What separates a good game from a bad game? The other day, I scrolled by a post from a friend discussing the SNES title, Disney's Aladdin. I noticed the discussion quickly involved the game's Sega Genesis counterpart.
It's worth noting that Aladdin on SNES and Genesis featured different developers. In the case of the former, Capcom had a background for making classic 2D platformers including Mega Man, Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts, Demon's Crest, and X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse. Virgin Interactive, however, was a western developer who also used the Disney license to create adaptations of The Jungle Book and The Lion King.
This got me thinking. Why we have these discussions? Why do we compare Aladdin on SNES to the Genesis version? Why do people discuss The Lion King and how hard it was? Did the discussion stem from pleasant memories of a classic or just childhood remembrances of the pain these titles brought? Over the course of thinking, I started to remember seeing discussions about games like TMNT on NES as well. Even though it was followed by two superior titles on NES, can you really count this title as a "childhood classic?"
I feel that, depending on who you ask, the term "classic" may have a distorted definition. Nostalgia tends to blind the retro gamer with fond memories of their past. However, when the player returns to their past, they find the game to be broken, virtually unplayable, glitchy, or too damned hard to finish. Just because it has pretty graphics and good music doesn't mean it was a joy to play.
When people discuss their favorite games as children, sometimes the middling titles of yesteryear get thrown into the mix. Noticeably, any number of them don't follow game ratings or reviews from Metacritic, GameFAQs, or other similar sites. They don't sense the difference in quality among these games except that some are harder or just less fun.
Out of the many NES "classics" released in the 80s and 90s, only a small handful of them honestly hold up today. The Super Mario Bros. trilogy, Kirby's Adventure, Mega Man 2-6, Castlevania, and a few others make these up. The original Metroid and Legend of Zelda might behold a fond memory for the retro gamer, but by no means would I recommend either of these games to a newcomer today. Rather, they set the groundwork to create masterpieces like Super Metroid, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and their respective successors throughout the decades.
Being an older title doesn't mean it's aged poorly. Being a poorly designed title means it's aged poorly. Introducing newer and better concepts, pacing the game better, improving the controls, and making the game a joy from start to finish comes from polish. Super Mario Bros. did this. Castlevania II did not. Yet, why do people have nostalgic memories of these games?
The Good Games
Among various gaming communities and social media, a certain number of series include some of the best games of all time. Among these includes popular favorites like Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Pokemon. The 90s and 00s kids seem particularly keen on these titles due to fond memories of their childhood. As such, these titles are generally rated to be among the highest by critic reviews and players alike.
Back to Aladdin, I mentioned earlier that it was made by 2D platforming giant, Capcom. As such, it felt like a polished experience. Capcom had also designed Disney's Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse. Along with the "Ready" screen at the beginning of each stage, the latter was even composed by Mari Yamaguchi from Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts' soundtrack. Overall, it shows that Capcom aimed for consistent quality among all their titles including their own IPs and licensed titles alike.
I also mentioned TMNT. I didn't give much recognition to the original NES titles for reasons featured in the video above. However, its sequels were beat 'em up titles, also developed by Konami, that were polished quite well. With each game better than the last, it culminated into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time. This became the M.O. beat 'em up for the SNES as well as one of the best games in the genre alongside Streets of Rage 2. This proved that it was possible to execute a licensed title to be as good as the best games of its generation.
The Bad Games
Admittedly, some of the games I'm about to list have a number of fans. However, I'm not about to excuse the poor level design of The Lion King. Any reminiscence anyone has of this game is likely clouded by fond memories of its source material - the movie - the music incorporated into those games. I could not in good faith recommend the title to any but the curious gamer. It was hard as hell and for the wrong reasons. Awkward jump controls and awful level designs, namely the second stage, made it less enjoyable than its many 2D side-scrolling contemporaries. Despite that, is it a classic for being a memorable game or just a rose-tinted, nostalgic memory of a bygone time?
Anyone can remember any overly difficult game from their past. Among them, I could name Spider-Man and X-Men Arcade's Revenge off the top of my head. Sure, it had some amazing music and it was a cool concept to have all these superheroes playable in a single game. But concept and execution must not be conflated. The execution was a pisspoor nightmare of a 2D platformer. Don't get me started on Storm's swimming stage, either. Despite the fanfare of the licensed material, there's a reason why this game did not get good reviews: it was actually bad.
