This week on Extra Punctuation, Yahtzee talks about why he misses loading screens in video games. It’s somewhat coincidental timing, since Marty just talked about how much he misses the record swap.
It’s important for me, when reviewing new games, to be aware of when my personal opinions become tainted with nostalgia. Note I said be aware of it, no, try to prevent that from happening, I mean I did the remake of Resident Evil 4 and nostalgia was tainting the balls of that, frankly. And I understand that what I’m about to say will be the pinnacle of the old man pointlessly ooh, today’s young people stupidly grumbling about some aspect of modern life that is nowhere near worth complaining about, or even, according to most of the metrics, a bad thing at all. All right? Here it is. I miss the long loading times. Yes, I warned you.
This probably sounds like when older people talk about preferring to listen to vinyl even if the sound is objectively inferior in quality because the hiss and scratching give them a sense of nostalgic comfort. And that’s strictly their thing, they associate that low quality audio with the happier times of their youth. And I guess that’s where I come from with load times, because when I was a kid I played a lot on a Commodore 64 cassette deck. The feel of hitting the play button, the sound of the computerized whir and grind as the data are loaded, the festive colored lines squirming across the screen as you sit for twenty minutes reading a book, all of which is permanently etched into my memory. I remember staring at the colored lines waiting for the green and brown one, which I had called Mint Chocolate, to pop up.
These days I mostly play on a top of the line gaming PC that I somehow got the company to pay for, occasionally switching to PS5 for the inevitable stubborn exclusive, so I’m very much in solid state hard drive land right now and loading times are less and less a fixture in my life. And there’s no ceremony to a game that can just throw you straight into the game. You don’t appreciate it that much. It’s like going to the cinema, they don’t start blaring the opening credits while you’re still looking for your seat, they give you time to settle in and build anticipation before slowly dimming the lights. I’m assuming there are still install times, but those don’t count. You can do other things while you wait for things to install. It’s like saying that the movie rush counts as part of the build.
Ah, you see what’s going on, right? I’ve already fallen for the old nostalgia-blind bastard trap of trying to find reasons why the old way is somehow objectively better than all these new fanged toys that kids like, and therefore all progress should be stopped, le taxes should be lower and universal health care is communism. Obviously having no loading time is objectively better because it means you have more time to play before you’re needed in the OR to perform a life-saving heart transplant.
And uploading isn’t even an old-times versus new-times thing. Historically, it’s gone up and down depending on the hardware. If you had a cartridge console as a kid you’re probably more nostalgic for a complete absence of load times whatsoever. We’re now sitting fine with our solid-state hard drives, but all it takes is one more technological advance that software developers can’t catch up with and it’s back to keeping a book by the gaming couch. Come to think of it, making us wait while the game precaches shaders seems to be something newer games have been doing a lot of lately.
But anyway. The reason I was thinking about load times is because, not for the first time, I was thinking about loading on-screen minigames. As in, a system where during the loading screen the game issues a little zero-stakes challenge or fidget toy for the player to occupy themselves with while they wait. Which is such an obvious and ingenious idea that one feels sorry for every other idea in the world to have to share space with its brilliance. And it’s not my idea. There were a couple of games I had on my old C64 cassette deck that had something called “Invade-a-load”. Halfway through the loading sequence, a Space Invaders clone with very distinctive chiptune music would play until it abruptly stopped and kicked you out when the rest of the game was ready for you. I also remember very clearly that the PC version of Broken Sword allowed you to play a Breakout clone while waiting for it to install from the CD.
And that’s about it for the classic examples I’ve come across, and which struck me as odd for such an obvious winning idea. I mean, having the player just sit there and watch a bar fill up for ten seconds is likely to kill the beat every single time, literally giving us anything to do with our hands at which point it would kind of keep us mentally alert and not daydreaming about cakes.
The situation was clarified several years ago when I complained about it in mixed company and was informed that there was actually a simple explanation why loading minigames on screen wasn’t really a thing: Namco had a patent on it to prevent anyone else from using the idea. Which explains why Namco released all those great games in the early 2000s that thoroughly explored the concept of loading minigames onto the screen to the max. No, I don’t even remember any of them. It appears that Namco was unnecessarily patenting the idea due to a combination of forgetfulness and lack of shame.
But this is old news, because I was complaining about this streaming topic again quite recently and was informed by someone in the always witty chat that Namco’s patent actually expired in 2015. And with that I was reminded that Splatoon 1 on Wii U had a little Doodle Jump-style minigame you were invited to play while the game searched for a free server, one of the few really good uses of that damn Wii U screen controller, and I don’t seem to remember Namco sued Nintendo over the bullshit.
So, cheers. Loading screen minigames are back on the table, just in time for loading to no longer be such a prominent presence now that disc-based media has pretty much stopped being a thing. But like I said, technology could still bring it back. In fact, it could be argued that the painfully common practice in modern video games of covering up loading times by squeezing through narrow passageways or opening doors very very slowly are modern examples of loading screen minigames, not that pushing forward on the analog stick matters much. as a game mechanic.
The problem with these, besides the fact that I’ll put a 12 gauge on my head if I’m forced to play many more games with the fucking stuff, is that they transform a loading screen, which can appear for varying lengths of time depending on how much it has to be loaded and what level of hardware we’re running on, in an incredibly boring fixed-length transition sequence. So if in the future it’s played on a more advanced machine that requires significantly less loading times, it’s still going to be filled with these boring, flow-breaking caving exercises, except now for no weapon reason.
Let me know in the comments if you know of any other examples of loading screen gameplay beyond the ones mentioned, because this is a micro-facet of our beloved medium that I find oddly interesting. I think Okami on PS2 had some sort of easter egg where you could press buttons in time with the loading screen animation, and that was during Namco’s patent, so Clover Studios was facing danger on that.
It wasn’t much of a minigame, but it doesn’t need to be to keep the interest going for such a short time. Even something as simple as an on-screen counter showing how many buttons you pressed during the loading sequence, with your personal best displayed next to it, would be something. Always better than nothing. And you just know that some crazy online would keep a leaderboard.