You know what I love? Nostalgia. I love it when a new game makes explicit or implicit nods to a previous generation of gaming, be it through subtle references or blatant, pixel-art aesthetics. I get an immense satisfaction from playing these games and suddenly being reminded of not just what those games were like, but what it felt like to play those games ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. Not because games were any better or worse back then, but just because it was different, and I was different.
I’ve spent the last week playing Retro City Rampage. As the very first word in the title suggests, Retro City Rampage is about old games. It’s an ode to gaming past, with every single pixel of the screen filled with another subtle (or blunt) nod to a different time and place of gaming. There are Atari jokes, NES references, 80s sci-fi film references, everything. The entire game is in an 8-bit aesthetic and plays likes an old-fashioned Grand Theft Auto.
There is nothing ‘new’ about Retro City Rampage other than the way it mashes together old references. While plenty of indie games get a lot of slack for relying too much on NES references and aesthetics (like Fez did with its various Zelda references), Retro City Rampage revels in it. It exists purely so people who played the games it is making nods to can get those nods and feel… something.
For me, playing Retro City Rampage using the overlay that makes the game look like it is running on an old CRT TV, what I felt was an intoxicating blend of memories. I could remember what the lounge room of my family’s house was like when I was growing up. The old brown lounges and Dad’s rocking chair—both of which I couldn’t sit on because the cord for my SNES controller was too short. The particular way the Central Queensland sun felt on a Saturday afternoon through the windows (one of the only times of the week I could get uninterrupted time in front of the TV, as long as there was no car races on). These are all the things that Retro City Rampage and many other nostalgia-dependent indie games evoke for me when I play them. They don’t just remind me what old games were like. They remind me what my life was like when I played them.
But it’s not just pixel-art indie games that can trigger such a sense of nostalgia for players. This past week also saw the release of X-COM and Dishonored, two games that also evoke a sense of nostalgia for some players, albeit far less bluntly than Retro City Rampage, perhaps.
X-COM, a relaunch of a series that thrived predominately in the 90s, has been thoroughly enjoyed by those on my Twitter feed who grew up as PC gamers, as much for its quality as a new game as for how it reminds them of what it was like to play the original series. Dishonored, meanwhile, has captured the excitement of those I know who loved immersive sims like Deus Ex and Thief, be it in the general way the game players or with explicit easter eggs and mechanics.
Both of these games are doing new things, of course, and from all I’ve read (I’m yet to play either of them myself, sadly) are phenomenal games in their own right. But both, too, tap into this sense of nostalgia. Not just of what games used to be, but who we used to be when we used to play those games.
‘Retro’ games often cop a lot of slack for not being innovative, for relying on tried and tested methods and milking nostalgia instead of doing anything new. Certainly, some games do this, and it certainly works. It’s why we have HD rereleases, and it’s why there are Megadrive collections on Steam that we’ll buy but, really, we probably won’t ever actually play. It’s why every other Kickstarter promising to make an old-school RPG/shooter/adventure game is so popular. Not because games used to be better than they are, but because they used to be different, and we used to be different.
But the very fact our nostalgia is something that can be milked for money suggests there is something powerful and meaningful there. Nostalgia might depend on the past, but it is something we feel in the present, and what a glorious feeling it can be.
I twiddled with Retro City Rampage’s overlay and filters until it looked like I was playing a Gameboy: the screen was just a few shades of dark green, and was framed by a device that looked just like the old brick I used to own. I played like this for a while, and I thought: “Man, imagine if I had played this game on an actual Gameboy back in the day?” It probably isn’t even possible for this game to work on a Gameboy, of course, but seeing it simulated, I can’t help but think back to what I was like back then, and how much I would have FLIPPED OUT if I had seen this game working. It makes me smile just thinking about it.
And that’s why I love nostalgia. Alone, it isn’t enough to carry a whole game, and more often than not it is exploited by lazy or greedy publishers to make a quick dollar. But nostalgia is still such a powerful and meaningful feeling that a game can evoke, as much for how it makes you remember the past as for how it makes you feel in the present.