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The Black Tie Event Presents… Why Do We Die in Video Games?

There are stories that go around that most gamers have some difficulty completing a game on a single turn. Outrageous if you ask me. I’ve never done such a thing and I’d wager that losing a life in a simple contraption such as a video game leads to more issues in your life. Luckily I’ve never had such a weight hanging over my head. But it did get me thinking. What is the purpose of dying in a video game in today’s world anyway? To answer such a burning question we must journey to the past. A place that I am very familiar with given my station in the web-a-sphere.

Deep in the underbelly of malls, roller rinks and rooms full of plastic tubes and ball pits, floored a room with a special code. The room was dark, hazed with cigarette smoke (you could smoke indoors back then) and the sound of soft growls emitted from every corner. The only light came from an ominous glow of monitors flashed with colors from the entire spectrum. This, my fancy suit wearing friends, is the dinosaur known as the arcade.

 

The arcade was a special place where people from all over, of any age and religion could stand shoulder to shoulder in a battle of who was the best. The games played weren’t your mere lawn darts or bingo. No, these games consisted of bloody brawls, ships flying through space shooting down aliens or something as simple of a game of tennis. The only admission needed was a quarter. 25 cents could take you to a far away place or leave you crying beside the cabinet after a ten second failed venture. This quarter was the only currency recognized (although many would try to convert your change into useless tokens) and it was hailed that if you have a quarter, you have a game. I’ve seen a seven year old teach a businessman in a suit a thing or two about Street Fighter and college friends play for who’s buying beers on the Defender cabinet.

 

You have a quarter, you have a life. Just one. You lose that life in an epic battle of wits, you have to put in another quarter to go again. This is what is called a perma-death. Once you die, that’s it. You’re dead. No coming back, no continues, nothing. This is how all the arcade companies made money back in the day. By creating a game that allows for perma-death which wipes your high score or your place in line gives a reason to the death. It’s 25 cents. That was a lot of money back in the day especially if you were a kid like me. The worst was running to your parents begging for just one more quarter. Just one more game. This is why you died. To pump in more quarters. Staying alive the longest or not losing a fight was stretching that money making that loss even more prevalent.

 

Fast forward a decade and home console giants Nintendo and Sega are starting to make waves in the gaming sphere. Suddenly people aren’t going to arcades anymore. Arcades are coming to them. Sure the graphics aren’t as good or the controls feel a little wonky but it’s the game at its heart. And it was a one time fee. No need to pump more quarters into a slot and slamming the start button before time ran out. Now you start with multiple lives, a new thing called “continues” and a strange super secret password system that allows continued play after the machine is turned off. What?! You mean I can come back to my game days after I’ve stopped playing and restart right where I’ve left off? Are you a wizard? What kind of magic is this? Arcades were doomed. This was the first step in the decline in the arcade market. And developers started to get worried.

From here, the idea was to create a “home” experience but in the arcade. They were banking on the fact that the hardware was better than home consoles. That you can customize the controller to best suit the game being played rather than conform to a strict guideline of two buttons and a weird directional pad. You can’t play defender with a directional pad! Now continues starting making their way into arcade games. If you lost all your lives, rather than the perma-death, you had a countdown timer that gave you the chance to insert more quarters to continue your game. No more was the process a one and done. If you had the money you could continue till the end. I still remember pumping quarters into beat ‘em up machines like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Simpsons and X-Men hoping that I would last long enough to make it to the end to see the final boss. It wasn’t a test of skill anymore but a test of how deep your pockets were. You could figuratively brute force your way through an arcade game. This was the band-aid that the arcade industry held onto until it’s ultimate demise of console hardware catching up and exceeding those at the arcades. A sad day indeed.

 

OK, history lesson over. Let’s take a look at gaming as it currently is. One thing that I’ve noticed over the years is that if you have to go into the Options screen, something is wrong. Either the controls don’t work like you want them to or the video doesn’t seem right. No developer puts extra lives and more continues in the option screen anymore. Every game it seems you have unlimited chances to progress through the game. There isn’t any perma-deaths. If you die or miss an objective you just start over from your last checkpoint. Your only means of knowing you lost, other than telling you, is a loading screen. That is your misfortune of dying in a video game today. A loading screen. Back during the launch of the first Sony Playstation (I know, more history), these loading times were excruciating. Some to the point where it would take up to a minute or two to load the game. With technology nowadays, these times are cut down to almost nothing. Most of the time you don’t even see things loading because it’s done in the background. Either way, you just restart and try again.

