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Nostalgia and the Dangers of Retro Game Design

In this post I talk about nostalgia, the dangers of designing for nostalgia, the "retro game" movement, and the games I find nostalgic.

Ah, video games. Remember that first time your parents brought home a Nintendo? Or beating the Alladin game on SNES four thousand times before turning 6? Maybe playing day-long tournaments of Mariokart 64 with your best friends, or the first time you successfully survived that tricky platforming spot in Crash Bandicoot?

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The feelings of joy and satisfaction that these thoughts give you are known as nostalgia. Well, sort of. What is nostalgia actually? Today I’m going to define it, talk about the games that give me nostalgia, my thoughts about new retro games, and the danger of designing for nostalgia.

In the 1600s, Swiss physicians came up with a word to diagnose the yearning for a past life, which was seen as mental illness. The word was made up of the Greek words nostos, meaning returning, and algos, meaning suffering. They thought this will to return to suffering was cause by tiny demons in your head, which to our amazement we later found out was not the case. But at this point, nostalgia has taken a positive meaning, especially in the gaming world.

Nostalgic games are games that make us remember the feelings we had, or think we had, when we played these games so long ago. I make the distinction between feelings we had and feelings we think we had because our minds tend to forget the negative feelings and focus on the positive ones, relating the game directly with those and somehow causing us to replay Zelda: Ocarina of Time like, way too many times. The fact that games are so immersive is largely responsible for this; we wouldn’t necessarily be as affected by re-watching an old show or seeing an old painting, because those media aren’t as good at giving the user control of the world they’re living in.

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Depending on how old you are, nostalgic games will be games of a different era. I was raised on SNES and N64, so my most nostalgic games are ones like NHL94, Super Mario Bros 3, the Aladdin game on SNES, Ocarina of Time, Goldeneye, Mariokart 64, Starfox, and super smash bros on N64. Other people might feel nostalgia toward games like Contra, while others might find games like Medal of Honor more nostalgic. But are those games that much better than the new ones that we play today? Or are we just enjoying them more because they bring about good feelings in us? This is certainly a matter of debate, and it’s led to things like new trends in game development like the pixel art movement and the whole “retro game” genre.

“Retro Games” is a really vague genre that doesn’t really make logical sense, because retro, meaning old, is completely dependent on how old you are. Right now though, it seems that retro games tend to involve pixel art, 8-bit chiptune style music, and generally a time-frame of 20 or so years old. There are a few interesting points to make about the genre. Beyond the fact that we know that the audience that’s putting the most money into video games now is the audience that grew up with them in the 80s and 90s, it’s also helped the indie community to grow. These games tend to be easier to make (graphically) and shorter, like the games we played back in the day (not the 100h GTA5 kind of game we see today). In my opinion, it’s been essential in “validating” indie games that might not have seen an audience if everyone moved on to newer styles and didn’t have this nostalgic attachment to their old games.

But what kind of traps can we fall into when making games that are specifically designed to be “retro” or to bring about feelings of nostalgia? First of all, there’s the increasing problem of the fact that many, many, many people are starting to make these games because of their seeming easy to make. This means that even really good ones will have trouble standing out because they’re “just another pixel platformer”. Second, nostalgia comes about because of memories associated with past experiences, which means that you can’t directly conjure up nostalgia. Visuals and game mechanics can do this, but then you’re at risk of creating another clone in an attempt to be similar to an old game. Third, designing for nostalgia opens you to the market of people who grew up with those style games, but pushes away from the growing market of young people playing games.evolution_of_mario_display

Many would argue that Nintendo does a really good job of this, with their Mario and Zelda series (among others). Interestingly enough though, the game mechanics, the art style, the graphics, and the gameplay of games like A Link to the Past and Skyward Sword (Zelda) are nothing alike, at all. If then the only nostalgia comes from the characters and the IP, is that enough to make us really feel nostalgic about them? Or is Nintendo just good at designing games?

Well this became a much longer article than I planned. Oh well, hope you enjoyed and I hope this will spawn some comments and discussion about the topic!

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