Secret items are nothing new in gaming and date back to some of the earliest console games. However, one trend with them that has died out over the years is making them completely and totally invisible and undetectable. This was a trait employed most commonly with shoot-em-ups, where invisible powerups would be placed on a part of the stage and the only way to make them visible was to shoot them repeatedly. A variant of the trick was also common in FPSes by hiding power-ups in secret rooms hidden by walls that one could walk through, but that were otherwise totally unremarkable. That said, this mechanic was also found sparingly in several other genres. In Wonder Boy in Monster Land, the game is cruel enough to put an entire sidequest in half a dozen secret rooms, all of which were invisible. Without the internet, you either had to rely on a guide, your older brother’s advice, or spend hours pressing up on nearly every single platform of the game to see if there was a hidden room there (note that the game did have a time limit, so if you spent too long searching, you’d wind up dead). The advent of 3D gaming pretty much hammered the nail in the coffin of this particular skill. 3D environments were significantly larger and more complex than their 2D counterparts and the idea of making powerups invisible just seemed needlessly cruel. Secret items are still very much alive and well, but rather than making them invisible, developers now tend to either hide them in seldom-visited areas of the environment or place them in rooms that require a difficult-to-acquire key or hidden switch to open.
There is a special spot in the darkest pits of video gaming hell for whoever thought this one up. This skill and the trend that spawned it were (thankfully) short-lived, but they made the most of their limited lifespan. Millions of controllers died agonizing deaths at their hands and their human victims can still be identified by a small, circular scar in the centre of the palm of their dominant hand. When mini-game compilations like Mario Party first began to rise in popularity, developers were busily thinking up short, simple control schemes that players could learn in a few seconds to play a game that would be over in less than half a minute. Someone stumbled upon the bright idea of having the players rotate the control sticks as fast as they could. It seemed like an acceptable solution, until people actually started putting it into practice. You see, thumbs don’t have the best ability for quick movements, so the easiest way to rapidly spin a control stick was to rest the controller between your knees, press down on the control stick with the palm of your hand and move your hand in tight circles as quickly as possible. Using this method, people got some pretty impressive results (my personal best was just under 400 RPM), but the victory was short lived. First of all, oftentimes these superhuman efforts were wasted, because (at least in Mario Party’s case) the computer was insanely good at the mini-games that required the control stick spinning. Furthermore, neither the controller nor the human hand was really designed for that sort of abuse. Control sticks were frequently broken (or at least heavily strained) from extended Mario Party sessions and users of the technique often sported nasty blisters on their palms that took weeks to fully subside. Seeing the inherent problem in the game, Nintendo and the other companies involved in propagating control-stick spinning quickly abandoned the idea; subsequent instalments in the Mario Party series are devoid of such abhorrent control schemes. Regrettably, Control Stick Spinning's older brother “Rapid Button Tapping” is still alive and well and has been seen as recently as Metal Gear Solid 4.
RPGs in general were once notorious as being an exceptionally hard genre, requiring a bit of tactical prowess and a healthy dose of patience. You see, while the RPGs of today are mostly designed to smoothly move the player between story segments while providing a modest challenge, the earliest RPGs were anything but. Monsters would have massive jumps in levels from one area to the next, quite often it was unclear where you were supposed to be going next, and the wargear you could buy in town was often as prohibitively expensive as it was semi-useless. But none of this compares to the utter terror posed by dungeons. The dungeons of modern day RPGs are constructed on the shattered dreams (and controllers) of the RPG gamers of yesteryear. You know how modern dungeons have all sorts of helpful objects to let you get through alive? You know... Holy Bottles to reduce the random encounter rate, save points before the dungeon's boss, Magic Ropes to return you to the entrance if things get too hairy, and maybe the occasional Statue of the Goddess to restore your HP/MP if the dungeon is really long or the boss is really hard? Yeah, old dungeons frequently had none of those handy little helpers. It was just you, the weapon in your hand, and the party members at your back against an endless legion of randomly-spawning monstrosities followed by a boss that would make Sephiroth weep tears of blood. And if the game was REALLY out to get you, sometimes the entrance would cave in after you got inside, leaving you no way back out to resupply if your potion reserves started running low. Frequently, the enemies inside the dungeon were significantly more difficult than the ones outside and would sometimes even have things like instant-death spells to throw at you. Your healing spells, assuming they were even worth using, were often accompanied by extremely high TP costs, forcing you to save them for boss fights. All in all, dungeons were not very nice places and required and extreme amount of preparation. This not only involved buying new equipment and lots and lots of healing items from the local store (everything from potions to status-effect healers to resurrection devices would be required), but also levelling up your characters by wandering around a field for hours on end clunking bunnies on the head with swords just so you could face down a dungeon-crawler and survive without having your head gnawed off. Thankfully, developers quickly realised that people playing RPGs did not do so simply to play exterminator for a few hours before they could advance the plot. Slowly but surely, enemy difficulty became more manageable, store prices became more reasonable, and dungeons became less lethal. It is still, however, quite amusing to go back to old RPGs and time how long it takes before something comes along and royally works over your party.
