Nostalgia Is A Trap

Nostalgia Is A Trap
Image: One Must Fall 2097
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There’s a reason our brains always remember the best of our relationships, with family, friends, entertainment mediums or anything. It’s a stabilising mechanism, apparently, strengthening our identity while providing reassurance. It liberates us from the present, reminds us who we are in times of self-doubt, gives us courage to go forward.

It’s why remasters are so popular in video games. Creating a new franchise — any video game, really — from scratch is inherently risky. There’s no in-built fanbase. No existing SEO. No decades of attachment, Deviantart posts, fan ships, all the sorts of things that underpin investments on the scale needed in this day and age.

And we know as gamers what we love. We remember the hours, days, weeks, maybe months, spent playing one thing over and over. We know what our comfort food is.

But our nostalgia also papers over the cracks of games past. We remember what we love, and the things that stood out, but not necessarily why they did, and certainly not all the parts where those games fell apart.

Image: Chaos Control

Steam is the worst for triggering this. Take Chaos Control, a game I came across as a kid on some old demo CDs. Its major selling point was that it was developed entirely on Silicon Graphics machines, and had an anime-arse pilot as the protagonist.

Just check out the official description for an oversell:

Chaos Control, a super-production designed entirely on Silicon Graphics, takes you to the heart of a fantastic epic that blends cyberculture, virtual travel and manga graphics. At the controls of a space fighter, your dangerous missions will lead you into a unique spectacle with multiple, fantastic sets in full screen 3D vision.

Firstly, there’s no “controls” in this game whatsoever. It’s a completely on-rails shooter with horrifically bad shooting. A game that runs at 24 FPS with a camera that’s constantly floating about, unsurprisingly, makes for a rough experience. The sound is also an assault on the ears, playing the same nasal line every time you actually hit a target.

And as for the virtual travel? Most of what you’ll see is just the urban environments of the first level. Chaos Control isn’t too dissimilar from Virtua Cop or House of the Dead in that enemies will pop out from dodgy angles, but at least the latter games run smoothly enough that you have a chance of being accurate. Chaos Control doesn’t, so while you might get through the first level with a bit of luck, you’ll immediately be dead on arrival once the second level loads.

So the only way you can enjoy the “cyberculture” and “virtual travel” is to buy the game on Steam, change DOSBox so the game uses 1000 or less CPU cycles. Once you do that, you’ll never hit another enemy again — but the reduced CPU cycles also means that enemies do practically zero damage, so you can actually enjoy the virtual travel that was advertised.

The improved UI reminds me of classic arcade games. It also takes up a lot less real estate. Image: SEGA Retro
Here’s the Saturn original. That ugly smoke effect is the same on the PC version. Image: SEGA Retro

You’ll be enjoying it at around 8 FPS instead of 24, but hey, at least this way you can get through to the end of the game. If you can cast your mind back to 1995, the graphics sort of were nice. Minus the part where half of it was covered in smoke. Because every time you managed to actually kill an enemy, they didn’t disappear — they just remained hovering on screen with this bizarrely annoying opaque smoke effect.

What’s funny is that there was actually an improved version of Chaos Control, but it was only ever released for the Japanese market. After the game’s staggered launch in 1995, Chaos Control Remix was released only for the SEGA Saturn a year later. Not only did it add support for two players, but the resolution was increased, effects and cutscenes were touched up, load times improved and Virtua Gun support was added. The developers even deleted the second stage from the game altogether, but fortunately that horror was reserved in full in the Steam version.

Why did I ever think this game was good? I was a dumb kid, basically, and I wasn’t fortunate enough to play Star Fox. But the power of the internet today means I can blindly throw down several bucks on an experience a younger me would have loved. There are hundreds of better experiences I could have enjoyed, but my brain knew what my brain knew. Comfort always trumps the unknown.

Image: Resident Evil 3

The real kicker is the trap nostalgia lays for our perspective on the future. Before she embraced the indie dev life over at Double Fine, Heather covered this after the releases of Final Fantasy 7 Remake and Resident Evil 3. Both games had their own struggles with fanbases that had specific ideas and expectations of what a remake should be. The bigger complication for developers was finding a way to remake something that felt like the original:

That’s the tension at the heart of remakes: They are ever subject to player expectation. Deviate too much and purists bristle. Don’t go far enough and even professional critics will argue that you’ve played it safe. Yet the smallest changes can have huge effects. Even a relatively faithful adaptation like 2018’s Shadow of the Colossus remaster lost some of the utterly distinct lighting that defined the original’s aesthetic. The light-drenched realms of the original was darker and earthier in a way that arguably affected the game’s themes, helping convey a story in which light and darkness had intense meaning after all. The tools exist for faithful remasters, and creators should use them actively. But remakes? They’ve become their own thing, and the burden of expectation forces them to adapt to the time of their release.

There is always value in returning to nostalgia, especially if the circumstances have been especially fraught. Nobody complained that System Shock 2 hadn’t been updated when Night Dive Studios finally re-released it, because the legal toil to recover the IP and code was a Lord of the Rings-esque journey. No One Lives Forever or Discworld Noir would be similarly welcomed without any improvement: the games are currently at the bottom of a licensing abyss, lost to future audiences unless you have the original discs lying around.

But we’re lucky in that we can access most of what we love, and most of it lives on in an improved way. Dawn of War might not be making a comeback — Relic is a bit busy trying to salvage things with Age of Empires 4 but that hasn’t stopped fans from polishing it into oblivion. Dark Reign and Total Annihilation‘s long rivalry continues, with fans keeping both RTS classics alive today. The joys of open sourced engines and freeware has done wonders for retro FPS games, inspiring new titles with fresh ideas and perspectives on classics we love. I can still fire up Heroes of Might and Magic 3 today. Ubisoft has no idea where the original source code is, but modders have made HD mods and fan-made campaigns just as good as anything the studio would have greenlit.

