Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why the Famicom Has Aged Well Part 1: Imagination

This is a new series in which I explore some random concepts that answer the basic question "why has the Famicom aged well?"

Today's concept: imagination.

I begin by drawing your attention to the different types of label art that grace the covers of a few Famicom games.

Jaleco carts like Ninja Ja Ja Maru Kun here usually had a cartoon like illustration on the label (and box):
Nintendo carts like F-1 Race also went that route:
Sometimes they would go with an actual photo, like Mike Tyson here:
Atari games like Millipede usually had paintings:
Tecmo also used a lot of paintings, like with Super Star Force here:
These are just a few examples. You'll notice the one thing these all have in common: None of the images on the game labels or boxes are in any way an accurate representation of what the game itself looks like. They are all a very idealized version that is more the maker's way of saying "this is what we would have made the game look like if we had the technological ability to do so. But we don't, so the game isn't going to look anything like this when you actually play it."

So far as I can tell, the only Famicom game maker that was really up-front about what the games looked like was Namco, which usually incorporated images from the game itself into the label art, like with Battle City here:
Or Skykid:
Even Namco had to add some cartoon versions of their characters to spice up the cart though.

Jaleco also put an image of the actual game on its carts, but hid it on the back:
Anyway, what does all of this have to do with the Famicom aging well?

You'll notice that today's games generally don't have this striking contrast between the images on the cover art and what the games themselves look like. They just don't have to: the graphics in the game actually look good enough to put on the game's cover.

When I was a kid, I used to hate that. I wanted games to look like the cover art, but had to suffice with the 8-bit graphics and limited memory of those games.

In retrospect though, the disjuncture between the ideal (the cover art) and the reality (the actual game's graphics) created the perfect space for one's imagination to work.

Let me demonstrate what I mean with Gradius here:
The image is quite resonating. Lots of bad guy space ships are attacking and you have to fight them. In terms of the story, this is basically all the game-makers told us. There is a brief blurb on the back of the box which more or less says the same thing - giving the name "Bacterian" to the enemy - and that is it.

As for the rest of the story, it was more or less open to your imagination. You can infer a few things from playing the game itself - the types of weapons the enemy have, how many there are etc. But the actual story - why the Bacterians are attacking, who they are, where they are from, what they are like, etc - was up to you.

Most recent games in similar genres (if I may generalize) are not very good at this. The technology allows the game-maker's imagination to be fully realized. Everything is presented in minute detail. Elaborate story-lines play out. Massive worlds to explore are provided. Basically everything that I wanted to have in a game when I was a kid is there.

This is, of course, great. But it does alter the relationship between the game player and the game. New games leave precious little to the imagination. Everything is there, more or less spoon-fed to your brain. The more the technology allows the game-maker's imagination to be fully realized, the less room it leaves the player's imagination to run free.

Gradius probably isn't the best example here as it did have a rudimentary storyline, though most of that was developed not in the original game but in later versions. Simpler games like Millipede or Galaga probably illustrate the point better. Or Arkanoid - which has a delightful storyline that makes absolutely no sense in relation to the way the game is played (a spaceship that acts as a ping pong paddle in a life-and-death struggle with aliens? Only on the Famicom.)

At any rate, the thing I'm getting at is this: the human mind likes mystery. The technological limitations of the Famicom (and other early consoles) left a lot of stuff unexplained and graphically unrealized. This forced the player to use their imagination a lot.
The label art teased you, made you wonder what the world in which the game was set was like. The game's graphics weren't good enough to really satisfy your curiosity, so you'd try to fill in the blanks yourself. If you know a bit about human psychology, you know that this type of activity can be quite stimulating and pleasant - in fact it is the sort of thing that your brain does subconsciously all the time. The fact that early games didn't really develop the storylines and hadn't discovered the "cut scene" yet contributed to that.

Playing a Famicom game is kind of like looking at the world through the eyes of a five year old. Everything is shrouded in mystery. You don't know why mushrooms are floating around, just that if you jump on one, its a good thing. You are extremely limited in your ability to move about the world you are in, but those limitations make the world seem so much bigger and more intriguing.

