You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Circuitous, Disingenuous Nature of Nostalgia in Video Games

“They want to turn your past into your future,” writes Jill Lepore in a recent issue of the New Yorker. Lepore was writing about Amazon, Google, and Facebook and their algorithm-driven data machines, but she just as easily could have been writing about video game developers big and small. Three notable releases use our past as grist for the nostalgia mill, churning up memories the way penguin parents pre-digest their young’s food. We players happily consume the reconstituted leftovers, all too happy to remember what once was. But as a new year turns over and we collectively look ahead, I’m stuck here wondering if games look backward too often.

Last month, Atari–that grandfather of game companies, whose youthful vigor once won championships but now is relegated to looking fondly at a filled but dusty trophy case of past triumphs–put out their latest collection of titles from their golden era of arcade and 2600 hits. Last week, Nintendo–expert purveyor of nostalgia the way a vintner captures and distills a soil’s essence in a bottle, knowing their audience of oenophiles lustily awaits the next drop–released “New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe,” the latest Wii U game offered new life as a Switch title. And this Thursday, Ackk Studios–who are not old enough to have earned a hyphenated parenthetical but are well on their way–put out “YIIK,” the one altogether new game in this list but one heavily inspired by both an old genre (Japanese role-playing game) and a past era (late 1990’s suburbia).

Apologies for the long and winding paragraph. But this is what happens when we continually reference the past. What should be linear becomes circuitous. Momentum stalls. Comprehension relies on pre-existing knowledge. Our connection to the new is unfairly forged by an understanding of the old.

I felt this disconnection while playing “YIIK.” And while I appreciate the chutzpah of its creators Brian Allanson and Ian Bailey who subtitled it “A Postmodern RPG,” I can’t help but think this attempt, to build a world from a pastiche of referents and symbols, damns the game to a hell of its own devising. At least it was hell for this player: I wanted to love the surreal environments and its quirky storytelling but could not. Why? Because I have no love for their chosen homage. I did not play these games they reference, nor did I see myself in this fantastical version of a young man growing up in the 90s.

Art can transport us and help us experience lives far from our own. But it can also be distancing and opaque, letting in only those who share the creators’ lexicon and carefully chosen cues. Video games rely on the player being in control; those that are built on a foundation of other, older video games risk taking that control out of the players’ hands before they even begin.  

Nintendo is the undisputed master of creating new works from old pieces. Their latest attempt, however, veers perilously close to self-parody. “New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe” is a port of a sequel to a reimagining of a game from 1985. Luckily, that original game is the ur-text from which nearly all modern games are derived: If you’re going to steal, steal from the best (and all the better if the best belongs to you in the first place).

The Wii U game steals well enough, providing a solid template for a new Switch game that is, in fact, six years old. Not much is changed; sometimes the smartest move is to stay put. But even the additions feel gratuitously self-referential: Toadette, a female version of the Toad character whose species was defiled and enslaved in the lore of the original SMB (literally the building blocks of the Mushroom Kingdom) can change into a character called Peachette, a diminutive version of Princess Peach, whose original servant was none other than … Toad.

This is the curse of success: How do you maintain a formula that was created thirty years ago? In 2012, then-President of Nintendo, the late Satoru Iwata, voiced this concern to the development team. “There are so many things that must be carried on in the classic 2D Super Mario action games that need to be taught,” Iwata said. “On the other hand, if there isn’t any freshness to it, they’ll get humdrum.” Somehow, through expertise, wizardry, and luck, Nintendo’s designers have toed that line between the fresh and the classic for nearly four decades. Their history is their greatest asset, and the main thing holding them back.

There was a time when Atari’s history was the entirety of the game industry. Now that history serves as a fond time capsule and warning: This is where we came from, and this is what might happen again. Playing “Asteroids” and “Tempest” on a television, miles away from their unadulterated arcade forms, still feels slightly crude, like pretending to fondle a picture of your crush from the old high school yearbook. “Atari Flashback Classic” is a compilation of playable memories. And maybe that’s enough. But if every game tries to reflect the past, there’s less effort paid in imagining the future.

Games aren’t the only industry fed by nostalgia. Hollywood is no stranger to remakes; last year’s “A Star is Born” was the fifth version of that story. But the original was produced in 1937. It took over eighty years to count a hand’s worth of rehashes. It only took Nintendo thirty-three years to produce seven iterations on “Super Mario Bros.” and that’s if we’re counting modestly. Can the nostalgia well run dry? Does placing players in control of a character make them more eager to run through the same halls than if they were passively watching the same film story or reading the same book plot? Such questions are above my paygrade. What’s certain is that where we come from will continually feed where we’re going; what’s not is how creators choose to acknowledge that history.

