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How much Retro is too much Retro?
If you’re reading this entry, chances are you have some interest in videogames. If so is the case, you probably know a thing or two about them.
Which was the first videogame ever made is a very controversial issue. The answer can be pinpointed to three games. One of the earliest examples of a video game goes all the way back to 1958, called Tennis For Two (that’s right, folks, the first game ever was a sports game of all things), which consisted of a small tennis game assembled out of decommissioned Radar equipment. This is commonly disputed with PONG, one of the first Arcade cabinets to hit the mainstream market and make itself popular, which came out in 1972 and 1975 with an official home version.
During the 80s and 90s, geek culture and computer games were one and the same, and at the same time, younger gamers were introduced to the medium via home consoles like thew Atari family consoles, or most prominently, the Nintendo Entertainment System, otherwise known as the NES. And, sure enough, later on we’d see its successor, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which by itself drew in another generation of gaming, and so forth.
Flash forward to the present day, that generation of gamers who grew up on early consoles like the NES or SNES is probably still playing, ow in the more advanced home consoles like the PlayStation 3 or the XBOX 360, which are both good consoles in on their own terms.
Thanks to the advent of the internet, a great deal of people have banded togheter and started sites, forums or blogs dedicated to old school games. Then, with video and the expansion of sites like YouTube and whatnot, people started discussing, reviewing and chronicling these games and their memories of them. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, indeed.
Eventually companies would start capitalizing off this sentiment in various shapes. While Nintendo had been doing this as their main gimmick since Animal Crossing came bundled with an NES emulator, and then the Virtual Console on the Wii which is a collection of old school games for download, other companies like Capcom or Konami decided to start making some money off of this a while ago. For example, There’s the reboot and remake of Bionic Commando, the namesake being a sequel to the original, and the remake calledReArmed, which added a bunch new features to it. I’ll get into detail in a moment.
In order to cash in from this, Capcom (company known for cashing in on to anything) released Megaman 9, a continuation to the NES Mega Man franchise. And it was made to look like an old NES game, pixelated graphics, music made to mimic the 8-Bit console’s sound chip, easy controls, terrible box art, excuse plot, etcetera.
And here’s where I start getting skeptic. You see, the reason NES games looked and played the way they did was because the system had technological limitations to what could be made in the first place. The console had that limit to deal with, it wasn’t just an aesthetic choice.
While I can appreciate an old school game, and if you ask me, most of my favorite games are from before ’03, I cannot stand the current trend to make games look, play and sound like this was 1987 all over again. Take, for example, Mega Man 9 and 10.
The Mega Man franchise is, like we all know, a hit and miss game. While some really good Mega Man games have been made in the past decade, most of them fall under games that range from Mediocre to plain bad, with the honorable exception of the Mega Man Legends series‘. And we all know how well that ended. Truth is, the franchise’s only real direction could be backwards, being how wildly praised the old NES and SNES games are. So, naturally, Mega Man 9 was made to look, play, and feel like the old games. And it was showered with praise, and money. While some attribute this to the actual effort put into it, some others just allude its success to the rose tinted glasses most gamers were wearing while playing the game, metaphorically speaking.
To be fair, the game is not bad, but it’s definitely not the kind of game I’d want to play. If I wanted to play an old school Mega Man game, I would gladly go back to play Mega Man 2 on the NES While I appretiate the effort of making an old school game, I can’t help but wonder how would the game had turned out if the developers had thought to draw inspiration from the game rather than making a hard copy of it.
The way I see it, no matter how good a game was, like any other aspect of technology, Games need to move forwards.
Now, there are other games like 3D Dot Game Heroes and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Movie: The Game that use a retro style look , without necessarily being based directly on one. And then we run into a similar issue. While 3D Dot Game Heroes is more of a tribute to old school adventure games, Scott Pilgrim‘s main selling point was the graphics and music (and the movie and comic book license). Again, this isn’t really good. How is it any different than getting the same game yearly rehashed?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’m against 2D or sprite based games, or that these games are bad. Mega Mag 9, 3D Dot Game Heroes and Scott Pilgrim are all really good games. And there are also some other great 2D sprite based games like Shank, which is a beautifully animated 2D side scrolling Beat ’em Up, or, say BlazBlue andGuilty Gear, both sister series’ which feature very well done sprites and backgrounds, all neatly animated and detailed (although, in the case of BlazBlue, they would benefit from some more frames of animation).