Super Mario Sunshine
On that note, I also want to mention a glaring example of a bad game from our childhoods: Super Mario Sunshine. No matter how pretty you color it, how fond the music and environments were, nothing will excuse Nintendo for Sunshine turning out the way it did. This glitchfest of a game offered some of the worst level design and clear conditions of any title in existence let alone the high-quality standards of a Mario title. I will not say, "it was okay but not as good as 64."
Having replayed it via Super Mario 3D All-Stars within the past year, I can testify that Sunshine is one of the worst games Nintendo has ever released. Furthermore, I cannot understand why Nintendo chose to release it as-is without doing more than upscaling the visuals. Maybe fixing the stages would have been nice.
My point is that nostalgia does tend to gloss over some of our memories. With Sunshine, I hadn't touched the game in over a decade. When I went back to play it years later, I was left frustrated and disappointed with a game I thought I remembered as a great game from my teen years. No, it was a game I tolerated at the time. I was wowed by the pretty graphics, music, and Mario gameplay. It wasn't because the game was hard but because it was bad.
It was bad because you were rolling watermelons down a hill carefully instead of hopping on platforms. It was bad because of poor camera angles and literally falling through floors because of glitches. Sunshine failed to deliver because a 3D platformer had you running errands through a hotel and chasing ghosts ad naseum. Nintendo's premiere Mario GameCube title was a rushed, unpolished mess that finished disappointing us with a final trip through Corona Mountain and its detestable controls.
Yet I remembered a good time and thought maybe the game was hard and I was bad. I've played hard, challenging games that were enjoyable. Sunshine failed to deliver that on every account and showed me why my nostalgic memories were clouding a dark and ugly secret.
A Good Game from a Bad Game
My point here is that if you think you remember a game from way back that you liked but others hated, chances are it might be worth revisiting. You might find yourself not enjoying it as much as you thought you did. Not because it's an older game. I can revisit Paper Mario from 2001 and it's still one of my absolute favorite games. Not because of nostalgia but because it was a beautifully polished title from start to finish.
Hell, I could even give you an unbiased account of Super Mario 64. My first playthrough in many years had me sighing in disappointment over the work elevator stage of Hazy-Maze Cave. Or chasing Red Coins and 100 Coins in Rainbow Cruise and what an absolute disaster of a stage that was. Want me to tell you that the reason Super Mario 64 DS redid Tick-Tock Clock was because of the severe camera and platform issues hampering players? Super Mario 64 might be a hallmark title of nostalgia for Nintendo 64. But it wasn't perfect.
Despite that, these were only a couple of bumps along the road of the 3D platform genre's origin. Overall, I still give it a 9/10 and think it was a fine game overall minus those middling flaws.
Meanwhile, Super Mario 3D All-Stars also gave me the chance to replay Super Mario Galaxy for the first time in a decade. For a 2007 Wii title, I was absolutely blown away. As someone who adored Galaxy when I first played it, I found myself loving it more than I ever did. Somehow, I found a way to appreciate this already perfect classic even more than before. In that sense, nostalgia showed me that there was more to love from a game I enjoyed. Sometimes it works that way too.
People all have their opinions on what's enjoyable. Sometimes, you have to objectively decide that a game was poorly developed, rushed, or unpolished due to serious design flaws. Just because Sonic 06 was a pretty game was great music doesn't mean it was good. You could load it up and stop playing within an hour. It wasn't because it was too hard but because it was bad.
Some people don't like certain games like Zelda or Pokemon. It might not be a popular opinion but that's not because they hate the game. The genre just isn't for them and that's completely okay. But in some cases, you might run into a game that's unenjoyable not because it's a genre you don't enjoy but because the game itself is genuinely bad. This includes games from your past as well.
The takeaway from this article is to separate your nostalgia from reality. Is the game from your past enjoyable if it's filled with glitches and poor-level designs? There's a difference between a classic game and a title from the past that was popular during its day but aged like milk. The difference between TMNT on NES and its sequels (The Arcade Game and The Manhattan Project) is a prime example. The original game, which was popular for its license alone but bad otherwise, and its superior polished and more enjoyable sequels showcase the difference in quality. Chances are, you would enjoy the latter much more. This is but one example of how to look nostalgia in the face and determine if a game from your past is really enjoyable today or not.