Overcoming the Past: Nintendo, Sega, and the Nostalgia Trap

Nostalgia is both a blessing and a curse for the games industry. On the one hand, it represents good and memorable content that has stuck with people throughout the years – and that’s a powerful asset for anyone looking to capture hearts and minds. On the other hand, however, relying too much on nostalgia often misses the point of video games: to captivate us with compelling interactive experiences.

There’s an extent to which players expect the nostalgic feelings that come with certain franchises and the gameplay, characters, and world they bring with them. But there’s also an extent to which they expect fresh new ideas that expand the gaming horizon.

Where No Game Has Gone Before

Following this industry is most exciting when it’s headed someplace new. Sure, every generational leap brings with it new possibilities, better production values, and thus expanded horizons, but it’s rare to see a major shift that redefines the way games work.

One of the first great shifts was the birth of the arcades. They were easy to understand and to play, situated right in the thick of the social pulse, and had the potential for infinite replayability – indeed, many of them simply never ended and kept racking up the player’s score until he or she ran out of lives. It’s not difficult to see why they were the first games that were really in the right place to find a wide audience.

The earliest home consoles started off as a means of bringing the arcade experience into people’s homes, with some great success stories in the form of Atari’s Pong machine and eventually the Atari 2600 with Pac-Man leading the fray. It wasn’t until the advent of the NES and its unique home-based flavor – seen in games like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid – that home consoles truly became distinct as more than just “arcade boxes for your living room.”

Following the 8-bit generation, 16-bit consoles offered better graphics, more controller buttons, and other shiny new updates, which made for more colorful and exciting games, but in hindsight it’s hard to say 16-bit games were anything but more advanced versions of their 8-bit cousins. It wasn’t until the dawn of fully 3D graphics – and with them, fully 3D worlds – that gaming saw another truly significant shift.

oot-3d-hyrule-fieldThe dawn of 3D defined much of gaming from that point forward. Games shifted toward heavier use of cinematic scenes and dynamic camera angles, “realistic” models and textures, and vast and impressive spaces. Since then, 3D has been here to stay – the vast majority of retail games today are created in 3D, either in terms of their level design or their character models, if not both. Even the jump to HD hasn’t really advanced far beyond the 3D revolution. HD is, after all, just a matter of resolution, not a change in the way games are made.

That’s not to say there haven’t been other major shifts since. The birth of online play has had a massive ripple effect across the way we think of multiplayer games. When Nintendo decided to go the motion control route with Wii, they opened up gaming to a new audience and enabled new play-styles and new kinds of games to rise to the forefront. Sony and Microsoft followed suit, creating their own devices to go after the motion control craze.

But since motion control took off, what other revolutions have we seen? AAA HD gaming is still chugging along the same course, working toward bigger, better, and more beautiful games, while online play seems to have peaked. The next round of next-gen consoles from Sony and Microsoft seem to focus on advancing the high-powered HD and online strategies they embraced last-gen instead of pushing gaming in a bold new direction. Wii U’s trademark GamePad offers some new options in terms of game design, but we haven’t yet seen it transform gaming in any massive or significant way.

The most significant thing Nintendo has done for the gaming world since the introduction of Wii was to unleash a new wave of nostalgia across the industry – and it all started with New Super Mario Bros. Since then, the 2D platformer has seen a kind of second life… but it hasn’t truly transformed. Indeed, most of the companies that have jumped on the retro bandwagon have capitalized on pure nostalgia instead of pushing 2D platformers into new ground.

Living in the Past

Yet it’s undeniable that there is a hunger for nostalgia among gamers. That’s why the rebirth of 2D platformers was possible in the first place. Some people just prefer these games in their old-school form.

Though most of these franchises have made the leap to 3D at some point in their evolution, it tends to be the case that there’s a disjoint between 2D and 3D – there’s a sense of continuity that was once present across sequels that gets kind of lost in translation. The differences in course and world map structure of the 2D and 3D Mario games is a good example; the radically different game universes and mechanics of Classic and Modern Sonic are another.

sonic-4-nostalgiaThe announcement of Sonic the Hedgehog 4 should have been one of the most exciting things to happen for the franchise in a long time. However, as time went on, it became clear that, rather than being a true successor to the original Sonic franchise, the new game was instead going to be an homage to the past – and one that largely missed the point.

Sure, when you look at Sonic 4 as a nostalgia trip, you have to consider the recycled content – returning boss fights, level themes, and so on. But being overly focused on nostalgia pierces to the heart of the game. Sonic 4 wasn’t a bad game by any means, but it’s hardly gained the universal acceptance as a true continuation of the old series. Why? Because it uses nostalgia as a crutch, not as a guide.

The fact of the matter is that fans of these old franchises don’t just want to revisit classic themes and game mechanics. They don’t want to experience twists on the same old content. They don’t want “retro” soundtracks with heavy use of synth. They don’t want a “throwback” to classic Sonic; they want a game that is to Sonic 3 what Sonic 3 was to Sonic 2 – a quality game that has continuity with its predecessors rather than relying on nostalgia for appeal.

The same is true for Super Mario Bros.; the same is true for Mega Man; the same is true for basically any franchise for which fans have called for a rebirth. Fans may want to play these games in a style that’s closer to the original titles, but they don’t want these franchises to live in the past – they want them to advance beyond it. They want new games to render the old ones obsolete so that they no longer have to fall back on nostalgia to get their kicks.

When people loved Super Mario Bros. 3, it wasn’t because of nostalgia for the original Super Mario Bros. It was because Super Mario Bros. 3 was genuinely awesome and raised the bar in pretty much every way. That‘s what fans want – a game that they love for what it is on its own, not for being a continuation of something that had been done before.

Successors to the classics don’t need to represent major shifts – except from the current way we think of old-school games: as watered-down, soulless, nostalgia-driven rehashes. They don’t need to be as revolutionary as the jump to 3D or the birth of online multiplayer. They just need to be games that we’re proud and excited to play today – but on their own merits, not merely on those of their predecessors.