Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Strange Case of 32-bit Gaming

What's in a Bit?

Ever notice that when people talk about classic video gaming, they inevitably hearken back to the days of the NES, Super NES, or Sega Genesis? Isn't that strange, considering that there were far more games released in the PlayStation/Saturn/N64 days of gaming? Don't get me wrong: There are a lot of utterly crap games in the 8-bit/16-bit era that aren't worth your time or money to play. But I personally find it strange that we don't celebrate those 32-bit pioneers in the same way.

Or maybe I don't. I feel that there's probably a reason why we don't treat them with the same reverence that we put on the "good ol' days," and that reason is... C'mon, look at the friggin' ugly things!


So very ugly

Okay, so the 16-bit era gave us machines that were finally able to draw reasonably artistically impressive and large sprites onscreen, plus added a few sprite manipulating special effects (scaling, rotation, and other tricks not found in much of 8-bit software). It was a step up, and it looked decent. The 16-bit games built on what came before, but the next generation was the messy first step into a future filled with polygons. And when you don't have a lot of polygons to work with, things quickly get grotesque.

Now, hold your bile for a second and listen to me: Games like Panzer Dragoon, Ridge Racer, and Warhawk looked amazing for their time, but take off your nostalgia goggles and look at them now. Look at the jagged edges. Look at every single object on the screen tearing at the seams. Look at those horrible flat trees and flat semi-transparent polygons pretending to be railings up walkways. Look at Lara Croft's boobs. These things are the barest, most low-res representations of real life you can imagine. At the time, they were simply groundbreaking, but nowadays can you really stand looking at that over the smooth shaded meshes of modern games, even as early as the Dreamcast?

Let's not forget the frame rates at the time, either. Most games of this era were lucky to break 30 frames per second on the original PlayStation (I know that there are exceptions so please don't bother pointing them out; we're concentrating on the majority of these games released at this time), and while a lot of titles seemed smoother on the Saturn, frame rate issues were still a problem. Combine this with the problem of drawing distance, and you have a whole generation of stuttering games that are pointy, grainy, foggy, and just unpleasant to look at.

Out of control

But looks aren't everything, right? Please remember that in the beginning of this generation there was no such thing as analog controllers (at least in the way we know them now). Sure, there were weird steering wheel devices like Namco's NGCon, and Sony's own original dual-analog flight stick controllers, but having a comfortable accurate device with those familiar twin thumbsticks was almost three years away from when the PlayStation debuted (and a year after the release of the N64). Before that, all our first-person shooters, driving games, and 3D adventure games were controlled with what were essentially just fancy Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis controllers, which were designed for 2D games and little else.

Because the Dual Analog (and later Dual Shock) controllers weren't standard when they were released, very few developers bothered to put that much stock into developing games that made the most of them. I recall that very few PlayStation games made any use of the right thumbstick, and both Nintendo and Sega seemed to be confused as to what that second stick could be used for, so they left it out completely. And though there were games that pioneered dual-stick controls in first and third -person shooters (MDK2 and ONI for the PS2 come to mind), dual-stick controls weren't really the standard or popularized until Halo was released for the original Xbox an entire generation later.

In conclusion

I could also throw in a few words about loading times, but that was a problem as late as the Xbox 360 so it's kind of unfair to harp on it with the 32-bit generations (but man, they were terrible).

So, what we're left with is an entire generation of games that are by present day standards hideous to look at and are (for the most part) no fun to control. Outside of a few remakes these games have seen very little in terms of re-release or online presence (although a super-limited selection of titles is available on the PlayStation Network), and with certain exceptions they have become all but forgotten. And when developers make those retro games on Steam, Xbox Live, or the PlayStation Network to cash in on your nostalgia, they're more likely cutesy 8 or 16-bit sprites than lumpy, poorly rendered polygons (and sorry, Unity games on Steam Greenlight don't count).