One of the common adages amongst the grizzled joystick veterans is that video games used to be harder back in the day. This is, of course, absolutely true for the most part, with punishing 8-bit titles frequently subjecting you to tight limitations towards success.
What fewer address beyond that is that this remains true for more modern gaming entries, as well. In the case of those late 80s platformers, the challenge would sometimes present itself in unfair or unreasonable ways, with only prior knowledge or your mastery of poor game mechanics offering you any chance of survival.
By the mid-2000’s, such matters were ironed out of AAA titles, rendering their difficulty more so by design. Such remains true for today’s gaming franchises, however there is now another consideration that lightens the load in the form of accessibility; that is to say, providing functionality to broaden a game’s appeal to the widest possible audience.
Consider it to be history repeating itself, causing the gatekeeping old guard to bemoan the fallen sanctity of constant, frustrating struggle. I myself might pooh-pooh the notion of games being too easy on the surface, however it is beginning to dawn on me that this is actually what I really want from video games. I just don’t particularly like to admit it.
The most obvious example of this is in Intelligent Systems’ venerable Fire Emblem franchise. Though I’m a late adopter to the series, first taking it for a spin in 2011 with the GBA entry, Sacred Stones, I fundamentally understand the core gameplay loop that made classic FE so engrossing.
Every single action carried a weight to it, a purpose that would set your hair on end should things take a turn for the worst. You might think one of your weaker units could pick off a hobbled foe for a hefty experience gain, only for them to whiff on a 90% hit chance and watch in horror as the retaliating blow hacks your soldier in twain.
Your options were either to press on without them, or (more likely) reset the map and start anew. Chapters can sometimes take hours to complete, making the investment of your time feel that much more critical. This is war, after all, so there ought to be consequences. Take it from someone who reckoned the hardy axe wielder Dozla could dispatch of the wicked Caellach one fateful day in the dunes.
Nowadays, I could easily oopsie that mistake from the record, send an alternate fighter in his place, and proceed merrily on my way. Job well done, Anthony, your reward is a successful mission and a man’s preventable death not weighing on your conscience.
A previous version of me might consider this to undermine the very purpose of permadeath, but in fairness, I’m not obligated to rewind time to rectify my failures. I could choose to play in the old style if I so wanted, and yet, I don’t. I am actively deciding to implement this function, and progressing through games at a healthier pace as a result.
Which brings me to the latest Nintendo game to do this; the long-awaited management sim, Pikmin 4. For my money, the original Pikmin had one of the tightest concepts in gaming history. You had 30 in-game days to collect the key components of your spaceship, and up to 100 Pikmin available to assist. How you would go about that was entirely up to you, and short of reading a strategy guide, your only recourse to track these items down was to explore the world yourself.
Remarkably, this was almost 22 years ago, and sensibilities would change with each iteration of the game that was added. Whether it was treasure radars, AI partners or herculean Purple Pikmin, more quality-of-life improvements were sprinkled in. Though the balancing issues of those violet brutes were perhaps a step too far in the eyes of many, that would pale in comparison to what Pikmin 4 offers.
The end of day scramble to locate stragglers is all but alleviated with upgrades that can summon idle Pikmin or command all units to return to home base. Your companion pupper, Oatchi, can outright manage the little blighters, or send you directly towards your destination with his keen sense of smell. Even minor changes like Pellet Posies only cycling through the colours of the active Pikmin allow for optimal yields.
And if all those failsafes don’t work out? You can just scooch back a few minutes to an earlier part of the day and alter your fate.
Rewinding time in Pikmin 4 sounds like an absolute betrayal to the foundation its predecessors so meticulously laid down. Didn’t have the right Pikmin for a certain task? Go back in time and allocate properly. Got jumped by a Creeping Chrysanthemum because you weren’t paying attention? Go back in time and prevent its ambush. Lost a battalion to the slobbering mouth of the dreaded Emperor Bulblax down in the deepest sublevel of a dungeon? Go back in time and do it again. And again. And again.
You can wilfully sacrifice as many Pikmin as you like until you have concluded the best method, feeling a curious sense of pride when the end of day report claims that no lives were lost. You know it’s not true, but gosh, it’s still so satisfying to see, isn’t it?
That fearful atmosphere is long gone, and yet, the enjoyment remains. I’m currently several in-game days deep in a pristine run, with zero fatalities and an optimised plan of attack. There is less in the way of accomplishment, so why am I then convinced that this is a contender for my 2023 game of the year?
It’s quite simple, really. I am now the master of Dandori.
You’ll see the word thrown about quite often while playing Pikmin 4, and it encapsulates the fundamentals of what the franchise is all about; strategic application of your resources to maximise productivity. Whereas this was once done as a result of trial-and-error, you are now presented with a task to tinker with at your leisure. These mulligans allow you to become the best version of yourself, no longer obligated to think on the fly and instead run countless simulations until you are satisfied.
Previously, a day with 50+ Pikmin deaths could perhaps be considered “good enough” if you ultimately achieved a particularly daunting goal. Now, I’m not playing for “good enough”. I’m seeking constant perfection. There is still a modicum of challenge here, and that Emperor Bulblax theoretical I posited before was based on actual experience; eventually conquering not one but two of the behemoths at the same time gave me that sense of fulfilment the series is known for.
Because it came after no fewer than twenty botched imaginary attempts, however, it didn’t have to be attached to a familiar, adjacent sense of stinging loss.
As the years go by and gaming becomes more ubiquitous, it is inevitable that the stakes will be lowered more and more. While this isn’t to everyone’s tastes, I can finally appreciate what is enjoyable about a more casual approach to this hobby. I have less free time in my days as I approach middle-age; the prospect of spending an entire afternoon in service of completing just one map isn’t as appealing as it used to be. So I cheat, just a little bit, taking what leeway the game gives me in service of my goal.
It’s offered a sense of tranquility in what could once be considered a somewhat stressful franchise, and my Dandori skills have benefitted wildly from it. That, and a relieved community of Pikmin that no longer have to live in fear of my general ineptitude.