PC vs Console: Retro Accessibility


Looking at the fading differences between PC and console games has not only been a look at modern games and modern hardware, but for me also somewhat of a realization when it comes to legacy software. Ever since I started investigating older PC games I’ve been wondering why more console gamers don’t do so since it’s become as easy as ever, even as they gleefully explore classic console games. It seems I overlooked fundamental differences that may never be overcome.

Firstly, I think it’s important or at least a great benefit to take a look back at certain classic PC games if you haven’t played them. This is because most of today’s most popular console games  are somehow related to older PC games, being either sequels to them, spiritual successors, or worked on by the same people. Your understanding of BioShock can change dramatically from playing System Shock 2 or Ultima Underworld. Your understanding of Dishonored or the new THIEF can improve greatly if you go back and check out the original Deus Ex and Thief games.

Secondly, it’s easier than ever to gain access to these old games. GoodOldGames.com exists for this very purpose, and Steam also has a sizable catalog of classics. They are cheap and run on pretty much any modern computer, even crappy laptops. A few might require mods to get running properly on modern Windows which may or may not be included when you buy them, and I guess that’s part of the problem that remains — accessibility.

A major difference between exploring oldschool console games and oldschool PC games is that the PC games usually feature far less accessible gameplay.

Console games have grown in complexity since the NES and its two-button controller. PC games have always had a whole keyboard full of inputs and thus have always been in some ways inherently more complicated, or at least had less efficient controls. I can also understand how some people just don’t like playing games on keyboard, and that’s fine. What needs to be looked at though is the line that exists between what’s possible on a keyboard and what’s possible on a controller, and how some games may never work on one or the other.

Let’s look at the difference between BioShock and SS2. Both games have almost the exact same general gameplay systems. BioShock is just balanced as more of a first person shooter whereas SS2 feels like survival horror. One huge difference is how SS2 has an inventory screen where you use a mouse to manage resources and equipment while in BioShock you simply cycle through weapons and automatically consume items. People have used points like this to accuse Irrational of dumbing the latter game down for consoles. Rock Paper Shotgun ran an article specifically calling Skyrim’s user interface “Crippled for Consoles,” and the most popular mod for the game is a far quicker menu interface that only works with a mouse and keyb0ard. Another case would be BioWare letting you manage a party of three in Mass Effect as opposed to six in Baldur’s Gate 2.

Then again it could simply be a matter of control scheme efficiency as opposed to the inherent depth in a game. Having a few controller buttons forces a level of accessibility that perhaps the developers didn’t think was possible before. A lot of older PC games probably are possible on modern controllers if someone would just make console versions of them with re-worked user interfaces.

I’m really glad Deus Ex Human Revolution didn’t drop the inventory screen for the sake of consoles, instead moving it to a pause menu ala Resident Evil 4. Maybe that’s what BioShock should have done. I think SS2 could work on consoles with a similar adjustment (I wonder what their plan was for the cancelled Dreamcast port). People are down on the new THIEF but I at least admit its interface looks a lot better than the one for the old games with none of the basic functions missing. Perhaps making console versions is the only way to make these classics attractive to people who don’t already play PC games, but I still think it’s a shame.

To be honest, back in the day one reason I stayed away from a lot of PC games is because is because they looked extremely complicated to play. All I remember from the first time I saw the original Rainbow Six is a maze of menus and charts, and I remember a demo of the Dreamcast port of Rogue Spear just feeling messy on a controller.

Maybe that feeling is what a lot of people still see when they look at screenshots of old PC games. If you discover a console game from the 80s’ you never played before, it might be difficult to beat but you can still hop onto the controls in a matter of seconds. I wasn’t able to play UU until after I’d spent a day reading three different booklets about its gameplay and controls. It’s just a question of whether any of that stuff was ever possible without a mouse and keyboard.


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