Nostalgia’s become a bit of a contentious word in video game website comment sections. That’s kind of ironic, because the demand for it is so high it’s become a leading force behind creative development in games. Much like Hollywood studios, game makers resurrect old franchises all the time and, on the other side of things, the indie scene is swarming with new games that are so akin to the classics they’ll specifically call them out by name in their promotional materials. It’s so prevalent that it can sometimes garner backlash. The gaming landscape is vastly different than it was in the days of SNES and, to cynical gamers, it can seem like some of these titles are cheap cash grabs playing on our emotional attachment to our childhood—especially when something like Kickstarter is involved. Nintendo is often a target of this ire for a couple of reasons: for one, their successes (like the monster launch of the Switch) can seem inexplicable. Rather than make the most powerful console possible with features akin to the PS4 and Xbone, Nintendo does their own thing, which can piss some gamers off, for some reason. This ties in to the second reason cynics bag on Nintendo: the low power of their systems makes them perfectly suited for lower budget indies and AAA titles that would’ve been right at home on electronic store shelves decades ago, so they end up pushing that kind of content. Nintendo’s Switch is the rule, not the exception, and has a library chock-full of games that hope to tap into the nostalgia-loving neurons of your reptilian brain.
Excited with the new console smell of my Nintendo Switch, I’ve picked up a lot of these games, and they’ve taught me that there is a good way tap those neurons and a bad. Let’s call it “good nostalgia” and “bad nostalgia.” Good nostalgia cherry-picks essential ingredients from classic games and refines them to give you an experience that feels slick and new, but also gives you that familiar warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Bad nostalgia takes the entirety of the nuts and bolts of an old game, good and bad, and gives it new skin. These are often games that feel so bogged down with annoyingly dated mechanics, it’ll make you want to chuck your rose-colored glasses out the fucking window. Two of the Switch’s launch games highlight this duality perfectly: Shovel Knight and its expansion Specter of Torment, and I am Setsuna.
In a lot of ways Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment doesn’t feel like an old game at all. It certainly looks like an old game, it certainly sounds like an old game, it certainly plays like an old game, but somehow it feels fresh. If you disassemble it, you’ll find it has some old pieces: bits of platforming from Castlevania III and Mega Man, 16-bit sprites that wouldn’t be out of place in Super Mario World and combat inspired by Zelda II and DuckTales. But Shovel Knight it’s more than the sum of its parts.
Much of this is because it’s wrapped tightly in a compelling story and chock-full of goofy ass characters and witty dialogue that actually makes you laugh out loud. Thankfully, this humor is rarely referential, and doesn’t force you to sit through cameos by a fake looking Mario or something. (It’s funny because they look like an old video game character, right?) The characters are goofy, distinguishable and, most importantly, have purpose. The use of expansions like Specter of Torment fill out the story by shedding some light on the motivation of the antagonizing knights. Instead of a boring world filled up with referential straw-men, it’s filled with enemies you care about. Surprisingly complex for a throw-back.
Also, the gameplay is so fucking smooth. Here’s a gif of me attempting the speed course in Spectre of Torment:
The wall climbing and dive-slashing mechanics are so much fun and just feel natural. Every death I suffered, I felt like it was my own fault.
But it’s the art that really nails the feeling of upgraded nostalgia. Pixelated sprites which could look dated, don’t, as they’re elevated through the use of an extended color palette and fluid animation. And the backgrounds give us stunning sunsets and magma-filled caves—all in 16-bit! The chiptunes anthems of each knight are also fucking awesome and will make you pine for your childhood NES.
I am Setsuna’s the other side of the coin. Made by Square Enix’s Tokyo RPG Factory, it was touted as a grandchild to RPGs from the golden age like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger. Some elements are definitely present: active-time combat, special ability combos ala Chrono Trigger, and a goofy, totally unintelligible magic system much like the Materia system in FF7. The problem is that it takes those classic elements and sits with them.
The battles feel onerous, talking to npcs is boring, exploring is labor-intensive. I mean look this at this bland over-world map:
I mean I fucking hated wandering around these lame maps as a kid. You walked at a snail’s pace and had nothing to fucking look at. Out of all the things to keep from old school JRPGs—why that? And it doesn’t even look enticing.
This is indicative of a big problem: where Shovel Knight’s art set it apart, I am Setsuna’s does it zero favors. I mean it’s fine, but the decision to go with updated 3D graphics set the expectation much higher. Unfortunately, what we got just looks generic.
Oh boy, and that Materia-esque magic system?
Known as “spritnites,” these new abilities are only obtainable after procure and deliver special materials to this vendor… but there’s no way of knowing where to find these precious items. Oh wait, this guy’s got some advice for me.
These are all mechanics that made old school games frustrating, not fun. There was plenty of opportunity to spin these tropes on their heads or improve them, but sadly, Setsuna is content to leave them as is.
And it’s a shame because if you name-drop Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy, you’ve usually got my attention. As a kid, those games were the shit. I just don’t love ’em so much now.
It’s not bad when game-makers tap their nostalgic memories for inspiration. In some cases—like Shovel Knight—we get some amazing stuff out of it. It’s when that nostalgia is just that, a found memory, that these games get into trouble, falling into the same pitfalls we’ve already hurdled.