The Volatile Power Of Nostalgia

As a child, everything is a novelty. With a miniscule attention span and little to no life experience, we ingested as much media as we could and all of it was the best thing ever. Cars that transform into robots, four exterminators busting ghosts, adventurers donning green tunics. Whenever one thinks of those wonderful things they grew up with, they’re awash with homesickness, a “sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place of time.

This is the feeling of nostalgia; a mix of both happiness and sadness; a happy longing for the past and a sadness that it cannot be reclaimed. It’s a force that draws us towards things that bring back fond memories of our childhood. You know nostalgia when you feel it. When you’re on the Internet and you stumble upon the theme song to your favourite childhood cartoon, uploaded in that glorious VHS quality, your heart swells with feelings of simpler times.

For many (if not, most) of us, a lifelong bond between us and video games was formed when we were children. One of my earliest video game memories was playing the Donkey Kong Country series with my dad. The Donkey Kong Country is a series of relatively difficult platforming games, with the ability to play the game with a second player who can tag-in during particularly difficult platforming sections (some of which have prevented me from beating Donkey Kong Country 2 to this day).

Having fun with my Pops is an incredible memory, but while he stopped playing video games a long time ago, I keep going back to those sweet, tasty jams. When I go back and listen to those classic tunes, I can’t help but sway my head along to the tune of Aquatic Ambiance. The music is so good that when I found out that David Wise was returning to Tropical Freeze after a nearly 20 year absence from the series, I bought the game on launch. I even bought Snake Pass, another difficult platformer, solely because David Wise was composing the music.

Nintendo are the masters of nostalgia. They have franchises that have lasted for decades and they will use any and all of them when they want to invoke that nostalgia in their consumers (see: the aforementioned Tropical Freeze anecdote). If you grew up with Mario and you hear that classic 1-1 theme in a modern Mario game, or when you see a familiar castle from another Mario game in HD, it’s a safe bet that Nintendo has you in the palm of their hand from that point forward.

Nintendo keeps familiar faces and game mechanics in their games to make sure the audience knows that Nintendo stays true to their roots. Link has used bombs and a boomerang in nearly every game since his first appearance, Bowser is still capturing Princess Peach for reasons I don’t fully understand and you will always have the choice of choosing between a green, red or blue Pokemon before starting your adventure.

Nintendo isn’t the only company that leans on nostalgia, however. The PlayStation brand, despite not being in the game as long as Nintendo, has plenty of franchises under their belt they can whip out at a moment’s notice if they want to cash in on that nostalgia. Over the years, they lost their grip on more than a handful of exclusive franchises, but the nostalgia for those franchises is still going strong in the hearts of many.

If you need proof of the power of nostalgia, my good friend JoshRockStark started a series called The RetroSpectacle, where he streams a series of games from his past and ranks them after completing them. The inaugural series in The RetroSpectacle? Crash Bandicoot, top selling PS1 franchise that began over 20 years ago. His nostalgia for this series is so powerful, JoshRockStark is making content about it over two decades after the fact. That’s passion.

Nintendo and Sony are masters of their own domain, but when they wait to cash in on that nostalgia, other developers are more than willing to fill that void. Smaller developers in particular. It’s no secret that a lot of indie games are inspired by games of a simpler era; some of the more well known indies came to prominence due to their similarities to classic franchises.

Some similarities are more easily seen, like the aesthetic and gameplay similarities between Super Metroid and Axiom Verge: both are 2D games with a focus on exploring the world and unlocking new areas in a sci-fi aesthetic. While there are some differences between the two games (their weapons, for example), most looking to recapture that warm Metroid feeling can sleep easy knowing they can wrap themselves in a cozy Axiom Verge blanket.

Other similarities are not quite as obvious. Mekazoo is a platformer starring various neon-colored animals. On the surface, it looks like an interesting platformer. Upon closer inspection, you can see the finer details; the placement of collectibles and speed of the gameplay make the game feel like a nice blend of both Sonic The Hedgehog and Donkey Kong Country. After an hour or two of playing this game, I started taking in the similarities and was taken back to my childhood. Hopping into a cannon and being shot through a row of gems brings back memories of Bramble Blast (in a good way). Without this nostalgia, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed Mekazoo as much as I did.

For some, nostalgia means going back and playing a game decades after the fact. For others, it means bursting into tears when finding out one of their favourite franchises is making a grand return. Nostalgia is a fantastic and powerful thing, something that can drive sales and ignite passion in the hearts of many. But much like a drug, nostalgia can be an addictive feeling. When something undermines one’s nostalgia, sometimes people get irritated and even outright angry when something doesn’t tug at those nostalgic heartstrings. Perhaps the most foolproof way to infringe on fans’ sense of nostalgia is to reboot a franchise.

