Any Port in a Storm, or: How 80s and 90s Kids Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Bad Ports

By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief

I can’t help but laugh and shake my head whenever I read about all of the supposedly awful ports of games these days. More often than not, these games are “awful” merely because they are only 30 frames per second instead of 60, or 720p instead of 1080p, or the lighting or water effects aren’t as good, or some other trivial thing that is really of no consequence to anyone other than people looking for something to complain about. If you came of age prior to the consoles that first started to catch up to the arcades technologicall–the N64, Saturn, and PS1–then you are all too aware of what a “bad port” truly is.

I was born in 1981, and into a household that was already gaming on an Atari 2600. As such, one of the very first video games I ever played was the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man. You know, the one that looked like this:

The thing is, I literally had no idea that this was a bad port of the arcade game. This was the only version of Pac-Man I knew. It’s hard to say exactly when I first came upon a Pac-Man arcade cabinet and had the revelation as to how the game was actually supposed to look, but by then it didn’t matter: I had already spent at least a couple of years playing–and loving–the only version of Pac-Man my young self had known. By the time the NES hit, I was a little bit more aware of arcades, but it would still be a few years into the system’s lifespan that the 16-bit arcade ports began to hit. I knew that the NES version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game wasn’t quite up to snuff with the arcade game I had already played to death, but I didn’t car–I was getting to play what was probably my 9 year old self’s favorite game of all time at home, for “free.” Even when I’d dabble with the arcade game again and return to my inferior NES version, I was completely unfazed, and pressed start with as much giddy excitement as if I had inserted a coin into the arcade version.

As the 90s truly began in earnest, the 16-bit arcade revolution was in full swing, and I spent the first couple of years of the decade with no 16-bit system to call my own. And with the SNES and Genesis now available, far fewer companies were even bothering to water down their 16-bit epics to accommodate the aging NES hardware. Then came that magical Christmas when I finally got a platform that I could play all of those wonderful arcade games on. I got…a Game Gear. It was in the period between getting a Game Gear and my brother finally buying us a Genesis with his own money that I had to learn to love some awful (in retrospect) ports of my favorite arcade games of the time. Maybe if I had been a few years older I would’ve been more picky and/or patient, but as a young teenager, given the choice between Game Gear Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam or no Mortal Kombat or NBA Jam, the choice was obvious. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any of these games in action, but I present videos of them both to you for your consideration:

I feel like I had to know just how bad these ports were. I must have. Not only had I played both of those games extensively in the arcade, but I had friends with SNESs and Geneses (wow those are two awkward systems to pluralize) and versions of those games for those systems, so I knew both how the arcade originals looked and the respectable 16-bit ports looked. I couldn’t have possibly been completely oblivious to the severe downgrade of the Game Gear ports. Still, I don’t remember there being any period of “Wow this is rough. This is going to take some getting used to.” I put the games in and was off and playing and smiling almost immediately. Maybe it’s some sort of variation of Stockholm Syndrome, where I fell in love with my “captor” which was, in that case, my Game Gear. What choice did I have? It was either love those games or hate them, and therefore not play them. The latter just wasn’t an option for me. Having to endure the Game Gear versions of 16-bit (and beyond, really, as both of the aforementioned games were a notch above standard 16-bit graphics) actually ended up being a blessing for when I finally did get my Genesis, as I certainly was in no position to notice that the Genesis versions of Mortal Kombat II or Street Fighter II weren’t quite up to snuff since they were miles ahead of anything on my Game Gear.

And so it went with arcade ports for the PlayStation, Saturn and N64, at least in the first few years. The gap began to close toward the end of the fifth console generation, and by the time the Dreamcast launched with a version of Soul Calibur that was actually better than the arcade game, the era of home versions of arcade games being noticeably inferior to their original versions was largely over – as were arcades, for the most part. All that was left to haggle over was the difference between the different console versions of games, or the console versus the PC versions, which by and large were never different by an especially large gulf. Certainly nowhere near the difference between late 80’s to mid 90’s arcade games and their console counterparts. Even on handheld platforms the downgrade had become less pronounced with the increased horsepower of the PSP and the DS. Now, with the exception of a game that just comes out completely buggy and broken, “bad ports” don’t really exist anymore in any truly significant way. If you absolutely must haggle about how bad a game looks because it only runs at 30fps and 720p or is missing some rain effects or real time shadows or whatever, by all means, have at it. But if, like me, you remember a time when even a game as simple as Pac-Man had to settle for an almost unrecognizable port, then I really don’t see how you can even waste any energy complaining that a game only looks great instead of really great.