When the Oldies are Not Goodies: The Questionable Legacy of Nostalgia

Game Over Photo copyright Mykl Roventine - original at http://www.flickr.com/photos/myklroventine/3210068573/

Game Over Photo copyright Mykl Roventine

Once upon a time, people didn’t buy video games. They went to an arcade, and bought playtime in twenty-five cent increments. How much time a quarter bought was completely dependent on the skill of the player. An unskilled player would find their progress barred quickly, and need to supply more quarters. A skilled player could proceed much longer, and was thus rewarded for the time, effort, and money poured into gaining their skill. The public nature of the arcade also rewarded the skilled player with the opportunity to show off in front of others. This provided the unskilled players with something to aspire to and suggested that it would be worthwhile to keep feeding the machines with quarters, so that they too might someday bask in similar glory. So it made a great deal of financial sense for arcade games to feature limited lives with more available for purchase.

Eventually video games moved from the arcade to the living room. Here it was much harder for a player to compare themselves to other local players, and there was no need to keep the quarters flowing since games were purchased outright. The reasons to limit lives had vanished, and barring the progress of unskilled players now served mainly to disrupt the experience and prevent those players from seeing all the content of the game for which they had already paid. This limited the games' potential audience - why buy a game you can’t expect to make it through? Financially, it made no sense whatsoever for games played in the home to feature limited lives.

But that didn’t stop them from doing it anyway. From the original Super Mario Brothers on the NES all the way up to New Super Mario Brothers on the Wii, mainstream games have still not completely shaken off the limited lives trend. Why?

Lives counter in Super Mario Brothers
Lives counter in New Super Mario Brothers

No game is designed in a vacuum. Designers unavoidably carry certain assumptions and associations into their work - genre conventions and ideas reinforced by all the games the designer has ever seen. When designing a side-scrolling platformer, for example, a designer may consider how to give the player extra lives, and what to do when the player runs out of lives, without ever questioning whether there need to be limited lives in the first place. Limited lives are just what side-scrolling platformers do.

This can be a good thing. No player wants to be misled - there is value in being able to look at a box and have a pretty good idea what sort of gameplay can be found inside, especially with games as expensive as they are. But it can be a bad thing, too. When too many assumptions go unchallenged for too long, game design stagnates.

It’s important to be aware of the assumptions brought to game design, and to question them. One should ask: if the game were designed in a vacuum, with no predecessors to emulate, would this feature be included? Would it even occur to the designers to include it? Most importantly, does it really improve the game?

Indie and art games are, naturally, home to much experimentation and rejection of convention. The free sidescrolling platformer Tower of Heaven (PC, download here) serves mainly to examine the assumptions implicit in its own genre:

Screenshot from Tower of Heaven
“If you’re not familiar with the game, here’s the central conceit: A nondescript protagonist named Eid is trying to climb the eponymous Tower of Heaven, but the deity at the top keeps throwing down increasingly restrictive laws. Your job is to platform your way to the top while obeying all of [the] laws, lest you be immediately smitten. . . .

What’s interesting about Tower of Heaven, though, is that, after the initial shock of a new rule being imposed on you, it plays like a traditional platformer. . . .

The [game’s] strength isn’t that it adds anything new to sidescroller gameplay, but that, by giving those genre tropes and clichés a source (in this case, God), it exposes them as arbitrary and artificial. In fact, the entire game is about re-evaluating what is ‘sacred,’ and, if need be, destroying it."
—Joseph Leray, Nothing is sacred: killing God atop the Tower of Heaven

Because their development, marketing, and distribution costs are so much higher, mainstream game designers are slower to take risks. But at some point, even they started to question whether we really needed limited lives in our action games. Developers such as Naughty Dog and Insomniac said no, and gave us the well-received Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Clank franchises. They aren’t the only ones, either. Limited lives are gradually disappearing from games, though it’s going to be a while before they’re gone completely.

At this point, however, it isn’t just unconscious retention of assumptions. There are enough games around subverting the limited lives expectation that it’s no longer an automatic expectation in the first place. It’s been repeatedly demonstrated that a game can be tremendously successful without limited lives. Including them now is a deliberate embracing of old ideas in order to evoke that special beast called nostalgia.

Let’s take a look at one of the most nostalgia-fueled releases of recent years: Mega Man 9.