 

If this is the case (and it certainly seems to be) why would you die in the first place? It’s not like you have to pump money into it to keep playing. You just get another go. The story doesn’t change, you don’t get hinder in any fashion. Even in games like Diablo II where, if you died, you lose all of your weapons and items. But you can just come back to the spot you died and pick everything up again. There’s no consequence in losing a life. The only thing keeping you from playing is the idea of rage quitting. A point when you become so frustrated by the game’s mechanics or story or uneven enemies that you just shut it off. But, guess what? Your progress is saved up to that point anyway so coming back at a later time will just put you back to where you stopped.

 

With there being no consequence in dying with the exception of seeing a loading screen, why do developers continue to keep this element in games? Jonathan Blow, an independent game developer, tried to fix this with his smash hit Braid. The conception was creating after many talks with fellow game creators about manipulating time. So instead of falling down that pit where you would die, you could rewind time back to a point just before the death. No loading screens, no unnecessary menu options to reload your saved game, nothing. Just go back to before your mistake to try again. I don’t think this fixes the need for consequence from making a mistake but it proves that this can be patched or sidestepped in the gaming community for a new radical idea that works.

So what’s the solution? Do we go as far as putting in change boxes in every home where you have to deposit 25 cents to restart your game? Have someone come by every week to collect the money? Probably not. But what is important is to start the conversation about where we go from here. Games are suppose to be challenging, difficult, but more importantly fun. Not having something hang over our heads as we journey into battle against our foes brings a sense of accomplishment once the objective is met. If my only fear is seeing a loading screen or respawning from a checkpoint then there really isn’t a fear at all. Fear breeds creativity, the willingness to do something crazy with the small expectation that it might work, a reason to fight. Without fear, without consequence, we’re all just seeing who can last the longest without quitting by turning the machine off. For me, that’s not good enough.

The Black Tie Event Presents… Ready Player Two

Nobody likes a back seat driver. You build your success on your own or not at all. You think Steve Jobs really needed Steve Wozniak to form the empire that is Apple? Or that Emperor Palpatine needed Darth Vader to build the Death Star? No! They did it on their own. So why give the second player or “first loser” a place in the gaming world?

On today’s Black Tie Event presents… we look at how the gaming industry has cast Player 2 to the wayside without food or water begging them to battle uphill so that we can squash them again.

Single Player Games

The biggest slap to the face to Player 2 is simply not providing a 2 Player Mode at all. Most of these single player adventures are now cornerstones in the gaming industry. Games that new developers pray to for inspiration, guidance or maybe to create a cheap knock off. Games like Mega Man, the Legend of Zelda and Grand Theft Auto; these are the games that have become building blocks of the community. Anyone knocking these games will be destroyed by a vengeance of a thousand fiery suns.

They were too good. Too grand in their expectations that lead an onlooker in amazement wondering when it’ll be their turn to play. Never, is the answer. It will never be your turn, silly Player 2. We are just having too much fun. Just sit back and watch then grab me a drink from the fridge and pay the Pizza guy when he gets here.

Poor Sequels

Some of these once great single player games decided that it might be a good idea to add a 2 player mode to its sequel. Sadly, these sequels never match up to their predecessor. Not every series can be Empire over A New Hope (hell yeah! Two Star Wars references in one article!)

Let’s take for example, Tetris 2. Arguably one of the greatest, if not the best, game ever created. Developed by the Russians and stolen by the Japanese, Tetris even has its own accredited disorder known as the Tetris Effect. Players who were studied playing Tetris for long periods of time start to see different shapes in their thoughts, mental images, and dreams. Haunting, no? In a good way, I mean.

Fast forward to 1993, Nintendo releases Tetris 2 on the NES. One of its key features is a 2 Player Mode. Finally, you can play one of the greatest games with your imaginary friends in a heated head to head battle of shape moving and line building.

The main issue is… Tetris 2 sucks. Sure it takes some of the basic ideas from its older brother, but there’s a slight difference in gameplay. Rather than using adjacent type tetrominoes to compete, it instead uses colored tetrominoes to clear the board. This did two things to the gaming public: 1. By shifting the paradigm, players were extremely put off by the concept almost immediately and 2. it made any player who may be affected by a form of color blindness impossible to play. Now, I don’t know the statistics of the amount of gamers who are color blind, but even one is one too many to shun away from your game.

The real question behind this is why would Nintendo change Tetris so drastically for its sequel? Because they hate Player 2.

Alternating Turns

A more common concept in the yesteryear of gaming is making players alternate turns while playing. Usually this was spawned by the death of one player to shift to the other or finishing a particular section of the game.

