Way back when I was a little kid, I used to go to the bowling alley with my parents and friends and whatnot. I was never interested in the bowling. I’m not amazing at it, and to be honest, 6’3” plus lanky arms plus heavy balls equals some decent America’s Funniest Home Videos submissions. I was more interested in the plastic guns and flashing screen that hung in the corner of the room. I picked it up and instantly fell in love. It was a quick thrill, with all of the joys and excitements that came from a fast-paced action game, all condensed down into five short minutes. At various stages, I’ve had each of the separate components to recreate this fabled container of childhood wonder, but never have I made it a reality. To this day, I long for the days when I can find – and maybe even own – an arcade machine of Point Blank.
I bring this up because that sort of arcade thrill inrigues me about video games. See, I was born in ’92, and when I was a kid console gaming was starting to claim superiority to the burly boxes of the late 80s. I was never a part of those hoards of children cueing up for games of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, instead confined to my humble but persistent PS2 and the ever amazing Nintendo 64, eventually sitting myself into what would soon become the PC “master race”. The lifestyle always intrigued me though, because it was so different to my own genesis of gaming I had to only guess what it felt like to bear witness to it. Thus, when I begun Cargo Commander, what I expected was a straightforward indie game that was crafted with some love and caring, with a little bit of polish. What I didn’t expect was how pseudo-nostalgically wistful I would get over it, and how much it would make me wish I was born ten years earlier.
Cargo Commander is a game where you command cargo – you keep me around for my cutting edge analyses, after all – and its contents to help earn money to send back to your loved ones back on your home planet, and whom you dearly wish to see again so you work your burly arse off to get back to them. To do this, you must travel from galaxy to randomly generated galaxy salvaging cargo one level at a time. What this leaves you with is a very stop-start play action that lends itself well to an arcadey platformer. Alas, in the game’s greatest strength is its biggest weakness: the game is far too repetitive. There are only so many cargo holds with the same copy-and-pasted enemies to get the same type of loose scrap cargo that doesn’t actually level me up but gives me a pat on the back anyway. If there were better progression arcs, I would feel like I was making progress without making it feel like a grind through the same environments over and over again.
Yet the most inconvenient part of that game – this repetition of the same randomly generated spaces – is the part of the game that gives it an arcade charm that I find endearing. The environments that you venture, the spaces that you traverse on your journey, while randomly generated, will always be slightly familiar, letting you pick up and play regardless of your skill level. On top of that, there is no real benefit to grinding the repetitive gameplay, so you are free to pick up and put down the game at your leisure. If this game were handheld, it would be far more popular than what it is, in the vein of a slightly easier Spelunky or even as a more esoteric MetroidVania game. Even better, if you put this game in a big ol’ plastic case with flashing lights, it would eat quarters – one quarter, one life, one travel to the galaxy known as RonPaul2. It is the kind of game that you pick up for a quick jaunt through space before going back to the grind of Skyrim or League Of Legends, a game that can be used as a stopgap before those triple-A titles drag you back in.
This arcade feeling gets me worked up something chronic, because it is something I can feel and appreciate, but never really got to be a part of. That frustrates me to no end – not out of some petty need for experience, but because I will never feel the same way about the old school Golden Axe games or the stupid chunk of granite that is Battletoads as someone that was there watching it all unfold. I just won’t. It’s like the love of the very first gaming consoles, old school Pokemon games or the humble beginnings of Magic The Gathering. You had to be there to witness the beginnings to appreciate the whole in its current iteration. I wasn’t. I was brought up on the refined, sophisticated glory days of the Playstation and the Nintendo 64. I never got to live the dark days of long, convoluted instruction manuals, clunky gameplay and controller shattering difficulty curves, and as depressing as this sounds, I am always looking out for old arcade machines to jam, even if the heydey when people would form lines and wait for hours just to touch them is long past due.
This used to make me sad, but the more I think on it, the more it makes me appreciate where we are in terms of what we understand about video game design. I don’t mean that as in that we’ve made so much progress hoo rah, but that these methods of simple, engaging video game design haven’t changed at all. Tight controls, solid game design, a clear goal and an open-to-imagination player and that is all you need to make an enduring masterpiece. From arcade classics like Pac-Man to Centipede to enduring mainstays like Super Mario, the less is more principle holds true even in the ever evolving world of video games – a practice that I think is becoming harder and harder to find in the video games of today, unless of course you look to mobile devices. In this sense, Cargo Commander isn’t the best game in the world, but it passes the time in the best way possible – in short bursts of refined and simplistic entertainment.
It almost seems like an allegory for the way people grew up back then. It allows me to appreciate the principles and emotions that came from the arcade generation – a childhood filled with moments stuck in time, ready to be picked out for nostalgia later on when you pick up that dusty cartridge for the first time in god knows how long, or you find that arcade machine in a dingy fast food joint and you have a dollar spare. You slam it in, and you begin to play. You may instantly think about how terrible the graphics are, or how you found the game so desirable when you were wearing the rose-tinted glasses of your youth. Eventually you will find that moment of zen, where you are ten years old and playing it for the very first time. In that single, shimmering moment, however brief it may be, you feel like a kid again.
Wow. Maybe I was born in the 80s after all.