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(Up)Dated User Interfaces

I have fond memories of a lot of video games. I used to go back and play those old games fairly often, but as time wears on this happens less and less. There are a few reasons for this. One is incompatibility with modern gaming systems. If you can’t make the software work, you can’t play it. One is lack of time to do everything I want to do anyway. If I have 15 new games stacked up waiting to be played, I’m far less likely to go back and play one I’ve already beaten, especially if I’ve beaten it 3 or 4 times.

The biggest reason these days, though, is that game design has advanced so much that those old games’ control systems are just so darn clunky. I would love to play WarCraft or WarCraft II again, but trying to make your units do anything when compared to the ease of doing things in WarCraft III is like pulling teeth. My favorite Harvest Moon game is Back to Nature, but the controls for that one are so ridiculous that I stopped playing it within 5 minutes last time I tried.

Over the years, game developers have figured out how to create smoother gaming experiences such that the controls don’t interfere with the actual gameplay (or interfere less). The changes have been so gradual that we don’t usually notice them. Sometimes we do; I, for example, was elated when I was finally able to automate workers in a Civilization game. But in general, all the changes become most apparent when we try to go back and play the old games and find that controlling anything that happens is just more trouble than we want to deal with.

So what about ports of old games?

For the longest time (particularly when I was a college student and hard-up for cash), I felt like buying ports of old games was a waste of money. In some cases I still had the original game and a machine on which I could play it; in other cases I could easily find an emulated version of the original online; and in other cases, the port featured updated graphics and other changes whose merits I was too stubborn to consider.

Then, of course, there was the ridiculous rates at which Squaresoft was releasing ports of the same Final Fantasy games over and over again for different systems. How many versions of the original game do we need, really?

I’ve finally been putting some real time into playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the 3DS, though, and it’s gotten me thinking.

The control scheme of this edition of Ocarina is very different from that of the original. It has to be. The original game was on the Nintendo 64, which had an incredibly wonky and sometimes bruise-inducing controller unlike anything that has come before or since. The 3DS has a pretty standard controller setup with the addition of a second, touch-enabled screen. Even if they’d completely ignored the touch screen, which would have been stupid, they’d have had to remap all the button controls.

The thing is, the N64 controller had more buttons than does the 3DS, so there was no good way they could have redone the controls without using the touch screen. The touch screen basically enabled the port to work. They did better than that, though, by taking advantage of the touch screen to make it easy to play the Ocarina without taking up an item slot and downright impossible to activate Navi, your annoying fairy guide, by mistake. And this is in addition to the natural change of making it so that your map, equipment, and items are all easily accessible via the touch screen.

The end result of the way in which they implemented the port is that you can enjoy the beloved game of your childhood without the constrictions of problems inherent in the old user interface design. They also upgraded the graphics just enough to keep it from looking like trash at the new, higher resolution. (Not to mention just enough 3D to enhance the existing game environment.) They took a great deal of care to preserve the original game without letting it fall prey to having an outdated interface.

I’ve seen plenty of ports that aren’t half so classy, but the port of Ocarina of Time makes a compelling argument for their potential.

Could it be that the reason new kids on the gaming block won’t play the old classics isn’t graphics at all? If I know how good a game is and won’t play it again because the controls suck, why would I expect someone used to modern games to play it?

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