D.A.S. Game – Series Conspectus
Pop Cultural Impact of Classic Gaming Franchises
It’s time to learn something new about your favorite classic games. Join us for an in-depth review of the history of the various tentpole franchises within classic gaming, all from the unique and learned perspective of a speedrun streamer and professional gamer.
It was just a few decades ago that we saw a flood of video game-based movies take over the cinematic world. Between the obvious lows (such as Super Mario Bros.) and the dubious “highs” (like Mortal Kombat), Hollywood saw a cultural trend and bankrolled on it [ 1 ] [ 2 ].
Yet, the ’90s saw more than just cinematic references. Literary tie-ins and licensed comic books became a reality for marketing teams a while back. As far back as 1990, Scholastic released a series of novellas based to varying degrees on several Nintendo games, collectively called the Worlds of Power series [ 3 ]. Somehow, I managed to avoid reading these in my childhood, and I’d frankly like to keep it that way (not to insult the people behind these books, who I presume needed jobs and executed to the best of their ability).
Television has been influenced by video games for nearly 40 years now. The earliest video game-based cartoon I remember from my childhood was The Super Mario Bros. Super Show circa 1989. Going back even further, CBS aired a show called Saturday Supercade in the early 1980s, though this may have been a collective mass hallucination [ 4 ]. On top of that, did you know there was a show that came on in the early ’80s where grown adults played video games for prizes? My editor insists that Starcade was on back-to-back with American Bandstand on network TV, but I think he may have that one wrong [ 5 ].
The mechanics of these games, at the time, could be rather simplistic. Many were simply top-down shoot-’em-ups while others were mazes or digging games that rarely observed gravity as a force. Still, it was enough to get viewers interested.
Here at The Unconventional, we have a lot of people who’d describe themselves as “Children of the ’80s,” while others prefer “Children of the ’90s.” Either way, our lives were inundated with gaming, both by the electronics on the market themselves and by the constant references found to them, directly or indirectly. Media tie-ins for gaming were notoriously weird and bizarre during this time, and there are some prime examples of this, one of these being the decidedly off-the-wall marketing for games like Mortal Kombat.
We’re going to circle back to Mortal Kombat for just a moment here. Who here remembers Sept. 13, 1993? Better known as “Mortal Monday,” the day the home console version of the original Mortal Kombat was released? For those of you who don’t, I’ve gone and hunted down an image of one of the original flyers (again, my editor might have had one, but I think his old gaming-magazines got destroyed). You can look at said flyer over on this website in the citations [ 6 ]. This had hype. A ton of hype. In today’s mass information age, it’s weird to think that simply knowing the actual release date of a game was a big deal. But it’s true—when I was young, the way to see what new games were for sale was, “See what was in ‘releasing this month’ in the video game magazine of your choice, then head to your local retailer to see if they had that game.” The fact that that release date also got its own alliterative title? Yeah, this was an insane level of hype, on par with the latest Rockstar release of today. Done with that? I’d like to refer you to the following commercial for the home-console release of MK1 as well [ 7 ].
So movies, commercials, console ports, even sound and audio—all these tie-ins can make or break a title. How many people started playing video games because a movie or comic book intrigued them? Yet music can make the game feel perfect. A rocking sound-score for fast-paced action, it’s hard to go wrong with that. Some otherwise horrible games are remembered for their music as well. A few DJs have even made entire sets of music based solely on video games. No matter where you look, there’s another deeper influence games have had on our popular culture.
A New Lexicon for a New Generation
Part of this phenomenon can be seen how our very language has changed so much over the last few decades. Hundreds of memes (and a few t-shirts) include the phrase: “It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this!” [ 8 ]. The word “ninja” has been taken to mean stealing something (or at least acquiring it in an underhanded way), thanks in part to the culture of the MMORPG (massively-multiplayer online role-playing game). “Cry more noob” has managed to also make the jump into the parlance of the real world, alongside the infamous “for the lulz.” And how often have you heard that someone has been “owned?” Or maybe it’s “pwned”.
We’ve all heard this era called “the Age of the Nerd,” right? It’s a time now where you can freely admit to love science fiction, fantasy, video gaming, and even—heaven help us—learning. Many of the “old guard” in the nerd community remembers the days of the killer wedgie, where revealing your nerd power level got you bullied mercilessly depending on where you grew up. But with the acceptance of geek culture comes the integration of our dorky references (let’s call them what they are, okay?) into mainstream language. Suddenly, the “jocks” don’t seal you up in your locker—they join your high school gaming club!
