Five Games for Your Old Tube
I've been avoiding the HDTV revolution. There is something terrifying to me about the flawless flat screens of the future. They're a little overwhelming, like windows that let too much light in.
The cathode ray tubes we grew up with, for all their space-age girth and impracticability, have a distinct charm. Playing a videogame on an old tube is kind of like peering into an aquarium. The thick curved screen keeps your two worlds apart. You sit out here; the game stays in there.
The PlayStation 2 game Killer 7 knew its place in history. The hallways you roamed in Killer 7 never seemed all that real. You only felt safe in rooms where you could save and load your game from fuzzy, flickering tubes. The tube was your lifeline in the game world -- an entrance and an exit.
Nowadays those boundaries are disappearing. High-definition gaming is all about staring through the interface into cavernous worlds whose photorealistic textures are so crisp you could almost smell them. Motion controls make the barrier between you and the game even more porous. Games aren't built for your old tube anymore. But if you've been avoiding the HDTV revolution like me, it's not too late for that chunk of space-age plastic. These five games from the next generation will do it justice.
1. Mirror's Edge
DICE's first-person platformer isn't your everyday HD spectacle. The game's pristine rooftops and clinical office spaces make a crystal-clear point. They reflect the corporate hell we have to navigate, perhaps even escape.
Let's be clear: Mirror's Edge loses its edge on a tube, like a mirror fogged by steam. Its hard lines grow fuzzier, and feel a little friendlier as a result. But this is at heart a game about performance, and its environments double as an obstacle course. As runner Faith, your virtual body has to learn to fly across the city's hard corners and chasms. That's how the game lets you feel empowered within an oppressive state. So Mirror's Edge color-codes its surfaces for you, usually in bright red, indicating a pipe or platform you definitely want to hit. Like a charging bull, you go straight for the red, looking for a way out.
These are your signposts through the game. And they glare through the screen like magic marker on a whiteboard. You might not see everything Mirror's Edge wants to show you. But the game's fundamentals -- its old-school ways -- stay intact on your old tube.
2. Red Faction: Guerrilla
One of our games of the year, this Martian sandbox takes those ideas and does them one better. Red Faction: Guerrilla is an elaborate tug of war -- you're a member of a worker-class uprising, and you seek to bring Mars back to its people by destroying the structures that support those in power.
You'd think that a game set on dusty Mars would look drab, and look even less appealing on a tube. But Volition understands the expressive properties of light. The muzzle flashes of submachine guns dot the landscape as rival factions fight for control. Victory is sealed by orange fireballs from your demolition charges and the expanding green shockwaves of chemical explosions. And the Martian sun itself gives the game's destructive and destructible surfaces an otherworldly gleam. It feels glorious to make Mars crumble on a tube, all because the violence in Guerrilla is drawn in vivid arcing light rather than blood and guts. Like the Red Planet's dull atmosphere, your old screen appears to come alive piece by piece.
3. Left 4 Dead
Playing Left 4 Dead on a tube almost improves the experience. The game already goes out of its way to play tricks on your visibility. Zombies blossom out of nooks and crannies and before you know it, you have a screen full of gnashing teeth and flailing arms. Some zombies explode into dank clouds of smoke. Others cover you in brown chunky vomit. The whole thing takes place at night. Left 4 Dead is the gaming equivalent of a film shot with bottom-grade equipment and left to gather dust in a basement.
It actually takes a tube to bring the game's exploitation themes full circle. The details of the world smear across the screen. Colors are muted. You practically have to squint to spot the Hunter leaping for your throat. The flaws build a forbidding atmosphere. No surprise that Left 4 Dead's gameplay, all lo-fi bedlam and suffocating tension, feels especially potent on a television that itself barely scrapes by.
Ironically, Left 4 Dead 2 doesn't really work at all on a tube. The game trades streetlights for daylight, and B-movie theatrics for something a bit more epic. Your old tube just can't handle that.
4. Brütal Legend
Metal looks best in Brütal Legend, and Brütal Legend looks best on a crappy television. Amazingly, the adventures of Eddie Riggs and his headbanger army look like they were built from the ground up for your old tube. How did Schafer's team pull this off? You'd think this was a PS2 game, if only the characters didn't suddenly suck in their textures and straighten their polygons on an HDTV. It is, after all, a third-person hack-and-slash game featuring a bevy of cartoonish creatures.
But I suspect the reason Brütal Legend keeps its good looks is an ancient technique called aesthetic. As Gus Mastrapa pointed out in his review, it's all about the way the imagery of metal music has been twisted into beautiful standing structures of chrome and neon, oil and flame. Graphics are dead pixels without an artist's hand behind them. And Brütal Legend's intrinsic beauty will make you forget why you cared so much about high-definition fidelity.
Pretty much everything that's been said up to this point applies also to Rapture -- where color and light point the way forward, where you see your body and the world change through electricity and flame, where the abject horror of being trapped underwater is counterbalanced by the sensuous curve of an architectural detail. Where a thick layer of plate glass separates you from the city you're drowning in, and you wonder what the world looks like from inside a Big Daddy's cumbersome helmet. BioShock is a next-gen game, but it has an old-time spirit.
Bonus: Three games you should never, ever play on your old tube!
1. Fallout 3
Not only is it a slow-burner whose cumulative effect is completely lost on an old tube, but you also do a lot of reading in Fallout 3. A LOT.
2. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2
It's a superlative retro game in all ways but this one: Staring into a tube for hours is unhealthy for your eyes and your brain.
3. Diner Dash
Here's proof that casual games play hardcore, too. You've got orders to take, customers to seat, and dishes to do. Try to handle this on a screen that just can't keep up, and you have an epic diner fail.
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