I realize this topic is nothing new, but I still find it very relevant. I am also aware that this post might be quite unpopular. Anyway, I believe that nostalgia plays a major role when it comes to rating and comparing newer and older games. This unfortunately makes such comparisons very difficult – which is especially problematic, because comparisons are helpful when it comes to developing future games (what worked in the past, what didn't?).
Generally, I feel some older games get undue praise when comparing them to newer entries due to the nostalgia factor. IMO there are several reasons for this such as:
– Nothing will ever feel like playing games as a kid or teen. Playing TES 6 in my 30s (eventually…) will never ever feel as good as first starting up Oblivion in my teens. The older you get, the more things and especially games you will have experienced. Thus, a newer game will tend to provide less of a dopamine rush.
– Regardless of age, new formulas (or a new formula for the specific player) are usually more exciting than old ones. Assassin's Creed 2 will – all other things equal – always feel better to me than later entries, simply because it was the first time I played a game like this. Everything in the same mold will always feel "old" to a degree.
Now obviously I'm not gonna say that all new games are better than old games, because graphics11!!!1! Naturally, there have been many great games over time and many old ones are particularly amazing. Of course many new games are boring, soulless, cashgrabs, lack innovation. However, in this context we still have to distinguish two aspects which often get confused:
Is game A really "better than game B, even judging them completely by today's standards"? Or is it just that game A "was better for its time than game B is for its respective time"? The latter is a very fair point and comparison, but I feel the former is used as well and IMO often unfairly. One thing that cannot be underestimated is how much of a growing, ever evolving industry gaming is. Overall, most games nowadays are so much more polished, well-made and crafted than all previous entries – simply because so much more effort went into them.
Here are two random examples from popular franchises:
Many regard Assassin's Creed 2 as their favorite AC game. But when you compare it objectively by today's standards to e.g. AC Origins, is it really a better game? I personally played AC 2 when it came out and LOVED it. In contrast, AC Origins didn't blow me away as much – but I was also in my late 20s when I played it and was used to the AC formula. I'm not going to say AC Origins is a perfect game, especially the villains (spoiler endgame) are a bit meh. However, AC 2 is far from perfect. There are few side missions, the cities are mostly empty. The main plot is fun, but really just a generic revenge story. And while Ezio is great, it's also hard to compete with the "charismatic Italian hero" archetype. Or in other words: it is an "easy" protagonist and it would be very difficult to find a similarly good one, aside from somewhat copying him (e.g. Edward Kenway). To summarise: if AC 2 first came out after AC Origins (with fully up to date graphics) and had never been released before, most critics and the public would probably trash it as uninspired, too linear, too little side-content.
IMO, Oblivion vs Skyrim works similarly. Don't get me wrong, I loved Oblivion, it was my first RPG and I played it forever. It also does have edges over Skyrim, such as the cool quests especially. However, if you discount the nostalgia factor and put both games next to each other by today's/2011's standards, Skyrim would just be considered as a much more engaging, complete game, with a fully realized world full of details, more believable NPCs and especially a less generic landscape (honestly Oblivion's is just boringly simple).
Just to quickly address some counter-arguments: Obviously all of this is subjective. It is fair to prefer AC 2 to Origins or Oblivion to Skyrim. Naturally, there are people who judged these games without any nostalgia (e.g. "my young cousin played Oblivion after Skyrim last year and loved it way more"). And it also depends on what you value most in games.
Still, I would wager that overall, people's perception of past games is still majorly affected by the nostalgia factor, by what they played first and what they enjoyed in their childhood. While understandable, this makes comparisons sadly very difficult.
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