I Miss How Weird Games Used to Be

In my article about Need for Speed: Payback yesterday, I wrote about how, when I play racing games, I’m always focused on how the game I’m playing is differentiating itself from other games in genre:

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/9kqj9e/retro-racing-games-weird-super-sprint-excitebike-need-for-speed-payback
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One of the things that I have been growing more interested in over the years is how movement can be abstracted in weird fun ways in games like QWOP or Octodad or Surgeon Simulator. Yeah, often it’s done for the sake of humor, but I’d like to see more experiments like this or even just small things, like how the original Assassin’s Creed games controls were designed to associate with different parts of the body.

I also wish there were more different approaches to fighting games. All things considered, the set of rules that define the fighting genre are very limiting in some ways and that’s a shame. When For Honor came out earlier this year, I was very excited as it seemed like a very different approach to what a fighting game could be. And while the game has several problems, I thought the core idea at the center of the dueling system was neat as hell and I’d like to see more fighting games that throw the rules away in a similar fashion and invent a new approach to the genre.

Worth mentioning SuperBunnyHop has a video on this that is pretty good too!

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For a lot of games, mostly shooters, they use the same UI and button layout so that anyone can easily play. But that does make all those games feel too similar and feel lacking. AAA may look away from being weird but weird can still be found.

I really liked how Metroid Prime deviated from the rapidly-standardizing set of console FPS controls, and instead used something more akin to Zelda-esque Z-Targeting. It placed a lower premium on the player being able to precision-aim, which wasn’t a bad thing - there was plenty going on in that game, it didn’t need to also demand that the player be good at making headshots.


Sega should do an Out Run 3, I still play 2 religiously, it’s my go-to game when I just want to go fast, enjoy the scenery and listen to music. I don’t even care if there are no ferrari cars at this point.


Killer7 was fascinating (in more ways than one) in that it relegated movement to on-rails. This allowed it to simultaneously function as a streamlined adventure game (the rails would take you to the point-and-click areas) and an intense shooter (standing still to shoot in first-person is nerve-racking). I understand why few, if any, games have tried similar movement since but I still admire it’s audacity. And then there’s the story…


Remember when no one knew what a 3D platformer was supposed to be? You had Jumping Flash, Crash Bandicoot and (yes) Bubsy 3D on the PlayStation before Super Mario 64, all with radically different concepts: first-person or third? Narrow corridors or open environments? Tank or camera-relative controls? And before then there were puzzlier isometric attempts on PCs, like Head Over Heels or Mystic Towers. After SM64 nearly every notable 3D platformer is exploration, light puzzles, and collecting trinkets. A useful formula, and it still has great potential (see Odyssey), but it seems like the only variety is from either indie throwbacks like Lumo or, uh, Sonic actually.

All I can think of are a ton of examples of old DOS games that I wouldn’t call unique in a great way, but they were certainly unique. Platformers that put movement on the arrow keys and jump on the J key, because J is for jump and this game was coded by one dude and you found it on a 1000 in 1 shareware CD and you can get a full copy for $15 plus shipping and handling by mailing the dude’s house.

Real talk: I miss those 1000 in 1 shareware CDs.

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Gunstar Heroes is a weeeeeeird take on run n gun action games. It’s got melee attacks, the ability to throw people and objects at each other for damage, bizarre boss fights (one big one and a few small ones that get paid homage in Cuphead), an auto scrolling space shooter segment, weapon mixing, and light RPG mechanics (max HP goes up after each mission).

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god this is such a good take. It’s super rare that I play something truly unlike anything I’ve ever played before – stuff like space funeral or proteus or diaries of a spaceport janitor is few and far between in my experience.

there’s a really great piece by lana polansky from last year about all the weird shit that used to get made before video games really became a Proper Industry in the 90s, when most games were made by individuals or small teams just doing weird stuff all the time.

in 2013/2014 i remember playing glitchhikers, gone home, and papers, please all really close to each other and together they radically expanded what i thought video games were for, and what i wanted my own games to do, and every time i get to play a game that does that is an absolute delight


A lot of things have been homogenized lately. I do think we’re getting a little more weird and fun with some big games lately like you used to see back in the day, but those big games are still very much in line with standard games in the genre. Saints Row gets out there, but the mechanics of what you’re doing is boilerplate third person open world crime game stuff. I think a lot of the weird stuff you see these days in big budget games is largely coming out of Japan.

