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"Nostalgia: Is Looking Back a Good or Bad Thing" - Reponse; Other Variables

10/29/12 9:41am
tl;dr

This is a response article to Nostalgia: Is Looking Back a Good or Bad Thing? This article isn't directly about nostalgia. It's about the other factors which keep older games relevant.

This is a response article to Nostalgia: Is Looking Back a Good or Bad Thing?

 

Let me open by saying, I liked this article a lot. I think regarding nostalgia, it has some very good points and wraps up with a very positive message - play the games you want to play. That's great, but something about the article bugged me (and from some of the comments, I think it may have bugged some of you too)... and I figured out what it is.

 

"it's a simple logical standpoint to say that gaming today is better"

 

This is a common misconception - is colour photography better than black and white? Is CGI better than stop-motion? Are modern music albums better than their predecessors? Ask any expert (or decent student) in those fields and you'll find out the answer is a bit more complicated than you think.

 

I don't mean to nit pick on one possibly ill phrased sentence, so I'm not. In-fact, arguably it is a "simple, logical standpoint", but that doesn't necessarily mean it's right - if anything a simple statement is an excuse for not thinking. Whilst the article remains a good piece on nostalgia, which it was meant to be, this overall attitude and dismissal irks me because it implies nostalgia is the only reason to value a so called 'retro' game, and that in itself undermines the value of these games, as if they have become obsolete. Super Mario Bros. was a good game for it's time? Super Mario Bros. is a fantastic game, despite its flaws, period.

 

Keep in mind that I was born in 1991, and as such didn't own an NES until 2010. I didn't grow up with those games, and am not going at this from a Nostalgic point of view. Yet when the Wii arrived and I downloaded old NES titles via the virtual console, I suddenly found myself addicted to games like Ninja Gaiden, Double Dragon and Castlevania. The reason for this was because the games were very *different* to anything I had ever experienced in one particular respect - the element of challenge.

 

Retro games are much more basic and primitive. Charmingly so, yes, but there is more to it than that. The rules are simple and we quickly establish how the mechanics of the game work, how the game is paced, etc. A distinctive feature of most retro games is that there are very few variables - your character doesn't often upgrade like it would in the vast majority of modern games. One can often master a side scrolling action or platforming adventure in virtually 5 minutes - it takes a very short amount of time to become accustomed to the controls since there are only 2 buttons.

 

Game designers off-set this by becoming very creative with the main variable - level design. The challenge is in the obstacles set by the game designers, and it gets progressively more difficult as the game goes on and fresh new challenges are thrown at the player. Old mechanics like extra lives and continues were gradually phased out for less frustrating save functionality because it is in many respects superior. However, there is arguably different sense of urgency in these much older games with extra lives and continues, and they wouldn't hold the same challenge if not for this more primitive scheme. That in itself demonstrates a different experience to anything you will find in a modern game.
 

 

That isn't even to say this is a matter of difficulty - games today have often proven to be sadistically unforgiving (everyone immediately thinks of Dark Souls). It's that the challenge felt different; although this foundation is still obviously present in modern games, there was beauty in the simplicity of retro games. The lack of variables and set difficulty made the challenge rewarding in a different way. Even the frustration of these limitations is important in how the overall product is presented, and this overall presentation is how these games stand the test of time. I don't mean any of this in any romanticised nostalgic sense - I mean it from an analytical perspective.

 

Game designers at the time were under limitations with the technology available to them. All of the decisions were made out of necessity, not choice. This is evident in everything, from the lack of save functionality to the chip music. The games were definitely a product of their time, and of course you won't find anything quite like it today - it's been done, technology has advanced and it's time to move on to create new challenges. That said, these games will always be unique in their challenge and presentation - in order to get that experience you will have to come back to playing games from this era as there is nothing quite like it.

 

Games like Super Meat Boy and the retro reboots (e.g. Castlevania Adventure Rebith, Double Dragon Neon) exist because the developers recognised a huge gap in the market which had once been filled. Although a throwback to this older period of gaming, they are not under the same limitations as their predecessors. Because of that, they can bring something new to long neglected genres, and that's a very interesting idea. I don't believe they are simply tapping into a nostalgic market - I believe they are revolutionising a genre and doing the best they can, just as their predecessors did, and they have enjoyed a certain amount of success because there wasn't anything quite like that style of challenge in the market at the time.

 

So this is what I think. It's important to understand the difference in gaming experiences. Games are works of art and it's high-time we started thinking about them as such. We don't look at classical music through 'nostalgia goggles' - we appreciate it for what it is and when it was. Some people just don't 'get' classical music just as some people don't 'get' retro games. That's fine - sometimes you just had to be there in order to grasp the context. The experience you get from playing an older game may not be what you're looking for when you sit down to play video games; also fine. A game can be nostalgic to you and that is a perfectly valid reason to enjoy it. However, nostalgia isn't the only reason one can enjoy a game from the past. Although a game might date in some respects, many will stand the test of time as a testament to their time. Games are neither superior nor inferior for being from a different time period. They are different, and that's all there is to it.

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