Yet even as social standards change to embrace new, nerdy disciplines and our language evolves to reflect this, the classics are returning. No, I don’t mean composers like Mozart or writers like Steinbeck; I mean the classics of those who have children and are now in middle age. Remember the continuity of Masters of the Universe? It’s back, thanks to Noelle Stevenson’s dream of reviving She-Ra for a modern audience [ 9 ], not to mention new He-Man centric Netflix revivals and reboots. Do you remember Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who played Shang Tsung in the aforementioned 1995 film based on Mortal Kombat [ 2 ]? He came back to play the same character as a voice actor in the most recent iteration of the game [ 10 ]. Remember when World of Warcraft was new? Say hello to World of Warcraft Classic [ 11 ]. The throwbacks are becoming legion, pleasing some fans (and inevitably upsetting others) of those intellectual properties, across the globe.
Sometimes we love these revivals out of nostalgia. Sometimes we dread them, believing nothing can compare to our memories. Everything from a video game’s remake to an RPG’s anniversary edition is on the table as far as re-imaginings go. Somewhere in here, the fans have found our parallel to the classic conundrum of “Hollywood doesn’t have original ideas anymore.”
Think back now to how games “felt,” and contrast that with today. It’s not always going to feel natural to jump in certain games. It was possible, back in the 1980s, to make a game that was sluggishly responsive on some level, yet still beloved by some fans. Today, if a developer makes a game that makes players feel like they have to press a key right through their keyboard, or possibly throttle their console controller, that game will see horrendous sales, or possibly many demands for refunds.
But not everything can be old…
New genres do come to the public attention once in a while, and whether they’re completely new iterations, subversions, or send-ups of other existing genres or sub-genres is less important than whether people enjoy them. The Steampunk movement was a prime example, as its flare of popularity at conventions across the U.S. attested to, for a time. Video games themselves have seen an even bigger and more noteworthy rise, and not only conventions devoted to them, but even ones dedicated to the products from a single gaming company.
Meanwhile, subculture crossover is a thing, kind of a “you got chocolate in my peanut butter” situation that often leads to new cultural touchpoints of its own Goth culture saw a foray into the video game world as far back as the early ’90s. While certain games featuring vampires would take me way too long to cover in their entirety, studios put out a number of horror games centered around artistic visuals. The early ’90s were an amazing time for full-motion video acting on CD-ROM games. Not everything was amazing, of course. More than a few games whose names I won’t mention pushed for that “edge lord” demographic, riding on shock value and exploitation/sexploitation. Still, it was an era that some new games are harkening back to in order to support the nostalgic notions of older gamers who remember them so fondly.
This Works Both Ways
Fond of the concept of raves but not into that particular subculture? Not a problem anymore! Waves of self-proclaimed otaku have re-purposed underground dance-parties as anime-themed dances. Don’t believe me? Behold, gentle readers, the Anime Central Soap Bubble Rave [ 12 ]. Follow that link in the citations below and tell me these ravers aren’t free-basing JRPGs!
Do you like the idea of a casino but feel that Vegas just isn’t your kind of scene? What if we integrated both video games and Monty Python into your experience? Well, guess what? That happened, too [ 13 ]. Yeah. We’ve gone into a different world now.
Other innovations include how video games have soundtracks now, just like movies. Not all of them are amazing, but more than a few feature mainstream artists. Granted, they’re often packaged with the game itself, but a few are starting to see the light of day at record stores (you know, when you can still find those shops). Sometimes we even see compilations of these scores performed live! Sure, it may not always involve someone like composer Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy fame personally conducting the orchestra, but the Video Games Live series has a song that is close to my heart: “Castlevania Rock” [ 14 ]!
Back on Track
Let’s narrow our focus a bit. Like most aspects of geekdom, we have a niche here. So what does this mean for video gaming?
Put simply, with the rise of game-culture comes a rise in attention. This means we can expect to see, nowadays, a significant chunk of corporate budgets inflated for gaming studios, particularly as larger conglomerates diversify their holdings and buy into (or buy up) existing companies. We might even (and already have to an extent) see more studios created in-house by entertainment companies for their existing IP. More indie groups will get together to make little-known gems that might become hyped-up gems via online marketplaces. In other words, we can expect the current trends in video gaming, but more so.
