Donkey Kong Propels Structured Narrativev
What makes games worth playing? I know that's a totally loaded, subjective question, and everyone is going to have a completely different answer. For some, it's all about the action of games, whether shooting, punching, running or solving. For others, it's about the escapism of a virtual world. Still others it's about challenging yourself and overcoming adversity.
But for a few, the idea that a story can be told in a completely new method is what entrances them. It's become an engrossing enough subject that people can now go to college and study the concept in an official capacity. People get into massive debates about the importance of story in games, some say it's as important as plot in porn, others, that it's the ultimate goal of digital entertainment (such as in the attached video).
But who got the ball rolling?
Well, not Nintendo. Games like Adventure (1975) proposed the concept of a fictional world deeper than what graphics could display, but weren't terribly popular, and Pac-Man (1980) is arguably the first mainstream game with characters and bits of plot. But for the most part, what's now known as Interactive Fiction remained within the confines of a relative few, whereas most everybody else was rather content to shoot aliens or bat a ball back and forth with sticks of light.
It was in 1981's release of Donkey Kong, that the first full story came into a popular arcade game. Unlike Pac-Man, Donkey Kong had a definite beginning, middle and end, though It was crude to say the least: Ape steals woman, Man defeats Ape, Man saves Woman. But it gave context to an otherwise nonsensical set of actions (jumping over barrels and swinging hammers) that made the game easy to like, quite similar to Pac-Man, but just that little bit better.
This concept of applying a narrative framework with a definite end point was brought to most, and then eventually, all Nintendo games released in the 80's and soon enough other game developers followed suit. After all, even if you want to simply shoot aliens, it's nice to have a reason to do so. This is just a part of our human nature; add personal context to even the most illogical of situations!
In a lot of ways, Nintendo kind of wins this by default, since the NES was the first popular home console that had enough horsepower to actually deliver this to the masses, and surely this idea would have come about regardless of who provided the medium (especially once you consider the considerable growth PC games made in the same time frame). But due to the encouragement of the value of story by putting it into their own games, Nintendo ensured that the acceptance of at least some narrative was a standard, rather than an exception. And due to the sheer number of NES consoles owned across the world, it became the standard expect similar treatment, at the very least in the manual of a game. Even if it's just a "porn Plot", or a window dressing in many games, it's a heck of a lot better than having nothing at all.
And for some , these plots are just the start of something much larger.
Here's hoping we eventually get there.
Popularizing the Portable Platformv
Ever play a DS? How about the PSP? Maybe a Game Gear, or Mobile phone game, or possibly some of the other hand-helds?
Yes? Oh well, then if you enjoyed the experience, thank Nintendo!
Now I'm sure that you're going to assume that the popularity of the portable is due to the Gameboy. Well, you'd be partially right; at least after 1990, when the massive success of the Gameboy (still the highest selling console in history if you count every iteration) created enough decent competition to finally wipe those horrifying Tiger Electronics handheld games off the face of the earth. Thank God above, Satan below (and Pan off to the side) for that miracle.
But no, the history goes far deeper, back to 1980.
Back to the Game & Watch baby!
You see, back then Gunpei Yokoi, who was kind of a big deal (and will be featured heavily on this list) sitting on a train and watching some guy diddle around with his calculator. Then an idea stuck. "Man commuting is boring as s**t. I wish there was a way to both kill time and keep track of it at the same time . . .wait a minute. That's brilliant!"
And thus the Game & Watch was born. Now, while it wasn't the first handheld, as that honor goes to Mattel in 1977, it was the first to make the idea popular wordwide. It even had ideas that are still being used to this day. Two screens? That's silly. A foldaway case? That's just dumb!
Oh no, wait, those are good ideas.
Still, it did spawn imitators as well. In fact it's probably the direct cause of those terrible Tiger Electronics games that were the bane of every one of my early Christmases. But I guess no one's perfect.
