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Shouldn’t Reviewers Value Originality?


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So, I’m playing Zelda Minish Cap on GBA these days. It’s standard Zelda fare — indeed, there’s barely anything important that’s new. The presentation is good, but if you’ve played recent Zelda games, you’ve pretty much played this one. It’s also one of the most frustrating Zelda because of cheap design decisions: health is incredibly rare and you have to find areas that would be secrets in other games to go on. I would have given up the game early if it weren’t for FAQs, because some important elements are incredibly hard to notice.

Much to my surprise, this game got very good reviews, with an average of 91% on GameRankings. Mind you, it’s not a terrible game — it’s pretty decent, but it’s certainly not a 91% game. If this game didn’t have “Zelda” in its name, I’m pretty sure its score would be at least 10% lower. This kind of preferential reviewing really annoys me…

It’s not the only game that’s like that. You rarely see sequels of successful games get a low rating — it basically doesn’t happen. I’ve never seen any review score a game badly because it’s just more of the same. Game reviewers seem to believe that being formulaic is a strength, not a weakness.

Why is that? Is it because reviewers don’t consider originality as important, so if the sequel is a glorified expansion pack they find it worthy of as high a score as original creations? Is it because they let their nostalgia overcome them? (”Oh! I love Zelda! This will be great!”) Is it because reviewers are fanboys at heart who can’t rate hyped titles low? (It’s amazingly rare that highly anticipated titles get bad reviews, especially sequels — they can’t possibly be all good, now can they?) Or is it simply because reviewers almost only care about production value, and successful games have bigger budgets?

It’s even stranger because the opposite phenomenon happens in movie reviews. It’s very rare that movie sequels get rated as high as the original, even if they’re very good. It seems movie critics put a lot of emphasis on originality wheras game reviewers don’t.

Take this review of Just Cause by Gamespy. The reviewer didn’t like the game. Why? Mainly because it’s not a straight clone of Grand Theft Auto. Being different doesn’t seem to have any value for this reviewer: he spends a whole 7 lines talking about what’s different from GTA, then the rest of the review talking about how it would be better if it was identical (It should be in a city! The music should be licensed! There should be more GTA-like side-missions!)

Now, I’m not arguing about the actual quality of the game. I’ve played the demo and liked it, but I haven’t played the full version. My issue isn’t that the reviewer didn’t like the game, but rather that the main reason he disliked it is because it’s not a simple clone. That review sounds like a word processor review, where the tester goes through a list of features of the competitor and verify if this title has it. This isn’t a productivity app, it’s a new game — the reviewer should evaluate the game as it is, rather than as what the genre dictates.

Shouldn’t reviewers value difference more highly in the game they review? If game reviewers don’t go above base fanboyism and ask for more creativity, who will? I have a hard time taking the gaming press seriously, game reviews in particular, if the reviewer’s standard are lower than mine. I can get the opinion of a Zelda or GTA fan by going to any web forum — reviews should go beyond that.

2 Responses

  1. Thelo Says:

    Deprecated: preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in /home/public/wp-includes/formatting.php on line 82

    Hey there, just found your place via a link from the IGDA :)

    Anyway, a big problem I see about valuing originality a lot is that an enormous amount of people simply haven’t played the “other” games, so they won’t be really affected by whether it’s entirely original or not. Sure, if you’ve played every single Zelda game since the NES days, the newest one will seem pretty similar to the others and will probably not entertain you as much, but a dude who has played only one Zelda game before (or none at all) might enjoy it fully.

    Also, movies are much more dependent on originality than games are, since they don’t have the whole player interaction thing going on and storyline is basically the only draw. Games *can* get away with being only slightly original, but solidly built, and still be very good (I like to point to Blizzard for this).

    So I’d say that yes, a big part of a rewiewer’s job is (or should be, anyway) to answer, “By itself, is X a good game?” Originality (or the lack thereof) is certainly good to mention, especially for the more experienced players, but I wouldn’t like to see it take the foreground of reviewers’ priorities.

  2. Pag Says:

    Deprecated: preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in /home/public/wp-includes/formatting.php on line 82

    You raise good points. I think the key is balance — in my opinion, originality isn’t valued enough right now, but it shouldn’t become the center of all reviews either. I think a game like Minish Cap should be dunk a few points for lack of originality, without dropping it very low (e.g. 85% instead of 92%).

    It just annoys me to see review after review that raves about sequels of hit game, but that don’t seem to care that it’s just more of the same. There’s a place for that type of game, but I think it’s the job of reviewers to call that out as a negative — even if the overall review is positive.

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