Video games are a unique form of media when it comes to masterpieces.
Everyone has their games they label as a masterpiece while some ascend to that title in the eyes of many gamers. These types of games stand out among the rest because of how well they grasp the video game concept and how much a player enjoys their time with that game.
These two factors aren’t always simultaneous given that a player’s preference may differ from the consensus, but that is where the second factor comes in. This can come in the form of groundbreaking mechanics or narratives that become undeniable in how good they are compared to others.
Today, the word “masterpiece” gets thrown around to the point of saturation. Still, there are those select few games that hold the line as a masterpiece.
But how long can it remain a masterpiece? If time affects a game, was it truly a masterpiece?
These might seem like ridiculous questions. Why wouldn’t a game that earned the title of masterpiece not be able to retain it over the years? Advancements in technology are what can potentially diminish masterpiece status.
Technological Advances and Gaming Masterpieces
Unlike other forms of media, video games are tied to technological advances at the time. What looked and played good in 1997 may come across as obsolete in 2023.
Should this diminish a masterpiece status? I think it can, but I think it weeds out the truly amazing games in the process.
Recently, I played Final Fantasy VII for the first time and loved it. That said, the game’s graphics aged like milk. This game is considered legendary in the RPG world and helped usher the genre into the mainstream.
It definitely has its impact on the gaming world but by today’s standards, it looks far from a masterpiece.
What really stood out to me was how well the story gripped me. The roller coaster through Gaia was an ugly ride, but a thrilling one nonetheless. It was so engrossing that it got to a point that I forgot what I was looking at while playing.
Suddenly, the graphics didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was unraveling the mystery of Sephiroth, Cloud, and the planet.
To me, that makes a true masterpiece: a game that can stand the test of time, despite its aging and still deliver just as much satisfaction as it did when it was new.
Archaic Gameplay in the Modern Age
Another point to consider is potentially archaic gameplay mechanics.
Let’s take the original The Legend of Zelda for a moment. When you compare it to the most recent entry in the series, Tears of the Kingdom, the 1986 classic doesn’t look up to par.
To me, graphics aren’t the issue. It’s, in part, the gameplay of throwing you into a world without any kind of prompting on where to go and having no indication on how to discover secrets.
To many, this is a lot of fun while others might see it as a relic of its time. All that said, the game is still enjoyable despite its cracks, another sign of a bonafide masterpiece.
The Legend of Zelda also has the distinction of trailblazing a new format of gameplay and helping shape the action-adventure genre. Not many masterpieces can say that.
Let’s take the RPG genre. Final Fantasy I and Dragon Quest I are both considered pioneers in the JRPG category, but neither seems to have the distinction of a masterpiece. It takes until Final Fantasy IV and Dragon Quest III to really settle into the groove as both games helped continue to pioneer the genre and many consider both to be masterpieces.
I don’t believe a game has to trailblaze to be considered a masterpiece. In fact, many games don’t quite have it figured out at the time to reach that level and it takes them a few games to perfect it.
We enjoy a unique perspective as we get to see the entire history whereas gamers in the ’80s and ’90s had limited views. Hindsight is always 20/20 and that is ultimately true when assessing video game masterpieces.
Nostalgia’s Impact on Gaming Masterpieces
Still, hindsight can also be a hinderance. Nostalgia can often cloud reality.
Video games is a relatively new form of media that grew up alongside millennials and late Gen Xers. I’m a younger millennial and the Nintendo 64 era was my first real relation with gaming. Others go back to the NES and SNES eras.
Nostalgia, while a lot of fun, can also put rose-tinted glasses on all of us and may inhibit what we see as a true masterpiece. This can cause a flavor of the week scenario where we love a game solely based on our fondness from back in the day.
I’ve always looked back fondly on PC games from the late ’90s and early ’00s. Games like Myst, Riven, and The Journyman Project all scratch that nostalgic itch. The Journyman Project was a game I loved as a kid despite not knowing what I was doing.
I watched a playthrough of the game a couple years ago and boy, it did not look as fun as I remembered it. Maybe age hadn’t been kind to it or maybe it was because I wasn’t playing it, but either way, nostalgia had pushed this game to strong heights.
A true masterpiece overcomes the nostalgia rather than using it as a crutch.
What Makes a True Masterpiece Video Game?
The idea of a masterpiece is truly a subjective concept. That said, there seems to be a distinct line between a classic and a true masterpiece.
I’ve outlined a few of their attributes, but that doesn’t mean they are what only make a masterpiece.
For me, however, a masterpiece shouldn’t depreciate over time. Sure, it may show its age but it should provide just as much enjoyment as back when it was released.
A true masterpiece, for me, feels timeless. This creates an elite level that may exclude some fantastic games, but that is the burden of being a masterpiece.
Think of masterpieces in other media. They don’t age. I Love Lucy is still as enjoyable now as it was in the ’50s despite its age. Cheers, on the other hand, is not, in my opinion.
So the discussion now shifts to which games can be a true masterpiece. Again, this may depend on the person, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a fascinating conversation to be had.
The term “masterpiece” is overused in gaming. We like to be hyperbolic in our assessments and that’s ok. Providing some kind of rubric, however, can really go a long way in reestablishing the specialness of the classification.
The question is, what games actually deserve that heavy mantle?
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