I was having a discussion with my wife the other day, about how the experience of buying music has become a much staler experience over the last decade. I recalled the days of popping into Virgin Megastore or HMV during my lunch break, buying loads of CDs and then popping them into my Discman and listening to them on the way home from work. I miss that experience of discovering whether an album was going to be good, great or rubbish. The discovery of new music has become a buffet of never-ending choice, where we rarely allow ourselves to savour a track or even an entire album before we move onto the next one. An endless array of music files, legally devalued by streaming services as the way we consume music changes to match the technology of the era, and we become our own personal curators of musical content as much as we are consumers.
And then I realise the same is true of video games, and the overall experience of purchasing them. While digital distribution hasn’t quite affected video games in the same way they have for music CDs (yet), as a consumer I would definitely say there’s something so sterile about the whole process of buying a new game. Tap, tap, Confirm button, tap, wait for the download to complete, tap, load game. Where’s the anticipation, the chance to mull over our purchase and hope we made the right choice?
Every now and then, I fall into the rabbit hole of downloading scanned images of old video game manuals, a truly lost art. Was it really that long ago, when we had these beautifully illustrated manuals that tried to convey in-game sprites and actions into hand-drawn pieces of real art that filled each page? There had been effort and love put into these little booklets – Take a look at the manual for Secret of Mana, which featured images of these amazing clay models that weren’t seen anywhere else. What about the manual for Starfox, which although was mostly quite a dry time, also featured plenty of images of the Thunderbirds-inspired models that were used in promotional materials.
And then, there were the manuals for Super Mario games. These manuals were pretty comprehensive guides to all of Mario’s abilities, and alongside them were some fantastic illustrations – Let’s face it, we have been denied a Super Mario game that uses hand-drawn animations that look like this artwork (although, we did come really close with the Wii’s Wario Land: The Shake Dimension, which featured over 8,000 frames of animation – 2,000 for Wario himself).
But it’s not even the loss of manuals, proper box art and other forms of gaming ephemera that makes me lament the old days. Digital distribution has been a pretty good thing for the games industry, and gamers – Consumers get quick access to games, and developers/publishers have direct access to those consumers. Meanwhile, digital storefront sales make games available for ridiculous prices, and “free” monthly game offerings from the likes of Humble Bundle, PlayStation Plus and Xbox Games With Gold give players a little more bang for their buck. Even Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass gives a Netflix style selection of games that can be instantly downloaded for a monthly subscription.
That’s all great stuff, but I now have way too many games that I own and will likely never play and when I do get a chance to play a game, the amount of choice is such that I almost get into a cycle of not being able to decide what to play, so I don’t end up playing anything and doing something else. I can’t remember the last time I walked into a brick & mortar games store to actually buy something (and when I do, I’ll likely browse and then go home and buy what I want at a cheaper price online). Whether it’s physical or digital, when I buy a game there isn’t that level of anticipation I once had. Is that a sign of me getting older and having played video games for over thirty years, or is it that the act of purchasing a video game has been cheapened somewhat?
I really hate to say that things were better in “The Good Old Days” because in many cases, they weren’t. But in this instance, I would love a return to proper game boxes, manuals, and the excitement of pawing over a new video game purchase on the way home from work. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who misses that, right?