Smothered by Nostalgia

Tom Mc Shea explores how our insatiable desire to relive the past has undercut the creative freedoms that developers need.


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Nostalgia has a power over me that is is unlike any other compulsion. During my formative years, I was more likely to explore Hyrule than my own backyard, and my heart still thumps happily when that electric theme pricks my ears. Free from responsibilities, I spent untold hours with a controller in my hands, and I would love to rekindle the feelings that warmed my younger heart. But it's not possible. Everything was so new back then, so exciting, and developers cannot recapture that wonder by resurrecting the past. Even though I am still susceptible to the sounds and imagery of my childhood, I've realized just how underhanded the business of cashing in on nostalgia has become. I no longer relish the promise of recreated memories; I just shudder.

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DuckTales Remastered is the most recent example of a game that relies on the goodwill its progenitor inspired to make it relevant today. From the moment the midi rendition of the iconic theme song started to play, visions of sitting in my friend's basement trying to overcome that treacherous Transylvania stage bounced in my head. I was hooked before I even picked up the controller. Sadly, my happy memories began to slip away once I set out on my treasure-hunting adventure. So boring is DuckTales Remastered that I began to doubt if the original was actually good, or if my childhood ignorance had clouded my judgment. Thankfully, we have a copy of the real DuckTales in our office, and it took no more than a couple of minutes for me to realize that I was right to heap such praise on these earlier pogo escapades.

I no longer embrace the hold recreated memories have over me; I shudder in disgust.

Wayforward Technologies fell into a trap like countless other development studios before them. Instead of focusing on the underlying appeal of the original game (in this case, the satisfying action), they highlighted secondary pleasures such as the soundtrack and characters. It's a misstep that does a massive disservice to the source material. DuckTales hasn't stood the test of time because of its catchy tunes alone; if that were the case, we'd cherish the music but nothing else. No, it was the spelunking action that was so incredible. WayForward messed with the physics, toned down the difficulty, and transformed the thrilling original into a hollow shell of its former self. It's a superficial remastering that tries to exploit the nostalgic feeling so many people hold rather than create its own place within this industry.

And yet, I do have sympathy for the position that WayForward put themselves in. By peddling nostalgia, WayForward had to walk the line between the old-school ideals the original exhibited and the modern sensibilities we've grown accustomed to. Whereas I celebrate my memories, they were handcuffed to them, forced to deliver an experience that was both a faithful reimagining as well as a new entry that could stand on its own. There's no question that they failed in their task, but our excessive demands put them in a position where it was nearly impossible to succeed. We remember DuckTales--or at least think that we do--and believe that any developer given the chance to work with such a property should be able to improve upon an experience that we deem a classic.

Talk about an unenviable situation.

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It's because of our insatiable love of all things nostalgia that we receive such sad efforts. If WayForward had the gall to ignore the blueprint of our expectations, we would have lambasted them. How dare they deviate from the expected path? DuckTales Remastered follows the template created by the original, never offering a hint of genuine ingenuity. 2D platformer? Check. Cane hopping? Check! Globe trotting? Pattern-based bosses? Gem collecting? Check, check, and check. There's no room for deviation from the core foundation, and that's unfair. Because we're so feverishly drawn toward nostalgia, we limit the creative freedoms of developers. They build games around our memories rather than their own desires, and that means we're stuck with flat offerings that might contain the music and the characters we remember, but none of the formidable elements that can conjure lasting appeal.

Our excessive demands put WayForward Technologies in a position where it was nearly impossible to succeed.

The saddest part of this quixotic quest is that developers often succeed in blinding us through brazen manipulation. Problems that would be crushing in a typical game are overlooked when they're surrounded by the characters and music that we've grown to love. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword contains imaginative puzzles and devious dungeons, but does have its fair share of annoying problems as well. If the endless tutorials and forced backtracking weren't shielded by the fantasy world we're so enamored with, would so many people have been as forgiving? Would people have so eagerly shelled out money to play The Simpsons Arcade Game if they didn't have fond memories of jumping rope as Lisa in a dimly lit arcade? Is there any chance Sonic would even still exist if people couldn't look back fondly at his Genesis days?

Publishers have learned how susceptible we are to nostalgia and used that power against us. Stamping a franchise from our youth on the front of the box practically guarantees that a significant contingent of people will play (and enjoy) it no matter how many problems it contains. I've been outspoken about the dip in quality Zelda has suffered, but there are few games that I'm looking forward to more than whatever form Link takes on the Wii U. I'm so drawn to this franchise that, no matter how many times I've been beaten down, I still stand back up, ready to embrace whatever comes next. This is a terrible cycle of rising expectations and crushed hopes, and I'm helpless to break free from it. I'm trapped in a cage of nostalgia, and even though the door has been left wide open, I refuse to escape.

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But we do have a choice. We have the freedom to turn up our nose at subpar efforts. Instead of forcing developers to continually try to remake our youth, we should urge them to try something new. After all, neither The Legend of Zelda nor DuckTales were trying to appeal to any of our prior memories. They were great on their own merits, and have been celebrated for more than two decades because of what they accomplished. If we stop demanding that developers must continually release sequels and that said games must adhere to a strict formula, we empower these creators to make something they're passionate about. We need to break free from the hold nostalgia has on us. Only then will we be able to see games for what they truly are, and maybe open ourselves up to entirely new experiences.


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