Dif­fi­culty Switch

Hard game crit­i­cism

EDGE - - SECTIONS - IAN BO­GOST Ian Bo­gost is an au­thor and game de­signer. His award­win­ning A Slow Year is avail­able at www.bit.ly/1eQalad

Ian Bo­gost imag­ines a world in which the Turbo-Ex­press flour­ished

While it’s tough to pick from among the rea­sons the Tur­boGrafx-16 is the best videogame con­sole ever made, here’s my fa­vorite: its as­so­ci­ated Tur­boEx­press hand­held sys­tem.

If you’ve never heard of the NEC Tur­boGrafx, it’s ei­ther be­cause you’re too young (it was first re­leased in Ja­pan in 1987 and in North Amer­ica in 1989), or you live in Europe (the sys­tem’s 1990 release on the con­ti­nent was lim­ited), or you fell prey to the false but widely held be­lief that the SNES or Sega Ge­n­e­sis (Mega Drive) were the ‘bet­ter’ 16bit con­soles. It’s OK, I for­give you.

In fact, I for­give us all, be­cause no one has yet come to terms with the prom­ises first set by the Tur­boGrafx: tini­ness and ubiq­uity. The Ja­panese version, which bore the con­fus­ing ti­tle PC En­gine, was a tiny thing (less than six inches square), whose games came on thin ROM car­tridges known as HuCards. Thanks to the mod­est size of the in­ter­nal elec­tron­ics and the game car­tridges, NEC was able to cre­ate a hand­held sys­tem that was tech­ni­cally iden­ti­cal to the home con­sole. The very same games you played in front of the tele­vi­sion could be pock­eted and played some more on the bus or at the park.

It was ex­pen­sive (as much as US$300 or so), and it didn’t sell very well. But the value propo­si­tion was clear: in­stead of in­vest­ing in a mono­chrome Game­Boy, whose sim­pler games you’d have to pur­chase separately, the Tur­boEx­press of­fered the abil­ity to play one set of games any­where. Sure, it burned through AA bat­ter­ies in do­ing so, but the same op­por­tu­nity wouldn’t arise again un­til the Sega No­mad, a por­ta­ble de­vice that played Ge­n­e­sis car­tridges.

Twenty-five years later, we still can’t play the same games across our TVs, PCs and hand­helds. True, oc­ca­sion­ally a PC release makes it later to con­sole, or a con­sole release makes it to mo­bile. Some games do release si­mul­ta­ne­ously on all plat­forms, a feat that re­quires de­sign­ing care­fully for dif­fer­ent in­put meth­ods, screens and at­ten­tion spans.

But even so, you’ll have to re­pur­chase the game on ev­ery plat­form you want to play it on. And thanks to the fire­walls set up be­tween de­vices, any progress you make in one place won’t be re­flected else­where. To­day, mul­ti­plat­form games are pub­lished to reach the largest pos­si­ble au­di­ence, dis­trib­uted across ev­ery pos­si­ble plat­form. The mar­ket for games was much smaller in 1990, true, but the idea that the same game – the copy you al­ready own, not just the same ti­tle – might be por­ta­ble be­tween sys­tems re­mains a dream that prob­a­bly sounds too crazy to ever be im­ple­mented.

It’s not so crazy if you think about how other me­dia for­mats work, or at least how they used to work. A video cas­sette or DVD could be taken with you, moved from your house to your friend’s, for ex­am­ple. A cas­sette or a CD could be moved from kitchen counter to car. And a book – well, a book could be taken any­where, or sold or lent or bor­rowed.

In this re­spect, other me­dia has ac­tu­ally caught up with the dig­i­tal Balka­ni­sa­tion of games. Movies and mu­sic and even books are no longer owned, but rented from var­i­ous providers: your ca­ble com­pany, Net­flix, Ama­zon, Ap­ple and so forth. Trans­fer­ring li­cences be­tween de­vices is com­plex and time con­sum­ing, and of­ten lim­ited to a spe­cific num­ber of to­tal ma­chines any­way.

But per­haps there’s still a chance that games could es­cape the se­questered fate they have par­tially helped cre­ate. Sub­stan­tial dif­fer­ences still ex­ist be­tween game plat­forms, and in­deed one of the ways con­sole and hand­held man­u­fac­tur­ers mar­ket is by means of that dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion. But game sys­tems have also be­come a lot more ho­mo­ge­neous in re­cent years. PS4’s de­sign is sim­pler and more like a PC, and even Nin­tendo’s Wii U has more or less shed the ne­ces­sity of Wii Re­motes. Mean­while, cross­plat­form de­vel­op­ment and dis­tri­bu­tion has be­come eas­ier thanks to en­vi­ron­ments such as Unity, which build to many dif­fer­ent plat­forms with rel­a­tive ease.

The miss­ing bit is a busi­ness case for buy-once, play-any­where games, and a tech­ni­cal mech­a­nism by which to do it. Ad­mit­tedly, it’s hard to imag­ine such a thing any time soon, if at all. Even de­vel­op­ers them­selves couldn’t cre­ate a means that would over­come the sand­boxes of var­i­ous plat­forms. And so we re­turn to the Tur­boEx­press, this time to la­ment it as a dead branch of a hy­po­thet­i­cal lin­eage, a Ne­an­derthal of past gam­ing’s fu­ture.

Twenty-five years later, we still can’t play the same games across our TVs, PCs and hand­helds

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