idea.

But there was certainly a visible advance in the tech behind graphics, especially in computer games, by 1990. PC’s had thing like Wing Commander and King’s Quest V which allowed movement beyond just left and right. The concept of moving a character in such a way, with the illusion of 3D motion, must have sparked some young minds as to where graphics could be taken in the future.

What We Had Hoped
We all assumed that if it only took something like 6 or 7 years to go from the minimalistic Pong to Super Mario 3, it was only a matter of time before we were popping on oversized helmets and zipping through fully interactive worlds in full 3D. If I time-traveled back to my past-self in 90s, I’d surely tell you with unbridled enthusiasm that in 20-some years I’d be playing Castlevania like it was straight out of Lawnmower Man.

What E3 2010 Gave Us
These science fiction virtual reality environments do somewhat exist today, but mostly in a medical or purely scientific capacity. No one’s plugging these things into their flat screen at home and hoping online. And though I lament not having my own Holodeck, the technology of no-glasses 3D presented by Nintendo at this years E3 conference is really a revolution we wouldn’t have seen coming 20 years ago. Despite the fact that 3D was all the rage with the film industry back in the 60s, by the 90s those funky red and blue glasses were all but reserved for fashion statements.

Nintendo wasn’t alone this year either. Sony started their push for 3D gaming, revealing intentions for 3D television support for handful of Playstation Network games, as well as big names like Killzone 3, Gran Turismo 5, as well as upcoming games like Mortal Kombat and the new Tron game. With this year’s CES focusing so hard on 3D and with the surprise announcement of a 3D handheld from Nintendo, it’s clear where the companies want us to go. Though we aren’t quite at the level of virtual reality that lets us race Light Bikes yet.

Miyamoto Never Says Die

What We Had
Honestly, if you asked any game-obsessed child of the 90s (and, honestly, what kid wasn’t?) which popular video game character they expected to see still thriving and putting out games in 20 years, the answer would be rather unanimous. That rampaging, murderous, mustachioed plumber in the red overalls couldn’t possibly ever die, right?

Most likely not. But Mario wouldn’t be alone on the list. Gamers would bring up classic characters from their video gaming heyday. Link, Samus, Megaman, Donkey Kong, Pacman, and others would no doubt be sitting high atop that list, hurling barrels down a series of bright red crossbeams.

What We Had Hoped
Predicting future trends is a challenge because you have no way of knowing what new franchises will pop up and succeed. So any child’s fantasies about video game’s future were probably just an embellishment or current popular titles. And popular titles there certainly were.

By 1990, the mushroom-stomping icon himself had starred in three popular games, including the just-released Super Mario 3 which would later take the title as the best selling independent title of all time. Heck, he even had become a doctor that year. Considered one of the greatest games ever Zelda: A Link to the Past wouldn’t come out until next year, but after two hit games before it, players probably saw Link playing a huge role in games to come.

Gamers couldn’t have imagined a world without these characters. We expected our favorite franchises games to simply keep being released until they numbered in the 20s and 30s. I know that as a child, I had fully planned on playing Super Mario 10 on my SNES 5. If you had asked me then I would have said, in not so many words, that there couldn’t be a future without Nintendo’s famous characters lining store shelves.

What E3 2010 Gave Us
As it turns out, we couldn’t get rid of that round-nosed Italian stereotype if we tried. Mario is still living strong as the best selling video game franchise of all time. 2010 saw the release of Super Mario Galaxy 2, which has impressed critics and melted gamers’ brains worldwide. Link had his own excitement with the announcement of both The Legend of Zelda: The Skyward Sword. Many gamers were very surprised to hear of another Donkey Kong game, which seemed likely to have emerged from some kind of awesome dream.

Honestly, it’s downright remarkable that so many of the characters who had their first iterations in the 80s and early 90s are still not simply coming out in game after game, but are still being designed so well that players aren’t getting bored of them yet. Of course, many of the franchises would need a reboot or significant change. I would never had acknowledge as a youth that Super Mario Bros. 3 could conceivably be of the last side-scrolling installments of the series. I couldn’t have imagined he’d be driving tiny carts or playing Sonic in the Olympics. But I certainly couldn’t have imagined him heading out into space.

