Insomnia | Commentary

Reviewing Ports and Compilations

By Alex Kierkegaard / September 1, 2007

My reviewing policy regarding ports and compilations is not to review them -- at least not in the same way as I review the original versions of games. I'll explain my reasons.

Take ports first. Whether we are talking about an arcade to console port, or PC to console or whatever, everyone would agree that reviewing the original game first makes sense. But once you've done that, what's the point of reviewing the port? It is after all supposed to be the exact same game, perhaps with a few minor extras thrown in (in some ways similar to those found in the DVD versions of movies -- and you don't see film critics reviewing the same movie twice), or, in some cases, a few existing elements altered or altogether removed. So you write a paragraph discussing the technical merits of the translation, and another one discussing whether the content that was added, altered, or removed makes any appreciable difference, and you call it a day.

Two brief paragraphs then is about the maximum coverage a port deserves, and in many cases even a couple of sentences will suffice. I am saying all this to put into perspective the inane practices of the big Western websites, which routinely publish several multiple-page reviews of what basically amounts to a single game, while at the same time completely ignoring the international, arcade, doujin and indie markets. This is yet more proof, if any more was necessary, that game reviewing is today little more than a thinly disguised form of advertising (publications ignore the interests of their readers, who would naturally have preferred wider coverage of games, in order to serve the interests of game publishers, who demand the maximum coverage possible whenever they release a new title -- regardless of whether those titles are genuinely interesting new games, or merely ports of something that's already been played and discussed to death by most of those who were really interested in it in the first place).

In fact ports don't even deserve to have different ratings from the original versions, since, again, we are not talking about different games here. If a publication uses a percentile scale, then I guess a few points could be added or subtracted to the original score to reflect the quality of the port -- but percentile ratings are stupid and you shouldn't be reading any publication that uses them anyway (this includes those cheeky ones which use rating scales out of ten with decimal points). In the case of the one to five scale that I use there's no question though: ports always receive the same ratings as the original versions, except in extremely rare cases. Those cases are in fact so rare that I can't even come up with any recent examples off the top of my head. They used to be more frequent in the old days -- especially during the 8-bit/home computer era -- but then again many ports back then were radically different to the original versions, or were sometimes even completely new games, in which case they didn't even qualify as ports. So yeah, some of those old "ports" do in fact warrant separate full-length reviews, and wherever that's the case, on this website, they will get them.

What's funny though is when people start reviewing emulated versions of games, as for example in the case of many reviews of Virtual Console and XBLA titles. You go to these mega-sites with their multi-million-dollar budgets and their dozens of supposedly expert writers, and do a search for, say, R-Type (1987), and all you get is a pitiful two-paragraph review of an emulated version of the PC Engine port of the arcade original. Because it's that hard to get someone to review the original version of R-Type in the year 2007 -- I think the PCB is now down to, what, eighty bucks? And you can sell it back without losing a dime after you are done. So this is how the big websites treat the landmark videogames of the past nowadays, whereas titles like Barbie Horse Adventures: Wild Horse Rescue continue to get the royal full-on review treatment.

As for reviews of compilations, let me ask you something. Do you see movie critics reviewing the various James Bond box sets that come out every couple of years? I mean what exactly would be the point of doing that anyway? I guess if you see such box sets as products and not as collections of films worthy of some kind of examination and discussion, then reviews of the box sets (with scores and everything) would be understandable. So if a review of Dr. No is a critical appraisal of that movie in the context of other spy thrillers, contemporary movies, and great movies in general, a review of some random James Bond box set would be a critical appraisal of that box set, of that product, compared to other products. Microwave ovens, gold necklaces or leather jackets, perhaps. "Is this box set worth the asking price?", is about the only reasonable question such a review could possibly address; but that, as far as I am concerned, is not a question worth addressing.

Because reviews are about providing context, you see, and then delivering an opinion. What is the context in which a DVD box set could be placed? That of other DVD box sets of course, but comparing the Complete Stanley Kubrick Collection to the Complete Alien Collection would be pointless, for obvious reasons. As for an opinion -- a single opinion that would encompass, say, two dozen Bond films -- what could that opinion possibly be? James Bond sucks? James Bond rocks? So we are back to what I said in the previous paragraph.

All the above applies also to game compilations. There is nothing one can say about the complete BioWare AD&D collection, for example, besides whether it's good value for money or not. Same goes for Total War Eras (a collection of the first three Total War games and their expansions), and anything else you'd care to mention. The only exceptions are collections of emulated games, such as the various Sega and Taito PS2 offerings for example, in which a few words about the quality of the emulation and whatever extras may be included in the form of original artwork, video interviews, etc. should be added. And that's all there is to it.

Except of course if you are willing to discuss every single game in the collection (something which, let's not forget, presupposes that you are at least fairly competent in each and every one of them). But then not only will your review of the compilation turn out quite long, it also won't be a review of the compilation, properly speaking, but rather a compilation of reviews of the games contained within it.

There is one other valid approach, however.

The games included in such collections usually have something in common: they are either part of a series, or were made by the same developer, or share a similar theme, or belong to the same genre/era or whatever. So if you can craft a historical narrative of sorts, sketching out the evolution of the series/genre/theme/era in question, and describing how each of the included games influenced the development of all the others -- if you manage, in other words, to set the whole of the collection into its proper context (and there is always one) -- only then will you be able to deliver an opinion on the whole of the games contained within it -- which is to say on the compilation itself -- and only then you might end up with something actually worth reading.

But if you have the sort of knowledge required to do this, and are willing to make the effort, why wait until a publisher decides to come up with the appropriate compilation? Why allow yourself to be dependent on a publisher's whims? Just write your thoughts in the form of an essay straight away and be done with it. (This is in fact what film critics do, and why you don't see Roger Ebert reviewing DVD movie box sets).

Back in the real world, what ends up happening instead -- and there are no exceptions -- is that reviewers get saddled with compilations containing many games they haven't even heard of before (let alone played extensively, mastered and appreciated), and that's why such reviews never contain a single original, insightful comment.

In the end, it's about treating the original games with respect. In the case of compilations, respect amounts to devoting to each game the appropriate amount of time and consideration. In the case of ports, it means going back and playing the original game in order to better appreciate where it's coming from.

This last point deserves some further explanation. Because referring to the original version of each game is not just a matter of common sense, as I said in the beginning, but it can sometimes be of vital importance. In the case of a game like Senko no Ronde for example, whose Xbox 360 port, Senko no Ronde Rev.X, recently received a Western release, ignoring the original version is a huge mistake. Because the whole point of that game is going up against others in a zero-lag environment -- the story mode is only there as a sort of tutorial and to give something to do to those waiting for an opponent to show up. Sitting at home by yourself going through the story mode over and over again, and then reviewing the game based on that experience alone, makes as much as sense as hitting a tennis ball with a racket against a wall and then going off and passing judgement on tennis. It's just stupid. A reviewer who had encountered Senko in its original form would have no trouble appreciating the game for what it is -- not so someone whose only point of reference is the port.

So to sum up, I present to you, dear reader, some simple guidelines on reviewing ports and compilations:

1. Writing full-length reviews of ports is usually unnecessary.

2. Relying on ports or emulation to review games is at best a tricky business, and can often be downright misleading.

3. Reviewing compilations is such a demanding job that you might as well not bother if you are not capable of doing it properly.

Nothing more than common sense, I know, but good luck trying to find a single other site that follows them. (And if you do, please let me know about it.)