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We all play video games for different reasons. Some play as a route of escape, for a break from the monotony of the daily routine; others to feed a relentless, competitive nature. Some may even play for nothing more complicated than the eternal pursuit of fleeting fun. I’d venture a guess that for most people, the reason for playing is some combination of the above. But do you ever turn on a PC or PlayStation and expect to exercise your brain? The good news is that it’s certainly possible; the bad news is that it’s not nearly as commonplace in the modern gaming world as you might like or hope. Do you even remember the time when such a thing was possible? Fear not, for at the bottom of the polluted sea of movie-license games and behind the cloning machine that spits out eerily similar shoot-‘em-ups, you can still find a lode runner or two.

I’ve been playing video games since I developed the requisite motor skills, and though only a self-appointed authority on the matter (if such a thing exists), I feel comfortable speaking as a representative of the common gamer denominator and the games I always enjoyed most were those that are both infectiously fun and intellectually challenging. It’s a tricky balance to strike—a game that will keep players on their toes and constantly thinking without being so hard as to remove the element of fun. And this latter ingredient, fun, is the most important of all. It must always be the foundation. It is the base of the pyramid. It is Chemical X. Without fun, who cares?

Fun is why all of the classics—the games that have withstood the relative test of time—are unanimously dubbed classics. Even if they’re not especially challenging (Super Mario Bros. 3 comes to mind), they make up for it with fun, and not only is that acceptable, it is a thing to be emulated and encouraged. But as new games are developed, there is also a need for growth and innovation. And in recent years, it seems as though the mainstream gaming industry has, in many ways, lost sight of need to create fun games.

The Final Fantasy franchise is perhaps the best example. A series of games that started in the form of a humble one-off RPG —good, but certainly humble in relation to its successors—has gradually climbed to the peak of innovation and creativity, teetered precariously, then tumbled into the bottomless chasm of shameless, soul-bereft production value. Final Fantasy IV and VI seamlessly blended entertaining game-play with interesting plot. Regardless of your opinion of Final Fantasy VII, it cannot be accused of forgoing innovation and complexity in an attempt to appeal to the masses. And what of Final Fantasy X? It was a great movie with a compelling plot, and I really enjoyed watching it.

Aside from the Final Fantasy franchise, other early Squaresoft games were excellent. Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana are the two standout examples. But Squaresoft / Square Enix has slowly moved its focus from game-play (who would argue that this is not ideal?) to characterization (who can deny the merits of this?) to the best graphics in the industry (who benefits from these bragging rights other than the developers themselves?) and letting its previous foci and achievements fade to the periphery. And it’s really a damned shame. At least it’s an attractive shame.

What of a franchise such as The Legend of Zelda, then? Well, our tireless, ageless elf in green has been spared the worst of it for sure. He’s been left to repeatedly save the princess, slay the pig (who inexplicably evolved into a really ugly man at some point), and fulfill the prophecy of the golden triangles in relative peace. Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, the two most recent major installments in the saga, are fun games— good game-play, good plot (if a bit formulaic in places), and yes, yes, good graphics. The important part is that playing them all the way to the end didn’t once feel like a chore. (And to harp on the previous issue for just another moment: this time I am looking at you, Final Fantasy XII, yes, you, all glitz and no guts, all sex and no soul, empty shell destroyed by proverbial kryptonite, you.)

But even though I am a dedicated Zelda fan, I still see the recurring flaws and weaknesses. Every game follows roughly the same pattern. Get a sword and shield, get a boomerang, use the boomerang to get out of the room you’re trapped in, use it to beat the boss, rinse and repeat for the hookshot, bow and arrows, et cetera. Each game introduces a few new items to shake it up a little (how awesome was that spinner in Twilight Princess?). But the basics are forever and ever the same, and it doesn’t quite take a genius to realize that once again, just like in every other game, you have to hit the target with an arrow to open the blockaded door. Is it still fun? I’d argue yes, but it is also a prime example of the mainstream industry not pushing itself to grow. There is clearly much money to be made off the formula. People know exactly what they are buying. And they know they can win, that it won’t be too hard. Not too much will be asked of them. And we all like knowing that we can win. Since there isn’t much use in criticizing universal human nature (or economics), I’ll leave Zelda be and look elsewhere for that elusive innovation.

I can’t talk about Zelda without mentioning another familiar giant in the gaming universe. I don’t have any major complaints about the mustachioed plumber brothers. You’d think that all the fame would have gone to their heads and ruined their games by now, but I have been consistently impressed with nearly every installment in the franchise. Unlike Zelda, not every Mario game follows the same formula. Sometimes he hits coin blocks and shoots fireballs like we expect him to, certainly. But sometimes he races go-karts. Sometimes he travels around the perimeter of a board game and plays surprisingly varied mini-games with his friends. Sometimes he gets into inexplicable brawls with Pikachu and Kirby. Sometimes he goes golfing. Sometimes he destroys viruses. And sometimes he’s made of paper! There’s really something for everyone. The reason I think these games continue to be so good is because they are always fun.

Comments

The opinions in this article...need more developing. The few sentences of conclusions on the last page should have been the introduction, and the article should have continued the thought from there.

I appreciate the effort, though!

Nice article! Though it should be noted that EverQuest was new and exciting in its own way, despite its many flaws. WoW also introduced some notable innovation in its talent system, which allows a great deal of complex character customization; though undoubtedly the gameplay is repetitive, as it is bound to be in any MMO. Also, you mentioned FFIV and VI, but what about V? That job system was excellent and the plot was nothing to scoff at either; I think IV and VI's combat systems were dull in comparison, though VI definitely had the better plot and atmosphere.

You make an interesting point about innovation coming more readily from indie producers (if I'm not misreading the article), and I think it definitely has some merit. I think that part of the reason is because the relatively simple graphics that the indie producer is limited to in this world of big companies making big games with big graphics forces the indie producer to introduce interesting ideas in the plot and gameplay to make up for the relatively simplistic graphics; as well as to make the graphics appealing within his capability, as World of Goo and Braid clearly do. Fancy 3D graphics do not necessarily look better than simpler 2D graphics, but this limitation imposes a certain pressure on the indie developer to make his product more interesting in other ways to make up for this. Also, an indie developer is likely not going to go to the extreme trouble of making a game if he does not feel like he has a new and interesting idea to put forth with it.

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