The Perfect Controller Layout - Mark I & IIv
Probably the most important thing Nintendo has ever done for console gaming, aside from saving the industry itself (more on that in a bit), is that they have defined what makes the perfect controller.
Now the NES controller itself is sort of the original Iron Man Armor version of this. Back before it existed, game controllers were a wild array of dials and knobs, or far too many buttons a placed on hunks of plastic that were fairly easily broken. The NES on the other hand was ergonomic for the time and highly durable. This was perfect as plenty of NES games made you want to throw the thing across the room.
It was perfect for its day, but as time went on and games became more complex, couldn't keep up with the games themselves.
Enter the Super Nintendo controller.
More ergonomic, but tossing in two more face buttons and shoulder buttons on top of an already established design made it the perfect example of what to do with a controller. The Super Famicom version even had color-coordination with its face buttons, which would become especially necessary in later years, when we entered the dark age of the QTE.
The base design of of the NES and SNES controllers has been so good that they've spawned legions of imitators, and though both Sony and Microsoft have improved upon the original design, they didn't create the principle.
So thank you Nintendo, for ensuring that controllers didn't suck.
The Seal of Approval
This one may seem a little bit odd. I mean, after all, it's only a stamp that Nintendo put on a box. Nothing to it right?
This little sucker is a huge part of Nintendo's early console success, which in of itself pulled video games out of a massive market crash during the 1980's. Without that gold embossed jughead cap, the entire industry would probably be at least 5, maybe 10 years behind, possibly even horribly ghettoized in the same manner as comic books in the 1950's.
Again though, the seal was a product of its time.
A long time ago, in a galaxy exactly like our own, because it was, the Video game industry was imperiled. Twice. First, in 1977, several major manufacturers that had entered into the market with Pong clones, like Fairchild and RCA, decided to pull out and liquidate their stock. This led to an overabundance of consoles everywhere. I wasn't alive just yet, but I picture Fairchild F-Channels flooding the streets, crushing homes, and being used as cheap insulation for the poor.
Soon enough people were sick of Pong and these terribly abundant "viddya games". A few companies still survived though, like Atari, Activision, and Commodore. But then the economy struck back . . . and the entire industry crashed yet again in 1983. But what was the cause this time?
Tons of cheap, s**tty, unlicensed games.
Seriously back then buying video games was like visiting the Piratebay, anyone could bring something to the table no matter how terrible, you were probably getting a knock off, and you might even see some penis (though pixellated, probably NSFW). The entire industry just had too many scammers, too many fly-by-night profiteers, and too many E.T. cartridges running around for people to take it seriously. So they didn't.
So when Nintendo entered into video games world wide (after already conquering Japan like Godzilla on a bender), they realized that to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors would be completely retarded. So they decided to actually give a damn about the actual games that came out on their system, and only approve games that met at least some quality control guidelines. Now it wasn't a 100% fool proof guarantee , but it did its job.
It showed that as long as you looked out for the seal, the game probably wasn't utter garbage. Usually.
And this worked! Such a simple concept of having minor quality assurance and informing the consumer of this brought confidence back to the industry, which then saved it.
A Peripheral Saves the Industryv
OK, so I already mentioned above that the Nintendo Seal helped instill consumer confidence back into gaming, but that, like knowing, was only half the battle.
The problem was the retailers, despite being presented with the pure awesomeness that the NES obviously emitted like Nazi-death lights from the ark of the covenant, were hesitant to sell the thing to consumers they thought just wouldn't buy it after the disasters of Atari. In all fairness, it was a perfectly reasonable approach to take considering the times. They were living in a Material World back then, unless something could be presented as more than just a "set-top box" the retailers, they didn't think people would dig into video games after seeing so many pieces of crap available.
Enter your Friendly Neighborhood Robotic Operating Buddy!
Or FNROB for short. Actually, scratch that, R.O.B. works better.
