Friday Roundtable: What Makes a Classic Game?

Like the vineyards of Bordeaux and the cutting-room floors of Hollywood, the videogames industry has provided its consumers with a significant amount of high-quality, arguably flawless material: we call the works that make up this material “classics”. Of course, the criteria that a game must achieve to reach this revered status is anything but objective. Whilst fans of the ’47 Cheval Blanc and The Godfather might scoff at enthusiastic quaffers of the ’99 Opus One Cabernet and passionate proponents of the newborn Inception, it would be hard to make a sound case against any one of them: they each achieve a sort of perfection or completeness, a nirvana if you will; equally, this applies to virtual entertainment, where Deus Ex and Modern Warfare are revered in the same category, as prime examples of the timeless work programmers and designers are capable of.

So, what constituent parts make up a classic game? Is it solid and innovative gameplay, or only one of those things? Is it something that combines this to a well-suited visual design? Must it be revolutionary? Or, is it simply a case of the steady onset of senescence: does a good game become a “classic” when it reaches its twentieth birthday, or when one might call it “retro”? On the contrary, can a game reach this nirvana-like status on the day of its release? Questions, questions, questions, all to be answered by this week’s panel of Pascal, Sebastian, Martin, and Armand.

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Pascal:

The term “classic” comes with a very subjective definition, I think. It’s one of those words that can literally mean different things to different people. Maybe you feel that Enslaved is a classic game because it had some pretty epic moments in it. Or perhaps Ice Breakers is a classic, simply because it has been around for quite a long time. Or will Guitar Hero be forever a classic due to its extensive market saturation and massive quantities of games sold?

Are you a classic, or are you just famous?

I think the best way to approach the term “classic” is through a combination of the above examples. To be considered a classic, a game will have to earn itself this reputation by bringing something suitably novel and lastingly awesome to the table in its gameplay. Tetris addicted the masses with its unforgettable (yet addictive) simplicity. It still continues to be held in the highest regard as puzzlers go even today, several decades after its initial game release.

Most classics also must undeniably have a few years under their belt; it almost seems mandatory to give the game the “test of time”; if the industry fails to produce other games that blow it out of the water, the game starts to take on classic status. Looking back, one can then say, “That was a classic game.” Final Fantasy VII was one such game, because even within its own franchise, many people feel it hasn’t been surpassed yet.

But that does beg one question: Is there such a thing as an “instant classic”; a game that achieves classic status shortly after its release, without the benefit of retrospective nostalgia?

Sebastian:

I feel like I’m taking the cop-out route on this one by saying there’s no set standard to make a truly “classic” game.

"The cake is a ---" *has throat cut*

I think what especially needs to be in a game considered a “classic”  is something really memorable, like GLaDOS in Portal, Fatalities in Mortal Kombat, or even the spider from Limbo. A shorter definition would be making parts of a game so memorable that they cannot be instantly repeated without comparison. How many game characters can run fast throughout a level without people comparing them to Sonic?

Yahtzee’s “Like Grand Theft Auto, but…” stamp is really indicative of how we treat classic games and what else they need to have. Since games have been around for so long, in order for something to really be “classic”,  it must be innovative. While there is room for games that just take concepts and do them right, like God of War and quicktime events, they also must innovate by adding a new gameplay style and taking those quicktime events and greatly improving them.

To Pascal’s point, I actually think games don’t necessarily need a few years under their belt to become a classic, as I believe there is such a thing as an “instant classic”. Braid was an instant classic,  as were FFVII and FFX;  both Portal games as well. Sometimes, you know a classic from the moment you play it.

Martin:

I think Pascal’s pretty close to the mark, but only with certain games.  For me, a classic game doesn’t have to do anything revolutionary, but it has to be solid in all the important areas,  most importantly gameplay.  Super Mario Bros. 3 is a perfect example of this – while it possessed some revolutionary aspects (such as the now taken-for-granted map screen), the game is, essentially, a refined version of the original Super Mario Bros.  Nevertheless, it is still held in high regard as one of the greatest games of all time, and that’s because it is insanely fun to play.

Mario: are you born classic?

However, when a game brings something new to gaming then it usually gains classic status due to its impact on the industry.  As we discussed in last week’s Friday Roundtable discussion, Halo: Combat Evolved popularised and made good use of regenerative health.  While I love the game, the gameplay isn’t incredible from start to finish, and many missions involve a lot of dull backtracking or mindless, linear romps (read: the “Library” mission); I consider games like GoldenEye 007 or Perfect Dark to be far superior examples of classic FPS gameplay.  Halo: Combat Evolved, on the other hand, really broke new ground on the multiplayer side of things, with its well-implemented co-op campaign and system-link, almost-PC level competitive game modes.

