Updated: Jan 25
“I'm almost at the end of the level, one more hit on this boss and he is toast and….ARGH!!!! I’m hit! Now I will have to start the level all-over-again. Why doesn't this game have a save-game system? Why must you smite me oh lords of the interweb?"
If you are a gamer you will have experienced this at least once. If you are the parents / siblings / long-suffering-other-half of a gamer, you will probably have heard this shouted out at an unreasonably loud volume. Possibly several times a day. In the bad-old-days, in the dark times before the ability to save your progress became common, this would have been the norm. So join me as we take a brief look at the history of video game save systems and how they evolved. Let's dive in.
Short and Sweet
Back when games were confined to video arcades, save games didn’t exist. The whole business model of coin-op arcades was simple – if you die, you shovel in more coins to keep playing. Arcade games were also relatively short, so that you could – theoretically – finish the game in one sitting. Assuming you didn’t run out of coins first of course.
When home computers and consoles first appeared, most games were based on
arcade games, and so they too were quite short. You could finish these in one sitting as well, so there was not too much of a problem. Unless you died too many times and ran out of continues of course.
But as games became more advanced, they also became longer. This was especially true for games developed specifically for the home market.
A Growing Concern
Now that games had grown in scale, finishing a game in one sitting may take several hours of continuous play. It took my 11-year-old self about four-and-a-half-hours to play through First Samurai and achieve the '$$$$$$' high score. This meant monopolising the living room TV for most of the evening, much to everyone else's annoyance.
First Samurai Amiga
08:23 Hallelujah indeed, that's pretty much my reaction to free food too!
Video by Al82 Retrogaming Longplays
Incidentally, my 11-year-old self was quite impressed with himself for 'breaking' the high score counter, since it didn't have enough digits to display anything above 999,999. I was a points millionaire! If only there was a way to turn those digital $s into real-world £s...
Achieving this had to be done in one sitting, as the game didn’t have any way to save your progress. And this was not a one-off either. Most games back then did not feature a save game facility. As you can probably imagine, this was both annoying and inconvenient.
Some games got around this by utilising a passcode system. Your progress would be translated into a huge string of letters and numbers. For example:
'gnc1yebwe3ncn745y362x656mcnsywe.' NB - this is an example I just made up. You could try entering it somewhere, but results may vary.
You were expected to grab a pen and paper to write this all down of course. To pick up from where you left off, you would have to enter this code into the game's start menu. And if it was a console game, that meant using one of those terrible on-screen keyboards you have probably seen on Smart TVs. This was again both annoying and inconvenient.
Save to Disc
There were a few games back then which enabled you to save your progress to disc, Elite and its sequel Frontier being excellent examples. For these titles being able to save one's progress was not only handy, it was essential, since these titles do not have an 'end' as such. Theoretically, you could play them forever.
It is worth pointing out that most of the non-PC home computers of the '90s, such as the Amiga and Atari ST, did not have hard drives, therefore save data had to be saved to disc.
Lucky for us this is not a longplay video, otherwise, we would be here all day...
Video by Trypsonite
Some games employed a checkpoint system, whereby if you died, you would restart part-way through the level. In theory, this was much better than having no save system at all.
In practice, this was often rendered useless, since you typically lost all of your power-ups in the process. This in-of-itself would not be a huge problem, if it were not often combined with poor level design.
By 'poor level design' I am referring to levels designed in such a way as to be impossible to complete without being at full power. And I do mean impossible. Not merely difficult without full power-ups, but actually impossible. Project-X, I’m looking at you. This created the phenomenon / trope I call “Die once, you may as well quit.” I have covered this in more detail here.
Modern-day emulators solve all these problems by using their own built-in save systems, independent of the game they are emulating.
The Modern Era
Thankfully nowadays these problems are almost unheard of, and lack of in-level checkpoints are rare. Since the days of the PSOne, save data could be saved to memory cards, such as the one shown at the start of this post.
That said, even modern checkpoints have their flaws. If they are put in the wrong place, you could easily wind up getting killed the second you respawn.
BAD VIDEOGAME CHECKPOINT
This guy gets it, in both senses of the word. Repeatedly.
Video by Laugh Over Life
PC games often allow you to save at any point, which is a very welcome feature. However, this can lead to ‘save spamming’, or 'save-scumming', which is the practice of saving every few seconds. If you die, simply go back to the last save and try again.
'Quick save, quick load, rinse and repeat.' If you have seen the film 'Live. Die. Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow', you will know what I mean.
Iron Man Mode
Very recently a new save system has been invented to get around this: Iron Man Mode. Iron Man Mode allows you to save as often as you want, anywhere, anytime, allowing for playthroughs that may take 20 hours or more. However, if you die, all save files linked to your profile will be erased, AKA – ‘permadeath.’
IRON MAN MODE - Dan Bull - Hardcore Game Rap
"For the players. Who like a challenge..."
Video by Dan Bull
Iron Man Mode can make games that use it extremely challenging, especially ones aimed at realism. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R mod Call of Chernobyl uses this to great effect. It's aptly titled mod Call of MISERY, takes this to the extreme. If you can survive Call Of Misery on Ironman mode, the real world apocalypse will feel like a relaxing holiday in comparison. Thankfully, like so much in PC gaming, Iron Man Mode is optional.
That's it for this article, see you all again in the next.
What are your thoughts on in-game saves systems? Do you have any amusing save-game related stories, or corrupted save-game horror stories you would like to share? If so, feel free to share your experiences in the comments section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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