Is it valid to judge a game by its length? I don't hear people criticizing books for being too short (except maybe Harry Potter fans) or giving a movie a thumbs down because it didn't last long enough. I don't hear people arguing that the Mona Lisa would be a better painting if only it were bigger. I do, however, hear this type of criticism thrown at videogames. For most players, videogames are regarded as consumable products, like cheeseburgers. For them, longer game translates to better value and (supposedly) better game. For me, this kind of thinking seems not only narrow, but bad for videogames.
Sure, a person could eat six plates of food at a buffet. But is that better than eating a single plate of high quality food for the same price? Maybe it's better if the goal is to eat to the point of puking. But I think most people would agree that when it comes to food, or books, or movies, quality is more important than quantity. Why the heck shouldn't this principle also apply to videogames? It didn't used to take 10 or 20 hours to beat most games. Contra can be finished easily in less than an hour with a friend, and Super Mario Bros. can be beaten even faster. It's a point of comparison that most players seem to forget.
Adjusted for inflation, most NES games originally retailed at anywhere from $90 to $100. Compare that to today, where the superb action game Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which retails for $60, is criticized for not being long enough at six hours. The funny thing is that even from a consumerist bang-for-the-buck point of view, COD4 still offers a better value today than Contra did 20 years ago, aside from the fact that it's a much better game. I think it's time to be a bit more broadminded about this hobby. A short but high quality experience is much more satisfying than 100 hours of mediocrity.
I'm not saying that it's never valid to criticize a game for its length. There are many other factors to consider. A role-playing game that takes only three hours to beat would likely be deserving of criticism. But should the same criticism be leveled at a polished and a densely-packed first-person shooter? Sonic and the Secret Rings would have been more enjoyable and focused without the constant level recycling. Heck, I'll even admit that the sublime Resident Evil 4 may have dragged on a little longer than it should have. There are many more examples of this, but suffice it to say that bigger is not always better.
If videogames are to continue developing as an artform, then it will require some willingness on the part of players to be more accepting of experiences that don't necessarily require 10 or 20 hours to finish. Not everyone has the time to play through Zelda or Oblivion, but that doesn't mean these players can't have fantastic gaming experiences that are distinguished not by their length, but by their artistry, emotional impact, and replayability. So long as videogames can be criticized out of hand based solely on their duration, then there's little hope of games earning the type of respect accorded to music, film, and other artforms. That would be a shame.