“Mega Man 9 will be much closer to Mega Man 2. . . . There are many gamers who claim that Mega Man 2 is their absolute favorite."
—Designer Keiji Inafune, as quoted in Mega Man 9 - exclusive interview with the mind behind the machines

Mega Man 2, released in 1988, was incredibly well-received and is still considered by many fans and critics to be the high point of the series - a series which has since stumbled. With the recent explosion of retro gaming, Capcom recognized an opportunity to return Mega Man to its roots.

Mega Man 9 promotional package
Mega Man 9 was released in 2008 but made to resemble a game from twenty years earlier, complete with eight-bit graphics and a chiptune soundtrack. Even the cover art paid homage to the franchise’s early days by being deliberately inaccurate and awesomely weird. A promotional package was put together with an old NES cartridge bearing the Mega Man 9 cover art and containing a mini CD with info and art from the game. One such package sold on eBay for $750. With Mega Man 9, Capcom clearly tapped into something people wanted. It is a game powered by nostalgia. So it’s not surprising that it would deliberately embrace a wide variety of otherwise-outdated design choices.

Mega Man 2 was made for the NES, and therefore faced certain limitations. The system did not have enough memory, for example, to keep track of all the enemies Mega Man had defeated - as was common for games of the period, just about anything that left the screen was forgotten. The result is respawning of offscreen enemies: destroy an enemy, walk away and come back, and the enemy is there again, just like the first time you encountered it.

Mega Man 9 also features offscreen respawning, but clearly it is not a hardware limitation. If Mega Man 9 had been designed in a vacuum, and there had never been a Mega Man 2 to emulate, would it have even occurred to the team to include offscreen respawning? This gameplay mechanic, just like the look and sound of the game, is a deliberate design decision intended to evoke good memories.

Mega Man 9 stage select screenshot

Some changes over time - like shifts in art styles - are just changes. They aren’t inherently good or bad. Making a modern game look like one from twenty years ago is an aesthetic choice. It’s a bit like making a modern film in black and white to elicit a certain mood.

Other changes, however - particularly ones involving gameplay mechanics - are actual improvements. Video game design is a rapidly-advancing art. Many old games, even ones considered classics, are virtually unplayable by modern standards. The aforementioned example of games gradually shedding limited lives? A clear-cut improvement, of the most common sort - a decrease in player punishment.

All too often, nostalgia-based games lump both kinds of changes together. The result is a game like Mega Man 9, with pleasingly retro graphics and sound, but completely outdated mechanics such as limited lives and sparse checkpoints. To some subset of people who grew up loving Mega Man 2, it’s all nostalgic. But the rest of us would enjoy the benefits of twenty years of advances in game design. Leaving in outdated mechanics and hoping to compensate for them with nostalgia severely limits a game’s potential market. After all, there are a lot more gamers now than there used to be - many of the people who might buy a game today weren’t playing games twenty years ago. They don’t have a pile of good memories for a new game to rely on.

Making games in this way is like building a house in the Victorian style, and deliberately leaving out electricity and modern plumbing. It may be more authentic, but nostalgia isn’t about authenticity. It never has been. Nostalgia is about making the past better than it actually was. It’s about reliving the good and omitting the bad. The perfect nostalgia-based game, therefore, should preserve what made people love its predecessors, but smooth out the rough spots from when designers didn’t know any better.

Victorian house photo copyright Matthew Lee High - original at http://www.flickr.com/photos/matthigh/2036522546/ - text added by me

Victorian house photo copyright Matthew Lee High - text added by me

Fortunately, developers seem to be realizing this. The next Mega Man game, Mega Man 10, famously included an Easy Mode. Bionic Commando Rearmed - a remake of another twenty-year-old NES game - was eventually patched to remove many of the game’s most punishing elements. Retro Game Challenge - a compilation of games in the style of twenty years back - includes cheat codes to mitigate any potential frustration.

Video games are a young medium. Only now are retro gaming and nostalgia-based releases becoming commonplace. We’re still figuring out how to handle them - what to update and what to leave respectfully untouched. It doesn’t help that there are a vocal minority of fans who cry foul at any deviation from pre-established trends. But the greatest strength of video games is their ability to offer different experiences to different players.

When deciding just how closely to emulate the NES’s capabilities in Mega Man 9, the designers recognized that some but not all gamers would enjoy a return of the flickering sprites and graphical glitches that had been found in Mega Man 2. Consequently, they are optional. Why not let the outdated game mechanics, such as limited lives, be optional as well?

Games have come a long way since the days of the arcade. It would be a shame not to respect their history, but it would be a worse shame not to respect their progress. If we want games to live up to our rose-colored memories, it is not enough to let them be as good as they were. We must let them be as good as we remember.