Adventure games were a staple of early PC gaming, as they were amongst the simplest games that could be coded and, thus, required very little in terms of technology or memory. The original adventure games were entirely text-based, and you had to input what you wanted to do in carefully parsed command phrases (“examine > cabinet”). They were quite crude but, in the days before graphics cards and Graphical User Interfaces, or GUI’s (fun fact: the mouse was not included in most computers or supported by many programs until the mid-80s when Apple began including them with their Macintosh computers), typing was about the only way you could play a game. Adventure games had their golden era in the late 80’s and early 90’s, where they dominated the still-budding PC market. The two giants in the industry were Lucasarts (famous for games like Indiana Jones, Day of the Tentacle, and, perhaps most famously, the Monkey Island series), and Sierra (who published several long-running series including King’s Quest, Space Quest and the very first adventure game to feature graphics instead of simple text, Mystery House). However, as the years went by, computer power went up and the games they supported became larger and more elaborate. Adventure games still thrived, but they were no longer the huge contender they once were. It was the jump to 3D that proved to be the undoing of adventure games everywhere; for whatever reason, the genre was largely incompatible with the 3D environments. A few games tried to make an adventure game in 3D work, but most were disappointing failures. By the late 90’s, the adventure game genre was all but dead. A few notable contenders still remain in the industry; Zack and Wiki was released on the Wii to moderate success, Monkey Island has recently gotten several new instalments in the form of the Tales of Monkey Island series, and one of the biggest surprise hits of the DS was an adventure game series by the name of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. However, these examples are few and far between and there are only a handful released for any given platform these days. The thing that made adventure games so unique is that they required you to solve puzzles by following logic that occasionally was rather... esoteric. You found yourself crawling into the heads of the developers in an attempt to sort out exactly what the heck you were supposed to be thinking to try and get out of your current predicament. These ranged from strange (“What? You mean I actually have to Pick Up that hole in the wall?!”) to downright cruel (Kick the cat!! Do it!! DO IT NOW!!!). The worst part was, if you didn’t follow this logic perfectly, you could sometimes royally mess your game up. Lucasarts tended to be more forgiving in this department, but with Sierra games, failing to do pretty much everything perfectly often made it so the game was completely unwinnable. Did you go into the catacombs without all the necessary tools to solve it? Ooh, too bad... turns out you can’t go back to find them again after you’ve gone in. If you didn’t save your game in separate save files periodically, you risked having to restart the entire adventure from the very beginning. You got to know individual developers by their puzzle styles and subsequent games always seemed a little easier because you had a bit of an idea just how the individual behind the scenes thought. This trend has largely disappeared from gaming in general and depending on who you ask, it’s often cited as a change for the better.
The home consoles of today have their roots in arcade games and a few trends birthed by the necessities of that era still exist in modern gaming. One of the most intrinsic, and the one that has taken the longest to die out, is the concept of Lives. Lives were introduced in arcade games as a way of limiting play time and drawing more quarters out of the player. After a certain number of player deaths (typically three), the machine would count down from 10 and the game would restart unless the player inserted another quarter before the timer was up. The inspiration for this trend was strictly monetary; if a player actually wanted to see a game through to completion, they would have to drop in more quarters. And if they didn’t, it meant they were removed from the machine faster so that another player (with another quarter) could step up and try his luck. Yet when gaming made the jump into players’ living rooms, this trend stubbornly followed. Though the need for it was gone, developers used it nonetheless (sometimes even with the 10 second Game Over countdown, seemingly for no reason at all). Originally, it was sometimes used to add in difficulty to games, or to artificially lengthen them so that they couldn’t be beaten in an hour by a first-time player. But as games grew in length and started introducing save points and other life-independent methods of preserving a player’s status, lives became more of a formality, held onto out of a sense of convention than any real need. Frequently, the only real consequence of a lost life, or even a game over, was that the player had to spend a minute or two returning to the location he died at before continuing on as normal. As gaming moved into the 64 bit era, a new radical game design began to take root where the player had unlimited lives. After all, if a game over was functionally the same as a death, what was the point in having a finite number of lives in the first place? Slowly but surely this new idea began to catch on and soon one of gaming’s oldest traditions began to disappear. Most modern games do not have a life system and the handful that do seldom make much of it. It’s just another piece of gaming history that the industry seems to have outgrown. Yet it wasn’t too long ago where dying wasn’t just a possibility to avoid, it was a veritable inevitability. Old arcade games frequently had the difficulty ramped up so high, death was pretty much impossible to avoid and how far you could get in the game was determined not by your skill but by how many quarters you had sitting beside the buttons. Games like Metal Slug were notorious for this; in the later levels, you barely had enough time to throw your 10 grenade stock before you would be killed by a stray bullet. You could measure the levels in how much it would cost in quarters to see it through to the end. But with the decline of arcade games in general, this is a trend that has pretty much seen its last.
