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Nostalgia and Gaming: Examples of Doing it Right

Nostalgia is big business right now. There are new Jurassic Park, Terminator and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, new episodes of Twin Peaks, The X-Files and even Full House on the way, a new Dragon Ball anime about to debut, and of course that just-announced Final Fantasy VII remake.

What most of those have in common is that they originally appeared in the late 80s or early 90s. That period in particular is being pillaged for nostalgic reboots and remakes. It’s not too hard to figure out why – those of us who came of age during those years are in our early to mid 30s and a lot of us have disposable income. It’s been proven several times already that one way to get us to part with our money is to give us entertainment that recalls the treasured memories of our childhoods.

However, nostalgia in regard to video games is unique. Something like Twin Peaks is appreciated specifically for its unique premise and mood. With a game, however, it’s often less about the specifics of a storyline and more about how playing it made you feel. With that in mind, I have mixed feelings about the FFVII remake. On the one hand, I’m as curious to check it out as anyone else, but on the other hand, I can’t help but think we’ll all be comparing it to the original and nitpicking even the slightest deviations. You really can only play a game for the first time once, especially one that leaves such a striking impression, and if we all go into a remake expecting our minds to be blown in the exact same way, disappointment is inevitable.

I don’t think nostalgia is a bad thing for developers to capitalize on, but I think it’s more worthwhile to try and recapture the feeling of classic games rather than just retreading the exact same story and concept. To help explain this, let’s talk about two recent games that did amazing things with nostalgia.

You don’t have to play Shovel Knight too long to figure out which games are being referenced. The game has a Mega Man-esque selection of bosses, towns in the style of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, a world map straight out of Super Mario Bros. 3 and of course, the pogo mechanic from Duck Tales. All of this is rendered in beautiful retro graphics.

The game wears its origins on its sleeves and yet doesn’t feel pandering or lazy. The developers cobbled together certain mechanics that are a lot of fun individually into a final product that still seems fresh. After all, the guy fights with a shovel! It has become of the greatest indie game success stories ever and I think it’s because of how well it combined nostalgia with its own unique feel. It wasn’t like replaying your old NES games. It was like playing one that you never knew existed until now.

Freedom Planet isn’t quite as well known, which is a shame because this is also a magnificent slice of retro action. While Shovel Knight recalls the glory of the 8-bit era, this one’s all about the 16-bit days, particularly the Sega Genesis. The reactions to this game are interesting – comparisons to Sonic the Hedgehog are inevitable and yet there are very few explicit references. It’s got similar level design, a lot of robotic enemies and anthropomorphic characters who can move very fast but it’s clear the developers weren’t interested in a direct copy.

It might sound like blasphemy, but Freedom Planet actually improves on the Sonic formula in a few ways. While boss fights in those old games tended to be very easy, the ones in this game are huge white-knuckle brawls that give veteran platforming fans a true challenge. This kind of thing is why I think these games are such great examples of working with nostalgia. They demonstrate that these old mechanics still have a lot to offer while making improvements based on what we’ve come to understand about game design in the decades since. With the nostalgia boom nowhere near done, I hope we’ll see more games like these.

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