And that brings us back to this series. Over the course of the next several articles, we’re going to explore the history of the various aspects of gaming. I intend to cover individual franchises, beloved by fans across the globe. Platformers, RPGs, and others will be explored in their entirety, or at least as feasibly as possible (Mario alone has more spin-offs to his name than I could possibly keep track of or imagine, as his time on Saturday Supercade already demonstrated before his breakout hits [ 4 ].
To know where you’re going, it’s good to know where you’ve been. Many of the IPs I’ll be talking about have been around since the ’80s or ’90s, and most are still seeing some product published to this day. Some might take what seems like an eon between iterations, but many games changes hands between publishers like Sega, Square-Enix, and Electronic Arts. To that end, we’re going to get into the nuts and bolts of these mainstays. If something strays from being a platformer, we’re going to talk about why it did, how well it worked out, and whether or not there was a continuation (either immediately or much further down the line). We’re going to get into jumping, menus, voice acting, console generations, ports, country of origin, original source material, publisher history, and—yes—individual designers.
Art and Artistry
A long time ago, the late Roger Ebert made a statement that is often seen as controversial: “Video games can never be art” [ 15 ]. It’s likely somewhat obvious to you all that I disagree with him here. But what are our proverbial brushstrokes? Who is our muse? Does Shigeru Miyamoto have something against pastels?
Games often do make use of individual bits of art. Drawing, modeling, music composition, and direction are all pieced together in a way that isn’t unlike a movie. Sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it…needs work? In most cases, the series we will be looking at fall into the former category, though we’ll definitely be looking at what flopped and why. But where things went well, they tended to keep the games fresh for players old and new alike. Maybe you started a franchise from the beginning. Maybe you didn’t buy-in until midway through. Maybe you didn’t touch three games in a row, for whatever reason (change of console, economic hardship, issues with changes or lack of changes in the design, etc.).
Now, I don’t really intend to delve much into stand-alone titles here. There are a lot of amazing games that simply saw a formula of “one-and-done.” You know, obvious rip-offs and imitations notwithstanding. Maybe those items could have had staying power or maybe they were best left where they were. Either way, my aim is to focus on an offering that’s withstood the test of time, market share, and the individual tastes of gamers. What’s worked, why has it worked, and where can it go from here.
Within this series, we’ll definitely explore one important question: does it feel the same? Do you get the same feeling playing a 1988 title that you get from playing its 11th sequel? Nostalgia is a powerful thing. If swinging a sword seems too drastically different from an original incarnation (barring some sort of objective improvement), veterans of the “good old days” might give up the series.
There’s also going to be some breakdown in the realm of classics versus modern incarnations. There was a time when three-dimensional offerings seemed to be far in the future. Then two-dimensional games slowly found themselves displaced by the new 3-D titles. When was the last time you saw a new 2-D game get released? We’re not talking indie titles here. I mean genuinely, flat sprites. It’s a thing we can’t really wrap our heads around now, this era of 3-D games so common that only the “gaming elite” tend to look for the classic formula.
Why yes, I have a history here!
I’ll also be bringing up my own history with the various franchises. Some of them and I go way back. They’re old friends, some of whom I might not have seen in a while. Others I hang out with at the arcade all the time with, provided that arcade is in the home nowadays. After all, how many arcades do we see anymore? Barcades don’t count… But I’ll ask, “Is it linear? Was it always linear? When it stopped, was it an improvement?”
You may occasionally see me looking at single titles for one reason: they sometimes imitate successful series a little too closely. Let’s take the game Neutopia, for instance. Everything about this game made me think of The Legend of Zelda. So of course, I’ll compare it with the other titles in the Hyrulean franchise. Mercilessly so, truth be told [ 8 ] [ 16 ].
And sometimes, we want to see the odd child out. The Zelda series wasn’t always good. Kids today aren’t familiar with the debacle that was the series offerings on the Sony CD-I. I speak, of course, of titles such as Link: The Faces of Evil [ 17 ]. One might say that’s fortunate; the games heavily broke away from the series themes, graphics, music, controls, and level of quality. It’s definitely one of those titles we prefer to forget about. This is the sort of story that involves change that is not for the better, followed by tales of a return to form. That is exactly the sort of divergence I will cover when I go over our beloved games.
Then there are the spin-offs. The good ones. Luigi’s Mansion is usually considered a success, even having gone wildly off-premise with main character, plot concept, and style-of-play [ 18 ]. Change, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily bad. It just needs to be well executed.
Then there are the bizarre tangents. I have yet to meet anyone who hates the U.S. version of Super Mario Bros. 2. That said, we didn’t get the same version that Japan did, which was seen by some as more of the same (and marketed as The Lost Levels). Others have told me they’d prefer the Japanese version. Still, if we’ve had both good and bad divergences, one could call this a solid neutral, or maybe a wash [ 19 ] [ 20 ].
