Friday, July 4, 2008

Retro Game Reviews: A Different Beast?

So much has been said about whether or not game reviews are actually needed. There have been entire articles written about the topic, so I'm not going to delve into the state of the modern game review here. There is one aspect of gaming journalism that I will tackle though, and it's from a retro standpoint. From what I've read, most of the criticisms about gaming journalism seem to really fit reviews of modern games, those that can be bought in stores now or rented from the local Blockbuster or GameTap. They have little to no bearing on reviews of games from the past, but they're still given a prominent place on a lot of mainstream media outlets (like IGN, for example). Naturally, they beggar the same question:

Do we really need game reviews at all?

The answer, I think, is quite different when we're talking about retro reviews. Unlike modern games, there is no industry pressure, no NDAs (non-disclosure agreements), no media blackouts, etc. Sega, for example, isn't going to come down on me for giving Golden Axe III a low score, as most of the people in charge over there probably weren't around the company when the game was released. Today's gaming journalists have to contend with many negative things that balance their E3 press passes and swag. They have to face the prospect of losing advertising over a bad review (a dark cloud of controversy that still hangs over GameSpot), and they can even be blacklisted by publishers. For instance, Electronic Gaming Monthly was given a laundry list of demands, literally at the last minute by Konami, after its hands-on with Metal Gear Solid 4. Obviously, the same thing wouldn't happen if I decided to review Contra: Hard Corps or even the original Metal Gear. Most likely, no one at Konami would even take notice of my article.

While journalists and gamers go back and forth about the merits of game reviews, the retro scene slips beneath the cracks. I've been told that the majority of readers look for the review score first, and that it's vitally important to any review. To be honest, I included scores in Sega-16's reviews mostly out of habit, and looking back on it now, I still would have most certainly included them, but on a scale of five instead of ten. I subscribe to the belief that the score is needed, but I don't believe that it should be the focal point of the review. It might serve as a one digit summary of the writer's thoughts, but anyone who is even bothering to write a review should give his audience more credit than thinking that a single number is enough to make an informed decision.

To me at least, a retro game review is a guideline to whether or not the reader should seek out a copy of the game in question, an endeavor that is usually much more challenging and more expensive than a trip to the local GameStop. To meet that end, the review should provide information that answers the basic questions a person might have. And no, I'm not referring to graphics, sound, and gameplay. Too many writers consider these staples to be the mandatory requirements of any review, and they couldn't be farther off the mark.

Let's go back to that comment about readers only wanting to see a score. First of all, to even make such a statement is contradictory, as all the major sites currently out there include some narrative with said scores. If people only want to see a number, why bother writing anything at all? Second, to make such a blanket statement is an insult to your audience. Knowing your audience is one of the basic tenets of writing, yet so many game journalists write as though their readers were children. Whether they know it or not, they're actually talking down to their audience, and this not only offends the reader, but it also makes the writer look weak. This is a major example of the self-depreciating attitude that is so prevalent in gaming journalism and a good reason why no one takes it seriously.

If you're going to write something... anything - review, feature, whatever - you must never assume your readers to be dumb. They may be misinformed about the particular topic you're discussing, but they're not stupid. The review narrative is essential to informing the reader, and the writer must be intelligent in his effort. Don't focus on that which can be gleaned from a screen shot or YouTube video; focus on the experience of the game itself. Why should my readers track down a copy of Pepen Ga Pengo? What does that score of 9/10 mean exactly?

Of course, this doesn't mean that the basic elements of the game should be ignored. You have to cover things like presentation and gameplay. However, that also doesn't mean that they should be the whole review. Where did the game come from? How hard is it to find? Is it expensive? What were the particular circumstances of its release? These are excellent questions that can be answered in the review, and they're things that modern review writers might not be able to discuss at press time. Retro writers have no such restrictions.

I think that game reviews are essential to the retro community, and their freedom from the shackles of the modern industry gives them even more value. When I write a retro review, I feel as though I'm trying to convey the importance of a piece of history, whether it be a must-buy or a game to avoid. A simple score can't express that, and the written effort itself is diluted if the writer assumes he's speaking to idiots. Scores are nice, but anyone really interested in a game will want to know more.

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