Are Save States Making Retro Games Too Easy & Modern Gamers Weak?

Are-Save-States-Making-Games-Too-Easy"Virtual Console is the perfect way to rediscover your favourite titles from yesteryear, or pick up a game you might have missed the first time around!" Or at least it is if Nintendo's website is to be believed. "Jump into classic adventures and even create a Restore Point at any time to resume your game later. Before [on the Wii] you could only resume your game where you last left it. But now [on the 3DS], you can create a Restore Point at any time you like and go back to it as many times as you like. So, if you create a Restore Point at the end of each level, you'll be able to start from this position again if you die."

It's strange that Nintendo go to such length to explain this "new" feature around as if it were some ground breaking gaming revelation. For as long as emulators have existed so have save states and anyone who has spent any time playing ROMs on a PC will find themselves unconsciously pressing shift F1 the second they get past a particularly problematic area. Even though Nintendo may label them "restore points" they are nothing new to most retro devotees.

In the era of cartridge gaming the ability to save required an on-cartridge battery, adding expense to the manufacturer. Consequently most didn't bother investing further and either made the player write down long complex passwords or simply expected the player to finish a game in one go. Some of the best developers even considered how a lack of save function could mean that some players would never see beyond the first few levels. It's the reason the warp pipes are said to exist in 'Super Mario Bros' and perhaps explains why so many level select codes exist in the games of yesteryear . To reflect our changing approach to games the ability to select any stage by inputting a code on the title screen has been replaced by most games automatically saving our progress at every new point in the game. We can now confidently and abruptly end a modern game knowing that next time we play we can pick up exactly where we left off. Our progress has been recorded without us having to do anything at all. There's few new games where you have to start at the beginning each time you play, but at most you'll need to redo a short section but only due to being between automatic save points.


Today's Game is Never Over

Nowadays dying mid boss fight is an inconvenience and you'll be put back to a point before you started the fight. In the early days of gaming, dying mid boss fight was game over; the game put you back to the title screen. In fact, the phrase "Game Over" though synonymous with video games has largely disappeared. Designers want you to stick with a game as long as possible and modern games are intended to be finished the game a quickly as possible so they feel compelled to buy DLC. A "game over" screen clearly signposts a point when the player can turn off, so as a result most mainstream games don't have them and instead have a "continue" screen. There's less jeopardy in games now, fewer absolute "Game Overs".

It explains why when we return to old games now we find them so hard, we have to approach them knowing that silly mistakes can cost hours of progress in a game rather than just the last couple of minutes. Save states may have initially existed to allow a player to quit whenever they liked, but they have evolved to replicate modern games and their safety nets. As a result, when you play an emulated retro game it's hard to resist the temptation to save after every tricky part. No gamer schooled on current games wants to go back to the start of a level after they fail to beat the boss, they want to go back to the start of the boss fight with all their health and ammo restored. Save states allow this, a careless death can be undone simply by loading an earlier save. In theory this would allow any player to perform a perfect run through any game, saving every few seconds and reloading even when the most minor of mistake is made.

However, you have to wonder if this makes the experience of playing old games better or worse? By introducing an element that was never meant to be in a game in the first place, the save state has affected the game in a way the designers could never have foreseen. Even the hardest of games can be completed as failure is removed. Difficulty is now defined by a player's restraint and how often a they give into temptation to artificially save their progress.

Retro Gaming Safety Nets

With Nintendo now including this feature in their own "legacy" downloads it almost feels like they have sanctioned the use of save states, or "Restore Points" as they call them. What once seemed like cheating now feels like a legitimate way of playing. The very people who have sold you the game have not only included the feature but promoted it. The cynical would say that this is perhaps because they want you to finish the notoriously hard older games, to do so means you'll buy more. Playing 'Mega Man' on a cartridge is a hard experience, with brutally hard bosses and unforgiving jumps over vanishing blocks. Playing with save states makes it easy, as you could save after every jump and simply reload if you put a foot wrong. With the game's difficulty neutered the ending of 'Mega Man' can be seen in an hour or so. This is pleasing for the player and equally good for Nintendo as they have ten more 'Mega Man' games to sell on their virtual eShop. A frustrating hard game will not make a customer want to buy more. A fun easy and finished game will.

Whether it makes someone want to buy a sequel or not, clearly the simple fact that they make seeing the ending much more likely is no doubt a big perk of save states. A game may have an incredible second level but it's all for nought if a player is trapped behind the wall of difficulty that's level one.

Artificially saving removes frustration and opens up games. They make it possible to see everything in a game. If the price for this accessibility is difficulty perhaps it's worth paying. With a bigger game buffet to choose from and with less time or patience, does a modern gamer want to spend time wrestling with a difficult retro game? They may have been designed to take hours or even days of devoted time to finish but that's time most of us don't have with our modern life of work and childcare. However, knowing an old game can be completed in an hour using save states means it's suddenly something that can be started and finished on a journey to work.

