Language is a living thing and as time passes it evolves. New words are born as the world grows more complex and old words adapt to changing circumstances; the language surrounding video games is no different. Probably the most interesting semantic development among gamers involves the term “hardcore.” Wii’s success has introduced a variety of different groups to gaming, folks who don’t quite embrace games with the same fervor as long time gamers are deemed “casual” while all of us long time gamers are “hardcore.” Right? If only it could be that simple.
“Hardcore” has pretty much become the catchphrase of the backlash to Wii’s success; many gamers feel their hobby to be threatened by the influx of casual gamers so they have naturally deemed themselves to be the serious gamers, the “hardcore”. But what about folks like your beloved Nintendojo writers and maybe even yourself? Don’t we all take our gaming serious while still enjoying Wii’s many quality fruits? So what ultimately makes games and gamers “hardcore”?
First of all, what traits makes a game hardcore? Are games that don’t possess those traits softcore? Casual? To be frank, hardcore is being thrown around with absolute abandon nowadays. I think most of us agree on some franchises and genres that can be considered hardcore with little debate. Some games are obviously targeted towards very specific audiences who are looking for particular experiences that newer gamers might not be able to appreciate. Very difficult and complex games fall under the hardcore umbrella quite easily; nobody would argue that Ninja Gaiden is a casual friendly game. Where a great deal of confusion comes from is the question of content. Plenty of Wii naysayers are quick to bring up the console’s lack of mature themed content as a reason for it not being hardcore enough; but what does blood, boobs, and cussing have to do it?
Consider Pokémon for a moment; think about its cute characters, colorful visuals, and family friendly themes. Now try this on for size, Pokémon is more hardcore than every game in the God of War series combined. Pokémon is an incredibly deep game, demanding that players become familiar with numerous factors to become good at the game and then giving boat-loads of content with which to exercise these new skills. On the other hand, God of War is a rather straightforward action game; its combat system has some cool ideas but is quite simple compared to games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta. What God of War does have is thousands of gallons of blood, plenty of opportunities to horribly dismember Kratos’s enemies, and more than a few pairs of naked breasts. Both Pokémon and God of War are great franchises that represent some of the best titles in their respective genres. But be honest, what is more impressive: a gamer who has mastered the combat in God of War 3 or someone who has completed every Pokédex, can immediately think up the best team to handle any possible situation and knows exactly how to tweak their Pokemon’s stats to get the optimal creature? Personally, I think there are few gamers more committed and serious about their hobby than a true Pokémon master.
Getting back to Wii, Nintendo’s little white box (now available in black, too!) has played host to many quality games that are much more hardcore than self-proclaimed hardcore gamers have given them credit for. Little King’s Story is a complex little gem that mixes strategy, simulation, and puzzle solving into a cartoony package with a heavy dose of family friendly humor and a whimsical, picture book-like aesthetic. How about Zack and Wiki, an adventure game filled with clever puzzles and a Saturday morning cartoon-like sensibility. And then there are Nintendo’s own franchises that frequently rank among the best reviewed games of the generation but still seem unable to sway these gamers. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is the most masterfully crafted entry in what is quite possibly gaming’s most well-balanced franchise, and Metroid Prime 3 is an atmospheric adventure game featuring varied action, unique gameplay, and superb controls. Nintendo also has games with great crossover appeal with the last few Mario games being prime examples. Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel feature the franchise’s whimsical art style while simultaneously delivering quite possibly the most original gameplay ideas this generation, with many of them being quite challenging. And then there is New Super Mario Bros. Wii, one of this generations best selling games. Casual gamers were drawn in by its simple premise and multiplayer features, while long time Nintendo fans stuck around for the surprisingly difficult challenge and masterful game design. Tragically, these games have been largely ignored by devoted gamers who have written off the Wii as being incapable of delivering hardcore experiences.
Moving onto the gamers themselves, we must ask what makes a gamer truly hardcore? There are plenty of different types of gamers but many proclaim themselves to be the true hardcore crowd. Many gamers are very serious about their hobby, but among them there are many different playing habits. Some gamers devote themselves to only a handful of games or one particular genre; these are the kind of people who pick up the big online titles and master the games to become the absolute best or are maybe devoted to only a couple franchises and pick up every new Call of Duty or Madden like clockwork. In terms of the time these folks commit to their games of choice, these folks are obviously serious, but can somebody with such limited preferences be considered real hardcore gamers? Hell, if its just about time committed, do we label Farmville addicts hardcore gamers? Then there are folks like me who play just about every genre and can enjoy any game that is well made and fun to play. But do I lose hardcore points (if there is such a thing) for playing games lacking violence, competitive online modes, complex stories, insanity inducing challenges, or polygonal boobs?
All things considered, there are so many different genres, styles and approaches to game making and playing to even consider a notion as nebulous as hardcore. Think seriously about that term for a moment, hardcore is a severe word that for some reason has come to carry serious implications with it, and these numerous attempts to attach it to something that varies from lighthearted entertainment to conceptually complicated works of art is absolutely ridiculous. If we must choose to attach words to describe our approach to gaming, I think “serious” is a much better choice. The frequent use of hardcore recently has made it feel as though people are trying to draw a polarizing line between gamers. I feel “serious” represents more of a state of mind that is flexible enough to be applied to the broader spectrum of gamers who are truly committed to any of gaming’s varied forms. Serious gamers care about the gaming landscape, they keep up to date with the news that most interests them, they frequently talk with other gamers about the issues that most concern and excite them, and they have chosen gaming as their primary source of entertainment.
Ultimately though, I would rather not play this silly game of gaming semantics. Far too many people are far too concerned about labels, but that is pretty much the history of the human race. The more we label ourselves and each other, the more it creates an atmosphere of “us and them” and that just drives people apart. When applied to more significant matters, this mentality has started wars; so trying to add it into the already rather petty world of video game discourse is just plain unnecessary. This whole debate is just another version of fan boy flame wars, something that continues to be an annoying little fly circling the heads of gamers everywhere. Maybe all of us would be better off if we just set aside our label makers and picked up our controllers.