This little guy only worked with a few, kind of bad games, but his purpose was far greater. He was the sacrificial lamb that allowed Nintendo to sell the NES and prove to consumers that it wasn't terrible. Retailers reasoned that hey, maybe the video games themselves might not sell, but the market for toy robots has always been strong .
For falling on his sword (or is it Gyromite?) in order to get millions of kids access to a totally non-creepy adult plumber, Nintendo should give a 21 Zapper salute to this little guy.
So I've already talked about the fact that the NES and SNES controllers pretty much paved the way for controller excellence. but some will of course wonder why exactly this is the case, when (in hindsight at least) it seems like such an obvious evolution of design. After all, it was simplified and molded to fit within two hands, had a simpler button array than many other controllers that came before it, and was built to last. All of these are certainly good things, but what really set it apart was the D-Pad.
It seems like such a small thing, but you have to remember, before the D-pad, the directions in video games were controlled in a variety of crazy ways .
While some of the ideas present weren't bad, and in fact would go on to be quite useful (the joystick being the direct ancestor of modern thumbsticks), the D-pad was an elegant solution for the time. It was simple and precise and afforded most of the perfect range of movement needed when games were still stuck in 2D. And who helped make this wonderful little improvement that would go on to this very day, why none other than Gunpei Yokoi of course!
The D-pad was so good, that Nintendo patented it! This is of course why all other versions of the D-pad are inferior to anything Nintendo puts out that has the traditional cross-shaped input mechanism. The 360 D-pad being the prime example of why holding onto this one idea has been an especially good move for those Kyoto-gurus.
Secrets Worth a Damnv
One of the biggest things Nintendo brought to actual gameplay, and one thing many, many people forget is that they were one of the first developers to incorporate secrets into their games . . . on purpose.
Time was, if a developer included their name in a game it was the height of a "secret".
But while it's certainly nice for a person to get credit for their work, let's be honest here. Most players couldn't give a damn!
No what we want are secrets and bonuses that give us some thing fun to do, something neat to break. And that's where Super Mario Bros. fits in.
Playing a game with invisible blocks and warp zones blew everyone's mind! Games before then just didn't do this stuff, and actually integrate it into the main gameplay. Before it was easy to find out about these hidden gems via the internet, every secret path you found was you're own, and very personal, until you told every one of your friends at school the next day. It was not uncommon to hear extravagant tales of "super impossible" secrets and tricks, and actually believe them, because Mario brought the magic of never knowing exactly what to expect from a game simply because these tucked away blocks and tricks permeated the entire thing from start to finish.
If there is one reason alone for why Mario is important, it might very well be the fact that his games actually brought about an air of mystery and encouraged gamers to look well beyond the face value of the general presentation.
This was carried over into plenty of Nintendo games, from Metroid to Star Fox, and was then added as a feature to so many other games it became an industry standard for many years. In fact, for most of the 80's and 90's, a game without some sort of level warp or hidden zone was actually quite rare.
Nowadays though, stuff like this has fallen rather out of vogue. Sure there are still hidden items to find an collect, the occasional unlockable set of cheats or a cool bonus costume, but hiding oodles of magic secrets behind every corner and crevice? It's just not done on the same level of scale.
Besides, without the propagation of videogame secrets, we'd never have The Konami Code .
In the modern era, saving your game isn't a problem. hell, games might even save your progress too much!
"Ridiculous!" you might balk.
Oh yeah? Ever hit an automatic checkpoint directly before getting shot in the face and surrounded by twenty Russians in Modern Warfare? Yeah, that totally blows.
Still, it's about a gillion times better than what we had to do back in the dark ages of console gaming:
insanely long, horrifyingly hard to read passwords.
Sure there were some fun things to find with a password or two; JUSTIN BAILEY probably being the most notable example, but for the most part they were tedious horrid things, and I'm pretty sure we're all glad they're dead.
Thank you Nintendo, for introducing the Battery Back-up save system in the original Zelda . It was a big boon.
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