I’ve been attending a few events over the past couple of months (thanks, in no small part, to the gracious support of fans and readers). While at shows like PAX East and GDC, I’ve had a chance to play quite a few in-development titles, big and small, that were banking heavily on nostalgia appeal. While it’s a good idea to reserve full judgement of a game until it’s in your hands as a full-fledged product — after all, a lot can happen over the course of development — there were quite a few not-particularly-great games I tried that were attempting — and failing — to capture the spirit of the retro games that inspired them.
Originally, I had a big feature written up called “This Is Why Your Retro-Inspired Game Sucks,” where I went into great detail about some of the more egregious flaws I saw across several games. I didn’t name any titles specifically, of course — that would be just rude. Ultimately, though, I scrapped it: the tone of the piece sounded combatitive and assholish, and while I’m certainly opinionated at times, I didn’t want to come off as a jerk when all I really wanted to do was point out why these games weren’t coming together as the people making them intended. It’s pretty hard being an indie dev already, y’know?
But with the crash and burn of Mighty No. 9 and the less vitriolic but noticeably tepid response to Yooka-Laylee, two of the most prolific crowdfunded “retro revival” games yet made, I feel like we should discuss why a lot of retro revivals seemingly fail to hit the mark once they’re in our hands. There are a lot of reasons, but ultimately, they can be summarized by saying:
What you think you want is a game made to the exact standards of the retro titles you cherish. But what you actually want — and don’t realize you want — is the feeling those games gave you when you encountered them for the first time.
The phrase “rose colored glasses” gets thrown around a lot, but I’m sure we’ve all had the experience where we go back to game we remember enjoying years prior, only to discover that it hasn’t aged so well. This can be for a lot of reasons: maybe the gameplay or visuals were revolutionary for the time but time has since passed them by. Maybe it had less to do with the game and more with circumstances surrounding it. (I remember connecting with a classmate over having played Bubsy, of all games.) Maybe it was a licensed game based on something you REALLY LIKED and you were just so into that thing that you didn’t really care. Certainly the NES Ninja Turtles game is a disorganized mess with an absurd difficulty curve, but it was also the only place you were going to be able to play a video game as Michelangelo outside of the arcade for quite some time.
These factors can alter our perceptions of individual games or even entire genres. Sometimes we realize it, oftentimes we don’t. They can lead us to pine for gameplay styles and design elements that we only realize are not good once we re-encounter them years down the line.
One thing I was going to call out in my scrapped feature was that a lot of retro-inspired designers fail to understand what it is about retro games that makes them fun. They look at the way gameplay systems were designed and say, hey, this was considered good in the past, we should bring it back to have that authentic retro feel!
The thing is, a lot of retrogame elements were the result of careful compromise between game concepts, developer ability, and hardware capability. One example: Makaimura/Ghost n’ Goblins’s notorious fixed jumps were designed at a time before Super Mario Bros. had given players a then-unprecedented amount of control over jumping physics. (Hell, a lot of platform games still had you pressing UP to jump around this time.) But the game is also designed around these very rigid jumps. Later games in the series could have changed the jumping physics, particularly after the double-jump addition, but they didn’t; instead, the designers doubled down on stage design built around that particular gimmick to good effect. Several games have attempted to pay tribute to the series by including similar rigid physics, to varying degrees of success — because it’s not much the jumping that made Makaimura memorable as the stages and challenges built around it.
Another good example is how checkpoints have all but vanished from arcade-style shooting games. Much of the difficulty from games like Gradius and R-Type come from checkpoints you’re sent back to upon death: a system that is particularly punishing because you’re devoid of power-ups on your next life and frequently thrown into an area where it’s extremely difficult to survive without them. In retrospect, this is a terrible system that gives the player little ability to recover and re-attempt the challenge they died against. (In fact, it’s generally considered easier to beat these games on a single credit than it is to credit-feed in futility against these artificial walls.) In contrast, the overwhelming majority of modern STGs give the player an instant respawn and a chance to reclaim some of the items they’ve lost so that they’re not at a severe disadvantage. While this does mean you can brute-force a game more easily, these games usually incorporate design elements that encourage you not to credit-feed: elaborate scoring systems, hidden bosses, second loops, and so on. Some modern STGs still try to incorporate the checkpoint system as a throwback, but it almost never works in the game’s favor.
Simply put, just because “an old game I remember fondly did it” doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do in this day and age. So when I see designers insistent on bringing back back certain elements of old games, I want to ask them: Why are you doing this? How do you feel this element enhances the overall game experience?
If the answer is “it makes the game harder and retro games were hard,” then you’ve already got a huge problem. Difficulty itself wasn’t what made games like Ninja Gaiden and Rocket Knight Adventures good, it was difficulty that worked with well-designed mechanics and levels that kept you constantly learning more about the games as they unfolded, all they way up until the very end. Difficulty doesn’t determine quality, either: Kirby’s Dream Land can be beaten by practically sneezing on the Game Boy controls, but it’s still one of the greatest games on the system thanks to great controls, imaginative mechanics, and charming visuals.
If the answer is “Because that’s how the old games were and we’re sticking with it,” well, why are you sticking with it? Is it crucial to the game’s design, like the Makaimura jumps example I gave above? Or is it just some misguided fanservice you’re giving to “true fans” at the expense of making your game more accessible and enjoyable to everyone else? I’ve seen a lot of folks express worry about the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter in the wake of Y-K and MN9 (and, as a disclaimer, I’ve always found it incredibly suspect), and I feel these fears aren’t unfounded. As innovative as the games were, the open-world genre has advanced immensely since Shenmue 1 and 2, and honestly, the quality of dialogue, storytelling, combat, and exploration in those games compared to modern titles — particularly the Yakuza series — is downright bad. If Shenmue 3 still feels like those old games, giving players stilted dialogue, long stretches of story where nothing happens, and clunky combat, then a lot of folks are going to be upset. It might make the diehard Shenmue fans and their thousands of sockpuppet Twitter accounts happy, but most players demand something more these days.
But you’re probably not thinking about these things when you’re seeing Kickstarter pitches for retro-inspired games. You’re thinking, “Oh MAN, I loved that old-ass game! I want to have a new experience that will make me feel just like I did when I first played that title!”, and that’s what making you reach for your wallet. The marketers know this, and will play on your memories. Remember spending hours as a 13-year old collecting all the dumb doodads in this big platform world? Well, now you can do it again, but the world is SO MUCH BIGGER and in HD! Nevermind the fact that the old game was the only one you owned for months and you had to get the most out of it, as opposed to now, when you have a giant backlog and little patience for scouring every bit of a huge map to fill out a collectibles list.
Don’t get me wrong: I love retro games — old obscurity is what keeps the 68000 heart of this site on fire, after all — and I love that people are being inspired to create new things by the old games they loved. But, as designers and consumers, we owe it to ourselves to examine more deeply why we enjoyed these games so. By doing so, we don’t be muddled by nostalgia into making poor design choices — or, potentially, poor investments.
So hey, how about that Dragon’s Trap remake? That game is a-maaaaaaaaaaa-zing.