Playing a PS2 game (I don't have any consoles more recent than that) is more like looking at the world through the eyes of an adult. You can move about freely, go wherever you want. You know why the mushrooms are floating around because it is explained in the voluminous back-story the game has given you. The limitations are gone, but ironically this makes the world seem smaller and less intriguing.

This isn't to say that new games are bad and Famicom games are good. Also I should stress (before I get it in the comments) that a lot of newer gen games are great at making gamers use their imaginations - but they usually do that in a different way than the Famicom, which more or less did it by accident.

What I am saying is that Famicom games - by virtue of their technological backwardness - offer something quite different from current generation games in terms of imagination. Having this distinctive feature gives the Famicom a certain appeal that, I believe, has allowed it to age well in comparison with later consoles that were more technologically advanced (the Super Famicom, N64 and so on). Graphics and storylines in games on those consoles were much more advanced than games on the Famicom. At the time they were released, this made those games much more popular. Unfortunately in the long run it also made them much more similar to the current gen games, with which they are often compared (unfavorably). The crude graphics of the Famicom games, on the other hand, sets them apart. This, in a weird way, may be one of the reasons the Famicom has aged well.


  1. I agree with near enough everything you say here (although it's not just the case with the Famicom, but many older systems of course)! Box art has always been superb for Japanese games (and awful in the US and here in the UK!). The most modern console I own is a GameCube, I'm not interested in modern gaming, in part for the reasons you mention. An interesting and well-written post, thanks! :)

    p.s. I noticed Gunhed in one of your pics, did that get a Famicom release?

  2. Thanks!

    You are correct, these observations really apply to most older consoles and not just the Famicom. Actually systems earlier than the Famicom, like the Atari 2600, are probably an even better example of what I was getting at, though the box art on those are (as you say) not quite as good as the Japanese ones.

    I'm with you on the current generation stuff, it just doesn't interest me much. Maybe 20 years from now I'll pick up a PS3 or something. They don't really "speak" to me now though.

    And good eye, that is indeed a Famicom Gunhed in there!

  3. Haha, yeah, that's what I thought too. Maybe I'll be playing the 360 and PS3 when they're retro but it might not be possible given their reliance on downloads these days... :|

    Thanks for bringing NES Gunhed to my attention. I reviewed it for the PC Engine a while back, I thought that was the only version! :O

  4. Cheers my fellow "rejecter-of-the-current-generation-console"! We are a rare breed.

    Nice blog you have there BTW. I perused it for a while yesterday, made me want to dig up my copy of Alex Kidd and toss it into my Mega Drive. Think I might go do that now, actually...

  5. Thanks, I've been enjoying your blog too, very interesting to a NES/Famicom beginner (well, not beginner but I was a Sega fanboy, so... you know!)

  6. How on earth did I miss this when you first posted it? Oh, well, at least I came across it eventually. I agree with you for the most part, although I would add that 16-bit games (PC Engine, Mega Drive and Super Fami) games to the discussion as well. I don't think things really changed in the way you suggest here until the next generation -- when the N64/PS1/Saturn entered the fray.

    BTW, RetroKingSimon: The Famicom and PCE versions of GunHed aren't the same, as far as I'm aware. Is the Fami version even a shooter, Sean?

  7. That is true, it was really after the N64/PS/Saturn generation came out that the big changes happened. The Famicom is really just one of the "pre-3D environment" consoles that illustrates the point.

    There is a bit of linear progression though - a Pong game REALLY made you work your imagination - and each generation until recently sort of chipped away at that.

    And ah, I've never played Gunhed on the PC Engine. The Famicom one is not a shooter, so it must be a different game!

  8. Yes, thanks guys, I've looked into it now, the NES game is some sort of RPG or arcade adventure that I can't play properly (lots of Japanese text). The Engine game is a top-notch vertical scroller. Check out my Engine reviews if you want to see it :)

    And Bryan, good shout on the other systems with good Japanese boxart. American TB-16 games have perhaps the worst boxart I've ever seen! :|

  9. I think that what you wrote is very accurate and intresting. and i felt identified with your experience with the famicom. EMI

  10. imagination can be a powerfull thing.
    also is the famicom and disk system F-1 race the same game?