Nostalgic Game Design Can't Be Just Skin Deep

Carolyn Petit examines the very different ways in which two games go about celebrating the NES era.

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Retro City Rampage
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Abobo's Big Adventure
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I imagine that when I look back on the games of 2012 in the future, it won't be any of this year's big commercial hits that stand out most. Great as they are, it won't be games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown or Dishonored that spring to mind first. Rather, what will define 2012 for me most is the fact that not one but two of the most memorable and interesting games I played this year are tremendously referential celebrations of gaming's past.

Of course, games that capitalize on the nostalgia of players who grew up with the games of the '80s and '90s are nothing new. Each entry in Nintendo's New Super Mario Bros. series attempts to appeal to those who have fond recollections of the "old" Super Mario Bros. games. And it's not unusual for publishers to resurrect and modernize beloved properties of the past. As a huge fan of Bionic Commando on the NES, I always think of the disappointing 2009 update as an unfortunate example of such games.

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At one point, Retro City Rampage references the faux-3D stages in Contra.

But two games released this year--Retro City Rampage and Abobo's Big Adventure--have a different relationship with the past than those other games. These games aren't new entries in old franchises, playing on our fondness for specific characters or worlds, our yearning to play a new game in a series we loved when we were younger. Instead, they reference a wide variety of different NES games, and in doing so, they celebrate the entire NES era. Yet though they share a similar reverence for the past, their approaches are wildly different.

Retro City Rampage takes a type of game that didn't exist in the 1980s--the open-world urban crime adventure--and envisions what it might have looked like if it had. Known early in its development as Grand Theftendo and originally designed to run on actual NES hardware, Retro City Rampage looks and sounds very much like a product of the '80s. If you loved the NES, playing RCR will bring memories flooding back of how it felt to bring a new cartridge home, slam it into the Nintendo, and dive into a new 8-bit world.

It's a heady sensation, with the power of nostalgia making it distinctly different from the contemporary thrill of exploring the lands of Skyrim or the streets of Liberty City. And because games like RCR didn't exist in the '80s, Retro City Rampage initially recaptures the excitement that came with playing something unlike anything you'd ever played before--the first time you played Metroid or Blaster Master or The Legend of Zelda. But eventually, it sinks in that, since we're now in the 2010s and not the 1980s, we have played games that play like Retro City Rampage, and that do what it does better. The visuals and music conjure a pleasing sense of returning to the past, but what it's doing isn't nearly as bold today as what games like Metroid and The Legend of Zelda did back then.

Playing RCR will bring memories flooding back of how it felt to bring a new cartridge home, slam it into the Nintendo, and dive into a new 8-bit world.
Retro City Rampage goes beyond its 8-bit visuals and music in attempting to stir up warm, fuzzy feelings for gaming's past, though. It also dishes out references by the dozens to specific games, characters, media personalities, movies, and other pop culture artifacts of the '80s. Some of these nods elicit a pleasing sense of recognition, a simple but satisfying, "Oh, hey, the name of that skate shop is a reference to Skate or Die!" Others may make you chuckle, while some fall flat. But ironically, it's when Retro City Rampage goes beyond textual references and tries to reference classic games via its gameplay that it stumbles the most as a celebration of '80s games.

Games like Paperboy and Tapper, and particular elements of games such as the faux-3D levels in the original Contra, all felt a specific way, and for those of us who played those games when we were younger, the feel of the controls is an intrinsic part of our memories of them. As a result, when playing the sections of Retro City Rampage that are modeled on these games, there's a jarring disconnect between what we see (a room that is clearly modeled on a bar in Tapper, for instance) and what we feel (controls that make no effort to imitate the distinctive way Tapper felt). I know that I enjoyed playing Tapper, but playing the stage that spoofs it in Retro City Rampage doesn't remind me why I enjoyed it.

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Retro City Rampage faithfully recreates the look and sound of the games it references, but it goes deeper than that.

Abobo's Big Adventure, on the other hand, duplicates with remarkable precision the way it feels to play the games it imitates. Unlike Retro City Rampage, Abobo's Big Adventure makes no attempt to mix 8-bit visuals and sound with more modern genres or concepts. In fact, nearly every element of Abobo--every character, every environmental detail--is not just a reference to something from gaming's past, but a nearly pixel-perfect re-creation.

Because it's not a commercial product but a free Flash game, Abobo's Big Adventure can get away with replicating the first stage of Double Dragon (complete with its fantastic music), and pitting you against enemies from Super Mario Bros., Renegade, Donkey Kong, Kung Fu, and other games. If you've played Double Dragon, the experience isn't just nostalgic because it looks and sounds like Double Dragon. It's also nostalgic because it feels like Double Dragon. If it didn't, playing this stage would feel just as discordant as it feels to play the Tapper level in Retro City Rampage. But instead, the experience is harmonious, and pleasurable.

Abobo's Big Adventure doesn't just make superficial nods to the games it spoofs. It reminds us why we loved playing them.
What's remarkable about Abobo's Big Adventure is that it takes you back to the sights, sounds, and feelings of classic NES games not just once or twice, but over and over again. There's a level that mimics a fortress in The Legend of Zelda and one that imitates a match in Pro Wrestling. One faithfully re-creates early stages in Contra, and another sees you leaping and shooting through a remake of Mega Man 2's Quick Man stage. Like the Double Dragon stage that opens the game, these aren't dry, unimaginative replicas. They're filled with characters from other games and have frequently hilarious surprises in the forms of unexpected boss fights and other tweaks to these scenarios some of us know only too well. But it always nails the most crucial detail. It always feels right. Retro City Rampage reminds us that we played these classic games. Abobo's Big Adventure reminds us that we loved playing them.

What about players who didn't grow up with NES games? Which game has more to offer players who aren't versed in 8-bit gaming history? By offering a sampler platter of 8-bit gaming experiences that are still fun to this day, Abobo's Big Adventure is ultimately a more varied, better-playing game than Retro City Rampage. The direct comparison is, however, perhaps a bit unfair. One game sets out to be a fun open-world game with visuals and humor that reference the 8-bit era. The other is made almost entirely of actual pieces of 8-bit games--sprites, backgrounds, music, gameplay mechanics. But if we see more games in the future that strive to celebrate NES games to the extent that these two do, I hope that they take a cue from Abobo's Big Adventure, and recognize that it's not the pixelated visuals or chiptune music that makes those games so worthy of our enduring affection. It's the way they play.

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