And that’s what’s ultimately worth remembering. It’s nice to re-experience a title without some of the original drawbacks. Playing Command & Conquer Remastered today wouldn’t be improved if the resolution was capped to 640×480 and the mouse cursor wasn’t locked to the window because barely anybody had multiple monitors in the early ’90s. But we also shouldn’t just look to revive something just to remove modern annoyances or just to introduce it to new audiences. It’s the additions that help these games and communities live on.

One Must Fall 2097, the fighting game that still reigns above all others.

I think about this a lot whenever I get a hankering to play One Must Fall 2097, Epic’s legendary robot fighting game from the mid ’90s. It’s funny to occasionally at Tim Sweeney to ask why he hasn’t re-released the game on the Epic Games Store yet. That and Epic Pinball should have been the first free games when the store launched, if you ask me. (And some of the Fortnite developers are clearly fans.)

But it wouldn’t genuinely be worth Epic’s time to relaunch OMF 2097 on the Epic Games Store, or even to just re-release it on consoles. The better, more honest question is a riskier one. The original characters had no voices, nothing more than a handful of lines introduced at the beginning of a match. The singleplayer game had different attributes and characteristics for each fighter, while the tournament mode traded that backstory for more of a RPG-style system.

What if those things were merged? The tournament is the cornerstone of people’s entertainment in OMF‘s world, so how would that look in an expanded narrative? What happens if each of the characters are introduced in a Mortal Kombat/Injustice style chapter sequence? What opportunities does that give to outline the influence of WAR, or the relationships between the pilots? What would the multiplayer scene be like if the movelist was incorporated into the menus? OMF‘s robots are modular beasts — what if their movesets were modular too?

It’s an obvious risk, of course. Less is more for some games. And let’s not pretend OMF‘s narrative was some grand masterstroke: that’s the nostalgia talking. But if anyone was to spend six months, a year, two years or more bringing the title back, instead of creating something new, the least they deserve is the opportunity to incorporate something of themselves into that project.

As Final Fantasy 7 showed, we should be asking what exactly it is that we want to be remade. Why did we fall in love with these games in the past? Did I love Spycraft because it was a genuinely brilliant FMV game for its time? Or was it because the slightly-too-serious-its-campy vibe with spy-themed mini puzzles was my jam, and my brain simply forget all the rest?

Was Crash Bandicoot 4 helped by harking back to the supreme difficulty of the originals? There is no lack of punishing games in the market today — the Souls genre and all its spin-offs, games like Dead CellsGetting Over It With Bennett Foddy and so on — but was that really what people wanted from Crash 4 in 2020?

I ask these things because the prism we apply as fans matters. Developers are never constrained by what random people on the internet tweet, shout, record or write, but on the same token developers aren’t in the business of making products that people don’t want. People spend years of their lives on development: nobody wants it to fail. But if we can also be conscious of the trap that nostalgia plays on our own minds, those same devs might have a little more room to create something that can stand the test of time going forward.

What we remake already speaks volumes about what we value as an industry. Perhaps we owe it to ourselves — and the creators working on our collective behalf — to be more open about what we love and why we actually love it. Reliving the past is easy; there’s no shortage of emulators and tools to do that. Our responsibility is, if not to build a better future, then to at least be more accommodating of one.

Comments

  • Nostalgia’s definitely a trap and our memories are unreliable. When I remember the introductory train level from FF7 original, a quarter-century after its release, my memories of that level look nothing like what happens if I load up FF7 on an emulator.
    My memories instead look exactly like what turns up in the FF7 Remake. It feels more like what I remember than the real original thing does.

    I think that’s one of the greatest things about a good remake.

    Memories can be too kind, too forgiving. They can pair with childlike imagination to add complexity, detail, gloss and smooth over any rough edges. Fortunately, so can modern technology. It means we can get a train level in FF7 Remake that looks more like my overly-fond, unrealistic memory than it looks like the original game. I feel like that should be the goal of a great remake: to capture what people remember fondly about a game, rather than faithfully reproduce it pixel for pixel.

    FF7, C&C, Age of Empires 2, Resident Evil 2 are all great examples of departing from the reality of a game to focus on how it felt, capturing not what those games did on their own, but what those games could do when they collaborated with our imaginations when they were written into our kinder memories.

  • I have some movies i watched as a kid that i don’t want to re watch because i don’t want to spoil the memories i have of watching them as a kid.

  • I’m all in for destroying Nostalgia that I might have had. When Shroud of the Avatar was in gestation I did a playthrough of all the Ultimas, one of my most beloved of series that are playable today… and it destroyed any lingering affection I might have had for them.

    Going into older properties now is also interesting, without that nostalgia filter, which I assume is why my opinion on certain properties diverges from the ‘popular’ opinions. I find older RPGs at least tend to be a lot more brutal and mechanics driven han modern ones. I’m very very slowly attempting a playthrough of BloodNet, which I had very abortive attempts of when it first came out.

    I couldn’t imagine going back to Chaos Control or FX Fighter, or other early days of 3D games. So you’re a braver person than I.

  • Maybe its because I still frequently play tonnes of retro games, but I don’t seem to suffer the rose tinted glasses most have with re-playing retro games. About the biggest problem I have is many games were obviously designed with CRT’s in mind, and it loses something over on an LCD.

  • By the same token many older games particularly from the 16-bit era still hold up incredibly well. Games like Super Metroid for example. Games from the early 3D era though, not so much lol.

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