Nostalgia. What is it? How does it relate to video games? And why do I seem to be against the concept so much?

If you don’t want to read through to the end then I’ll put it to you straight: I’m tired of video game companies abusing nostalgia in order to repackage our past and sell it back to us at a premium. I’m tired of seeing so much soulless “fan service” and I’m tired of seeing once great franchises like Sonic The Hedgehog caught up in the middle of it all.

In case you’re unknowledgeable about nostalgia as a concept, allow me to explain. The word itself was coined in the sixteen-hundreds by a Swiss medical student called Johannes Hofer. Hofer used the term to describe patients who found themselves removed from their present reality via a gnawing desire to relive the past, even to the point where they would hallucinate voices and ghostly images and all sorts of scary stuff. It’s true; by its classical definition nostalgia was considered a disease and not something you’d ever want to engage in willingly.

Today of course, people use the word in a positive sense. Nostalgia is now considered an independent and largely pleasant emotion that is elicited by fond memories for the past. Whilst reflective nostalgia can actually be healthy in moderation, it can be argued that pop culture has a tendency to take its more restorative form of nostalgia a bit too far.

Consider the astonishing number of reboots and remakes we see nowadays. From movies such as Ghostbusters, The A-Team and Dad’s Army, to upcoming video game retreads like Resident Evil 2 and Final Fantasy XV. You can also make a solid case against Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the new DOOM as both have nostalgic elements underpinning their wider promotion.

Video Game Nostalgia Resident Evil 2 Remake

I wonder how people like me remarked: “I still haven’t played the original!”

Of course remakes aren’t always bad and you have to believe that the providers at least have their heart in the right place. But allowing the “good old days” to have such a consistent impact on our media risks depriving the industry of fresh new concepts and ideas.

In terms of video games specifically, this topic is more relevant than you might think as nostalgia wasn’t as easy to “sell” ten years ago. I recently turned 30 years old and now seem to be at that age where game-related nostalgia has reached a peak period because let’s not forget that the video game “age” as we know it kind of began in the mid-Eighties.

Generation X is all grown-up now and those same kids who spent their childhood years playing video games back then are only just now old enough to physically experience this sort of nostalgia in the first place. The seeds that were sewn all those years ago are finally starting to bear fruit and video game publishers are keen to cash in.

Indeed, it’s unfortunate that nostalgia-orientated marketing has such a reputation for price gouging. Take Worms World Party “Remastered” as an example. Here is a game that was already a re-release (World Party is just Worms Armageddon with a few alterations) being released again in the name of reliving that “classic” Worms experience for the gazillionith time. And it wasn’t that long ago that Team 17 re-released Worms 4 as well!

Of course, we as fans have to shoulder some of the blame. The newfound prevalence of memes and social media has gotten consumers forming an almost clannish identity with the entertainment they consume and it’s only natural that nostalgia plays a part in all of that.

Ask yourself: how many of your own favourite media outlets do see bombarded by nostalgia-driven fan requests? “Review Spiderman!”, “Do Metroid!”, “Talk about this old thing that we like!” It’s an arena full of people looking to establish a connection (probably so as not to feel totally alone in the world) kind of like that priest in Amadeus who desperately tries to recall Salieri’s music. It’s just sad to watch.

Now that I think about it, didn’t Salieri himself request Mozart to “Play Salieri” at one point in that movie? Huh.

Video Game Nostalgia Pokémon Go

Pokémon Go launched with the original monsters only. It was a shrewd marketing tactic aimed at getting nostalgic “genwunners” onboard for its plan of world domination.

And where better to illustrate the counterproductive effects of fan nostalgia than the Pokémon franchise. I’ll be the first to admit that the series has played it safe for the majority of its run, but when countless people tell me “I only recognise 151 Pokémon”, i.e. only those hailing from the original games in the series, you have to wonder exactly why and by how much we’re holding ourselves back.

Nostalgia-driven marketing wouldn’t annoy me quite so much if developers didn’t wield the concept like some sort of creative bludgeon. The results often lack subtly and don’t feel organic or special. It’s nostalgia by committee and if we have to put up with let-downs such as Duke Nukem Forever and, by all accounts, that recent Flashback remake because of it then we’re better off without.

