The Ryan Lambie column: extinct video games

Remember the good old fashioned text adventure? Or 2D shooter? Or platform game? Ryan does. Good job, as not many people are making them any more...

Mr Ryan Lambie's amazing joypad.

You are in a dimly lit room. In front of you stands a low table, obscured by shadows. To your right is a door. What do you want to do?

> Open door.You can’t open the door. It’s locked.

> Examine Table.You can see: a book, a key and an axe.

> Take key.You take the key.

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> Use key on door.You try the key on the door, but it doesn’t fit the lock.

> Take axe.You take the axe.

> Examine book.You examine the book. It’s an autobiography by Jordan.

> Use axe on book.You can’t do that.

> Use axe on door.You can’t do that.

> Use axe on self.I don’t understand.

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> I hate you.

If you owned or used a computer in the 80s, the above scenario may seem familiar – it’s a rather obtuse example of a typical text adventure, a once popular video game genre that quietly became extinct about fifteen years ago.

While the best text adventures (such as The Hobbit – famous for the line ‘Thorin sits down and sings about gold’) were an absorbing blend of problem solving and good writing, the majority of them were frustrating and tedious at best, often degenerating into a soul-destroying battle of wits between the player and the game’s clumsy parser.

It’s therefore unsurprising that, in an age obsessed with mind-blowing graphics, the humble text adventure has passed into history largely unlamented.

By ‘extinct’, I of course mean that certain game genres have been shunned by major developers and the broader gaming audience: there are still people who hugely enjoy text adventures, and indeed there are still small independent developers (and individuals) creating them – but it’s highly unlikely, barring some dramatic sea-change in public demand, that we’ll ever see a major company like Valve produce such a game commercially.

As we all know, mainstream games must now be polygon based by law. Since an industry-wide protocol was put into force some time in the mid-90s, hand-drawn sprites have been banished from console and PC gaming forever, and now live out their final days on the Nintendo DS and mobile phones, staring dolefully through net curtains and moaning about the rising cost of bitter.

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That stalwart of the sprite-dominated era of gaming, the side-scrolling beat-em-up, a once ubiquitous genre that saturated consoles and arcades back in the early 90s, has also passed quietly into the night. Games such as Final Fight or Streets of Rage were among the top-selling titles of the 16-bit era, but where are they now? The last major game of its ilk that I can recall was the superlative Viewtiful Joe, and that was only a moderate success in the west – a sad reflection of our collective lack of taste, I feel.

Other genres to add to the video gaming necronomicon include:

* Point-and-click adventures(finest example: Monkey Island)

* Isometric action adventures(finest example: Ultimate’s Knightlore on the Spectrum),

* Overhead-view racing games(finest examples: Super Sprint or Micro Machines)

* Pac-Man-style maze games(finest example: Pac-Man)

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* Ludicrously complicated flight simulators(can’t think of an example because I never liked them).

It seems that Nintendo are one of the only companies that fly the flag for gaming’s more antiquated breeds. Super Mario Galaxy aside, there have been few – if any – platform games released for the three major consoles.

Most worryingly of all, my own pet genre, the traditional 2D shoot-em-up (my personal favourites include Parodius and Area 88) also appears to be on the endangered list. Apart from the wilfully retro Geometry Wars Galaxies, we haven’t seen a decent shooter come out for many, many months.

So what can be done about this steady erosion of genres? The answer is, not a lot. Many of the video games I’ve mentioned have faded away for a good reason – and beat-em-ups are a prime example: greedy developers, who were anxious to cash in on the popularity of the genre, flooded the arcade and console market with hundreds of Final Fight or Double Dragon clones, and gamers simply lost interest in what was an inherently repetitive format.

Thankfully, there are, as I mentioned earlier, small developers that still cater to what have now become niche tastes – and outlets such as Steam, XBLA (and WiiWare, if it ever actually appears in Europe) allow maximum distribution with minimum financial risk. A good example of this new model is Introversion Software’s stunningly individualistic Darwinia. A quirky real-time strategy game with deliberately primitive graphics, Darwinia failed to find an audience when it was released in traditional high street shops, and the fledgling developers behind it nearly went bankrupt as a result.

It was only when Darwinia was released on Valve’s Steam site that it finally found its niche, and has since become something of a cult success.

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It’s on these Internet-based distribution channels that gaming’s less popular genres can thrive, at least for a time – just as the dodo did on Mauritius before humans showed up. I for one can’t wait for the shoot-em-up Star Soldier R on WiiWare (hurry up Nintendo).

And who knows? Maybe the text adventure will make an unexpected reappearance… or maybe not.

Ryan writes every week at Den Of Geek: you can find his last column here.