I’m glad to have you all along with me for this cavalcade of madness! Okay, maybe a journey of slight, off-kilter eccentricity? I’m readying my consoles, dusting off my cartridges (and not blowing into them, got it?), and carefully removing the instruction booklets and/or hint guides from storage. My gaming fingers are prepped, the emulators are on standby, and my fridge is fully stocked. It’s time to get down to the business of fun. And having fun can be harder work than you’re expecting.
With the passing of time, we’ll see how all our old favorites have done over the years, and maybe even get, as Shang Tsung said, “…a taste of things to come” [ 2 ].
- “Even in the earliest days, we’ve enjoyed great variety in gaming.” Game Selection, C64 Classic Computer, Wikimedia free-images.com/display/gameselection_wiki.html
- “The depth of the modern library transcends brands, even echelons of hardware, from the PC to the Arcade cabinet, the Console deck to the mobile phone.” “Techno Knightmare Big Box Intro” Screenshot. YouTube “Harry oke” July 14 2020. 00:04 in. youtube.com/watch?v=uGXMphdBk68&feature=emb_imp_woyt
- “These days gaming transcends nations, cultures and economic strata, and the largest media industry of our time.” Adobe Stock. stock.adobe.com/145149580?tduid=cf9e17050f3abec61cf5ecff8449c6e2&as_channel=affiliate&as_campclass=redirect&as_source=arvato&
- “The span of controllers, hardware, and types of media has grown truly dizzying.” Shutterstock. Taipei, Taiwan – August 29, 2018: Many different types of video game systems, controllers, and games shot in a studio. shutterstock.com/image-photo/taipei-taiwan-august-29-2018-many-1280886988
Marc Dziezynski has lived a life furnished by art, from ages past to modern forms. He has leveraged this into a storied career in IT, as an Application Analyst for a Financial Technology firm. Some of the fields he has dabbled in include live-streaming, podcasting, blogging, music, art, writing, and game design. He’s also put in his time as a staffer in the local Connecticut convention scene, as well as traveling to others in the area. His professional blog can be found at http://emptyeye.com.
- Morton, Rocky and Annabel Jankel, directors. Super Mario Bros. 1993.
- Anderson, Paul W.S., director. Mortal Kombat. 1995.
- Howell, Christopher. Simon’s Quest. Scholastic, 1990.
- Saturday Supercade. CBS. Ruby-Spears Enterprises, 1983-1984.
- Starcade. TBS. JM Production Company, 1982-1984.
- “Kombat Kollektable Kountdown.” The Raging Fanboy, WordPress, 19 Apr. 2011, theragingfanboy.wordpress.com/tag/mortal-monday.
- Wwwwmortalkombatpl. “Mortal Kombat 1 Mortal Monday Commercial by Retroware TV.” YouTube, YouTube, 17 Feb. 2011, youtube.com/watch?v=R8V7TwlYCt0.
- The Legend of Zelda. Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo, 1986.
- She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Netflix app. Dreamworks Animation Television, 2018-.
- Mortal Kombat 11. Windows PC Version, Netherrealm Studios, 2019.
- World of Warcraft Classic. Windows PC Version, Blizzard Entertainment, 2019.
- FanService Renji. “Soap Bubble 2019 | Anime Central Rave.” YouTube, YouTube, 26 May 2019, youtube.com/watch?v=mLgAJ4f8LyM.
- “Monty Python and the Holy Grail Slot By Bally Technologies.” Slot By Bally Technologies, Latest Casino Bonuses, 27 June 2016, casinoslots.net/bally-technologies/monty-python-and-the-holy-grail.
- Tallarico, Tommy. “Castlevania® Rock (Live).” EMI, Shout! Factory, 2008.
- Ebert, Roger. “Video Games Can Never Be Art: Roger Ebert’s Journal: Roger Ebert.” RogerEbert.com, Ebert Digital LLC, 16 Apr. 2010, rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/video-games-can-never-be-art.
- Neutopia. TurboGrafx-16, Hudson Soft, 1989.
- Link: The Faces of Evil. Philips CD-i. Animation Magic, 1993.
- Luigi’s Mansion. Gamecube, Nintendo EAD, 2001.
- Super Mario Bros. 2. NES, Nintendo EAD, 1988.
- Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels. SNES, Nintendo R&D4, 1993.