When Games Were Still Just Games: Returning to the Roots

A lot of games these days take themselves too seriously. All too often, developers half-heartedly attempt to provide some grander justification for their gameplay mechanics to provide alleged immersion or believability for the player. Usually, this added contextualization comes in the form of a narrative setup of some sort. Braid, for example, is a game that places heavy importance on its philosophical undertones defining the meaning of Tim's time-traveling abilities. Modern Warfare games try utilize (relatively?) realistic settings in order to draw the player's attention and make them care about where they're fighting. The extent to which individual games naturally do this varies and while it's certainly good and necessary that some games push those boundaries, personally, sometimes I just want a game that's a regular game. I like games that have nothing more than pure, undiluted gameplay, relying on just that to make or break the entire experience. It's what games consisted of at the very beginning and, ultimately, something they can never break away from completely. This is therefore a list of games that, in my opinion, celebrate pure gameplay-driven experiences and nothing more.

To clarify what actually qualifies for this list, here are a few bullet points of what I usually keep in mind as I figure out which games make the cut:

  • Story is entirely tertiary and detached from the gameplay. At most, a game that's on this list will have a small amount of story, but is not fleshed out to the point that it is necessary to enjoy the game at all. More often than not, these are games that mostly have premises that are fleshed out briefly in an instruction manual or in an attract mode of some sort. If any part of the actual gameplay involves someone mentioning that you're doing a mechanic for a greater good of some sort (ie: parkour running in Mirror's Edge to "take down the man"), that disqualifies the game.
  • Production values aren't outrageous. Beings as these games make gameplay the sole star of the experience, they don't necessarily have to go out of their way to be grandiose if it won't make the act of playing the game any better. This doesn't mean that games that make this list can't look or sound great; it's just prioritized a lot less in the greater scheme of things. More likely than not, this also means that the games on this list were produced by small teams; games with such focused scopes often don't need a lot of people to bring them to life.
  • The game was released in 2000 or later. This list is meant to focus on relatively modern games that still adhere to the spirit of being gameplay-driven, like what was commonly seen in the 70s and 80s. While a lot of games in the 90s exhibited those same traits, they're just a bit too dated to really qualify as belonging in the sort of time period this list wants to address. These games are an antithesis to modern trends and were released right alongside them. I want to celebrate that .

List items

  • A lot of scrolling shooters could qualify for this list, but none are probably quite as deserving as Ikaruga. With a story that's essentially nonexistent without looking it up elsewhere, the only two things Ikaruga is about are color coordination and shooting ships. Together, they make for a beautiful game that is hellbent on expecting perfect playing from you. The only thing you can really do in the game is get better at shooting enemies and switching colors at the right times. It's a difficult game to master, but the eloquence that Ikaruga possesses, if such a thing is possible with a game, makes it an iconic gameplay-driven experience.

  • Bangai-O HD, on all accounts, is a dumb game. You pilot a miniscule robot whose main function is to shoot a lot of missiles simultaneously and often. Sometimes the missiles lock onto enemies, sometimes they bounce off of walls, and sometimes they just explode really nicely, but at the end of the day, you're just shooting missile after missile constantly. The part that makes Bangai-O HD stand out as a game is how it takes that premise and turns it into a puzzle game of sorts. Thanks to a variety of really absurd, unfavorable level designs and weapon loadouts, Bangai-O HD is a game that's still about explosions, but it's about making the right explosions at the right time. It's a beautiful symphony of destruction once you start really getting good at the game. Without the sheer polish that the gameplay has and those creative level designs, this game would be nothing. Luckily, it does have those things and it's an awesome game as a result.

  • Katamari Damacy is a game that gets a lot of attention for having a completely loony story, but when you get down to it, it's the (admittedly still crazy) gameplay that really holds everything together. Rolling things around is the name of the game and that's it. Addiction comes out of a primitive desire to just make your ball bigger and the game lets you achieve that with anything and everything you can roll over. It's an insane game, but one that's ultimately defined just by that simple acting of rolling things up and is, in a sense, very arcade-y in its single-mindedness.

  • There is no ulterior motive that SSX Tricky presents in getting you to virtually snowboard; you just do it for the sake of snowboarding and how awesome it feels to play. It's by no means a realistic game, but that's also the point: it's fun to pull of the impossible tricks and push other racers around as you race towards the finish line. The only reason you keep playing the game is because the fun and good feelings don't disappear and it's entirely thanks to the gameplay that it's possible. It's a video game about (impossibly extreme) snowboarding and never tries to be anything else.

  • The dual-joystick shooter at its most refined, Geometry Wars 2 is noteworthy for taking the basic gameplay tenets of the genre and recontextualizing them for its individual modes. The controls and actual mechanics always remain the same, but the rules can drastically change depending which mode you choose. You're then forced to get good at the game on those terms, skills which then transfer back into the more vanilla modes that are just about endurance and score. Like Ikaruga, there isn't a whole lot there to be skilled at in Geometry Wars 2, but what is present will push you to improve, guaranteed.

  • Ghost trains. There ain't nothing else to Pac-Man Championship Edition DX other than ghost trains, but it's a hell of an addition to one of the most defining arcade games the medium has ever offered.