I have recently been playing Final Fantasy IV (the PSP release) and have loved how it is structured. Being born in the 90s, I was not cognisant of system limitations and the effect it had on game design at the time. MegaMan had screens of a single enemy so that the bullets and animation could run, sometimes even leading to reduced frame rates. Various games had full screen rooms to reduce the amount of resources used. Use different colored enemy models to create variety. These are the type of limitations the promoted thinking outside the box. How can this be rendered effectively? What is the appropriate draw distance? Use low-res textures when you are not in range. Most of the modern games focus on improve the visual presence which drives this improvement. The more I play older games the more I feel we look back less. There was a sense of charm in the classics. Examples like Shovel Knight and Axiom Verge come up every now and then to remind us what a pure unmolested gameplay experience can give to us, the gamer.
Many games you can very easily pinpoint features that were added to please the general public but do not necessarily fit with the game. There was a period during the PS3 era where games felt multiplayer was required. Being shoehorned into a wonderful single player experience that detracts from the overall value of the package. Sometimes given many abilities when only a couple are required or even encouraged. Extra fluff to distract from the truly rich experience at hand. Where is that line that needs to be drawn? When do features usefulness go from brilliant to conformity?
Playing FFIV was a good experience to have in the current state of gaming. It brought to my attention how much raw game play and raw story can combine to create a truly rich experience. At the core you have things you expect: leveling, rock-paper-scissors magic, unique ability gear, and job based characters. Progressing through the story I began to notice one thing that I really enjoyed... instead of selecting my party it was cycled by what was happening in the world. This caused the story to shine and really gave it weight whenever a major event happened and a character you played with for 6 hours is suddenly gone for whatever reason. The best part: it took away the anxiety of feeling like I have to cycle party members in to make sure their level is up to par. Yes, some games lock out character given certain events but there was something beautiful about not having to think about it. I was able to enjoy the game's story and gameplay without carrying the straggling character you don't connect with or care about.
When has the improvement of hardware limitations really changed the immersion of video games? When we started clearing the screen UI and let the player interpret what is happening. One of the first games I very clearly remember having a clean HUD was Dead Space. Your health was an LED tube on the back of the character and there was ammo indicator next to it. The menu was a 3D projection that your avatar interacted with. This is a true improvement. Another game I remember is Gears of War... when you are taking damage, your screen gets red. The more red; the closer to death you are. When the PS3/X360 generation came out, this is what I was the most impressed with.
This generation is doing well but I cannot wait to see what the future holds as all of the different studios learn to optimize their games and squeeze out as much as possible. Games do not need to be over complicated. They do not need to have 50 different customizable facial features. All they need is to be enjoyed.