Nostalgia and Modern Video Games

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So Yahtzee Croshaw did a review of Shovel Knight last week on Zero Punctuation.  Shovel Knight is a game that was intentionally made to mirror the look and feel of old NES games from years ago, all in an attempt to pull on the nostalgia strings of old time gamers.  His review covers that and other aspects of such an endeavor as only he can, but he makes an offhand comment near the end of his video that I wanted to talk more about.  He was remarking about how he was playing through some old Castlevania games on his DS and his comment was something along the lines of:

Is it nostalgia when old stuff does stuff better than new stuff?

Is it indeed?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this problem lately, as I’ve been having a really hard time trying to find a game to really sink my teeth into.  Lately that game has been Divinity: Original Sin and a more proper review of that game should come soon, but it’s been giving me trouble.  You see it’s not as good as some of the older games I used to play.  While trying to invoke the top down isometric views of games past, it immediately forces a comparison to those games.  And ultimately that comparison is not very favorable to Divinity.

But it’s not just me.  The Escapist also ran an article on 8 old school JRPG’s that were better than Final Fantasy 7, a game that set the bar for JRPG’s.  Why it was FF7 that set this bar, I have no idea.  That game was dark, dreary, and drug on forever, but the article did come up with some really great games, not a single one of which was from this decade.

Some of the guys who run lifehacker.com have started up a new website based on the premise of reviewing their old favorite video games.  They don’t update regularly but that’s a well even I’ve tapped here and there.  Hell, I regularly pine on this site for an old game that’s been inactive for almost 2 years and was originally developed over 10 years ago before even World of Warcraft.

So what is up with the games industry?  Why is there so much interest in the old games of years past?  Part of it could probably be nostalgia.  The original core audience is growing older and some of them are clearly pining for their youth (and metabolism as Yahtzee says).  But that can’t even account for half of the push.  Why does it seem to be that games made 10 and even 20 years ago are somehow doing better and are enjoyed more than games being made today with the latest and greatest in graphics and processing power?

That may be the problem right there.  The big very push for increased graphics and processing power.  It’s de-incentivized things like platformers, puzzlers, mixes of action/adventure with some real time strategy, and forced devs into sandbox and real world sims.  And the problem with those kinds of games, where you start trying to emulate real life, is that real life just isn’t that much fun.  Most of the games made today aren’t so much games as they are real life simulators that try to edit out the most mundane things they can think of and find something fun to do (hence the Grand Theft Auto phenomenon).  Many are not that successful at it.

Shovel Knight is getting rave reviews right now and I have tried it out a bit, loved it, and will hopefully play more as time permits.  But is it any wonder it’s good when we look at the lineage it taps in it’s attempt to be nostalgic.  In that video above Yahtzee mentions no less than 5 different video game series that all either started or were part of several long running and much loved series.  Super Mario 3, Duck Tales, Castlevania, Zelda 2, and Mega Man were all games that came from an era where platforming, combat, and story telling were heavily constrained by technical considerations.  And yet, these are some of the most famous video game series in all of history.  Shovel Knight succeeds by tapping that history and giving us something we didn’t even realized we were missing.  Compelling gameplay, interactive and engaging story telling, and combat designed to work within the constraints of a system that puts limits on its overall capabilities.  It would seem that more power and more choices do not automatically make better video games.

And that’s a lesson the games industry still seems to miss regularly.  Triple A gaming regularly sells games based on their graphical appearance, or their new abilities to do x, or simulate y.  And yet somehow, that doesn’t make the games any more fun or compelling to play.  Sandbox games that encourage us to explore and interact with a huge simulated world, provide little or no motivation for actually exploring that world.  FPS’ers that simulate hard combat fail spectacularly to be compelling or fun.  Even the most recently touted of these games, Titanfall, which sold itself on it’s revolutionary combat system, was only really different in that it added platforming back into its mechanics.  Something that seems to have cost them the ability to create a single player campaign, it should be noted.  It’s no wonder I wanted to play Metal Warriors when Titanfall was released.  It had everything Titanfall has and more.  It wasn’t as pretty, but guess what.  It was and is still more fun.

In many cases, the gaming industry today seems to be saying, “Look at us, we can make bigger and better games with simulated chest hair and shadows that are only slightly opaque.  These are the things you want, even though they don’t actually accomplish the goal of making a game any better.”  It’s almost like they’ve forgotten how to make games at all.  It’s as though the whole point of making a game fun and worth playing, has been discarded as some kind of childish idea that’s no longer relevant in this grown up age of over-clocked cpu’s and SLI grouped video cards.  And we seem to have gone right along with them, buying into these things that don’t make us any happier or make things any more fun, forgeting why we showed up here to begin with.  Hopefully we’ll see more games like Shovel Knight in the future and we’ll remember better.  In the meantime, if anyone can find me a port or emulation of Metal Warriors that actually works, hit me up.  I’ve got the urge to storm a starship bridge with 100 tons of steel and a handgun.

Doors?  We make our own doors.

Doors? We make our own doors.

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