Nostalgia bends our attention backward in a way that refracts the past to make it knowable. But in the moment, we couldn’t know what was about to happen. Imagining a future can be just as troublesome, just as unfairly, impossibly inaccurate.

When Ackk Studios’ Allanson and Bailey were growing up, their favorite games revolved around some unknown dread that, if left unpurged, would annihilate the world. While fantastical cataclysms played out on their cathode-ray screens, a real unknown dread bubbled under the surface. This was the so-called Y2K bug, a would-be plague borne out of a fear that, at the strike of midnight on January 1, 2000, all computer programs would read [00] as 1900 instead of 2000. The alleged result would be endless and indeterminate mayhem: Banks would explode, Hospitals would erase patient charts, Dogs and Cats wouldn’t just live together but procreate and start unsustainable non-profit organizations…. The list of fears was vague and unceasing.

And then, of course, none of it happened.

There will always be different ways of repackaging yesterday. We won’t stop imagining what might happen tomorrow. Both are fraught with peril and loss. Maybe the better choice, then, as creators and players, is to seek out the surprise of an unknowable present.

More Gaming

  • Arc System Works and WayForward Revive

    Arc System Works and WayForward Revive Classic 'River City' IP

    Notable fighting game developer Arc System Works is teaming up with “Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse” developer WayForward to create a brand-new game based on the classic “River City” intellectual property, they announced on Friday. The new project is called “River City Girls.” While the two studios won’t release full details about the project until [...]

  • Panthers Schedule Promo References a Slew

    Panthers Schedule Promo References a Slew of Video Games

    The Carolina Panthers’ released its 2019 schedule promotion video on Wednesday, which makes callbacks to classic games, like “Pitfall” and “Oregon Trail” among other games, shared via YouTube. The Carolina Panthers are a professional football team in the National Football League (NFL). The team is based in Charlotte, North Carolina. The promo video shows various [...]

  • Gearbox CEO Defends Epic Games Store

    Gearbox CEO Defends Epic Games Store and 'Borderlands 3' Exclusivity

    Earlier this month, developer Gearbox Software revealed the PC version of its anticipated co-op shooter “Borderlands 3” is coming exclusively to the Epic Games Store. This created some blowback from fans who prefer Valve’s digital storefront Steam. Gearbox founder and CEO Randy Pitchford defending the decision in a lengthy Twitter thread on Saturday (helpfully recreated [...]

  • Inside the Music of Netflix's 'Ingress:

    Inside the Music of Netflix's 'Ingress: The Animation' (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Ingress: The Animation” hit last fall in Japan, but the global release doesn’t hit Netflix until April 30, fortunately, it’s bringing a little something new to the show based on Niantic’s other popular video game. The global version of the show will feature a new musical score created by Jacob Yoffee (“Free Meek,” “Andi Mack”). [...]

  • Vic Mignogna

    Accused of Sexual Harassment, Vic Mignogna Sues Funimation

    Vic Mignogna, known for voicing Broly in the “Dragon Ball” series of games, films, and tv shows, filed a lawsuit claiming defamation and other charges against Funimation and other voice actors on Thursday, according to public court documents. Fellow Funimation voice actors Monica Rial and Jamie Marchi, along with Rial’s fiance Ronald Toye, are also [...]

  • South Korea's FTC Reviewing In-Game Purchase

    South Korea's FTC Reviewing In-Game Purchase Clauses

    The Fair Trade Commission in South Korea will conduct a review of game companies’ consumer practices and thus contacted 10 companies, including Nexon, Blizzard, and Riot Games, on Friday, according to The Korea Herald. The Fair Trade Commission (FTC) is concerned with in-game purchases in PC and mobile games. In particular, one concern is the [...]

  • 'Pokémon Go' Dev Niantic Accepting City

    'Pokémon Go' Dev Niantic Accepting City Submissions for Live Events

    Fans of games like “Pokémon Go” and “Ingress Prime” can now nominate their favorite cities to potentially host a live event in 2020, developer Niantic announced on Thursday. Submissions are now open on Niantic’s website. Anyone can submit an official city nomination between now and Oct. 1, including players, parks departments, tourism boards, and local [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content