Smith: Coveting the classics

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash
I’ve covered dozens of classic car shows over the past decade, and to be honest, it’s one of my easier assignments.
All I have to do is point my tape recorder at one of the car owners and let their exuberance flow into the story. Even the shyest car guys can’t resist relating tales of the hunk of junk they found in a barn and lovingly restored to pristine condition.
Now imagine the look on their face if I said, “Why do you waste your time on these old cars? The newer ones are so much better.”
Midwest politeness would save me from suffering a punch to the mouth, but I would deserve it. For many, including me, cars are nothing more than a means of conveyance.
But for millions of car enthusiasts around the world, classic vehicles are works of art. It’s about time old video games garner the same kind of respect classic cars and movies do.
For the most part, they do — at least on the internet. There are countless websites and forums aimed at specific periods of video game history. YouTube shows such as “The Angry Video Game Nerd” are dedicated entirely to old video games, gleefully lampooning their limitations while paying reverence to their groundbreaking ideas. Like it or not, video games are art — something many hardcore gamers have known since they were 5 years old.
So you can imagine how disturbed the video game community was when Sony’s global sales chief, Jim Ryan, tried to explain why the PlayStation 4 isn’t backward compatible with previous iterations of the console. Currently, you can’t play PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2 or original PlayStation games on the PlayStation 4.
“When we’ve dabbled with backwards compatibility, I can say it is one of those features that is much requested, but not actually used much. That, and I was at a Gran Turismo event recently where they had PS1, PS2, PS3 and PS4 games, and the PS1 and the PS2 games, they looked ancient, like why would anybody play this?” Ryan said.
Ouch. I like to pretend I’m above internet rage, but Ryan’s statement really irked me. That’s like deriding “Citizen Kane” for being in black and white and featuring outdated special effects make-up.
Ryan does makes a valid point, though it only strengthens the argument old games should be preserved rather than forgotten. For children and non-film buffs, the over-acting in “Citizen Kane” likely is laughable. The uninformed don’t know that was the acting style at the time. There’s no way they could know how it inspired the movies that came after it, in everything from story structure to camera work. If someone doesn’t tell them, they’ll never know.
Video games age at an even faster pace. The blocky polygons and low resolution textures from mid-1990s PlayStation games are laughable by today’s standards. But for those of us who played those games, those deficiencies are part of the game’s beauty.
Artists are artists, no matter which era of video game history they worked in. Looking back at those old games and understanding the technical limitations that constrained those artists only deepens your appreciation for their work.
But video games aren’t movies — especially when it comes to time investment. Watching “Casablanca” for the 20th time costs you less than two hours of your night.
Playing though “Final Fantasy VII” again will take a couple months.
Hence Ryan’s argument backward compatibility is much requested but little used. While that’s true, he’s misconstruing the context. Hardcore gamers like to play a lot of games, including old ones. I’m often rotating between half-a-dozen new titles, in a woeful effort to keep up.
But games are also comfort food — just like any hobby or form of entertainment.
Sometimes, usually around my birthday, I like to play the emulated copy of the Sega CD classic “Snatcher” from 1993. If I’m flipping channels and run across “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” I can’t help but rewatch a portion of it — despite it being one of Mel Brooks’ weaker films.
I was obsessed with both as a preteen.
Art — even in its silliest and most crass forms — is designed to bring out emotion, which means it always will be tied to nostalgia.
These games mean something to us, and that’s something an empty suit with no passion for gaming never will understand. I can’t judge Ryan on one errant quote (he was trying to make a point after all), but it sounds like he views video games as nothing more than a disposable product. A new razor or toothbrush that will make you question why you ever tolerated the old one.
Trust me, I doubt Ryan is as upset about this as we are. Since Sony doesn’t currently offer backwards compatibility, it was his job to defend that. Since Microsoft does offer backward compatibility for the Xbox One, it gleefully put out a statement in the wake of Ryan’s comment reaffirming their dedication to preserving games.
It’s nothing but posturing from corporations vying for our money. Thankfully, those corporations are filled with people who care about games.

Playing old games as if they were new

I’ve mostly been focusing on revisiting old games for nostalgia purposes. To be honest, those trips down memory lane only last an hour or so.
But Sony’s backward compatibility holes present an even problem for gamers who want to catch up on old titles. I know from experience.
Earlier this year, I fell head over heels for the PlayStation 4 exclusive “Yakuza 0” — one of my leading candidates for Game of the Year. Despite being a prequel, the game is the latest in a line-up of “Yakuza” games that stretch all the way back to the PlayStation 2. Thankfully, a remake of the first game is due at the end of the summer.
Unfortunately, I gave my PlayStation 3 to a friend a couple years ago, leaving me with no way access the pivotal “Yakuza” games I missed. Each sequel is part of an overarching story featuring decades of family history, and I had to know it all.
Since Sony long has stopped selling the PlayStation 3 in America (they recently ceased production in Japan as well), my only option was to find a used one on Ebay for $110. I won’t go into the cumbersome process, or the fact I initially ordered the wrong system and had to sell it back.
Of course, I couldn’t help lament the lack of backward compatibility. If these games had come out for the Xbox 360, I could have saved myself some time and money by playing them on the Xbox One.
While I don’t expect modern consoles to be backwards compatible with 20-year-old games (the technology demands are trickier than you would think), having access to the previous generation of console games is vital for ongoing series and franchises.
Imagine not being able to watch the first “Harry Potter” movie because it’s only available on VHS. That sounds absurd in this modern age of streaming, yet gamers deal with it every day.
In all fairness, more than 400 PlayStation 3 games are available on Sony’s PlayStation Now streaming service (which requires a subscription), though it’s completely unusable for me. My country internet just can’t handle it.
Even if it could, paying to play old games I already own is the very definition greed. But that, too, is a large part of the video game industry.
This column was originally published in The Hawk Eye, a GateHouse Media publication