Mobile gaming, the Sega Genesis, and why 16-bit still has a few tricks up its sleeve
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If there’s one thing 16-bit games excelled at is to do more with less. Their CPUs didn’t even hit 10 MHz and “large” games took an entire 4 megabyte cartridge. They couldn’t handle polygons without extra chips, couldn’t stream music and did not include any sort of networked play. Still, try to find anyone who doesn’t adore 16-bit games. You can’t. A huge percentage of gamers grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s when 16-bit consoles were all the rage.
Can 16-bit consoles like the Sega Genesis teach mobile developers how to make better games? What can we learn from these high-powered behemoths of the past, when “High Definition Graphics” meant 256x224 pixels of resolution and three-button gamepads ruled the Earth?
The Mega Drive, Genesis’ Japanese doppelganger
Sega’s greatest console
I’m an unabashed Sega fanboy. We have no less than THREE Sega Genesis consoles at home, one JVC X’Eye and two Model 1s. One of the Model 1s is configured as the so-called “Tower of Doom,” sitting on top of a functioning Model 1 Sega CD and enhanced with a then-powerful 32X.
The Master System was a good console; I played a ton of Master System games. I was living in Brazil then, and unfortunately mine died in a fire — I would have brought it with me to the U.S. otherwise. The Master System had superior graphics and CPU hardware than the NES but sound was lacking when compared to Nintendo’s grey box (at least the U.S./European version, which didn’t have FM sound). Games were mostly fun, but there was a distinct lack of 3rd party titles due to Nintendo’s ironclad contracts. Most titles were superficial: arcade ports (R-Type, OutRun), sports (Great Soccer), platformers (Castle of Illusion) and action games (Rambo First Blood Part II).
We all know the NES trounced the Master System in the U.S. That’s why Sega went all-out with the Genesis. They started with arcade components, lost 1 CPU (the System 16 arcade board sported dual Motorola 68000) and included a top-notch Yamaha sound chip for high-quality stereo sound. Sega didn’t skimp on design either, coming up with a black, menacing shape that is unique to this day. The Genesis meant business.
The Genesis’s legacy is a library with 915 titles. Many of them are classics like Streets of Rage, Sonic The Hedgehog, Strider, Mortal Kombat, Virtua Racing, Phantasy Star II to IV, and much more. Unlike the Master System, Genesis games managed to be very deep, reaching near-PC depth for the time. For example, F-22 Interceptor was an elaborate, true-to-life simulator and games like Haunting Starring Polterguy let players “haunt” pesky humans through detailed isometric graphics. The Genesis didn’t have the greatest sound (when compared to the SNES) or color (limited to 64 on-screen at the same time) but it was directly responsible for creating millions of Sega fans, most now in their early 30s. Almost 42 million consoles were sold worldwide; Genesis’ legacy lives on thanks to never-ending porting to Steam, XBox Live Arcade, PSN, Google Play and Apple’s App Store.
Mobile vs. 16-bit
Mobile is similar to 16-bit in more ways than one. Like 16-bit titles running on ancient hardware, mobile games have to make the best of 4 to 5-inch screens, 2-channel sound and limited hardware specs. 3D graphics may now be a reality thanks to powerful mobile GPUs like Nvidia’s Tegra 3 and Apple’s A6 CPU/GPU combo, but most developers can’t spend $3 million on a single title. As a result, most mobile games are still 2D — or 2.5D — which brings them closer to 16-bit. The same for sound. While the latest smartphones could offer surround sound, no one carries a 5.1 setup with them everywhere they go.
How about the interface? 16-bit consoles like the Super Nintendo (SNES) and the Sega Genesis relied on gamepads with a small number of buttons. Smartphones have zero physical buttons, but can counter with an unlimited number of virtual buttons — and accelerometers. Hardcore gamers will always prefer physical buttons but savvy developers know how to deliver precise controls via gestures and virtual buttons.