Therefore, I think that games can earn “classic” status for different reasons.  Ten years from now, many people will refer to Call of Duty as a classic game, not because it was a great, all-round package, but rather because it was a great multiplayer game.  Knowing our luck, it’ll still be around by then anyway!

As for Pascal’s point about an “instant classic”, I can think of one game that has already achieved this.  I just know I’m going to get a ton of angry letters from gamers when I say this, but Super Mario Galaxy 2 is certainly one of those games that meets this criteria.  It’s just one of those games that gets absolutely everything spot-on, incorporating some fun new elements, while perfecting all the aspects of a 3D platformer.  It’s instantly familiar, but it’s also something brand new.  Of course, my view on this is very subjective.

Pascal:

To piggy-back on points you’ve both made, I wanna bring up series of games. Okay, we can agree that the first Super Mario Bros. was new and memorable and a classic. Let’s skip the game us Westerners know as Super Mario Bros. 2, and go to a game in the true Mario canon: Mario 3. So it had a map screen, and even though that was cool and newer back then, is that really the reason why people consider it a classic? I’ll even go so far as to wager that more people revere Mario 3 as a classic than Mario 1.

For that matter, let me address Mario Galaxy. I’ll say right off the bat that I’ve never played it; my comments are a little uneducated. But is it fair to hail Mario Galaxy 2 a classic? What about Mario Galaxy 1 or, for that matter, the original 3D Mario, Mario 64? Can a game be a classic when it simply builds (or just repeats) something a predecessor in the series already did?

Does tweaking something that ain't particularly broke make it classic material?

Martin:

I think this is an area where the definition of a classic is divided into two camps. Personally, I don’t think a game must be entirely new in order to attain classic status. Whereas something like Super Mario 64 and the first Super Mario Galaxy games were responsible for breaking new ground in the genre/gaming in general, Super Mario Galaxy 2 was the ultimate refinement. To me, it was one of the most perfect, complete gaming experiences I’ve ever had. Surely, this is what counts most?

Pascal: 

Like I said, I have no first-hand experience with the Galaxy games, but would wager to say the 2D Marios are definitely iconic classics.

One last facet about classic games has me wondering: does a game need to reach a certain level of sales or popularity with consumers, maybe even good ratings or critical reception, to be a classic? For instance, did the Sega Saturn deliver any classics, considering the fact that it was considered a “dead system” for much of its life cycle?

Sebastian:

Well, every medium has its “cult” classics; something doesn’t have to be a hit to be a classic.

Pretty much everything Clover Studio did was considered a classic or a cult classic: Enslaved, Valkyrie Chronicles, Killer 7; let’s not forget the Team Ico games. None of them sold  particularly well, but they are all revered for being wholly complete, close-to-flawless experiences.

Armand:

Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts: a “classic” or simply underrated?

I don’t think game sales have or should have anything to do with what makes a title a “classic.” Some of the best games on the PS2 for instance – absolute classics by my standard – were Beyond Good and Evil, Psychonauts, and both games by Team Ico, none of which sold all that well, but broke ground in creativity, artistry, and defining character and gender roles in games. There is an obvious element of classic being defined by a moment in time, many of the original Nintendo and Super Nintendo titles like Mega Man or Mario for instance defined gaming for a whole generation, and have thus established themselves as “classics” of gaming. If  Mega Man was introduced as a brand new character nowadays though, would he still hold the same value to gamers? Highly unlikely.

So many classics are just generational. Atari/early-arcade classics like Joust are all but unknown to a generation raised on N64s and PS1s. Just as Pokémon will never speak to my sensibilities now, had I been about five years younger, I might be the biggest fan out there. In this way, so much of it is about time and place, who or what the individual or collective culture was when the game came out.

Another point that’s important to remember is one gamer’s classic is another gamer’s shit-on-a-stick. GoldenEye 007 will never ring as a classic in my world because I had Doom growing up. Halo doesn’t mean anything to me because the PC already had great multiplayer shooters when that series hit the consoles. When viewed in these ways, classics quickly become subjective unless defined in very genre specific categories. Halo and GoldenEye are console classics, whereas Doom is a PC classic. Sure, you could play Doom 2 on the SNES, but why would you?

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Share Your ThoughtsBnB writers have shared their thoughts, and now it’s your turn. What do you think? In your eyes, what makes a game a “classic”?


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