Solomon’s Key

by Tom Ingram

In the midst of the Christmas rush, I recently had the occasion to go into an EB. I browsed through the DS, Wii, and PS3 sections, looking for something that might make a good gift for my brother. I have to say it was a sad selection. Something about this generation of games is profoundly underwhelming. There was nothing good that we didn’t already have, so I took a quick look in the used PS2 section.

A word to the wise: don’t do this. It is one of the saddest things you’ll ever see. The four meagre shelves were filled with the detritus of a generation. The system is at the tail end of its death throes, and the only remaining games to be found are the ones that weren’t good enough to hang onto. Dozens of Madden and NHL games on sale for “excuse prices” of a dollar or two. A couple licensed movie games and some no-name shovelware crap.

Sad as it is, games for the PS2 and even my beloved Gamecube are slowly fading from the world. Soon it will be very difficult to get ahold of them at all. God forbid, if the machine breaks down, it could be prohibitively expensive to replace. Luckily the Wii can play Gamecube games, but even that will one day fade away.

There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

–Ecclesiastes 1:11

The book of Ecclesiastes by King Solomon has some uncomfortable things to say about permanence.

The words of Solomon are chilling. All the more so because they’re true. One day, not too far off, Shadow of the Colossus will be just a memory, a profile on a “classic games” website, only experienced for real by hardcore collectors. And nobody will care. The industry will keep going, releasing thousands of games a year, each one ultimately doomed to the same fate.

Right now, I can go to any movie store you care to name and get a DVD of just about any major motion picture released in the last seventy years. Older ones might be marginally harder to find, but at most it would cost me a trip downtown to Movie Village. Likewise, the major works of any well-known author are easy to find at my friendly neighbourhood bookstore. Any book in the public domain can be found online at Project Gutenberg, and there are ways to get ahold of more obscure out-of-print books without too much trouble.

And yet, if I wanted to play any given Super Nintendo game, or even if I wanted a second copy of Donkey Kong 64 (you know, just in case), I’d have to go far out of my way, consorting with greasy salesmen working in their mothers’ basements and pay a day’s wages for a battered, mistreated copy. There’s something terribly wrong with this system.

Part of it is the problem of consoles. Books never have compatibility issues. You can read a book written fifty years ago or five hundred years ago with no problems, but game consoles have to change every few years as technology gets better. But the same thing happens with movies. In my lifetime so far, I’ve used two different storage formats for movies, and they’re working really hard to introduce a third*. Yet Casablanca is not too hard to find on DVD, and it’s already out in Blu-Ray.

The problem is that in video games, the machine that reads the disk or cartridge is more than just a piece of equipment. It’s a part of the game, almost its own character. Playing Super Mario 64 on the DS is a noticeably different experience than in the original form on the N64. You can never wholly replicate the experience of playing an old game, just as Louis Armstrong will always sound different on a Victrola versus modern computer speakers. Porting the games also takes a lot of effort that probably isn’t very profitable.

What we need is a widely available way to get ahold of old titles that are no longer widely available and play them on modern systems. Nintendo’s Virtual Console is a step forward in this direction, but not far enough. Its catalogue is small, especially for Nintendo 64 games, which are recent but old enough that they’re no longer easy to find. There’s nothing similar for Xbox or Playstation.

Such an endeavour would be fraught with copyright and technical issues, and extremely costly to maintain. Is it worth it, just to satisfy the nostalgia of some teary-eyed kid? Surely, we should let the dead games fade away and move on with our lives.

Vital for mainstream acceptance.

Gaming is still a growing phenomenon at the moment, and it’s still not old enough to be taken seriously. Serious fictional media have critics, both regular reviewers and pretentious KJV-quoting idiots. Each book or movie tells a story, but Film or Literature taken as a whole form a meta-story created by tweedy academics. Simply playing Halo without any knowledge of, say, Metal Slug is like walking in on a fifth-season episode of Lost without any prior knowledge of the series. Even if you eventually get comfortable, you’re still going to miss things.

The history of any fictional medium is vital to putting modern entries into context. That’s why we still read Chaucer and Shakespeare, and why film societies still watch Birth of a Nation. The beginnings of our meta-story are still being written, and easy access to important old games is what drives that process.

Although Ecclesiastes would seem to be all doom and gloom, Solomon offers some solace, a glimmer of hope. While all things must pass and be forgotten, history repeats itself and never quite goes away. The thing that hath been shall be, the thing which is done shall be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.

* I sincerely hope they don’t succeed at this. DVDs offered a clear benefit over tapes. Blu-Ray is just an excuse to get us to pay fifty bucks a pop for movies we already own. I’m happy with my DVDs, thanks. [return]