The myth of the graphics-centric gamer
The “gamer who is only fixated on graphics” theme is a popular one, but one that I don’t feel is based in reality. There have been plenty of cases of games over the decades with then state-of-the-art graphics getting critically savaged or selling poorly because the gameplay wasn’t there to match. Flashy audio-visuals might get you noticed and might get someone “in the door” so to speak to try your game, but it’s obviously not an indicator for success. Even using a classic example of a game like Dragon’s Lair, which remains undeniably beautiful for obvious reasons, still has an argument to be made for its gameplay, such as it is. While there are plenty of other examples of games where you could argue it was flash over substance (Defender of the Crown, Shadow of the Beast, Battle Arena Toshinden, etc.), only in very few cases, say with a game like Rise of the Robots, could a pretty solid case be made that there are/were no other redeeming factors than its visuals (and the developers of Rise of the Robots learned that the hard way when people had already caught on by the time Rise of the Robots 2 came out – word DOES spread).
And then you only have to look at some of the most popular games today, like Minecraft, Fortnite, Rocket League, Dwarf Fortress, Grand Theft Auto V, Hearthstone, Civilization VI, etc., to see that gameplay still rules even if the visuals are not necessarily best-in-class. And when games like Flight Simulator 2020 do set new visual standards, there’s often considerable depth underneath (or, similarly, enhanced visuals actually enhance the gameplay with things like improved draw distances, more in-game objects, etc.).
So no, I don’t think we’ve ever REALLY had a flash over substance issue in gaming. It’s just one of those tropes that gets repeated, particularly as an argument for when a game’s visuals are subpar or not aesthetically pleasing, that gameplay should rule. And of course, everyone agrees that gameplay should rule and it certainly CAN trump weak visuals, but at the same time, considering what even the most modest technology is able to display these days, subpar visuals or subpar aesthetics are hard to excuse. It’s the classic, “Why not both?”, which is arguably truer today than ever.