Hello everybody, my name is Eliot Hurn and I am a gamer. More specifically, I have been a console gamer for as long as I can remember. Over the years there have been a few games which genuinely stuck with me, which I keep looking back on with fond, warm memories. Recently I rediscovered one of those games, Donkey Kong 64, which has led me to testing other games in my nostalgia library.
Nostalgia: What is it Good For?
Absolutely….something; it turns out. Not only is nostalgia defined in pretty much the same way around the world, as noted by behavioural researcher Dr. Erica Hepper, but it can also have some specific triggers. The biggest two are boredom and negative mood (particularly loneliness) with people theorizing that it is a longing for a better time. Indulging in nostalgia is also a great way to boost optimism according to some research. Using that as a thinly veiled justification, I turn on the N64.
Donkey Kong is Here
As soon as I hear the opening rap to this game, I’m suddenly back to being a little kid, playing through the game as much as I can, never stopping. When the music ends, I go into the menu and start to play. Almost immediately I get stuck, not entirely sure where to go and without much guidance. After a little while, I figure out where I’m supposed to be and then it hits me: I made exactly the same mistake when I played this as a kid. The game still has what it takes to stump me.
During my pursuit of Golden Bananas I’ve realised that nostalgia has masked a few of the game’s negatives from me. The controls aren’t as tight as I thought they’d be; the camera can be more foe than friend and some of the minigames are infuriating (I’m looking at you Tiny’s Slide Race!). But at the same time I’m quite surprised at how much I still enjoy it and how well I think it holds up.
There is one thing that shocked me above all else. Playing DK64 now feels like I’m playing an entirely different game from the one I played when I was younger. The way I game has changed, which means that how I experience this game has changed as well. I’m no longer running through levels, collecting the bare minimum to get through and enjoy the game. Now I’m methodically hunting down every last banana with each of the five characters before moving on. And I have to be honest, I preferred it as a kid.
He's finally back... to kick some tail.
The Dreaded Sequel
After playing what I still find to be a true classic I decided to look at the other way nostalgia is used in the video game world: the Sequel. Many sequels use nostalgia to drum up excitement and sell more copies. My go-to example of this is the Super Smash Bros. series, partly because I can’t help but love it, but also because it clearly makes use of the fan base’s fondness for its predecessors. In contrast, another game that makes use of nostalgia, but can’t ultimately live up to its ancestors is Bomberman: Act Zero, a game I actually had to look up the title for because I had repressed even its name.
Super Smash Brothers was a favourite of mine growing up. I remember in grade school inviting friends over to play it with everyone having their favourite character. Whenever I unlocked a new character there was a huge shake-up with everyone arguing over who got to use him. This love spilt into real life with everybody taking up the persona of their favourite character on the jungle gym!
Then Melee came out and everything changed. The graphics were gorgeous, the roster was unimaginably big and suddenly everybody had a new favourite character. The fact that it was generally a massive upgrade was a huge boon as well. Looking back on it, the reason Super Smash Brothers works as a series is that it takes a great foundation (the fun game) and every iteration builds on top of it. There’s no step backwards (except maybe the number of clones in Brawl), nothing seems to stagnate and the aesthetic is maintained. As such, each sequel manages to be a good game without doing a disservice to the nostalgia it’s riding on.
Even the items evolve!
This is not the case of Bomberman: Act Zero. In fact, here we have a game that spits in the face of nostalgia and decides to “revolutionise” a classic in a way nobody could have imagined (even in their worst nightmares). Super Bomberman 2 was a game frequently played at my house between friends with all the frustration and shouting that goes with it. It was complex, competitive and quick. Everything you could ever want. The level design in single player was brilliant with fun bosses that manage to vary what could be a dull pattern of “plant bomb and run”. I still bring it out now because I feel like it is timeless.
Instead of building on that foundation, Bomberman: Act Zero is a gritty reboot which replaces all the colour and life of the original with gun metal grey and dirt brown. Despite being a radically different looking game it still sells itself as a Bomberman game. I remember playing it for the first time and being heartbroken at how they wrecked a beloved childhood franchise. If Super Smash Brothers is the good of gaming sequels, Bomberman: Act Zero is the bad and the ugly.
I don't think anybody wins....
What Can We Do?
So far, I’ve fallen back in love with a game from my past, continued to love a game that’s been carried to the present and hated a game that twisted my nostalgia for its own gain. What does this all mean? Well, maybe it is worth going back to revisit old games. Even if it’s something you thought you had beaten in every way under the Sun, tackling it now might throw out a new curve ball at you. Hell, you might even find yourself enjoying a new challenge you wouldn’t have even considered the first time you played it.
And if you’re planning on using nostalgia to sell something, here are my five cardinal rules:
1. Do not shift tone. Kids cartoon games do not need a gritty reboot just like Call of Duty doesn’t need to be rebooted in Kirby’s Epic Yarn style.
Worst Offender: Bomberman Act Zero
2. Don’t be scared to correct your mistakes. Evolution is the name of the game but not just in terms of graphics. Don’t carry through past mistakes just because of “nostalgia”. If the camera sucked last time, fix it. If everybody hated a particular style of level, improve it or take it out and try something new.
Worst Offender: Super Smash Brothers and the attack of the clones
3. Do give us a reason to be interested. And I don’t just mean make it prettier. If the last game in the series does everything the newest one does, why should I bother? Give me a reason to care outside of it being newer. As my editor, Jack, told me regarding this article: Moar. GIVE ME MOAR.
Worst Offender: A lot of sports games (I know, cheap shot)
4. Don’t be put off by failure. Some games that do innovate can fall flat. Don’t let that dissuade you from trying again to make the best next entry to your iconic game series. If you are that scared to innovate or change formulas, release it as a spin off (like Hyrule Warriors which magically fused two different sets of nostalgia properties).
Worst Offender: Star Fox Adventures (which I actually liked…) and the lack of a WiiU game (although I hear that’s changing)
5. Don’t do the bait and switch. Don’t sell your game with a name attached purely to get nostalgia purchases. Even if your game is good, people don’t like being tricked into buying it. Innovating and improving does not mean building a new game and slapping on an old property.
Worst Offender: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
I’m definitely going to keep indulging my love of childhood classics that I hold dear to me. In fact, the other day while writing this article I went back to the Gym Leader Castle for Pokemon Stadium and beat the Elite Four. Next, I think I’m going to tackle Orcarina of Time again (at least until I find my Majora’s Mask cartridge). See you all in Hyrule.
Robert Wyatt once said “I prefer the mystic clouds of nostalgia to the real thing, to be honest.” I think I’m happy with having both.
This post was authored by Extra Life community member Eliot Hurn. Thank you very much, Eliot!
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