The most common example would be Super Mario Bros. For the Nintendo Entertainment System. Selecting the 2 Player mode would allow for the second to play as Mario’s twin brother Luigi. For a gamer, this was great! A totally new character to play as that would otherwise be hidden if not for a second player. Sadly, Luigi was only a palette swap of Mario himself, giving him no differences or added abilities. Just a green Mario. A poor, insignificant green Mario.

I will admit that the alternating turns did give it one advantage. Since Player 1 always went first (and rightfully so) Player 2 was able to get a sense of direction as the first player made his/her way through the levels. Knowing where the first time through drops or traps, Player 2 could avoid these by learning from Player 1′s mistakes. Well played, Player 2. Well played.

The Right or Bottom Side of the Screen

As games progressed, they grew larger, more intelligent, and more mean. Jumping to the fifth generation of consoles, came the fighting juggernauts of the Nintendo 64, Sony Playstation and the Sega Saturn. All reaching and grabbing for everyone’s eyeballs, this generation really put the multiplayer concept to the forefront. The Nintendo 64 even went as far as having 4, count them, 4 controller ports to play simultaneously. But it wasn’t without its faults.

Playing more than two players at a time on one TV would create an issue for screen space. Usually this would mean that Player 1 would be on the left hand of the screen giving Player 2 the right. This would completely hide the far left and right sides of the gaming area. A big disadvantage for shooters by not seeing an enemy coming from your peripherals. Usually resulting in death every time. Thanks for nothing Player 2.

Let’s take a look at a true innovator in FPS’s: Goldeneye 64. Everyone’s favorite go to for the Nintendo 64. Let’s say you were only able to wrangle up 2 of your imaginary friends. Thanks to the addition of more players, you have cut your screen into fourths.

I think the thing that gets me the most about this set up is the fact that you have a perfectly empty square of blackness. Why the developers didn’t give player one the top half of the screen and the rest to fight over the bottom half I’ll never know. It’s like the game has to dumb down the view screen for everyone since there’s more than the supreme Player 1 gunning for video game action. At least they could have put “Sorry Player 1 for the screen. These A-Holes are messing things up.” in the blank square. I would have appreciated that.

The Fight for Guile

Some of you may know my love for Street Fighter II and the series already thanks to my rants on 1 More PodCastle and my review on “Review a Great Game Day”, but for Player 2 it’s a kick in the pants. And rightfully so.

First, by selecting the 2 Player Mode, you are subjected to the bland blue background of the character select screen. Gone are the days of the world map and the homelands of the fighting best. Thanks to Player 2, you are no longer worthy of such a commodity. No, we are now subjected to the “A Challenger Appears!” with only stats to look at. Like I care how many times I pwnd Player 2.

As a final flip of the finger (yes, that finger) to Player 1, Capcom was more than happy to NOT allow both players select the same character in a two player match. That’s right. Now, me growing up, the character to play was Guile. His cool hair cut, tight physique and love for the United States of America was the obvious choice. We always thought that Guile was the one who said “Winners don’t do drugs” in between the intro screens and we didn’t. Not if Guile was watching.

Starting the 2 Player Mode puts Player 1 as Ryu and Player 2 as Ken in the selection screen. It was now a race to see who could get to Guile the fastest. Luckily, Capcom was nice enough to make Player 2 have one more joystick stroke than Player 1, but if you weren’t paying attention, you could miss out on the glory that is Guile.

Then you would probably just be slated for E. Honda or Chun-Li. No one wants to be Chun-Li. And what does the “E” in E. Honda stand for anyway? Edward? Like in Twilight?! No thank you. Here’s your hundred-hand-slap.

Bang Bang, Now You’re Dead

My last example of game developers sticking it to Player 2, as it should be, is the notorious “Mode A/Mode B”.

One type of this situation is Double Dragon II: The Revenge for the NES. There were two modes of play labeled Mode A and Mode B. As many times I have played this game with my brother and others, I can never remember which one is which. One is torture and the other is commendable.

Torture came from selecting Mode A which allows both players to play nice together. None of the attacks from either player will result in lost health. What a pity that you can’t beat up on your imaginary friends. Mode B on the other hand was a totally different story. Selecting Mode B allowed you to dish out damage to your friend and even take their own lives after a righteous kill. Sadly, the downside being that Player 2 could do the same to you. Not like he/she would, mind you. They are, in fact, Player 2.

Let’s Be Real

Well, of course there are some great 2 Player Games out here. Games like Contra, Smash TV and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: the Arcade to name a few. Growing up with an older brother yielded me to always being Player 2. So I became close with those characters. I identified with Luigi, Jimmy and Lance “Scorpion” Bean. They were the characters I remember best. And it was great to see some of these characters, especially Luigi, really get a chance to shine in their own games. But let’s be real… being Player 2 still sucks.