Way back when, video games had codes. Not the wimpy codes you find in games today... Codes that could make even the staunchest, most horrifyingly difficult game a cakewalk. Codes within whom a power resided to break their parent game wide open. Back in the 8 and 16 bit generations, it was fairly common for games to have codes in them that would grant the player things like infinite lives, a level-select option, or even total invincibility. As games became larger, longer, and more complex, game developers often didn’t want to put codes in. After all, what was the point in spending years developing a game when someone could just input a quick code, then beat it in an hour? Codes slowly increased in rarity, even as the powers they granted dwindled. Soon, they had all but disappeared. This isn’t an entirely dead tradition; several game series still sport codes. Probably the most infamous among them is the Grand Theft Auto series, but others, such as the Rogue Squadron series, also continue the trend. That said, few modern games have codes that can be inputted from the instant you flip on the power to grant you total pwnage over the game you’re playing and those that do often do so at a heavy price. GTA, for example, will glitch your save file if you use any of the more powerful codes, preventing you from ever acquiring the 100% distinction. Back in the day, codes were often as much a part of a game as the main characters. Some spelled funky words, (like Donkey Kong Country’s BARRAL code, which gave the player 50 lives), some were used to bypass censors (the most infamous being ABACABB, Mortal Kombat’s “Blood Code”), and some even unlocked hidden content that was buried in the game’s code by the developers (like Rogue Squadron’s ZUVIEL BENZIN password to unlock the Naboo Starfighter). One code even had the distinction of rising above them all as the most notable, memorable, and widespread code of all time: Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start... the Konami Code. This infamous code first appeared in the video game Contra, a hair-pullingly hard platformer for the NES, and increased the player's life count from a paltry 3 to a significantly more managable 30. These codes were a unique piece of character that, sadly, has gone the way of the dinosaur in favour of unlockable bonuses and Easter Eggs. These days, the only remnant of the former glory codes once held is in Gamesharks, Action Replays and other similar cheat devices that allow players to modify a game to their heart’s content. That said, with consoles now becoming ever more inextricably connected to the internet, developers can (and frequently do) lock out these third party devices as often as the system is patched. One can only wonder how long it will be before these last bastions of the code legacy are wiped out for good...
Something any old-school arcade goer will remember is the special pride one felt when learning how to do a special move in a fighting game. In the days before the internet, knowledge of these mysterious skills was an arcane secret, passed on from one gamer to another in hushed whispers around schoolroom lunch tables and outside video arcades. And it was with good reason these mystic skills were so revered, for they could easily spell the difference between victory and defeat. A fighter with knowledge of even a single projectile attack held a significant advantage over his foe as he blasted at him with impunity from across the ring. Woe betide the fool who faced down a seasoned fighter that knew his character’s entire movelist. And if you knew the button combo for a Fatality or other finishing move, you were instantly set in a league far above the likes of mere mortals. Part of what made special moves so... well, special, back in the day was that the games did not tell you how they were performed and, without the internet, there was nowhere to look them up, aside from the occasional gamer magazine if you were lucky. You had to basically flail at the controls or try random combinations and hope one of them worked. Even more daunting was the fact that, in the days before home console ports, arcade gamers had nowhere to practice save for the arcade. All special moves had to be memorized and when the time came to go home, you’d better hope your memory was up to the task of keeping them fresh until the next time you needed them. Some moves became widely known and, to this day, can be identified on their controls alone. Do I even need to identify what moves in what games go along with roll-down-to-forward + punch or back-back-low punch? As with so many items on this list, the internet largely killed this phenomenon, providing easy to access movelists and demonstrations. More recently, fighting games have taken to providing an in-game movelist that can be called up at any time (even mid-match) so you can quickly reference a desired special move. Still, there’s something to be said for the old way of doing things. A special move today is just a standard tool in a gamer’s arsenal; back then, hearing Scorpion shout “GET OVER HERE!!” was music to a novice gamer’s ears.
