Twin-stick shooters, and videogame history

This is the first entry in what I hope will be a series of short texts on videogame theory. The aim is to elaborate on concepts and examples I plan to use in class (as part of the « Introduction to game studies » seminar at University Bordeaux Montaigne) but also to force myself to think through my own experience as a gamer.

I welcome comments and remarks.

The history of videogames cannot be told without taking technology into account. At the most basic level, numerous contemporary mobile games would simply not have fitted on the hard drive of a PC until the early 1990s, and even small independent games typically occupy hundreds of mega-octets, making them unthinkable before the CD-Rom era. Or, to use a different and slightly more subjective metric, even the ugliest, most bare-bone contemporary mobile games typically looks better than best-selling Atari 2600 games of the late 1970s.

This does not mean, however, that the history of videogames should be confused with a chronicle of technological progress, tempting as that perspective may be for enthusiasts and for the industry itself. The staggering resilience of Moore’s law, in spite of regular rumors about its imminent demise, means that computing technology has been displaying measurable exponential progress since 1965. Applying this logic to gaming history makes it possible to offer a neat and alluring narrative, fraught with promises for players and investors.

It comes with numerous costs, however.

The first is the maintenance of an increasingly narrow conception of gaming as the expression of the cutting edge of technology. Most mobile games – i.e. the vast majority of contemporary video games – and numerous indie games on PCs and consoles disprove this narrative.1 Often overlooked, but no less meaningful, is the fact that many people play on older devices, whether by choice (for nostalgic, professional or scholarly purposes) or by necessity. The production of straight upgrades of older games sustains this narrative, keeping games « in the present » mostly by upgrading their technology. Their function as historical and industrial ideological play is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that game companies often use this opportunity to remove older versions from digital game stores, making an up-to-date technology a necessity for putative players and not merely an option.

A second cost is the undervaluation of the other factors shaping videogaming history, in particular the material and social conditions of play. This is perhaps best demonstrated by comparing two games, years apart, which are emphatically not differentiated by technology.

Robotron 2084 (1982) and Enter the Gungeon (2016) belong to the same genre of twin-stick shooters: they offer a top-down perspective on rooms filled with enemies, which the player(s) must clear, using one stick to move and the other to fire. Both are successful games, critically and financially, albeit in very different environment, and both have a reputation for being extremely difficult games – a point I shall revisit later.

Robotron (Williams, 1982), screenshot.

Robotron (Williams, 1982), screenshot.

Enter the Gungeon (DodgeRoll, 2016), screenshot.

Enter the Gungeon (DodgeRoll, 2016), screenshot.

The above screenshots do suggest that the technology underpinning Enter the Gungeon creates specific affordances, with a more textured environment, light sources and bigger sprites compared to its predecessor. Still, most of that narrow technological gap was bridged quickly, as evidenced by SmashTV (Williams, 1990), another example of the genre, co-created by Eugene Jarvis, the author of Robotron (for reference, the resolution in Robotron is 292*240px, but Smash TV is 399*253px, which is nearly identical to Gungeon‘s 480 x 270px2, when adjusted for a widescreen instead of a square monitor)

Smash TV (Williams, 1990), screenshot.

Smash TV (Williams, 1990), screenshot.

These visual and technical similarities are intentional to a large extent, as Enter the Gungeon strikes a familiar compromise for an independent game, conjuring nostalgia, exhibiting its « videogameness » as a badge of credibility and keeping development time/cost acceptable. Comparing these games nevertheless make it possible to temporarily neutralize the technological frame so often used to read the history of the medium, and forces us to consider what else may have changed between 1982 and 2016.

Watching videos of the gameplay immediately reveals some of these transformations. Bear in mind that the Robotron one is by an experience player, while the Enter the Gungeon video purports to capture its  creator’s first contact with the game (he is rather good):

The length of the two videos is probably the first useful indicator here. The Robotron game lasts for about one minute, while the 1st part of the Gungeon gameplay (including tutorial) lasts for nearly half-an-hour. This is not merely a difference in rhythm, for these two durations point towards widely diverging consumer experiences and economic contracts. Carly Kocureck, in Coin-Operated Americans3 offers a vivid analysis of the then-groundbreaking consumer practices introduced by early arcade games, and reminds us that the fabled quarter, the cost of each game, would be worth about 67 cents, in 2019 dollars. By that count, playing Robotron for 30 minutes would have cost the equivalent of $20, or perhaps more if the player substantially improved over time. By contrast, Gungeon typically retails for about $15 and is frequently discounted (as a matter of fact, my own copy was a giveaway from the Epic Game Store), while the always useful howlongtobeat.com website indicate that most players require about 22 hours to beat the game. Gungeon does require players to own the hardware running the program, but the contrast these figures force us to keep in mind the evolution of the status of videogames as commodities. Reflecting on what happens on the screen requires asking first who gets to play, and with what financial trade-off, beyond the celebrated but often isolated of early hackers « stealing time » from their universities to develop the first games.

The above videos also fail to capture the off-screen experience and its importance. Robotron 2084 was a key attraction in the arcades when it came out, and was meant to be played standing, in front of a crowd.

A Bay Area arcade debuts the new video game Robotron on July 8, 1982.Photo: Eric Luse, The Chronicle

A Bay Area arcade debuts the new video game Robotron on July 8, 1982. Photo: Eric Luse, The San Francisco Chronicle. Source : https://www.sfchronicle.com/oursf/article/Arcades-They-re-not-lost-to-us-after-all-6093141.php

As the above photo makes clear, this was a physically taxing experience, especially in the context of the sensory overload of the arcades. Robotron itself is the product of this context, and because of is success, it shaped it in turn for future release, priming gamers and arcade-owners for even more difficult games, for instance.

By contrast, here is the environment in which I typically play Enter the Gungeon:

Leaving aside the issue of the interface (and a comfortable black chair, not pictured here), the contrast between these two photographs could hardly be starker: this is a quiet, day-lit and personal space, in which the game can be experienced at a leisure. The differences between these two gaming environments and the experience they suggest is far more striking than the fairly minor technological advances on display in Gungeon. This strongly suggests that the work done by Michael Newman about the transformation of domestic space which enabled home consoles to be a success4 needs to be pursued and extended if one is to understand the history of videogames in general.

Though it is considerably easier to focus on what happens on the screen, and even easier to then focus only on pixel counts and texture details, the industry-supported approach to the medium which privilege these (through remakes but also through the myth of the « generations » of consoles)5 crucially under represent the many other factors shaping the playing experience. By depriving us of a perspective which recognizes the spatial and economic transformations in which videogames have been enmeshed, this form of history also prevents us from beginning to understand the role played by videogames today.

[updated on Sept. 9, 2020 to include the games’ resolutions]

  1. Though of course the « independent style » and the remediation of analog media may require extensive resources []
  2. https://www.reddit.com/r/EnterTheGungeon/comments/5qm71k/dodge_roll_will_you_guys_ever_fix_the_coop_camera/?st=IZOPNLPI&sh=9082d29e []
  3. Kocurek, Carly A. Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade. U of Minnesota Press, 2015. []
  4. Newman, Michael Z. Atari age: the emergence of video games in America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017. []
  5. Arsenault, Dominic. Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware: The Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017. []

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