E3 2010 brought us an amazing return of multiple classic gaming figures simultaneously. Link, Donkey Kong, Kirby, Kid Icarus, etc. Honestly, Nintendo’s press conference turned this years convention into a dream year for classic gaming enthusiasts. Had you told me 20 years ago all these series will not only still be kicking, but also get interesting and unique gameplay elements wound into the fabric of their new games, I’m not sure I’d believe a word you said.

It’s Like I Can Touch You

What We Had
Chances are that if you were a child of the 90s and you rocked the hell out of a paper route or had parents with the willpower of playdo, your living room was probably cluttered with useless console gadgets. After what some called the Video Game Crash during the 80’s, gaming companies were intent with picking their revenue back up by whatever means necessary. What came of this was an attempt to revolutionize video games as a whole by changing up how players interacted with the games.

Instead, what we ended up with were useless hunks of plastic attempting to make video games less of an entertainment device and more of an expensive toy. The Power Glove hit North American shelves in 1989 and if you’ve ever had the misfortune of trying out this waste of circuits, you’d learn it to be outrageously unresponsive, inaccurate, poorly explained, and generally impossible to use. For those of us that watched The Wizard with glassy eyes and hands clutched to our chest, this was a massive blow to our tiny brains.

What We Had Hoped
Though attempts at motion control gaming were a massive failure, the very idea that we could control our games with something that wasn’t a tiny pad settled in our heads and never left. I personally couldn’t wrap my tiny child brain around the very idea of light gun technology when I first witnessed Duck Hunt in action.

So once our imaginations got the better of us, children tricked by the promises of the Power Glove and the U-Force Board imagined a future where we could use our entire bodies to throw fighting game low kicks and smash question mark boxes with our very own fists. And not like that bullshit Nick Arcade game show. Did anyone every win that thing?

What E3 2010 Gave Us
Honestly, it seems like the technology we’d imagined as tiny child consumers has all but come true. The Nintendo Wii – love or hate it – did all those things it had promised. We could turn that Wiimote into any number of items – bowling ball, sword, baseball bat, chainsaw, gun – and use our full body, or lazy flick of the wrist, to engage each gaming challenge. And that was 2006. This years E3 delivered us full-working models of advanced versions of this concept in the Playstation Move and the controller-free Kinect.

But the core market hasn’t quite fallen in love with these technological gaming advancements. Children around the world more than likely squee’d themselves to death with infinite glee at the sight of a virtual tiger which not only responds to pets and tickles, but listens to your voice as you screech euphoric commands and name it Mr. Tickles. But the gaming market isn’t quite the same monster it was in 1990. Particularly because the average gamer is much older. A lot older. Joystiq recently posted an article listing the average gamer is actually 29 years old.

Dedicated players are seasoned veterans of multiple genres, unique game designs, and play styles. They’re not quite the same marketing-receptive age-group as your average toy-hungry nine year old. The main ‘hardcore’ market much prefers the responsiveness and accuracy of a regular controller, as they regard the talent that comes along with precision over casual gimmicks. They don’t particularly want to dance around their living room or spend entire Mario games jumping and leaping and pissing off their downstairs neighbors.

Hence, children of the 90’s couldn’t have predicted this. They could only assume that there would always be one sect of people playing games. Gamers. They had no way of knowing that in the future, we’d be quantifying that word with adjectives like casual and hardcore, as well of a myriad of words in between, and that these classifications of players would very rarely actually get along. Or, more importantly, want the same thing.

The Reign of the Handhelds
What We Had
1990 was a landmark year for gaming. It contained several huge release, like the incredible MegaMan 3, one highly-anticipated release to a beloved series with Super Mario Bros. 3. But the year’s relevance went beyond the games themselves. A particularly iconic gaming device came forth to alter the video game market forever, as well as forever make gatherings in my elementary school auditorium significantly more bearable.

Released in Japan and North America in ’89 and to Europe in 1990, Nintendo’s Gameboy, though not the first handheld video game console, it is inarguably the most prolific. And after it had only been out for about half of a year, it had already crafted itself a solid line of titles. 1990 saw players popping in Tetris still fresh from release in late ’89 as well as the port of the classic Bubble Bobble. Dr. Mario feeding kids brightly colored pills and kids in the US finally got to F1 Race.