Why Sega Consoles Were Shit Until the Dreamcast

Below is my opinion about why Sega sucked as a console game company. This is just my opinion. With that in mind, what I write here is completely true and if you don’t agree with me then you are wrong.

Sega was a main driver for coin-op and amusement games back in the 1950’s before switching over to the home video game console market in 1982 with the release of the SG-1000. But the console was released a year before the American video game market crash of 1983 where Sega shown heavy losses.

After a few companies changing hands, Sega was finally bought by CSK and renamed the company to Sega Enterprises Ltd, headquartered in Japan. A couple of years after that the company started trading stock on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Everything seemed to be going well again until…

Now, in terms of tearing Sega consoles down, I’m going to leave out the Sega Master System. This was the company’s first attempt to rejoin the home console market and no one should be at fault for their beginnings. The time was a scary one for anyone wanting to develop games and it’s only fair that they had a first good shot before trying to really compete in the market. Plus it helps my argument because they should have learned from their mistakes.

So on to why Sega consoles are shit!

1. Variations of 1 console

The Sega Genesis 1 was released in 1989. Although technical superior to the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Sega Genesis failed to really gain momentum in the U.S. market. A lot of this is due to great advertising ventures on the part of Nintendo and the president of Sega at the time just not knowing his ass from a hole in the ground. What’s a company to do to get back into the console war? Not focus on software! Are you crazy ha ha software that’s a good one. Let’s re-release the same system 4 more times. Yeah… that’ll work…

sega genesis consoles 800x600

A. Sega Genesis 2

So rather than trying to develop better games for the console, Sega thought it would be a good idea to just re-release the Genesis. In comes the Sega Genesis 2!

So is it faster? No. Can it produce better visuals? No. Is the sound quality better? No. Just a cosmetic change. Nothing else. Does it look better than the Sega Genesis 1? Well, that’s debatable. Sure, it might look sleeker, but it lost some features from it’s predecessor. Most notably the headphone jack. The headphone jack on the console allowed the player to plug in headphones, which muted the T.V. speakers giving the player the ability to play quietly. A feature that I can guarantee all parents missed. No one wants to hear you shooting through Space Harrier especially not your tired mother who just got off the 12 hour late shift to pick your dumbass up from school only to come home, cook dinner for you and the rest of the family with no “thank you” from anyone!

B. Sega Genesis 3

Yes. There was another one. It’s so small, you can fit it in your pocket! Because that’s what you want to do with a home video game console. The reason it’s called a home console is because you are suppose to play it at home! You can literally put this system in your back pocket granted you still have those JNCO pants lying around from when you were trying to hit on that Emo chick at school.

And guess what? It’s even less compatible then the previous two. Less games work on the Genesis 3, particularly games containing the DSP chip and it’s also incompatible with the Sega CD, 32x and Power Base Converter (more shit I’ll get to in a minute). Unbelievable.

C. Sega Nomad

A portable Sega Genesis? Sounds good right? Well it wasn’t. This was just another ill faded attempt to keep the Genesis library alive because Sega feared the up coming generation of consoles and they had every right to be so. Plus it’s bulky, killed batteries, and the button set up was atrocious.

D. Sega Firecore

The Sega Firecore was released 2009! Yes. 2009. Sega was once again trying to bank on the one of the largest libraries for a gaming console one last time. The Firecore is smaller than the Genesis 3 (what? The 3 wasn’t small enough?) and is just as incompatible as the Genesis 3 was. Oh! But wait! There’s 20 built in games! Give me a break.

2. Shitty Add-ons

Sega was known for being a head of the curve. The issue with this is technology didn’t have a chance to catch up before Sega got their hands on it and tried to sell it off as an amazing add-on.

sega battleship

A. Sega CD

The Sega CD was released in 1992 as an add-on for the Sega Genesis. It could play CD-Rom based games by attaching it to the Genesis, plugging in it’s own power cable, and it’s own video cable. Yeah… all of that just to play more shitty games. CD-Roms were new even to PCs at the time and the biggest complaint was loading times. You bring that to an under powered console and the loading times almost triple. Oh, and since there was more than 1 Sega Genesis, they had to release 2 Sega CDs. One was not compatible with the other.

The technology was so new, in fact, that it didn’t have the ability to use the full dimensions of the screen for full motion video which was the point of the CD all along. It had a larger memory bank so that meant bigger and better games right? Let’s not think about moving all of that memory to the T.V. screen.

