Nostalgia in Video Games

(First published at The Reboot Gamers.)
For my 23rd birthday I got a new PlayStation 2. One of the first things did was open up my decade old copy of Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4 and for a moment, I was in middle school again – with spikey hair, a SanDisk MP3 player, and a muscle memory of every level in Tony Hawk. It was great.
This moment of interactive nostalgia is unique to video games and is an experience gamers and game developers have been pushing for – for the last few years.
Now, why do we enjoy playing these older games? What motivates us to pick up the latest remastered edition of games we already played?
According to writer Jamie Madigon of Psychology of Games, it’s important to understand that the very feeling of nostalgia is one mixed with fondness of the past as well as a slight sense of sorrow. However, with video games being an interactive medium, older games that spark feelings of nostalgia tends to bring gamers a feeling of positive connectedness to the game and a sense of community to others who played the same game.
I might not have played Halo 2 with Nick or Justin from Reboot Gamers when Halo 2 first came out, but we can all agree how great landing a sticky grenade felt in the opening first level. Personally, Pro Skater 4 reminded me of playing the game with my friends in eighth grade, trying to outdo one another as we connected the highest combo possible.
With the medium of video games being well over 40 years old, publishers understand that gamers want that feeling of nostalgia.
Maria B. Garda’s paper “Nostalgia in retro game design” explains that game developers push nostalgia through two types of video game design – restorative and reflective. Restorative game design is an effort to fully recreate a game of the past. Sony’s HD remakes of classic titles in the past few years, including Jak and Daxter and Ratchet and Clank, are prime examples of rereleasing an older game with updated visuals. In the Tony Hawk Underground series, players learned the basics of the game in a remastered version of Tony Hawk’s first level from the series first ever game.
Reflective game design restores not a particular game, but recognizes, learns from and appreciates tropes of particular games. From a visual perspective, Fez is a love letter to 8-bit and 16-bit games, while the gameplay learns from and adapts on the shoulders of classic 2D platformers and Metoidvania games. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is every bit an homage to Final Fight as it is of Nintendo game culture in general. Thomas Was Alone channels the brightly colored squares of Atari 2600 games while using a meta narrative often found in contemporary games to drive players forward.
Some would say that Nintendo’s career in the last 15 years has been made by walking the line between reflective and restorative game design. Mario is a classic game character and Nintendo knows that. A gamer playing a Bowser level on Super Mario 64 is met with the same sense of challenge that a gamer playing a Bowser level on Super Mario Galaxy. While the story might not change from game to game, players bank on the fact that Nintendo knows how to make a great platformer and knows how to provide familiar gameplay while innovating an element or two. The best Mario games should be both feel familiar and refreshing from a gameplay and visual standpoint.
So there’s a reason why the most anticipated game this year for new consoles was probably a rerelease of a game made ten years and two consoles ago. Embrace that feeling of nostalgia, whether it be finishing the fight – again – or trying to land an awesome trick on a familiar half pipe.
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