Malik  (8/30/06)

"The game just doesn't feel 'next-gen' enough for me."

The words I hate to hear the most since last November. Those are the words I see nearly each day when I check out news and developments with some of the games I'm less than certain about. This is what we all keep hearing, be it from gamers, fanboys, or reviewers. These are the words that should make all of our collective skin crawl.

Why are these words so bad? Why is it a pain in the ass to keep hearing about what is the supposed "biggest problem" of so many new games? It's simple and it should be rather evident to any person who is proud to claim the titles of geek and gamer for themselves.

First off, "next-gen" is a buzz word made to represent all that it is not. Next generation is what comes about when hardware is upgraded in substantial ways that allow new games that cannot be handled by the old generation's technology. For example, a N-64 was once next-gen (back when the SNES was Nintendo's flag ship), but a N-64 with the optional memory upgrade was still the same generation. The Dreamcast, despite what many want to believe, was once next-gen when the Saturn was being put to bed. The 360 IS next-gen...or at least it was when it was new. It's now current generation hardware, while the Wii (despite what many Microsoft and Sony fanboys want to believe) and the PS3 are next-gen because they are new, or in this case not yet released.

However, while hardware brings next-gen, in all it's glory, software is a different matter. Software will never truly be next-gen, since it's the same old stuff. I don't mean that to make games sound like they can't evolve and become more than they were in previous days. I simply mean that the genres exist, the controls exist, most plots and styles exist, and games are still software encoded upon some sort of media (including digitally distributed games stored on memory cards or hard drives) that is ran on a piece of hardware.

The Real Problem

For some reason, people have started to get some wacky ideas of what is needed in games made for next-gen hardware. This mainly came about due to the technological leaps found in old generation changes. For example, the NES looked like ass. It's true. I love my NES, still after all these years, but I know that these games never really did look great as opposed to looking good enough to play. Then when the SNES came along, the graphics made giant leaps. Look at an early SNES game, like Actraiser (in particular, the golden mask that was one of the bosses...which I cannot locate an image of), and then look at one of the later NES games (FF3 is a good one, and the same goes for Dragon Quest IV). Do you see a difference? I know I do.

This remained true for quite some time. The old days of the SNES were put to shame when the Playstation came along and revolutionized what we could visually take away from a game. However, while a game like FF9 would look nice in the 32-bit days, FFX (despite how the game just saddens me for how shallow it is) was visually superior in far too many ways to count. This was seen in all of the previous generation advances.

However, the last/current generation of the GCN, XBox, and PS2 were the last generation that could really bring about more visual clarity without needing advanced display technology (HD-TV). So, when the 360 hit the streets almost a year ago, the games didn't really feel visually improved as much as they were just looking sharper when shown on the correct display type. Why? It wasn't because of the hardware not being "next-gen" enough, but rather that we have seen too many advances. Let's put it this way; if video games keep looking more life-like with each generation, and they now can look very life-like with the PS2 generation (think the afore mentioned FFX), where can we go from here? Can we look substantially better than almost perfect? Can games look better than real? I don't think fact, I know we can't top perfection.

Now, I'm not saying we have reached visual perfection. That will still be a little ways away. However, we are mighty close to it, at least as far as games are concerned.

Since many of the old systems would show the bulk of their advances in the visuals (which are typically some of the most technologically intensive parts of a game), where can we go for an example of improvement if the visuals of the past are now longer just memories of horribly implemented 2D sprites?

The Answer

How about we start to dig a little deeper into what the next generation can give us? It's not as frightening and as difficult as many make it out to be. If we don't have visuals as our crutch anymore, it just means we can start to use our own brains for once.

We can start by looking at the visual feats that could not be done before, since this would be the easiest way to leave the safety of the eye-candy crutch. For example, in the past we could count on some massive battles with up to a dozen or so enemies on screen at a time. While we had massive numbers of polygons making up a single image, we still were limited in number enough to keep the total number of creations that are made of massive polygons pretty low. For example, while Dynasty Warriors would usually look pretty good, we still had just a dozen or so people fighting at once. On the other hand, in the 360 generation, we will have hundreds of orcs battling Kameo, or hundreds of goblins trying to stop the heroes of Ninety Nine Nights. Visual quality may not have been greatly enhanced (outside of high definition), but the quantity sure has.