Another piece of history rendered obsolete by improved technology, passwords were once a mainstay of gaming. As games grew beyond simple idle enjoyments and started getting into lengthy adventures, it became obvious that players needed a way to save their progress to continue on later, as few people would be willing to sit at a TV uninterrupted for several hours to play a game from start to finish. As early cartridges did not often have room for a save feature, developers of games like Mega Man (from the second game onwards) resorted to a password feature which would allow the player to continue from where they left off. Passwords were a bit of a mixed bag. While the ability to save games was greatly appreciated, it could also be a bit of a challenge to remember where you wrote the password down (anyone else remember having dozens of sticky notes covered in passwords draped across their gaming room?). More vexing, some of the passwords were incredibly lengthy, boasting codes in excess of 25 characters, and some used non-alphanumeric symbols, like Japanese kanji or game-related hieroglyphics. Simply copying down these passwords correctly was a challenge in and of itself. The eventual successor to the password system appeared in a 1987 game known by the unassuming title of “The Legend of Zelda.” Zelda was the first game to include a built-in save feature, something that slowly became standard over the next two generations, before eventually being replaced by memory cards, then by built-in hard drives. Somewhat ironically for game collectors, password games are actually more reliable these days than their save-feature-dependent counterparts. With two decades having passed since some of these games hit the market, the lithium batteries powering the save feature are starting to wear out on the older games, making them incapable of saving. Passwords suffer no such constraints. It just goes to show that just because something is old and defunct doesn’t mean it was a bad idea.
In the days before the internet, while gaming was in a fairly primitive state, gamers went without fancy things like in-game tutorials and a built-in map system. Unless you felt like dropping twenty bucks on a guide book, anything that was not memorized had to be written down and dutifully catalogued. Unfortunately, for larger games that involved heavy amounts of exploration and backtracking, this required a veritable degree in cartography (map-making, for those of you not up on your –ographies). In many a gamer’s house, charted out on ever-expanding pieces of paper were carefully hand-drawn maps of the in-game world, notes scrawled around rooms of interest, puzzle solutions and code-words scribbled into the corners, and frantic red-pen circles surrounding areas of difficulty. Two major advents ended this trend. More and more commonly, games began to introduce built-in maps to help ease the frustration of gamers unwilling to devote significant time to simply drawing up their own and for the ever-dwindling number of games that didn’t, the internet appeared to save the day. Increasingly, gamers could simply go online and look up maps and guides if they got lost. While map-less games like Metroid are a thing of the past, the fond memories of charting out the depths of planet Zebes still live on in many a gamer’s heart.
Predating Pong by over a century, Pinball was arguably the starting point for the establishments that would eventually become video arcades and somewhat accordingly, the “Pinball Wizard” was one of gaming’s earliest icons. Unfortunately, they have become something of an endangered species in the last two decades, as their natural habitat has been steadily decreasing in the face of home console and PC gaming expansion. Arcades are no longer the central meeting place and proving ground for gamers; that role has been taken over by the internet. Few true arcades remain nowadays and instead, arcade games are usually found tucked into airports or at the back of restaurants. But once upon a time, back when dinosaurs walked the earth, arcades were booming, bustling nexuses of gaming subculture and one of the chief attractions was the pinball table. As anyone who has ever plunked a quarter into one of these games knows, there are some shots that are hopeless for even the most veteran player. If the ball falls at a certain angle or into certain nooks of the board, there is no way to recover it. Unless you happen to be a master of the ancient art of tilting (also known as nudging or bumping in some circles). Tilting, as the name implies, involves gently lifting (or, in some cases, bumping into) the pinball table to alter the ball’s course. As a reaction to this, most tables have a tilt-sensor of some kind that will instantly lock up the machine if a tilt of sufficient magnitude is detected. Tilting is therefore a very precise art, nudging the table just enough to save the ball without tripping the sensor. The cost of failure is high, as not only do you automatically lose the ball, but also any bonus associated with that round. This is to say nothing of the notorious and incredibly difficult “death save”, the art of slamming a table to knock a ball that has swung out of play back out in front of the flippers just before it goes down the drain. Sadly, with the decline of pinball and arcades in general, tilting is something of a lost art. Many digital pinball games feature a tilt button that you can use to nudge the table as a nod to this trick, but it just isn’t the same as actually feeling the joy of pulling off a well-timed death save.
The skills gamers once possessed were quite interesting and varied, as this list shows. They were fostered by gaming trends that were sometimes cool and interesting and sometimes the result of a seemingly malicious relationship between game developers and their customers. That said, they were, at least for a time, an intrinsic part of gaming subculture. So here’s to all those sticky notes covered with passwords, button codes, and puzzle solutions. Here’s to all those blistered hands and empty quarter pouches. But most of all, here’s to the legacy of gaming trends that are gone, but not forgotten.
List by darkknight109 (09/18/2009)
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