Recently I've been availing myself of GOG.com - a site that sells old PC video games at bargain prices, most often $6, though with regular $3 weekend sales that can be hard to resist. Most of the games are packaged to run under the DOSbox emulator, and so far every one has run perfectly.
In an era of multi-million pixel displays, 3D audio, and multi-gigabyte drives, are these ancient games really worthwhile? Some definitely have withstood the test of time. So far, my favorite has been Lands of Lore. There's something about that MIDI soundtrack and the gameplay that seamlessly mixes combat and puzzles that is just as addictive now as it was in my teenage years.
Still, playing many of these classic games have reminded me just how much things have evolved in game design; simple concepts that took the industry surprisingly long to catch on to, that you can't help but miss when going back to those old games.
Back before the mouse was a basic requirement of every game, it was popular to use the arrow keys for navigation, rather than the now-popular WASD. This allowed the dominant (right) hand of most players to be used for precise movement. Games eventually adopted the mouse for look, and thus stole the right hand from the arrow keys. Try using the arrow keys with your left hand, while using the mouse with your right. It cramps. Quickly.
But even more fundamental than the arrows-WASD debate, is that most modern games will let you set whatever controls you want. As long as you're willing to spend a few minutes in an option screen, you can set up whatever control scheme you can imagine. In the old games, the controls are the controls, and you live with them or play something else.
New games even let you adjust whether to use inverted or regular mouse look. Yes Magic Carpet, I'm tired of inverted mouse.
I think I first saw this in Halo - the idea that without significant player intervention, the game would save your progress, so that if you died, you could recover at the start of the most recent section of the map. Now, we take it for granted that in most games your progress will be saved, and a death can only cost you a finite amount of progress. Having to repeat more than five minutes of play is considered poor style in a modern game.
Not so in old games. When you die, it's GAME OVER. Exit to DOS, or start a new game. You can reload from the last point you saved. If you saved three days ago... well sucks to be you. This is particularly relevant with old games, because they're hard! You'll be dying. A lot. It took me the better part of a day replaying Gladstone in Lands of Lore to get back into the step-step-save habit.
Tutorials and Tooltips
Game manuals are a thing of the past. I think the Starcraft 2 manual was more lore than instructions. Many Xbox games don't even come with manuals anymore. With digital download games, it's practically a requirement that the games teach their own gameplay. Even in complex games like high-end MMORPGs, you can learn almost everything you need to know from nothing but tooltips.
With old games, manuals are often essential. First, to learn the controls themselves, which as previously mentioned, can't be discovered or remapped. In some games like Magic Carpet, even the objective of the game can be unclear without some tips. Syndicate's manual is over fifty pages, and even reading that, I only barely understand the game.