You can already see the diminishing returns starting to set in. Yesteryear favourites such as James Pond, The Fantastic Dizzy, and Ecco the Bloody Dolphin were all unsuccessful when their proposed remakes took to Kickstarter recently. And what about that planned movie rendition of Night Trap? You will not convince me that a modern version of Night Trap would have had any significance whatsoever beyond blatant nostalgia-baiting and it seems that the masses agreed by not backing the project. Thank God.

The whole concept of “fan service” is something I find equally troubling. Although the expression is mainly used with regards to those cheesecake depictions of half-naked anime girls, it can freely apply to any blend of direct audience titillation.

It likely depends on the observer, but there are clear-cut cases where excessive fan service results in a production that doesn’t “click” with anyone not already familiar with the source material. Just look at the exclusionary Hyrule Warriors for more on that line of thinking (both in concept and half-naked anime girls).

Another video game that makes heavy use of fan service is Sonic Generations. As I said previously on CelJaded: this is a title that’s seeped in giddy callbacks, familiar settings, and a comprehensive soundtrack of classic tunes, all of which occasionally do hit the mark. But so too does it suffer from poor camera angles, childish writing, and the sort of decade-old mistakes that Sonic Team just can’t seem to avoid making. In a lot of ways I find the “fan service” here to be largely wasted and as a lifelong fan of Sonic, I should be the ideal mark for this sort of racket!

Generations tries to bring the disparate worlds of 2D and 3D platforming together, but it doesn’t really succeed in this mission at any point. The game is at its best for the first three levels or so whilst they’re still quick and simple. However, once that first major boss battle begins, it all takes a predictably sour turn with dodgy physics, bottomless pits, and generally low quality gameplay taking over from then on.

And this is to say nothing about how lacking in originality the game is. Every enemy is one you’ve seen before, every level is one you’ve already played before, and don’t expect anything revolutionary from the plot either.

The game’s subsequent marketing blitz certainly succeeded in turning a few heads as Sonic Generations would go on to become the most pre-ordered title in Sega’s long history. But trust me when I say that nostalgia and fan service – which is the only thing that makes Generations noteworthy – is not a permanent solution to the deep-rooted problems in Sonic’s modern software library.

It may have been popular, but as far as I’m concerned Sonic Generations squanders the hedgehog’s “nostalgia card”. Not that it’s stopped Sega from trying it on again…

Yep, Sonic Mania is one of two new projects that the firm unveiled this year and one look tells you all you really need to know. Sonic the Hedgehog is going back to his 2D-platforming roots yet again! Only this time you have retro specialist Christian Whitehead at the helm, so there is considerable potential there this time. Sonic Mania is tricky to gauge though. It’s a game that’s clearly wallowing in Sega-flavoured nostalgia, but that irresistible art style does look very cool and it evokes feelings of the 32-bit Sonic title we never got to play. It’s almost as if Whitehead is looking to fill a gap in video game history itself and it’s a nice example of how nostalgia can be used well.

Streets of Rage Remake already beat him to it like, but it’s OK. I’m not bitter. Much.

Video Game Nostalgia Sonic Mania

Sonic Mania’s nostalgia angle runs deep. This demo level alone features references to Streets of Rage and Daytona USA among others.

It’s hard to imagine Sonic Mania being a failure when it’s released next year, but regardless of quality, does this franchise really have room for another nostalgia trip? Sonic Generations is one of the most indulgent video games I’ve ever played in this regard and one of its biggest problems is that it didn’t really leave Sonic Team with anything to build upon.

That’s the biggest challenge Project Sonic faces when it releases in 2017. It’s a new 3D title looking very much like the successor to Generations, but what interesting new mechanics or story threads are there to develop here?

Sonic Generations spent far more time glorifying the past than it did innovating so I find it very hard to see how this new venture – which if I’m not mistaken is the first officially announced Nintendo NX release – is going to deviate from the disappointing Sonic games of the past decade.

Whether it’s Sonic or any other franchise though, we can only hope that nostalgia isn’t the only thing driving our entertainment forward. Reflecting on the past can be enlightening and cathartic, but trying to relive it entirely is a fool’s (video)game.

We’re certainly not going to change the human condition overnight or anything like that, but it would be nice if we could at least encourage ourselves to create more new memories instead of just rehashing old ones.