5 years since the release of the last Devil May Cry game, DmC: Devil May Cry was Ninja Theory’s attempt to reboot the franchise. The game acted as a prequel to the Devil May Cry series that many knew and loved, starring a black-haired Dante as its protagonist. With slower paced combat and an edgier protagonist, longtime fans of the series couldn’t help but feel burned when a profanity-laden trailer was revealed. The game didn’t perform nearly as bad as was expected, but the damage was done. Those who stuck through the series, even after failing to fill someone’s dark soul with light, felt almost irreparably burned. Of course, since the reveal of Devil May Cry 5 at E3 2018, all has been forgiven.

After DmC’s commercial success, it might be easy to say that developers know best. But this isn’t always the case, and in some cases, can be catastrophic. In an attempt to modernize the series, Hudson Soft created Bomberman: Act Zero, a futuristic Bomberman game where the cute characters in their quirky worlds were thrust into a futuristic setting and turned into humanoid cyborgs. Needless to say, the game did not do… quite as well as Hudson expected. The game was completely dumped on by critics across the board, due to poor gameplay, terrible aesthetics, and a $50 price tag. Unlike Ninja Theory trying their hand at making a Devil May Cry game, Act Zero was made by Hudson themselves. It seems that they completely underestimated the value of nostalgia, and of their own IP and eventually paid the price (R.I.P. Hudson Soft).

But while Bomberman: Act Zero may have nearly killed the franchise, there is another reboot that many would consider (at best) an insulting installment in a bestselling franchise.

Sonic Team founder Yuji Naka wanted to reboot the Sonic The Hedgehog series in a grand fashion. With a realistic setting in mind, and consoles that supported more modern physics engines, Naka aimed to make an installment that nobody would forget. He was quoted as saying “When Marvel or DC Comics turn their characters into films, they are thinking of them as blockbusters, huge hits, and that’s what we were trying to emulate with Sonic 2006.” He succeeded in making an unforgettable Sonic game… but not in the way he would have liked.

Like many retro games of the era, retro Sonic’s premise was pretty simple: stop the bad guy from taking over the world by destroying his killer robots. This was enough to get by in the 90s, but by modern day standards, this is a pretty flimsy justification for anything above a low-budget indie game. Knowing this, Sonic Team wanted to make a more compelling story for a character who was previously known for running fast and eating chili dogs. In contrast to the retro games, Sonic 2006 has:

  • A damsel in distress who is kidnapped multiple times by Robotnik, dies, then is revived via time-travel shenanigans
  • An evil hedgehog (no, not that one) from the future who tries to manipulate Shadow into turning against humanity (again); later kills Sonic
  • Sonic’s corpse being kissed by aforementioned damsel and coming back to life as Jesus Super Sonic through the power of love or something

The story is, in no minced words, glorified fanfiction. What used to be a simple series about stopping Dr. Robotnik was turned into a convoluted mess. Hiring the cast of voice actors from Sonic X, an anime widely regarded as having a terrible English dub, likely didn’t help matters. If there a single silver lining to the story’s existence, it is that the game’s ending effectively removes the game from the series’ continuity… that is, until Sonic Generations happened and all bets were off.

But Sonic was never known for its story. Part of the appeal of Sonic The Hedgehog was the flow-like state in which you blasted through a variety of colourful levels, getting from Point A to Point B. Somewhat bafflingly, Sonic Team decided to double-down on the bad design decisions of previous 3D Sonic games with Sonic 2006.

Sonic is characteristically fast, but uncharacteristically difficult to control. Rob Fahey of Eurogamer stated that “a touch of the stick in the wrong direction often [sends] him hurtling to his doom,” and removed “any form of stickyness or automation from other key aspects, like sliding on rails.” Another frequent criticism is the camera, which often shows you an angle that is less-than-helpful at best and frustrating at worst. Shifting the camera often makes no difference, as the game will default to an awkward camera angle in a manner of seconds.

Not only is the story poor and completely unnecessary, the gameplay completely breaks the gameplay flow that previous, successful Sonic games had. But it isn’t bad enough that the story and gameplay are poor (at best), but the game itself is riddled with graphical and gameplay bugs and glitches that make it a poor game, regardless of its design.

I started writing this bit about Sonic 2006 to make a point about Sonic Team having no concept of nostalgia. Surely, there are plenty of fans who abandoned the series after the first 3D Sonic game and plenty more after Sonic 2006. But despite a truly awful development cycle, poor story and gameplay, and unacceptable bugs and glitches, there are still fans who will die on the hill that is “Sonic 2006 is a good game.”

…Maybe nostalgia is more powerful than I thought.

Stay tuned for more!

 

~sph3re

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