What We Had Hoped
Other companies had attempted to capitalize on the handheld market and some even had the capacity for interchangeable cartridge games like the Gameboy. You could argue the merits, or lament the inability to play it properly without some sort of alternative light-source, but the fact remained that it kick-started the whole market of portable gaming. Heck, I was still using my original Gameboy well into the late 90’s.

It was clear that 20 years in the future would see the handheld market as a booming industry, packed with hundreds of models, and more than likely ruled by Nintendo. We would have pleaded the screen get brighter and the battery life improve, but as long as they let us escape into tiny worlds of fantasy in doctor’s waiting rooms and painful family road trips, that’s all we wanted.

What E3 2010 Gave Us
Nice guess on that one, children of the 90’s.

Gamers Are Celebrities
What We Had
If there’s anything that stands out from reading those early Nintendo Power magazines, it’s that fame was an integral part of the community. Though it was a rather exclusive fame, as the average Joe certainly wouldn’t be stopping you on the street to congratulate on your high score in Pac Man. Regardless, Nintendo Power dedicated an entire section of each of its magazine not only to winners and runners-up in various arcade competitions (including the first female to hit the finals during the 1990 Nintendo Power Fest!), but it also published reader’s high scores right there in the magazine for all to see. Even our very own Cliffy B made the list.

There were whispers throughout every community about high-scoring players in games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man. They were more than just your run-of-the-mill player. They were gods.

What We Expected
Films like The Wizard and existing, highly-marketed national competitions seemed to solidify the idea that the world of video gaming was evolving into a world-wide phenomenon that would surely make it’s way onto television and see it’s best players rise up to the level of sports heroes. Not to mention multiple movies glorifying gaming, piles and piles of merchandise, loads of commercials, and whole aisles of stored dedicated to the market. Sometime later, a game called Starcraft would shoot Korean players to rock star status, with matches televised and players glorified. Could all of gaming be this way?

What E3 2010 Gave Us
Video game competition certainly did not hit the market like we expected it would. Instead of matches broadcast on national television, watched by fans around the world with the same adoration given to the World Cup, we have the rather isolated and elite Major League Gaming tournaments. Though occasionally featured on channels like G4, you certainly won’t find anyone but gamers actually tuning in to see the results. And even that is reserved for a small fraction of the gaming population. What you end up with is a very inbred concept of fame, where the only audience invested in the competition are the mostly those players hardcore enough to operate at that level. As if the only patrons that came to the Colosseum to witness the gladiators fight were simply other gladiators and their annoyed girlfriends.

But that’s not say that industry isn’t trying. EA announced at E3 their MMA fighter game that will broadcast player matches with real-time commentary. Not to mention the number of games that have provided leaderboards to log and display global highscores. Plenty of titles seemed to feature some sort of score ranking system, which is simply a more efficient version of posting player’s high scores in Nintendo Power.

But are these steps to legitimizing gaming to the masses or simply gimmicks for quick, face-less fame? Who can really say, but what is clear is that players skilled enough to have their own match broadcast to who-knows-how-many others, hold the title of Grand Marshall, or sit at the #1 leaderboard spot do get noticed. And if you question whether or not any of these players will actually experience “fame,” just ask any who has played 1 vs 100 if they recognize the gamertag A Patch of Blue.

There’s no doubt the 2010 video game market would completely bewilder a 1990’s gamer to his or her core, but thanks to the dedication (or perhaps stubbornness) of Nintendo and other companies with maintaining and reviving old franchises, there would still be plenty of recognizable characters showing up. There’s no doubt that the immortality of some intellectual properties is downright extraordinary. Never would I thought I’d be in my mid-20s and still getting the chance to play a Donkey Kong game, or take another frighteningly gluttonous Kirby adventure. It’s no longer 1990 and the technology has certainly changed. The controllers have way more buttons. The fashion world no longer has any room for shirts covered with neon triangles. But the video game universe is still alive, thriving, and in love with it’s own past.

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