But the difference between Shank and Scott Pilgrim is that Shank doesn’t promote itself as “Old School Action”, it’s just the game it is. Does it draw elements from older games? Of course, and older films too. But it needs not to dwell on this to be a good game, and it uses the console’s capabilities to make the experience richer, rather than aiming to some retraux look just for the sake of capitalizing off people who believe gaming hasn’t been good since 1990.
Let me bring up another example. The makers of Dynasty Warriors recently made a game based no the manga and anime Fist Of The North Star, titled “Fist Of The North Star: Ken’s Rage” (Though the version we received was slightly altered from the original and was re-released in Japan under the title Hokuto Musou International). I’ve never played the other Dynasty Warriorsrs games, so I wouldn’t know how it fares from them, but as far as I could tell, the game was pretty damn good. But there’s one thing I wanted to mention.
Throughout the game I found various elements and gameplay tidbits that reminded me of old school arcade beat ’em ups. For example, in order to progress in the game you’re supposed to kill all the enemies on screen, like most beat ’em ups, also, you fill up a meter that lets you pull off special moves, or go into a state where if you filled another bar, you can pull off even stronger special moves that sometimes worked as one hit kills for tons of enemies, there are segments where you can ride on motorcycles and run over enemies (albeit it’s not a very effective way to kill large amounts of enemies), sometimes large enemies jump and you have to avoid them stomping you by looking at their shadow, etc. It has plenty of old and perfected elements in gameplay, but it never feels like it’s trying too hard to draw on those or at least not intentionally so.
Finally we have Remakes of older games, which follow a similar formula, but differently so. Of course, we all know Remakes are a hit-and-miss thing, where they are either really good, or really bad. Let’s take for example, the aforementioned Bionic commando ReArmed . ReArmed pulls this off well enough. The game is completely modeled after the original, but everything that was lacking due to the time and console it was released has been polished and made to look as a proper modern game. The translation is not intentionally bad, the graphics are not forcefully pixelated (in fact, the whole game is rendered in 3D and in 720p HD), the music, although it takes cues from the original soundtrack, sounds more appealing to the ear than a forceful chiptune soundtrack, and the game plays a lot like the original, but tweaked to be both more fun and to work better with the system in question. This is a good remake, because it doesn’t blatantly copy everything from its original without deviating too much from its formula.
Or, how about X-COM: Enemy Unknown, upcoming game by Firaxis software, remaking the original X-COM: UFO Defense for the PC. For what we’ve seen so far, it remains true to its source material and at the same time is manages to put a new twist to it to better adapt to modern audiences. It’s not exactly the same game, but it still feels like the original, without having to shoehorn itself to the player.
Or, for a last example, we got a few years back, an arcade port (or, as I call them “Arcadort”) of After Burner Climax, for the PS3 and 360. As a sequel of such an old franchise it works well, while it’s true it lets you turn on the old After Burner II music and sound effects, the game makes full use of the console, while not deviating from the After Burner formula in the slightest, aside from the new “Climax Mode”, which is essentially bullet time with planes and missiles. It’s nostalgic, yes, but that doesn’t mean the game dwells on that fact, it just compliments the experience.
My thesis: It’s OK to draw inspiration from older games, it’s perfectly fine to be nostalgic, but gaming is a medium that should move always forwards, and while it’s OK to enjoy old games, to play them again and all, it’s not right to dwell on them to the point of blindly praising any game that looks or plays like an old game. Again, there’s nothing wrong with Nostalgia, heck, that’s the reason sites like Abandonia or Good Old Games exist, so you can go back and play those games, and if it’s a PC game, you can always find mods and custom campaigns for them to make the experience fresher; however, if companies kept going back to release the same product again, over and over, just cashing in on nostalgia, would that be any different from releasing the same shooter with new guns every year? I’ll leave you with that thought.
Author’s Note: At the time of writing this, ironically, I was listening to old games’ music. Please note, I’m not a hypocrite.