"You sure complain a lot about current games," said a friend in an e-mail debate about the state of gaming. "But what is it that you want? Just what are you looking for?"
I gave him some pithy response in an attempt to prove my intellectual and moral superiority, much as most of my e-mail debates tend to end up. But then, in the cold white glare of a looming deadline, a blinking cursor and "Document 1 - Microsoft Word" for progress, I began to wonder about his words.
Just what am I looking for?
What, I asked myself, am I still doing playing games, when so many of my other obsessions have faded? Staring the later half of my 20s right in the face, what do I want from games?
I do complain about a lot about games, far more than I praise them. It's become something of an obsession. Of all the games I have played since the start of the decade, very few of them are memorable. Only brute force of hours keeps them in the mind: three weeks driving a forklift in Shenmue, hundreds of hours lost in a vain attempt to prove myself better than 12-year-old rednecks in Halo 2, thousands lost to the Master League in half a dozen different versions of Winning Eleven.
Looking back over 2006, I can mostly recall the games that let me down: Loco-Roco's lack of depth, Okami's failure to match its looks with gameplay, Children of Mana's utter betrayal of its past. For much of the year, I spent more time playing a second hand copy of Lumines than anything else, and more time moaning about the state of gaming than I spent on any single game.
I've never once thought of quitting. A trip into a game shop still gives me this irrational giddy feeling, an urge to spend money without a second thought for my beleaguered bank manager. It still holds, long after the childhood thrills from the sweet shop, the movie theater or the top shelf of the magazine rack have worn off. In 2006, I traveled literally thousands of miles to secure myself a Wii on launch day and felt no remorse whatsoever in putting down the cash to buy a new DS Lite at the first available opportunity.
Something isn't right here.
As early adopters go, I am practically a luddite. The next-gen hype has largely left me cold. The Xbox 360 has not endeared itself to me, and playing games like Resistance on the PlayStation 3 felt no different to any game I've played so far. It's a tired old point, but shouldn't these systems be offering something new?
Back in the day, when kids respected their elders and things cost less, people knew how to do a next-generation right. Seeing the leap from the sprites of the SNES to the power of PlayStation left people declaring the PS "more powerful than God," a jump that makes today's $600 for sharper textures look like a pretty bad value.
Back then, everything was shiny and new and 3-D. The first time merely seeing games like WipEout, Nights, Super Mario 64 and GoldenEye in motion was jaw-dropping in itself, and playing them was every time like stepping into a new world.
Those feelings are also the cause of all my gaming problems. Every game I have played since then has been an attempt to recapture those feelings. And all of them have been futile.
While the development cycle has sped up - a mere four years between Xboxes stage 1 and 2 - progress has slowed down.
Consider the 10-year gap between the original Legend of Zelda on the NES, released in 1987, and Zelda: Ocarina of Time, in 1997. The original is a tidy, well-designed game, but it feels like a mere idea for a short story scribbled on a beer mat compared to the magnum opus of Ocarina. Thanks to the Wii Virtual Console, you can download a copy and compare it for yourself with the bonus Gamecube disc of Ocarina, all on one console.
Now, take that copy of Ocarina and put it against Zelda: Twilight Princess, released nine years later and one of the highest-rated games of 2006. As stunning an accomplishment as Twilight Princess is, it is for all intents and purposes Ocarina in swankier threads. In terms of structure, story and what you can actually do, Twilight Princess is a very polished version of Ocarina - but nothing more. It is one of the best games of the decade but it won't, I fear, linger very long in the memory.
Doesn't someone like me, who grew up with the media telling me that by now I'd have movies beamed into my eyes and all the holographic call girls I could want, have a right to expect more of an advance than this?
The rational side of me knows that all that is at least seven parts BS to three parts truth. I know that much that awe I felt in front of GoldenEye and Mario came from my lack of experience. It takes a lot more to impress me now. It's the law of diminishing returns. The more I play, the less I feel.
In attempts to reclaim those feelings, at times I've given up on the new and, like a battered wife who keeps going back to what she knows, tried to relive the experience.
First with a Game Boy, then an eBay-bought SNES, finally with PC emulators, I've tried to capture those feelings again. And the nostalgia hit can be good, but it's fleeting and soon fades.
Just what am I looking for? The new. And the old. Ultimately, what I'm chasing is exactly what habitual drug users chase - a feeling as good as it was the first time. And I know somewhere deep inside me, as I think all addicts do, that I will never achieve it.
But for the first time in many years, I don't actually feel too bad about it.
Another paean to the DS and Wii isn't what the internet needs right now. It's enough to say that with their intriguing new ways of playing old concepts - Gamecube-derived Zelda aside - their fun little games that teach me things, and the nostalgia hit from the Virtual Console and updates of old classics on DS, I am pacified.
They don't have the force of the original hit - and probably nothing ever will. Instead, it's the gaming equivalent of methadone. It keeps me balanced, because I know the reason I keep playing is because I'm addicted. I complain so much about games only because I know the thrill they can give me. And when that thrill falls short, like all irrational addicts, I lash out.
So, in the spirit of change, here is my New Year's Resolution: This year, I will be less cynical. I will appreciate games for what they are instead of deriding them for what they're not. I'll enjoy games more. And, at the risk of running out of things to write about already, I will try to complain about them less.