We can also look at where the hardware developers and software developers can meet to make unique experiences. For example, we can soon have downloadable games from Nintendo's Wii that span all the great past eras of Nintendo, and even some of the NEC and Sega eras. That may not sound like a massive "next-gen" feat, but I can tell you that I've never played a good emulator version of a game on a console before...but that should all chance in a few months.

Better yet, let's see some more of that hardware/software merger in episodal content. While the XBox gave us some of that feel with downloadable content, it felt only good enough in most cases. However, the current 360 Marketplace seems to already be offering it all in many improved ways. Could we update and improve Morrowind on the XBox? No. Can we do so for Oblivion? Damn straight. True, money may have to change hands, but the system itself is rather painless and polished. So, if visuals being improved from "good enough" to "better" is a marker of next-gen, then why not count game upgrading doing the same?

We also see some new forms of interaction in one corner of the next-gen world. Yes, I'm talking about the Wii. While spatial mouse technology is old, it was also unrefined. However, if Nintendo delivers what it must to survive, it will have been upgraded to guessed generation. Not only is that technology being greatly improved, it is also being introduced in a way in which we've never seen it done (correctly, at least) before. If that's not "next-gen" enough, then I don't know what is.

What about games...

In the end, games simply will not be able to feel truly next-gen. This all comes down to the simple problem that Nintendo seems to be the only company addressing; if visuals and genres have all been done before, what can be done to save a stagnant game industry? Nintendo is not only trying to solve that with innovative controllers, but also with innovative games. Brain Age? That's new to the gaming world. The same can be seen in many of the more recent Nintendo franchises, like Animal Crossing and Nintendogs.

So, if hardware cannot show the shock and awe effect of games being "next-gen" it doesn't mean that we have completely stagnated. It just means that it's time to stop looking entirely at the "next-gen" easy answer. It's time to dig a little deeper and see if a game is offering something that's either entirely novel (making a game as close to "next-gen" as possible) or offering a higher level of quality (showing off a console's "next-gen" potential). After all, a typical game is made for the next-gen of consoles, and it's not a next-gen game being made for a random console.

The Real Gamer's Answer

However, in the end it's one important fact that will remain king to all true gamers and geeks. It's not how "next-gen" a game is. It's not how visually impressive a game is. It's not even in this ballpark.

The most important factor going into the Wii/360/PS3 generation, as it was with all generations of gaming, is how good the games are. If you don't feel Kameo is a good representation of next-gen and chose to skip the game for that reason, then it's your loss. If you skip Dead Rising because the visuals are not the best ever imagined...your loss again. If you skip out on PGR 3 because it looks only a little better than past games, then you lose again. If you try these games, despite what many say about their "next-gen" worth, andyou still don't like them for what they are, then you are coming out ahead by sampling games with an open mind.

The fun of a game has absolutely nothing to do with the looks. If looks were all that mattered, then portable gaming would be owned by the PSP (which has visual superiority over the DS). If looks were all that mattered, then we would never have seen Animal Crossing take the GCN by storm. No, the truly important games are the ones that can truly entertain us. That's why I still have a NES, SNES, N-64, GCN, GB, GBA, DS, Virtual Boy, and will soon have a Wii in my home. These all offer different scopes of the evolution of games, and they all were fun...ok, the Virtual Boy is not necessarily great, but it did have a few bits of fun in it's red on black monochromatic world. The same goes for the evolution of Sega, Microsoft, and Sony.


So, while next-gen is no longer something that can easily be labeled and determined by the most obvious of factors (visuals), it still exists. It can be seen in small features of technological amazement (like hundreds of characters on screen at a time), technological ease (integration of online and offline worlds), or in the more subtle aspects (sound quality). Try to get many of the current 360 games (that are not direct ports from the PS2 or XBox) playable on the XBox hardware and you'd see some serious losses.

However, this is not what we should all care about. In fact, this is the last thing a gamer should worry about. What matters in a time when game prices keep increasing (be it from the cost of the game to the price of nearly required downloads) is if the games are really worth it. Can we truly place a price on a game by it's "next-gen" qualities? No. However, I can easily say that Suikoden (the original), despite it's obvious visuals flaws, would still be more worth the price of admission, to me at least, than almost any PS2 RPG. Wild Arms was better in it's first iteration on the Plyastation than it was remake and "updated" on the PS2 in Alter Code F. Even FF4 was more advanced on the "dated" SNES than on the GBA.

Let your opinions be more focused on quality of gaming and not on quality of hype and buzz words. That is the only way to reach true geek enlightenment.