A Think Between Worlds #2: How Gaming Does Nostalgia Right

It’s an unavoidable truth that we live in a time where media is tailored to the past. It’s the reason movie studios will opt for putting Tom Cruise in a Mummy reboot over a new idea with or why eleven Kickstarter sequels for Super Nintendo games you loved will haunt your timeline on a Monday. There’s always been one real issue with these types of remakes: more often than not, there’s nothing added to the formula. There’s a new candy coating on the surface, but bite into it and you’re chewing on the exact same experience you had in your youth.

This isn’t even a recent trend in gaming. Compilation discs from the PS2 era have become reboots and “spiritual successors”. The names have changed, but the song remains the same. That said, there are examples of developers using the past as a canvas to create better work among those that see a template for success and sales.

Fighting games historically have had countless throwbacks and nods to past titles, ranging from background cameos from past characters (the King of Fighters and Street Fighter Alpha series) to reworking past stories to build an improved narrative moving forward (Mortal Kombat 9, BlazBlue series). Recent fighting games have continued that trend, and while their use has been hit or miss, it’s largely made the games they feature in better.

Street Fighter V and Tekken 7 both incorporate some iconic bells and whistles of the past. In regards to SFV, this is evident in the rearrangements of classic themes for longtime characters and the introduction of HD remakes of classic stages such as the Thailand and Spain stages from Street Fighter II. T7 also takes this route, featuring a Jukebox mode for the console versions that allows playing matches to the soundtracks of classic games as well as outfits that call back to past games, such as Jin’s Tekken 4 hoodie and Paul’s iconic leather he’s worn in some variation since the original Tekken.

Original Spain Stage - SFIISFV's Spain Stage            

Where things get interesting, however, is where the past is used to deviate from the status quo, creating something transformative that stands as either an interesting quirk or a breath of life into a stale machine.

Take Tekken 7 as an example. While the individual character stories are, frankly, throwaways, the main story highlighting the seemingly never-ending war within the Mishima family does a surprisingly effective job of taking the stories of past games and tying them together in a way that makes sense. It’s able to use them as a platform to give new characters a fitting place within the world and returning characters more depth. The fact that the game could take an untrustworthy, despicable villain such as Heihachi and turn him into a sympathetic protagonist with an almost understandable justification of his past deeds is no small feat, and was only possible by giving some respect to the history the tale’s attempting to revise.

Street Fighter V doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel with its own story, but in many cases, the changes take place on a more fundamental level of character design. Capcom began experimenting with how some of its classic characters played in Ultra Street Fighter IV’s Omega Mode, which altered special moves to a bizarre degree, completely changing the playstyle of certain characters. The roots of that experimentation grew into the newest iteration, with some characters such as Vega being completely retooled, while others such as Balrog or Nash being given tools to make them feel different from their past versions. While there are some who would say that the changes either went too far or not far enough, it was a move that made the game more accessible to new players, while allowing series veterans to take the years of knowledge and familiarity and still parlay that into the game, another degree of separation from past entries in the series.

              

This isn’t just something confined to games referring to their own history. Part of the inspiration for this article was a recent playthrough of Bayonetta. After several years of a quiet life inside its case, Platinum’s angel murder simulator got its hooks back in due to its fast paced and extremely smooth combat, interesting character design, and amazing set pieces. While it’s definitely old hat at this point, I had forgotten about one such set piece where the titular heroine jumps on top of a missile after escaping from a burning plane. It was only after Bayo uttered the line “Welcome to the Fantasy Zone, get ready!” that I realized what was going on. I was playing a full on Bayonetta-themed homage to a Sega classic: Space Harrier, complete with theme music, sound effects, and gameplay style. Shooting down the first boss “Dragon” wasn’t just a nostalgia trip or open letter to the publisher’s golden era from director Hideki Kamiya. It was a bit of levity that helped contribute to the game’s playful tone and provided a welcome break from a point in the game that is inundated with hordes of enemies and big combat sequences. For something that didn’t even need to be added, the tribute genuinely made getting through the middle act of the game better, and for that deserves a bit of credit as an example of solid game design.

              

While there are much more examples of calling back to, such as the most recent edition of Doom, Overwatch, and Final Fantasy XV, to cover every good example of a game using the past to improve itself would be a monumental task that would take far more than an article to do. That said, if you have any favorite moments or applications of video game history into the new generation, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.