Simple Pleasures

Looking back to a simpler, ostrich-flying time.Jeff sent me an email a few days ago. Subject: Fishy. “Maybe you should consider writing a column about this awful, far-too-addictive game — if you do, my advice is to write about it without actually playing it, because if you start playing it you will never get around to writing the column.”

Fishy is a straightforward game set in the deep sea. As a small fish, you must eat smaller fish to grow while avoiding being eaten by larger fish. It sounds like a boring, boring game, now that I write it out, so I suggest you just go and play it — it’s a Shockwave game that you can play in your internet browser. It’s at I’ll wait.

For those of you who came back, I’m betting you spent more time than you expected to on it. Didn’t expect the climb up the food chain to be all-engrossing, did you? That the floaty movements of your fish would be easy to control, but hard to master? That you’d feel a little bubble of satisfaction in a tiny increment of growth, and start scanning for the fish that used to be threats and now were food?

Looking back to a simpler, ostrich-flying time.I’d forgotten how good simple games were. For a while, I attributed the popularity of arcade emulators like MAME to be due mostly to nostalgia — but now I think it’s due in good part to the lack of well-thought-out, simple games like Fishy. Despite the popularity of games like Tetris (Elorg, 1987), the gaming industry is more invested in showcasing the cutting edge of technology to the hardcore gamers who they know will shell out the bucks. Consequently, they’re stuck trying to challenge an audience that’s comfortable simultaneously piloting a starfighter, carrying on a gunfight and giving commands to their troops for several hours straight.

This leaves non-gamers out in the cold. However, Nintendo has carved out a niche where simple games are getting their due with their GameBoy Advance SP. These neat little gadgets may look like a travel clock, but they’ve got a bit more processing power. And they’ve recently ported the 1990 classic, Super Mario 3.

It’s a side-scroller, the 2-D standard long ago passed over for today’s free-roaming 3-D games, and so the very style of the game has a nostalgic charge. The colours, the satisfying head-bonking sounds and feel of the game are the same, and as I played it, the only thing that seemed odd was that Mario was talking a lot. An awful lot. “Just what I needed!” he chirps when you get a goodie, and in case you missed the Italian accent he says, “Mamma mia!” when you die.

I checked it out and sure enough, someone who couldn’t leave well enough alone had added the voice and, it turns out, a story intro. As it was, the character of Mario already teetered on the edge between working-class hero and racist caricature: he’s an icon people project onto, not a character to develop. But misguided or not, adding these elements is gilding the lily. Or, I guess in Mario’s case, the mushroom.

Something that works is most often a simple and elegant balance of elements struck upon by design or chance. Recently, I’ve been enjoying an untampered-with version of Joust (Williams, 1982) online ( Having spent my fair share of quarters on this one as a kid, I find it today both intensely familiar and intensely bizarre: you’re mounted on an ostrich, flying high enough to knock everyone else off and get their eggs while steering clear of the giant lava-hand and pterodactyls. This was enough to give the game a dark, techno-fantasy tone: I didn’t need to hear a detailed back-story of how the English monarchy in the year 2834 took to raising ostrich mounts for their bravery and valour. I didn’t need my character to say “Take that, you bounder!” or some such twaddle every time I trounced an opponent: maybe I wasn’t the kind of kid given to crowing, and this would have pushed me away rather than made me relate to the character. Though to be honest, I don’t think it would have pushed me away for long. I’d put up with a lot to get to ride an ostrich into battle.

Categories: Videogames

8 replies »

  1. Game Boy Advance – Picked up one of these last summer and bought Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario Advance 3. It’s such a simple, fun game. But the kicker was that it included a BONUS game in the form of old school Mario Brothers – the one where they have to flip over turtles and scorpions to advance to the next level. That’s the game I got addicted to. Funny how something so simple can hold my attention for so long.


  2. Yeah, it’s neat, but the scrolling screen action in Mario Bros. bugged the hell out of me. They got about 80% of the screen on the thing, couldn’t they have squished it just a little so it fit?


  3. i’ve got Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island, but no SMB3 yet. definately on my todo list even though i still have the NES cart (and a ROM, but don’t tell nintendo =P). SMB3 is the only game that comes close to Tetris on my all-time favourites list.
    oh, and the voices? they’ve been in all the GBA Mario ports. =/


  4. I know exactly what you’re saying. Certainly new games like SoulCalibur II and SSX3 impress me, but gameplay it seems has sadly been left out in the cold. The games that I find I keep going back to are all on the NES: Joust, Pacman, Tetris.
    If you want to see some people who have mastered the simple, yet enthralling vide game genre, check out Pop Cap Games, particularly Zuma or Bejeweled.
    Also, in terms of relatively recent games which are simple but bring new twists to gameplay, try Super Monkey Ball (GC) or, for a real mindfuck, Wario Ware, Inc. (GBA).


  5. I’ve been thinking about gaming and nostalgia a lot lately. There’s this sense now that we didn’t know the graphics sucked. That early gamers we naive to what the industry would become. Everyone knew back then that gaming was in it’s infancy. we definitely celebrated little steps up in graphics, but we all had an ultimate ideal in our heads of what games could look like. That’s the biggest difference now – while graphics are still getting better and better, I’m not playing games now _dreaming_ about better graphics. This isn’t a good thing or a bad thing, just the way it is. (I have the same feeling about hi-def T.V. – will better definition really make the T.V. experience better? That’s not a completely rhetorical question, I’m really asking.) When I go back and play a classic game now, the warm fuzzy nostalgia I feel is not for the gameplay as much as the connection with the designer. You had a sense, playing some crappy commodore 64 sword fighting game at 3 AM all buzzed on 2 liters of Coke (cola not blow) that it wasn’t long ago that the creator was up at 3AM on coke (can’t speak about his/her’s preference) creating the damned thing. You had a connection to an individual not to a “team” or company. And when you found an easter egg or a bug, or just some part that was really cool, you felt that it was a connection to a person, or a couple of people who were doing if for the love of it, not for the money. Whenever I hear that a game is really good because it’s like
    “playing a movie” I wince a little. Sometimes these games are still fun, but I know that there will never be a moment when a green goblin munchkin guy inexplicably lurches onto the screen to kick away a recently decapitated head. Nonsensical moments of weirdness do not do well in focus groups.
    But let’s not forget, when the coke buzz finally wore off in the “bird hour” just before dawn and your eyeballs were screaming and you suddenly realized that you had a test in 4 hours and really otta get a little sleep, the last thing you thought before your head hit the pillow was inevitably, “I can’t believe how much that game sucked.”


  6. This game reminded me of a simpler and less exciting version of an old Intellivision game called “Shark! Shark!” gameplay was similar but you had the added danger of a shark appearing occasionally. You could kill the shark by biting at his tail a few times but if you did so for too long he would flip around quickly to eat you. I found a link ( about it.


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