Video games are harder to review because they take longer to go through than other media and not all of them have more than a base story to explain the goals, even today when so many story-based video games come out. I can’t really devote the time I need to really assess those stories (this being a story review and commentary site), and I don’t have the money to get all the games I’d want to play even if I had time. I have games here I haven’t finished whether they have a story or not.
While I’ve never been a “hardcore” gamer I do enjoy playing video games. I grew up with video games. Video games came into existence during my youth. I was a gamer before most of you internet dwellers both in the arcade and at home…mostly because a lot of you weren’t born yet. Sure I enjoy playing newer games when I have the chance, but those older games, that only needed a brief amount of time in comparison to even the storyless games of today, still hold play value beyond the nostalgia, and modern games are also formed from that nostalgia, playing the kinds of games the creators grew up with. They just have modern art styles and improved level design that benefits from advances in gaming.
As we’ve seen in other media lately nostalgia is often used for marketing and otherwise discarded. Movies, TV shows, and even comics take old names and slap them on new characters. That’s not a problem of quality but of adaptation, but that’s for another discussion. Video games occasionally get their not-stalgia productions, like Bionic Commando, but not as much mockstalgia. Yet, Jon Irwin wrote a piece for Variety voicing his displeasure for nostalgia in video games, believing there’s too much of it. I disagree but read the article first before seeing my thoughts.
First I want to talk about the title of his piece: “The Circuitous, Disingenuous Nature of Nostalgia in Video Games”. I don’t think there’s anything disingenuous about nostalgia, not on it’s own anyway. I’ve looked back on stuff that wasn’t as good as I remembered it, and I can even agree that stuff I enjoyed as a kid didn’t keep up with my tastes as a supposed grown-up (the world’s definition needs work at times). However, some stuff I enjoyed as a kid I still enjoy as a supposed grown-up. I don’t want everything made now to be like it was then. I just want it to be an evolved version rather than a totally new experience claiming to be the old one, which is not what Irwin is talking about in this commentary. So what is he talking about?
“They want to turn your past into your future,” writes Jill Lepore in a recent issue of the New Yorker. Lepore was writing about Amazon, Google, and Facebook and their algorithm-driven data machines, but she just as easily could have been writing about video game developers big and small. Three notable releases use our past as grist for the nostalgia mill, churning up memories the way penguin parents pre-digest their young’s food. We players happily consume the reconstituted leftovers, all too happy to remember what once was. But as a new year turns over and we collectively look ahead, I’m stuck here wondering if games look backward too often.
If you read the article (and again, you should first) he’s talking about video games who replicate the old style of gaming, which I assume means the old side-scrolling platformers like the original Super Mario Brothers. He also mentions some new game called YIIK, a Japanese style RPG by non-Japanese company Ackk Studios, that plays with the Y2K scare of 1999 and done in the style of RPG games of the time, with surreal elements to the story. He also discusses a new collection of classic Atari games and New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, a Switch port of the Nintendo Wii U game that also has a girl Toad named Toadette (despite the lore claiming that the mushroom people are asexual beings) that turns into a Princess Peach like giant form, which raises a lot of lore questions just to be “inclusive”. Apparently he’s not happy with any of this.
But this is what happens when we continually reference the past. What should be linear becomes circuitous. Momentum stalls. Comprehension relies on pre-existing knowledge. Our connection to the new is unfairly forged by an understanding of the old.
From the way he’s written this commentary I’m under the impression that he thinks the majority (I’m assuming he’s smart enough to realize not the entirety) of video games out there are rehases of a classic property or style of play. It’s not even a case of games not innovating, like a long-running franchise. Of course if you “innovate” too much you tend to annoy the fanbase because what exists doesn’t match what you play the game for in the first place. Game sequels shouldn’t fall into the “adaptation versus improvement” problem that remakes or re-imaginings too often do.
