I read a lot of gaming blogs and forums and news sites in order to keep up with my hobby, and to keep in touch with what are the more pressing topics and concerns of the gaming world of late. One such topic that seems to come up more and more is the “worth” of a game as equated to the length of play from start to finish. In other words: “This game only took 10 hours to beat, therefore, it’s not worth the $40-60 purchase price.”

There’s also the follow up argument that games “back in the day” took a lot longer to beat, and to be sure, I still haven’t beaten the original Castlevania on my NES in over 22 years (it should also be said, however, that the game normally glitches out and freezes on the Grim Reaper battle in Level 5). In either case, I guess you could say I got my money’s worth.

I started thinking about this complaint as to why people can plow through games now in a relatively short amount of time, as opposed to the hours/days/weeks it took back in the NES and often 16-bit days. I remember quite well staying up all night until sunrise with my friends attempting to beat both quests in Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins, and how freaking hard it was to go through dungeons in Kid Icarus. Or attempting to beat Dr. Wily in the first Mega Man. Have games become easier today, and if so, why?

Look at what an average gamer went up against in any game from the first three Super Mario Bros. games, Sonic the Hedgehog, Ninja Gaiden any number of Capcom or Konami games, etc.

* Limited continues (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario Bros. 2).
* Unlimited continues, but no save. Once the game is turned off, all progress is lost (Castlevania, Mega Man, Rygar).
* Secret codes to induce continues (Super Mario Bros.).
* Games with stupidly complex passwords that if you don’t copy it down right the first time, you’re basically screwed. And we couldn’t rely on the internet back then for codes (Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Goonies II, Metroid, Kid Icarus).
* Games with continually respawning or strict pattern-inducing enemies or obstacles (Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, Mega Man, Battletoads).
* You die, your character goes all the way back to the beginning of the level or world. Regardless of checkpoint (Countless games).
* Games that leave the player to wander aimlessly through the world without the slightest clue or indication of what to do, or where to go next (Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest).
* Games that employ numerous “fetch quests” or item collection (Donkey Kong 64).

Think about it. Think about how much time you really spent playing the same level over and over again because you botched a password, or ran out of continues, or physically could not go on any longer, or had to play an entire level all over again. It definitely builds up those “hours long, all night play sessions” you so vividly remember.

That’s nothing to say of RPGs (Phantasy Star, Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior), generally a 30-40 hour accomplishment. Again, think how fast a game would play going from Point A to Point B without having to level grind, or kill monsters to buy that awesome sword or magic spell? Without grinding or optional side quests, that could be a 10-12 hour outing at most. There’s also the point of contention that if you progress extensively without saving or reaching a “safe” spot, death in a game like this can lead to some monstrous backtracking.

Even replaying the Super Star Wars trilogy from the SNES days, the Wii’s Nintendo Channel monitored my playtime progress from beginning of game to the ending:

* Super Star Wars: Less than 2 hours.
* Super Empire Strikes Back: About 5 1/2 hours (I blame that Echo Base level).
* Super Return of the Jedi: About 3 1/2 hours.

Back in 1992, 1993, and 1994 (respectively), those games cost $59.99 a pop. Great games, but not even to the halfway 10-12 hour point that current gamers complain about.

And with the advent of YouTube, a majority of those games we stayed up all night with have been proven to be completed in under 30 minutes or less. Then again, “speed runner” gamers are somewhat freaks of nature and don’t necessarily represent the average gamer, then or now.

So what made games “easier” today?

* The ability to save progress via battery, system memory or memory card, eliminating stupid passwords.
* The ability to turn off a game, then back on to pick up where one left off.
* Starting out at checkpoints instead of starting from scratch on a level or world.
* More frequent save spots.
* More balanced difficulty in patterns and spawn points (Well, some games, anyway).
* Clear, concise objectives with indicators on how to get there (Again, some games).

There’s still certainly games that still don’t use these features, or in some cases, use them too much, but in many respects, what some people consider “length” then in retrospect, is just honestly “cheap”, “unfair”, or “artificial padding”.

So have games gotten “easier”, or are they just more forgiving in letting us retain the progress that we had already earned at that point? Does a “short” game equal a “bad” game? An average game of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, or Defender lasts less than 10 minutes from start to finish, and still retains their fun factor. The titles I listed above are generally considered “classics” by any gaming circle, and yet have the same play length when you map the progress out. Even Virtual Console games on the Wii allow you to finally pick up where you last put a save state, and I hear more sighs of relief than curses of how the game is now “ruined”.

Looking at today’s games in that light, are they any more “rip-offs” than yesterday’s 10 hour games, or is the extra difficulty and padding just make for a “better” game?

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