B. Sega 32X

The 32X was released for the up coming doom of the 16-bit era. The thought was more bits the better game. Even today, game companies believe that as long as the game looks beautiful it can make up for it’s short comings in the gameplay arena. They were wrong then and are still wrong today. Again, the 32x wasn’t compatible with every version of the Genesis, but you were able to use it on the Genesis 1 and 2. That’s a plus I guess. Too bad there weren’t any good games for it except for rehashes of games that were already released on better consoles and/or the PC.

3. Memorable Franchises

Everyone knows that if a console is going to survive it comes from the software. Yes, the hardware is important because if the console just doesn’t work, no one is going to make games for it. But your games have to be top notch in notoriety and popularity. These are the games that will live on longer than the console itself. These are the games that players will go out and buy every time a new iteration comes out because they are characters we are familiar with, we care about, and want to know how the story continues. And you need more than just one. One character will not push your name to the end of time. You need to develop a multiple of franchises to reach every demographic. No, you won’t hit them all, but you will give your players a choice. And they have to be worth playing.

nintendo vs sega

This took me longer to do than to write the actual article ha ha

Now take a second and really look at the image above. How many of the Nintendo characters can you name compared to the number of Sega characters you can name. Now, if you can name all of them then you are a true retro gamer and I award you 10 Viking points. If you named more Nintendo than Sega, you sir (or madam) are a typical video game player. If you named more Sega than Nintendo then you are a Sega fan boy and let the flame war begin! And if you can’t name any of them, there’s really no reason for you to be on this blog. I mean, I’m not that pretty looking…

But really, the only Sega franchise that made anything of its self was Sonic and maybe Phantasy Star to some degree. And just like Mega Man, they whored Sonic out to every venue they could get their hands on. Now, some of you could say that Nintendo followed the same path with some if not most of their franchised faces, but there was one thing that Nintendo did differently that Sega did not. Well, I don’t know if I can tell you. It’s kind of a secret. OK, you’re cool, I guess I can trust you… OK… here it is… THE GAMES WERE GOOD!

3. Sega Saturn shenanigans

The Sega Saturn was released on May 11, 1995 a whole 4 months before the legendary “Saturnday” that never came to be. Again, the Saturn on a technical stand point was leaps and bounds ahead of it’s competition. But there was one thing that really brought the system down, at least in my opinion. And it shows that the previous point really hits the mark.

No Sonic Sega Saturn

1. No Sonic pack-in

Sonic was named the mascot of the Sega Corp back when the Genesis was released. And let’s face it, he was way cooler than Mario (and continued to be until Smash Bros was released. That game is something else.)

But how can you decide as a company not to pack in a game that features your mascot? Your leading 1st party franchise? When Nintendo decides to release a new console, the first game that’s tested and released is a Mario game (sans the initial release of the Wii, but now the New Super Mario Bros is a pack-in). How, in good conscious, can you believe that to demonstrate your fantastic new piece of hardware on any other game than your pride and joy? Your milk and honey? Your… hookers and blow…? I don’t know where that can from.

2. Early release

Just thought of another reason that caused Sega to fail with the Saturn: they gave up. Just gave up. Hey guys, it’s not working… the games are few and far between… people are complaining about price… Nintendo… Mario… blah blah blah. Fuck it, let’s make another one!

If you invest time, money, and a shit load of people into a project, you don’t just pull out the second things go awry. You bite down, grip it, and ride it till the end. I mean, come on, Sega is one of the notorious for arcade gaming. It’s not like one failed system is going to sink the company. It takes time to sink a company that big. Even with all of the shit they’ve released after the death of the Dreamcast, they are still running. And they will continue to run. Because all and all, Sega is pretty kick ass when there’s not some jackass making decisions.

Final Thoughts: Could Sega retain their rightful place at the top?

Yes… but it’ll never happen. You know as well as I do we are not lucky enough to have a Dreamcast 2 in our life time. But I’ll tell you this, from the talks and trends I’ve been seeing in the game market, physical media will be a thing of the past in the next “next” generation. All of our games will be downloaded over the space waves and onto a dedicated disk on the console itself.

If Sega would look at the industry for just a moment they would realize that there is a market for physical media. There’s a market for “real” gamers who take initiative to actually sit down and play games. Evaluate it, rate it, and if it’s worth it, recommend it to others. Not play it for five minutes, short attention spanned, and trash it.

Sega could have a great come back by being the “other” video game console. And if that happens, I will be the first in line to pre order. But it better have a Sonic pack-in.