Are old games still relevant?

Reading books is hard – I’ll admit that. I try not to read books because a) YAWN and b) quite often two-thirds of the way through the book all the characters end up in some sort of difficult or dangerous situation, and I find that a bit stressful and generally tend to give up on there and then.*

It’s also difficult on account of Classics. I for, one, can’t abide classics. Yer Jane Austens and yer Charlotte Brontes and yer Charles Dickens are, of course, excellent. But after a childhood spent avoiding my father’s efforts to get me to read them (including, one time, hiding all my SNES games and replacing them with a copy of The Jungle Book**) and my time at secondary school filled with pedestrian “insight” into books that neither we nor the teacher gave a fuck about punctuated by occasional FUCK YEAH MACBETH, I want nothing to do with them. Classics are undoubtedly important, but much in the same way that brushing your teeth is important.

Wolfenstein 3D screenshot
This is Hitler, I think. I died seconds after this picture was taken. Taking screenshots is difficult

Games progress at an astonishing rate, given the flexibilities of the medium, and the re-release of Wolfenstein 3D as a free browser game underlines all that. I’d really recommend that you give it a quick go now, actually, because it’s sort of fun. Emphasis on the “sort of,” there, though – this hasn’t aged well. Not at all.

Some games have aged well – like the early Sonic or Mario Bros games, for example (indeed, the Mario formula is so good that Nintendo refuse to change it) because they, perhaps like Shakespeare, represent the peak of the genre. That’s not especially controversial, is it? Shakespeare is pretty commonly referred to as the best playwright ever. It’s going to be difficult to create a side-scrolling platform game that’s better than, say, Sonic 2 or Super Mario World, depending on preference.

Is Sonic 2 essentially King Lear? I’d argue yes, but that’s not my point and I should probably discuss it in a separate article. Back to the point. Sorry.

Wolfenstein 3D is not the pinnacle of the first person shooter genre, obviously, and is instead the grand-daddy of ’em all along with its abusive partner DOOM. Without Wolfenstein, there’d be no Call of Duty. The biggest gaming franchise in the world, a game that’s become synonymous with online console play, a game that even your mum has heard of, owes its life to one man with an New York surname imported from Eastern Europe slogging his way through a series of tunnels that look not entirely unlike a Windows 95 Screensaver.

Wolfenstein 3D
The noise the baddies make when they die are pretty neat though

Gaming is still so young, though, that it has a living history. People who played this back in 1992, the genre’s first faltering steps, have also played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 – a picture-perfect high-octane pornographic bullet-fuck of Michael Bayian proportions, and draw comparisons. They’ve seen the entire progression first-hand, as it happens.

Can that lead to snobbery? Of course. I just said that Sonic 2 was King Lear with a straight face, let’s not kid ourselves here. Insisting on knowing where you’ve come from and what you’re building on is important to a degree, but there’s a certain level of nostalgia inherent in all of this. My dad wanting me to read books that he was forced to read growing up is replaced with heartfelt Twitter endorsements of a decrepit, if fundamentally important, game.

Wolfenstein 3D was a big deal, and people are understandably keen to share both their initial, excited experiences and the benefit of a lot of hindsight with a younger audience. But you don’t need to play it to understand FPS titles, the same way you don’t need to read Dungeons and Dragons to play World of Warcraft, or play Chess to enjoy Command and Conquer. Or meet someone’s great-Grandfather before you agree to be friends with them.

Wolfenstein 3D screensaver
A sink! An evil Nazi sink no doubt. I shot it to make sure it couldn’t aid their war effort by temporarily holding water

It’s a curio; an old-timey example of the way things were way back when like the penny farthing bicycle or the gas-powered lamp. And while it’s important because of what it did and what happened afterwards, it’s more as a historical artefact than it is an actual game. Using it how it was intended is dull and even frustrating; and I’d be impressed if many of the folk who excitedly celebrated the re-release are going to spend more than ten minutes giving it a quick go and then giving up once the guys with sub-machine guns turn up on level 2 and promptly kill you.

We need to acknowledge that some games are harder to appreciate as experiences than they were and are more suited as historical artefacts. I think that’s the point I’m trying to make, anyway. Yes.

*It’s also why I powered through to the bit of Mass Effect 3 that takes place on earth and then NEVER TOUCHED IT AGAIN
** I didn’t read it



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