Game Rant: Banking on Nostalgia

Those of you who follow our Twitch or YouTube channel will know that we recently did a full play-through of the Secret of Mana re-release. Leah was the most excited about this, with Josh following second. Brad and I were willing to give it a go. As an added bonus, the game allowed for three player co-op, so most of us could play instead of just the usual song and dance of one person playing while everyone else makes snarky comments. All right, Brad and I make snarky comments. Leah usually tries to find the good in everything. We’re getting off subject.

Anyway! As we discussed both during the stream and via blog, the game was disappointing (and you can read Leah’s in depth review here). Well, to the fans it was disappointing. To someone like me, who had never played the original and was not looking at it through the eyes of childhood love, it was downright boring. Sure, game play was improved, but considering that they had to completely remake the game as the original was so old it couldn’t just be reskinned, game play should have been seamless and beautiful. Spoiler: it wasn’t. They kept all the finicky mechanics from the original, I suppose for a more authentic feel. Leah insists it wasn’t as grindy as the original game, so that’s an improvement, but it was still pretty grindy, and in true classic JRPG tradition, the grind was boring and repetitive and consisted of running in circles in the same areas or casting a heal spell over and over and over again, then refilling mana, then doing it again. The tether on the characters was so tight that it often made navigation difficult, and then on top of all that the game kept crashing. We made a crash counter for it in the stream because it happened so often.

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It’s pretty clear that Secret of Mana was not everything it could have been and Squenix (Square Enix for those playing the home game) was banking on nostalgia to carry an otherwise subpar game. As the game industry has grown, it’s begun taking a page from Hollywood and we’re seeing a number of HD remakes of old games crop up. In the same way that Hollywood dusts off old scripts and slaps in new actors for a new generation, developers are pulling old beloved games out of the vault and shining them up. Just as people flock to these new Hollywood spins on old stories, people are lining up to try out the new versions of games that came out on antique consoles which half the current audience of gamers can’t even remember.

Much like their silver screen counterparts, not all of these remakes are bad. Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir was not only visually appealing, but they dramatically improved gameplay mechanics that made the original Odin Sphere almost unplayable. Resident Evil 2 looks incredibly promising, and all early reports indicate that it should be a great game. However, the majority of the recycled games coming out are blatant money grabs. I love Skyrim, would recommend it to anyone, but I can’t defend how many times it’s been re-released. Dungeon Keeper and Command & Conquer have been turned into crappy, pay-to-win mobile apps. They even remade that ridiculous Conker game, but with more censorship to shine it up for a younger, more family-friendly audience. Then we have the whole mess with Chrono Trigger – Leah may never recover.

As far as I can surmise, there are two reasons to rework an older, beloved game or franchise. The first is because your company is lazy/cheap and doesn’t want to pay its writers to come up with something new and interesting. Because why be new and innovative when it’s cheaper to recycle? Yay, capitalism. The second is because you know a lot of the people who loved this game are still alive, and they have money, so let’s pull those nostalgia heartstrings. Regardless of the reason for dusting off an old title, if you’re going to do it, heaven help me you’d better at least try to do it right. Make sure your release is more than just a reskin – improve game play, add features that newer games are capable of but that just weren’t possible with earlier games, and get some story scenes in there if it’s one of those games where most of the plot was in the manual. You’re never going to make all of the old fans 100% happy with your remake, so at least focus on making sure it’s a good game so that the new gamers coming along will pick it up, think it’s awesome, and let it win the hearts of a new generation. In the digital age, game reviews fly across the internet at warp speed, so maybe (just maybe) you should consider making a game that offers something other than memories and feels to a quarter of your audience.

So let’s walk through an example of how to do something like this properly. Pick a title with a solid fanbase that could stand to be expanded on. You want something old enough to benefit from the remake, but with a certain amount of complexity. No one’s going to line up and shell out $60 for a remake of Burger Time, for example. You also, ideally, want a title that they aren’t still churning out sequels for. I mean, it’s fine if they are, but the goal is to rekindle interest (and revenue) is a property that isn’t still wildly popular. Let’s use Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium for our example. Often finding its way into “Top 100 Games” lists, Phantasy Star wasn’t a huge hit in its time, but still has a lot of loyal fans, and as an RPG with a similar flavor to Final Fantasy, it will almost definitely have an audience. Also, much like the Final Fantasy games, it really doesn’t matter if you played Phantasy Star I – III, as the plots really aren’t related.

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Now that we have a title, let’s take a look at what we need to preserve. Obviously the characters and the story are sticking around – it’s a classic tale with a young hero, their older (way more competent) mentor, and a galaxy threatening menace that will destroy all life. Phantasy Star IV is often described as having a story that is “delightfully earnest” and “ahead of the curve” for a game from its era. This will be where most of the work needs to go – people are coming to you and giving you money because you promised them a beautiful, sparkling version of their much beloved game. Do the characters and the story justice.

After that, examine what people really liked about the game. THIS IS IMPORTANT – there’s no merit in preserving what didn’t work. Also, the game is old enough that it will have to be completely remade to be compatible with modern systems, so there is nothing stopping you from making a better game. Phantasy Star IV’s highlights were things like combo spells, cutscenes, multiple vehicles to play with, and a classic RPG format with everyone having a unique weapon with unique abilities. These are the things to take with you into the remake.

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Finally, what do you add or change? Well, do some digging – 1993 wasn’t that long ago, we have records of what people thought of video games, and Phantasy Star has a big enough fan base that they still have current message boards. One of the most consistent complaints about Phantasy Star IV is that if you haven’t played the other games, you don’t know what the techniques and skills do. Since modern games are often downloaded and rarely come with a manual, you’ll have to work some sort of tutorial into the game, and since we have more processing power than they did in the early 90’s, maybe include descriptions of the techniques/skills/spells. Also, one of the things that Secret of Mana did right was lessen the grind. This remake isn’t going to have the power or content of a modern RPG, and grinding is going to be a little boring and repetitive as opposed to taking off on numerous, different side quests. So keep it short – just enough to feel like you’re playing the old title, but not so much that newer gamers are going to get bored and leave. As an added bonus, consider how to add replay value to the game. What’s the benefit of a new game +? Why would someone bother? At the same time, it is important not to put in too much that requires a replay. This is not that kind of game, and is not why people will come play it.

So there you go, how to recycle a game without being insulting to the people who are going to pay you money for it. Seriously, though, while I personally would like to see more game companies releasing new content and creating new worlds, I understand the benefits of dusting off an old property, but only if it’s done right. I know EA, Squenix, Capcom, etc are just companies after more money, but I also feel like they should be able to look at their own failures and successes and understand that they’ll get more money and fewer complaints if the executives back off and let the studios that actually care about their projects turn out something good.

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