I’ve been buying console video games for over thirty years now (I still have not only the first two cartridges I bought — Bubble Bobble and The Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System — but also the receipts from the Highland Appliance I bought them at, for those of you old enough to remember Highland), and in all that time, I have only returned one video game I purchased. When I bought my first copy of Mortal Kombat III for Super Nintendo and took it home, I was immediately struck by how I couldn’t seem to win any battles on even the easiest difficulty setting, even though I was fairly adept at the Mortal Kombat III arcade machine at the video rental place that my family went to at the time (Video Connection, for any of the older Toledoans who might be reading this). I took the game back to the store for an exchange, but the second copy of the cartridge I got had the same error, so I asked for my money back, thinking that there was a programming error with the game cartridge.
This was around the time that the release of Final Fantasy VI for the Super Nintendo (Final Fantasy III as it was called at the time here in the US) became infamous for a programming error (alternately called the “sketch bug” or “Relm glitch”) which could result in a game becoming unplayable, forcing the player to reload the game at the point where they last saved it. This was a pain, but the bug was largely avoidable, as long as the player made a point of not using the Relm character whenever they had a choice to use other characters in her place. This was the first time I’d ever seen such a massive bug in a console video game, and so I assumed that something similar had happened with Mortal Kombat III for the same system.
Whether or not the difficulty issues with Mortal Kombat III for the Super Nintendo exist or not is still being debated by video game players twenty-five years later, but the company that produced the actual game cartridge, Midway, never admitted to any problems with the game’s programming. I was never the world’s biggest Mortal Kombat fan, but not getting to play Mortal Kombat III on the best console I had at the time was kind of a pain, especially when I never had similar problems with any other Mortal Kombat game I ever played, including Mortal Kombat III for the Sega Genesis. (I never bought that version, just because the lower-quality graphics and music grated on me.) I wound up souring on the first 3-D Mortal Kombat games of the 32-bit era and never even tried to play them, and I didn’t get back into the series until a few years ago, when I got Mortal Kombat 9 for my PlayStation 3 when it was on sale. (I’ve since bought Mortal Kombat XL for PlayStation 4, and while the franchise still isn’t my favourite, I admire the unique characters and intricate storylines they’ve fleshed out the series with.)
Back when home video games came on expensive cartridges, the thought of issuing a recall for a game with a substantial programming error was probably laughable. Video game companies had to get everything right before they brought their game to market, and the only game of that era I remember being reissued was Maniac Mansion for the NES, to delete the ability to microwave a hamster to death within the game. (How Nintendo gave that game their official seal of approval still baffles me.) Squaresoft never released a fixed version of Final Fantasy VI, and instead just sent form letters to anyone who wrote them about the issue, basically telling Final Fantasy VI players to learn to live with the problem. (I still have my copy of that letter, somewhere near all those old video game receipts.)
The cheaper production costs of CD-ROM discs (and all their successors) made this less of an issue, but more than that, as Internet connections and hard disks became standard components of console video game systems, it became possible to issue software patches to correct problems within a game. Before you can even play a game, a modern console will check to see if there’s an update available that fixes a known issue in a game, and will often automatically download the update to the player’s hard disk, which will then “correct” issues with the original game (whether that game is on a removable disc or has been downloaded to the console’s hard disk directly) as it’s being loaded. The good news is that this technology now makes it possible to remove serious issues within a game; the bad news is that some video game companies are now releasing games with real problems, just to meet deadlines, and then “fixing” the games later (and often in an incomplete way, leading to round after round of revisions just to get a video game that can be described as playable).
I was vaguely aware of these issues when I purchased my Playstation 4 last year and started getting back into console video games, but I didn’t think too much of them. One of the first games I made sure to get, Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection, had been out for a while, and the fact that the game had good star ratings wherever I looked made me think that there couldn’t be any serious problems with the game, or at least problems that hadn’t been fixed by the time I finally bought my copy. I dabbled with some of the games on the disc right after I got it, but I didn’t really explore some of them until a few days ago, while I was broadcasting my gaming on my Twitch channel (please follow and subscribe, yadda yadda yadda).
This past Saturday, I loaded up Super Street Fighter II Turbo on that game disc as I started my stream, intending to work my way through it as well as I could. (I used to play Street Fighter II games on a near-daily basis when I was in high school, and let’s just say that my skills have significantly deteriorated since then.) I was used to not doing so well when I played the games on that disc, even with the difficulty setting at the lowest possible level, but I did so poorly when I played Super Street Fighter II Turbo that I blew past my own tolerance for public embarrassment — which, given all the stupid stuff I’ve done on the Internet for the past twenty-five years, is pretty darn high — and had to quit the game before I’d even gotten that far into it. I don’t like doing that, especially when I have an audience, but I could tell that I had no choice there,
I was looking up information on other video games later that afternoon, and as I looked up information about Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection, I quickly located the source of the problem I’d had earlier that day. Apparently when the manufacturer (Capcom) was putting the collection together, they accidentally put the first-ever (in the US) ROM for the Super Street Fighter II Turbo arcade machine on the disc. That ROM had a known issue that caused the difficulty to be much harder than it should have been, and Capcom quickly sent a new version of the ROM out to arcade owners who’d bought the machine, fixing the difficulty issue (at no small expense on Capcom’s part). For some reason, Capcom not only kept that ROM around, but used it in Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection.
Accidents happen, but the glitch in Final Fantasy VI could only start happening dozens of hours into the game, so I can understand why game testers might not have found that bug on their own. This problem with Super Street Fighter II Turbo on the Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection, though, happens almost as soon as the first fight on that game starts, so I find it hard to believe that the game was tested before its release, at least to any significant extent. Yes, there are twelve separate games in the collection (and there aren’t any issues with the other eleven), but checking all of them out to make sure that they operated adequately shouldn’t have been that big of a task.
More to the point, Capcom has had a couple of years now to fix this problem, like they did for the arcade version of Super Street Fighter II Turbo, with a patch. Unlike with their arcade machines, Capcom doesn’t need to manufacture a whole bunch of physical components and ship them out across the country; they can simply put new code online that Playstation owners can then download to their consoles, so that the ROM for Super Street Fighter II Turbo is fixed to a fairer version. Either Capcom doesn’t think that many people want this change (which I find hard to believe), or they just don’t care, and regardless of the reason, it kind of stinks.
I pre-ordered Final Fantasy VII Remake as soon as it came out, and I doubt that I’ll ever anticipate another video game more than this one for the rest of my life. Given all the problems that video game players are starting to have with games having these huge problems when they’re shipped out, though, I’m already worrying that I’m going to pop that Final Fantasy VII Remake disc into my Playstation 4 and immediately become heartbroken by one or more major problems that make the game unplayable. Thirty years ago, when I started buying console video games, those days where I got to go to places like Highland Appliance and Children’s Palace were red-letter days for me. Now I have a feeling that every time I try a new video game, I’m going to get a sinking feeling in my stomach while it loads up, while I inevitably start thinking to myself, “I hope this works.”