I do miss the N64/PSX era weirdness and some of that bled through to early Gamecube/Xbox/PS2 era. Something like Turok 2’s monkey tag mode or the sheer absurdity of Timesplitters 2.

This seems like a good place to talk about how weird Assassin’s Creed used to be. Bizarre DNA memory plot, aliens, minimal HUD, puppeteer inspired controls… As well received as Origins has been critically, I can’t help but feel turned off by how full-on video-game-ass-video-game they went with its direction. Enemies with visible levels, damage numbers that pop out of dudes when you hit them, color coded loot… It seems like a cool game, but it just doesn’t look like Assassin’s Creed to me anymore.

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This is probably really obvious but Zelda 2 was weird as hell. It blew my mind as a kid. I didn’t think it was good though. I still don’t, really, but I appreciate that they tried some completely different new things.

To be honest I don’t think there were a lot of weird types of action that I miss. I’m a world and story guy and am totally happy with a text-heavy mess. But I do really miss the bizarre variety of setting that there used to be in games. In the NES/SNES era I could pick up an RPG and not know whether it was going to be scifi (e.g. Shadowrun), high fantasy (a bunch of stuff), some insane hybrid of the two (Paladin’s Quest – I recently researched who did the art on this and bought an artbook of their work and it’s amazing), some weird offshoot of a genre setting (Faxanadu, which I still think has brilliant art).

There was even a 1991 NES RPG, Tombs & Treasure (JP: Azteka II: Templo del Sol), that was about exploring the ruins of the Mayan civilization and some kind of demonic presence beneath. That one seems to have been a port from a generation of consoles we never saw much over here (PC-9800, FM-7, X1) which is probably a gold mine of amazing stuff.

I doubt that we would have had much of this stuff that seems so experimental if Japan hadn’t had its own game industry churning things out with an entirely different cultural context. I hope that tools getting cheaper and easier means that we’ll start seeing people outside the large glob of mainstream gaming (and I’m not saying “indie” here because indie games are often trend-followers too) making things again without reference to, or care about, how games “should” be, but now that it’s such a huge industry it’s hard to even find those things.

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ArtDink’s PS1 games - stuff like Tail of the Sun, Carnage Heart, Aquanaut’s Holiday - are some of the most iconic “weird” games in my opinion. For their time, there was certainly nothing like them; even today, Tail of the Sun is a far cry from any “caveman simulator” like the upcoming Before or the cancelled B.C.

In general, the PS1 felt like the “weirdest” console to me. It wasn’t the first 3D console, but it definitely feels like the first console where 3D games where seriously viable from a technical and commercial standpoint. It feels a lot more open than the N64 by comparison. The PS1’s library is a lot larger, a lot weirder. A lot of really unpolished and experimental stuff, lots of obscure games by even more obscure developers and publishers. Stuff like LSD Dream Emulator, OverBlood, Vib Ribbon, Chaos Break, Intelligent Qube… it feels like a bunch of little companies with small budgets and strange ideas got devkits and tried to make something of them.

I think that sense of weirdness also extends to the visuals of PS1 games, especially that distinct texture warping effect. It makes it feel like the games themselves are bending at the seams.

The PS2 also has a vast library with plenty of weird games, and they have their charm for sure, but the “weird” games on PS2 don’t feel quite as weird as the PS1. There’s more budget, more polish, more formula. I’ve been playing and loving Okage: Shadow King, but it’s definitely not weird in the way of a game like, say, King’s Field or Shadow Tower (though even that franchise felt pretty formulaic after a while).

The closest I get to that level of weirdness these days is stuff on itch.io, or really deep dives on Steam.

Fantasic article by Austin. I’ve actually found myself seeking out those unique experiences as I’ve grown older. Back in the day when I used to play games on the C64 and the NES a lot of games were like that - unique in trying to figure how to represent a certain situation or how to communicate a space. It’s only logical that mechanics and systems have been consolidated and developers are now doing things the way they “work” best. But we’ve lost something along the way it seems. Things have gotten (for AAA devs) way too expensive to experiment, and the quirky, innovative experiences have been pushed to the indie space. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I would just like to see bigger developers take a bit more chances.