I felt this disconnection while playing YIIK. And while I appreciate the chutzpah of its creators Brian Allanson and Ian Bailey who subtitled it “A Postmodern RPG,” I can’t help but think this attempt, to build a world from a pastiche of referents and symbols, damns the game to a hell of its own devising. At least it was hell for this player: I wanted to love the surreal environments and its quirky storytelling but could not. Why? Because I have no love for their chosen homage. I did not play these games they reference, nor did I see myself in this fantastical version of a young man growing up in the 90s.
Have you considered maybe that the game was created for men and women who grew up in the 1990s? That they were the target audience and anyone who can appreciate the games and other references of the period could go along with it? I’m all for making something timeless. I look at stuff made today and already see how it will be dated in a few years, never mind for the next generation. I try to keep my current events commentary to a minimum, except for Jake & Leon, and even then I’ll put together a comic where the joke will last past the current administration. (Choose your government or business.) On the other hand nostalgia is created for those who grew up back then and had fond memories of a simpler time not because the times themselves were simpler but life is simpler when your eight than when you’re thirty-eight.
So because YIIK isn’t a game that interests you it’s a bad game for playing to the nostalgic? You’re already very close to being part of the “everything for meeeeeeeeeee” crowd on the fourth paragraph of 13. 14 if you count one sentence as a paragraph.
Art can transport us and help us experience lives far from our own. But it can also be distancing and opaque, letting in only those who share the creators’ lexicon and carefully chosen cues.
I don’t see this as a problem. Plenty of art goes in directions I have no interest in. That’s not necessarily a problem with the art or it’s quality. I have no interest in Game Of Thrones with or without having HBO but I don’t insist it be replaced with something less dark and violent. It’s not for me. I don’t insist everything be for me. I just want something that is. I shouldn’t have to only rewatch, reread, and replay the same old stuff until I drop dead. I’m 45. Despite the medical issues I’ve had and my current financial nonexistence I plan to be around long enough that I could use something new. Why not have something that caters to me. That doesn’t stop others, mostly the majority who want the same things you want, from creating the types of games you want. And despite the returning and continuing franchises new games come out a lot, from big name publishers to indie studios like Ackk Studios.
Video games rely on the player being in control; those that are built on a foundation of other, older video games risk taking that control out of the players’ hands before they even begin.
Why? Honestly, I don’t see why that is? If the game play and level design is solid the game should still be accessible. If there are references to 90s culture, it only means the story isn’t as accessible. To you, but to someone from that time or are well versed enough in the 90s that won’t be a problem. It’s like trying to get me to play a Rick And Morty video game that’s built on references to the show. I don’t watch the show but I’m not going to demand it not play exclusively to the show’s actual fans.
Nintendo is the undisputed master of creating new works from old pieces. Their latest attempt, however, veers perilously close to self-parody.
The Wii U game steals well enough, providing a solid template for a new Switch game that is, in fact, six years old. Not much is changed; sometimes the smartest move is to stay put. But even the additions feel gratuitously self-referential: Toadette, a female version of the Toad character whose species was defiled and enslaved in the lore of the original SMB (literally the building blocks of the Mushroom Kingdom) can change into a character called Peachette, a diminutive version of Princess Peach, whose original servant was none other than … Toad.
Granted it’s dumb, and yet the internet has fallen in love with the pigtailed fungus and her Peach clone form, but I don’t see how that’s self-parody. I think it was put in Captain Toad Treasure Tracker so you’d have someone else to play as in co-op and to make the more vocal feminists happy (not necessarily the gaming feminists but I’m sure plenty of them are gamers and have some good points about women characters in games–even Anita Sarkeesian made one or two good points before ruining them), not in the name of innovation.
This is the curse of success: How do you maintain a formula that was created thirty years ago? In 2012, then-President of Nintendo, the late Satoru Iwata, voiced this concern to the development team. “There are so many things that must be carried on in the classic 2D Super Mario action games that need to be taught,” Iwata said. “On the other hand, if there isn’t any freshness to it, they’ll get humdrum.” Somehow, through expertise, wizardry, and luck, Nintendo’s designers have toed that line between the fresh and the classic for nearly four decades. Their history is their greatest asset, and the main thing holding them back.