Modern mobile games on Android and iOS have been with us for roughly three and a half years. A console generation lasts an average of five years. If mobile was a console platform, the current generation of games would be just over the “learning curve” that often results in terrible launch titles. By now, mobile games should be fairly mature, just like the best SNES and Genesis games in 1993.
Now that we established that mobile and 16-bit share a few personality traits, let’s look at ways 16-bit game design can make mobile games better.
Known for its terrible Engrish, Zero Wing had notwithstanding a very nice, polished intro. Similar to today’s motion comics, intros in the late 1980s and early 1990s spelled out the game’s premise with showy graphics and music. They made booting any brand-new game a special occasion.
Another great example of a quality intro is Streets of Rage, with its moody dance music, scrolling titles and blinking city lights.
Thanks to MP3 files and loose limits on game size, everyone can have CD-quality music in their game. Unfortunately, the result was far from better music. Music is actually worse now. How could this have happened?
In the past, composing game music was similar to programming. Sure, you could use an audio suite but in the end music was still generated on-the-go by a sound chip, not recorded and then played back by the console’s sound card like today. You needed to know each console’s chipset intimately. The Genesis’ Yamaha YM2612 could be challenging but was able to deliver standout scores like Ecco The Dolphin, Bio-Hazard Battle and Lightning Force. This forced developers to spend more time on the music, which lead to the memorable, epic music we all love to this day. Nowadays, it’s easy to buy “canned” music and simply drop it in the game. Quality suffers as a result, which is why most cannot remember a single song or score from mobile games. I can only think of the Angry Birds theme myself!
Ecco the Dolphin Music (Sega Genesis) - Complete OST Part 1
Mobile games tend to be way too easy. Some are proudly “casual.” Genesis games on the other hand could be punishingly difficult. Take E-Swat for example. You play this armored, Robocop-like cop but you don’t get to wear the damn suit until level three. So if you never make it past level two, you’re screwed. Worse yet, once you finally get to level three, the game becomes three times harder. Now, is that a bad thing? NO! As Dark Souls so bravely demonstrated, a tough game can be exhilarating. Console games didn’t offer instant saves — only RPGs could afford it — so a difficult game had to be completed in one sitting. Raising the average difficulty level for mobile games would be easy due to instant saving and/or checkpoint systems.
How many of you would welcome more challenging mobile games? I know I would.
If you could tell someone from 1994 that you can “buy” a game for free in 2012, something that could easily cost $50 back in the day, they would have a fit. “No way, games are expensive!” would be their likely answer. Except that we now live in that world. The world of freemium, “paymium” and everything in between. We download mobile games for free like it’s the new normal.
Not to beat a dead horse, but we need to start paying for our games again. Developers should be able to sell a quality, full-featured mobile game for $12 at the very least. Genres that naturally lead to in-app purchases can remain free — that’s not a problem. It’s action games, RPGs and sports/racing games that worry me. 16-bit games made their developers money, which in turn led to 32 and 64-bit games. In two years, 2/3 mobile developers might go out of business because, frankly, it’s expensive to keep a studio going. We can keep not paying for our games, but developers might also stop making them.
Another casualty of casual games (no pun intended): there’s no reason to play them again. Most of them never end in the first place. 16-bit games on the other hand are extremely replayable. You want to experience some of those levels again, top the high score board, impress your friends. The basic gameplay loop on a game like Comix Zone is enough to keep me coming back 17 years after its launch.
Mobile games are short-lived, so many developers shortchange gamers with simple, let-me-show-you-how-to-have-fun levels. Developers fear frustrating gamers, fear that they won’t spend any money in in-app purchases due to a possibly challenging game. That’s incredibly sad, because it means most of us will never replay a mobile game. Those memories will remain with old consoles, trapped in the past.
How about you? Do you think 16-bit games can teach mobile games a few valuable lessons? Let’s hear it in the comments.