Endless hours of frustration broken up only by screaming fits, trips to the local church to offer up a prayer to the gods and fruitless phone calls to friends suffering the same problems. The only chance of salvation coming in the hope that the geeky kid from the year below you at school had all the answers and would be willing to offer them up in that smug manner of his. Failing all that the latest editions of the scant array of gaming magazines would be pored over the minute they entered the newsagents in the vain hope of something, anything to help you past the bit that you were 'stuck' on in your current game of choice.
Does anyone remember what it was like to be stuck on a game? And I mean properly stuck, as in tears of rage and anguish rolling down your face with no hope of a quick fix in the guise of countless cheats sites or walkthroughs via youtube. So stuck that three weeks later you still haven't negotiated your way past whatever it is that's in effect ruining your life and giving you sleepness nights not to mention the bruised knuckles attained from punching walls in frustration. This, for me anyway, was the gaming world that I grew up in where to be a gamer was still seen as slightly nerdy and something to be sneered upon. However on the plus side because we were seen as a niche audience we were treated as such by games developers eager to test and strain our young, fertile little minds with ever more complex and maddeningly difficult games in each and every genre. Leading to symptoms akin to a crack addict being experienced every day as we shuffled our way through school with sunken, hollow eyes which reflected the horrors of the night before and scared all the but the hardiest of classmates.
The latest generation of gaming consoles has finally seen the explosion in popularity of gaming that many have been predicted for years. With these new consoles the steps taken in terms of sensual pleasures has been staggering with our eyes and ears left reeling by the wondrous delights unfolding before us, how long will it be before we can taste, smell and maybe even touch the games that we play?!? That may seem a little far fetched but the levels of interaction available in this most personal of media pastimes far outstrips that of film, music or any of the other arts. But with this increase in technology and by proxy, costs, has come an added pressure to sell these shiny consoles to a wider audience so that Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo can recoup the massive outlay required to manufacture these high end machines. So as a CEO at a huge congolomorate company how do you go about increasing your sales? By targetting an untapped market of course, and we have seen Nintendo do this to devastating effect with the Wii. Unfortunately the knock on effect of this has seen Microsoft and Sony prick up their ears inquisitvely and quickly follow suit eager not to miss out on providing this new uninitiated type of gamer with the kind of fare which they seem to delight in, leaving them whiling the day away with the likes of Ant and Dec and other such luminaries.
Initially this new brand of game seemed to be only manifesting itself in throwaway titles the likes of which serious gamers wouldn't waste their time with but in the last couple of years a worrying trend has emerged with hitherto untouched genres bearing all the hallmarks of a serious dumbing down. At first it was barely noticeable with an odd Real Time Event or an occasional hint appearing when you'd lost your way but gradually it's begun to spread like a cancer and now it seems that almost every game released will gently hold your hand as you negotitiate your way through proceedings. The obvious retort to a complaint of this nature is 'well why not just play it on a harder difficulty then?' and in some cases this is a pertinent response. In FPS titles and games where the main obstacle to finishing the game is enemy AI then yes cranking up the difficulty will obviously make things much harder and result in a more wholesome gaming experience. But what of other genre's? When was the last time an action/adventure title presented a puzzle to you that was actually puzzling? The newer iterations in the Tomb Raider series are a far cry from the original trilogy and the simplicity and ease of the so called puzzles made for a tame experience despite the so called 'return to form' of Lara Croft. And what of one of the biggest hits of last year, Arkham Asylum? True it was quite an enjoyable game and is arguably the finest superhero title ever released, but did anyone else feel slightly mollycoddled whilst playing it? When I die at the hands of an end of level boss I don't expect to be told how to defeat it on the loading screen whilst I prepare for my next go but the creators of Arkham Asylum deemed this a necessary feature, again you can point to the upping of the difficulty level as a case for the defence but how many people actually buy a new game and proceed to play it on the hardest difficulty from the off? It's something I personally have never done but there may come a time when this will be the normal course of action for anyone who considers themselves a time served gamer regardless of their skill level.
Perhaps the thorniest issue in the continual dumbing down of games has been the dreaded rewind function in racing titles. I first encountered this feature in Codemasters GRID and while I found the novelty factor of it quite pleasing I never imagined that it would find itself incorporated in any of the serious racing titles. Lo and behold Forza Motorsport 3 comes out and there it is hidden beneath the multitude of official licensed cars and countless customisable options peering sneakily out from each and every apex, the bloody rewind function!! Again the argument will go something like 'well if you don't like it then just don't use it' but that's akin to offering a dying man a cure for his ails and him refusing it, if it there's you're going to use it because we gamers as a species are inherently lazy and any quick fix will always be pounced upon. I just worry about where the rewind function will end up next, it's already been seen in Prince of Persia titles and made fleeting appearances in some FPS's but what if EA decide they like the look of it and include it in their yearly sports updates. Just imagine lining up a penalty in the last minute of the league decider in FIFA 11, you misjudge your shot and it ends up crashing against the bar....not to worry just press the rewind function and go again! You need never lose a game again, oh the joy! There may be a touch of sarcasm going on here but would anybody really be that shocked if something like that did become reality, I know I wouldn't.
It's funny really when you think about how far gaming has travelled in the last twenty years and in a way people like us have almost come full circle. From being a minority group when we began gaming when it wasn't fashionable, to now finding ourselves as an impoverished class once more with developers focussing on providing Mr & Mrs Smith and their 2.4 children with something to entertain them and less and less releases pandering to gamers seeking a real challenge. Every now and again however a title will come out that reaffirms your faith in one of your favourite pastimes and we can only hope and pray that salvation will come from the few developers out there who are interested in creating a fulfilling experience rather than just filling their pockets.
We are on the cusp of yet another new era in gaming with the imminent arrival of Project Natal and Sony's Motion Sensing Controller and whilst some of us are sceptical towards ideas like this we will invariably find ourselves purchasing said products out of a morbid curiosity. Whether these or any of the other various ideas to take gaming to the next level prove to be successful remains to be seen but what can't be denied is that with each and every passing year games will be continued to be dumbed down with developers focussing on providing bite sized amiable single player modes for casual gamers and placating the young up and coming hardcore gamers with immense online modes. Where that leaves the rest of us remains to be seen.