If you like old games, life is good in 2013. We have digital access to a wide library of retro titles ranging from NES classics to random Japanese imports like Makeruna Makendo 2. Services like the Virtual Console and PlayStation Network allow us to re-play old games without rummaging through our closets for the Super Nintendo cables.
But as convenient as they are, these platforms could use some improvements. And as we continue to hear about the next PlayStation and the next Xbox — codenamed Orbis and Durango, respectively — I hope that console-makers Sony and Microsoft take at least a little bit of time to improve the way they let us play old games.
Here are two major improvements that could significantly enhance retro gaming.
While I have nothing but respect for anybody who wants to play old games as they were created, there's nothing worse than feeling like I'm wasting my time. And when my PS3 is emulating an old game like Xenogears — which is excellent, but so full of slow-moving text that playing it is like reading a book over a ten-year-old's shoulder — I just can't stomach 70 hours of sluggishness. There are many other offenders on older systems: while the PS1's loading times may have been more tolerable in 1998, today they're inexcusable.
This week, thanks to the big Final Fantasy sale, I bought FFIX on PSN to play on my Vita. I wanted to play it again with fresh eyes.
The problem with fresh eyes is that you suddenly start to notice problems that you forgot about over the years, like the ridiculous random encounter rate and the 5-10 seconds it takes for the "disc" to load before each battle even starts. I put "disc" in scare-quotes because, remember, there is no PS1 disc. This is an emulator on my Vita running the game.
Since I don't expect Square Enix to dig back into Final Fantasy IX's code to optimise it for a new machine, how about a fast forward button to let me zip through those loading times like I can if I use an emulator on my computer? It'd be easy to implement and ridiculously convenient for some of those slower moments that we'd all like to forget about.
Have you ever seen a tool-assisted speedrun? They can be ridiculously fun to watch, and none of them would be possible without save states, which is why speedrunners tend to use more legally dubious emulators for their impressive feats.
Save states are like bookmarks — you can use them to set up a save point anywhere and call it up again any time. This is a powerful tool, of course. When you can save and reload until you get the results you want, it's easy to abuse the hell out of your video games. "Oh, 50% chance of hitting my target? We'll see about that."
In other words, save states let you cheat. But they also make old games significantly more approachable. Most NES games have antiquated or convoluted save systems that don't hold up when we're used to modern gaming conveniences like auto-save and frequent save points. Almost all Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo games limit you to three or four save files at most, for memory-saving purposes. On the PS3 or Wii U, that's not really a problem.
So bring on the save states. While some retro services have a "suspend" option that lets you create a temporary bookmark while you go off and do something else, it's usually deleted as soon as you load the game back up. A looser system would do wonders.
It's the little things, really. Little conveniences like fast forwards and save states can make the difference between an amazing experience and a mediocre one, as anyone who's played an old game on an emulator can attest. The PSN and Virtual Console are both great starting points — now let's see some improvements.