But what do you think? Does the (now official) inclusion of save states across downloaded games enhance or ruin them? Just because it's a feature that's there doesn't mean it needs to be used of course, but is sometimes the temptation too great to resist? Maybe you've now fallen in love with a game series as a result of actually being able to make some headway in a previously inaccessible first title. Make your thoughts known in the comments below and don't panic if you make a mistake, you can simply reload the page - that's the beauty of modern technology after all!

Last Updated ( 18 September 2014 )  

Julian Hill

Julian is the author of the popular blog Boxed Pixels, and is currently on a mission to document his thoughts as he buys boxed complete SNES Games.

Described by PlayStation Access as a "gamer, Dad and all round hero" he has been playing games since they had four colours on screen and blips for music.

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(Link to this comment) Flozem 2014-09-20 09:05
Depends on the person using them. If you use a gamestate other than as a saving feature to continue another day, than yes... that is cheating.
(Link to this comment) glitchedgamer 2014-09-21 00:49
I use save states to help reduce frustration in poorly designed games with tons of cheap deaths (i.e. Castlevania: The Adventure). Otherwise I ignore them completely. Besides, I usually play on the original hardware so save states aren't an option anyway.
+1 (Link to this comment) Thermoptic 2014-09-21 16:39
For me save-states is a MUST for retrogames. When i was 10 years old i had all the time in the world and could play the same game over and over. But today i don't have the time, work, family, dog etc.. so if i want to play a 8bit or 16bit game i need those save-states to save my progress on the fly. And then resume where i left of. Therefore i only play my retrogames emulated even if i own the original just to have access to the save-state feature
+1 (Link to this comment) MegaBites 2014-09-21 21:44
I've often pondered this topic.

In my mind, it all boils down to this... In a world without save states, failure was not an option. Today it is. Alongside advances in storage media, I think that a lot of this is accountable to the death of the arcade.

Taking the 90s as an example, we were bombarded with home gaming machines that promised the 'real arcade experience'. Aside from cutting edge graphics and catchy tunes, what else did the arcade experience entail? It involved games that required the utmost skill, dexterity and a pocket full of change to avoid the inevitable - the game over screen. Gaming was a finite experience. If you failed, you started again from the top. Lives, credits, continues and death. That's what the arcade was all about - that and the glory of beating the high score.

In the early days of home gaming, whether it was 8-bit, 16-bit, Sega, Nintendo, Commodore or Atari, the arcade translated into almost everything that the video game industry became. Gamers craved the buzz of gaming on the edge, of reaching the next level, of knowing that it could all be snatched away in an instant. Failure was embraced as part of the process and also made it all the more rewarding on the next hard-earned attempt when you finally overcame your hurdles.

With the gradual death of the early arcades and developments in genre, gamers moved away from their quick fixes, craving new experiences such as full-blown RPGs and immersive FPS'. Developments in storage and media allowed for a more gradual approach to gaming, paving the way to the save state.

In short, I don't think that the use of save states should be considered as cheating. The save state is a natural progression of what we have come to expect from our games today. Subsequently it's retrospectively found its way into a swathe of games of yesteryear where the option to save was never a possibility but has become all too tempting.

(No save states were used in the writing of this rather lengthier than anticipated comment).
(Link to this comment) Turkish 2014-09-22 03:17
The moral of the story is, people these days can't handle games that don't hold your hand and forgive you for being unskilled. There, I said it. :-)
(Link to this comment) ollie809 2014-09-22 10:34
there great for time dependent people
(Link to this comment) ewjim 2014-09-23 19:54
I think gamers are more spoilt today - obviously people of our generation (late 20's +) used to maybe get 2 games a year. We would hammer them religiously and know every inch, every enemy, every pixel. A game would perhaps have our attention for up to 6 months.

Now, kids and younger people have aps for 69p, the internet to download as many games as a hard drive can carry and because of all this a much wider choice. So their attention span is divided and pulled among various outlets. So if save states allow this type of gamer to give even a little more time to a game they normally wouldn't touch again - then sure its a good thing.

The issue is easy - if you are a die hard you won't use them anyway.
(Link to this comment) Jamesbuc 2014-09-30 11:36
I like it. If you are short on time, they are perfect. Its all about self-control though, if you want that old-school challenge, you don't save unless you REALLY have to (and even then, don't go reloading that save continuously. Once will do).

I'm guilty of savestate abuse though, though mostly when it comes to save-state abuse, its because im playing titles like Kings Quest V which NEEDS that abuse thanks to the stupid amount of screw-you situations.

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