Yet there are more Mario games that come out besides the 2D/2.5D games and fan-demanded re-releases. Super Mario Odyssey and Super Mario Galaxy had new play mechanics. A lot of the 3D games add something new to the Mario experience, even if it means trapping Mario in a painting and letting Luigi a chance to be his awesome self. Then you have the sports games. A formula needs to be tweaked to take advantage of advancements in game creation, if not creating a few of those advancements yourself. However, if you go too far off of formula the fanbase is not happy. They liked the game as it was, and one of the many recurring themes around here is “it’s not better because it appeals to you, and in fact taking someone else’s favorite experience and turning it into yours makes it different, not better and is a jerk move”. Again, not everything has to appeal to you or me, just as long as something does. If a franchise or a particular game doesn’t fit your taste, oh well. If it doesn’t fit the mold of the franchise, that’s a mistake. I’m all for creating something new, not reworking something old so much it should have just been something new. See my many takes on not-stalgia, right down to creating the term.
He then talks about Atari’s various Flashback consoles and game collections for other consoles and PC. I’m not going to repost the entire article here, but there is a line I want to bring up.
“Atari Flashback Classic” is a compilation of playable memories. And maybe that’s enough. But if every game tries to reflect the past, there’s less effort paid in imagining the future.
Not every game does this. You’re ignoring the flood of new games, gameplays, and IPs among the various consoles, computers, and smart devices that do new things or at least create new characters. Both big and small publishers, including the self-publishers and indie studios, release new games or do something new with a classic gaming or story genre.
Games aren’t the only industry fed by nostalgia. Hollywood is no stranger to remakes; last year’s A Star is Born was the fifth version of that story. But the original was produced in 1937. It took over eighty years to count a hand’s worth of rehashes. It only took Nintendo thirty-three years to produce seven iterations on “Super Mario Bros.” and that’s if we’re counting modestly.
The difference between movie and game remakes is that changing from film reels to MP4 files doesn’t really impact the story. You can watch the same movie over and over. If there isn’t an official release on home video or a streaming service, somebody probably has it on YouTube or Dailymotion…or possibly one of those Russian sites you hope isn’t tossing viruses at your computer. Video games are not so easy. If your NES dies they don’t make NESs anymore. The best you can hope for is a retro system that may or may not render the game right and uses the same or a similar feeling controller. Unless you still have a CRT TV your Zapper games are completely useless and plenty of kids only know the dog from Duck Hunt because us older gamers still complain about his mocking laugh. Retro systems and virtual console remakes are your only bet, especially with Nintendo going after roms like a character in Monster Hunter.
Can the nostalgia well run dry? Does placing players in control of a character make them more eager to run through the same halls than if they were passively watching the same film story or reading the same book plot? Such questions are above my paygrade.
Really, because I don’t currently HAVE a paygrade and I can answer. Some yes, others no. The reissued and homage-designed games play to the ones who answer “yes”.
There will always be different ways of repackaging yesterday. We won’t stop imagining what might happen tomorrow. Both are fraught with peril and loss. Maybe the better choice, then, as creators and players, is to seek out the surprise of an unknowable present.
Or here’s a thought: do whichever brings you the most joy after a hard day’s work, during a lazy day at home, or having a good time with friends or siblings and other relatives (which yes, does happen). Maybe even do all three. Experience the media of the past–whether we’re talking comics, video games, movies, or TV shows like we do with books and music–the present, and get excited for what new spore of madness will come across our screens and monitors in the future. Everybody should get the playtime experience they want and it’s not so bad to try something different that you’re curious about. Not everything that comes out has to play to every single player, and in fact that’s not possible. Everybody is different. Everybody seeks a different experience or a desire to create what brings them the most joy.
When did that become a bad thing?