2014 is quickly becoming known as the year of the broken video game. It seemed like every week a new game would be coming out that had some major bug or flaw that would soon be discussed in length on gaming forums. Whether it was problems with connecting to online matches, frame-rate drops or characters with missing skin, it seemed as though no developer could deliver a finished product.
Then inevitably a new conversation would start. “Remember back when games just worked?” Oh yes, everyone would nod. Those were the days. You pulled out your NES cartridge, slid it into the machine, and the game just worked, no problems. The glory days.
Except those days never existed.
It’s becoming clear that as more time passes, the more people like to wax nostalgic on the early days of gaming. But the truth is that broken video games have been around for as long as there have been video games. Never was there a magical era in which games were released and they all “just worked.”
The Vita is no stranger to broken games at launch. Whether it’s the performance issues of Borderlands 2, the trophy glitches in God of War, or the mountain of problems that Starlight Inception suffered, there is an ever growing list of games that just don’t work the way they should at launch.
OlliOlli is another example of a game that caused enormous frustration when it released. The game suffered from bugs that would tend to crash the game, sending the player back to the Live Area at seemingly random times. Some joked that you never had to close OlliOlli because the game would crash and do it for you.
But eventually the game would get patched. An update was issued that resolved most of those problems, but that’s not possible for some of the broken games of yesteryear. One of the greatest games of all time, the king of the arcade, has brought hours of entertainment to millions of people around the world, yet after 30 years on the market it is still broken. I’m of course referring to Donkey Kong.
Donkey Kong is a famous example of a classic that has a game breaking bug programmed into it that will never go away. Due to an oversight in the game’s timing algorithm, Donkey Kong will only allow a player to reach to Level 22. It’s known as the “kill screen” and causes the game to end. The problem is caused by the way the game calculates how much time a player has to finish the level. By the time a player gets to Level 22, the game gives approximately 7 seconds for Jumpman (Mario) to make it to the top. This impossibly short amount of time would only allow the player to get up one ladder before timing out. The result is instant death and the unintentional end of the game.
During the days of the Atari, broken games were a common occurrence. No game epitomizes this more than E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Despite its legendary status as one of the most broken games of all time, it wasn’t alone in having game breaking bugs. Games would consistently suffer from bugs and glitches that would make continuing to play all but impossible. You’d just have to hit the reset button and start a new game (praying that the problem wouldn’t happen again).
In fact, there were so many games with huge problems that people got fed up with it. The entire video game industry came to a grinding halt with the crash of 1983. Things didn’t get better until Nintendo came around and addressed the quality of games specifically. Their solution was the Nintendo Seal of Quality, a badge that an approved game could wear, and Nintendo would assure you that it would at least work
The Nintendo Entertainment System however was also not immune to having games with breaking bugs. Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid all suffered from bugs that could trap a player in a situation that made progressing impossible. The solution, again, was to hit reset and try it again. They weren’t as perfect as we’d like to remember. Any number of errors would pop up that could instantly end a game. Just Google “NES game glitches” and you will drown in the results.
People may view Nintendo games as “just working” but take a look at this video and you’ll see that their games are just as susceptible to game-breaking bugs as anyone else.
But bugs in the code aren’t the only way a game can be broken at launch. Problems with difficulty balance or unforeseen gameplay mechanics can ruin and break a game even if it doesn’t cause a crash. Quite a number of old NES games were hard. Brutally and unfairly hard. Today these balancing issues would get corrected with a patch (see God of War: Ascension), but back then you were stuck with what you had.
Sometimes a gameplay feature would ruin the game for many. This is the case with MarioKart DS and its “snaking” bug. It gave players who perfected the technique the ability have an endless series of boosts throughout the track. This creates an unfair situation against players who don’t know the technique, and ruins the game. If this was Destiny‘s “cave of loot” it would get patched out, but instead it’s a feature that will forever stay.
Perhaps the biggest game breaking problem for NES games was the media itself. The old cartridges were notorious for corroding quickly or becoming magnets for dust and dirt. This would create screens garbled with a mash-up of letters and numbers. Maybe you’d see Link in there somewhere, but the game was unplayable. The solution? Blow into your cartridge. Then blow into your NES. Then try the cartridge again. Hit reset a few times. Maybe it would start to work, maybe it wouldn’t.
Say what you will about the performance issues for Borderlands 2 at launch, but at least I never had to huff and puff just to get the game started.
This isn’t to say that games today are more or less prone to problems than those from the past decades, but the notion that broken games at launch is a new thing is simply ridiculous. Even then, our definition for what “broken” is has changed drastically over the years. The Vita’s version of Jak and Daxter was notorious for its frame-rate issued, but the game was still playable. The same can not be said for Battletoads on the NES, which was so brutally difficult that few would ever make it past the first level. I’d argue that actually makes the game even more broken.
So then why is it we feel that modern games are more “broken” than the games from 30 years ago?
I have to assume that the biggest reason is that we can easily share what we experience in a game with people from all over the world. Whether you talk about a problem in a game in a forum or tweet it out to the world, our ability to broadcast a message is infinitely greater than it was years ago. A few people experience a bug in a game and suddenly it’s assumed that everyone suffers from it.
Remember those infamous screen shots from Assassin’s Creed Unity where the character’s skin was missing? Those pictures made their way around the internet and quickly became the butt of a thousand jokes. How could Ubisoft be so inept as to release a game that broken? What wasn’t talked about was that the missing skin bug was actually very rare. It only effected two specific graphics cards on the PC version only. The fact that the majority of people playing the game would never experience the bug didn’t matter. The picture was worth more than a thousand words.
The fact is we enjoy perhaps the most sophisticated and complex form of media ever created. Unlike books or movies, the interactive experience that video games provide bring with it a million different variables that can (and will) go wrong. The beauty of games today is that they’re not the stale cartridge that shipped in the box. They can be fixed, improved, and expanded upon. Unforeseen issues can be corrected and difficulty issues can be balanced.
Yes, games are released that have missing or broken features. Yes, it’s inconvenient and prevents the game from being what it should be. But as gamers, we have agreed to accept some of these inconveniences in exchange for more complex and richer gameplay. No longer are we content with the simplicity of solitaire. We want online games, open worlds, and fast performance. We want games that look better and provide hours of entertainment. As a result, games have gotten bigger and more complex. This brings the increased probability there will be some problems.
This makes it difficult for the group of gamers who expect games to be perfect from day one. “Vote with your wallets” is their rallying cry. The truth is people have voted with their wallets, and they have voted that they find it acceptable if a game launches with a few bugs. Despite well known issues with a number of the big games from last year, people continued to purchase them. Punishing Ubisoft for bugs in Assassin’s Creed Unity by not buying Far Cry 4 is a pointless gesture that does nothing.
All this however does not give publishers and developers a pass on the product they release. It’s nice that problems can be fixed after launch, but it’s even nicer when a game doesn’t have to have a day one update. People are buying a product with certain expectations, and frequently those expectations have not been met. When a game is advertised as having certain key features, then those features must work. Players need to be able to experience the game that was promised, not one riddled with issues.
So while games today will occasionally launch with issues that need to be fixed, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking this is a new phenomenon. There was never a time when “games just worked” and nothing was ever broken.