Retro Resuscitation – Why Are We Going Where We’ve Been?

by Tim Turi on Sep 26, 2009 at 01:12 PM

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It allows us to look back on moments in our life, whether good or bad, and see the benefit in the experience. As time goes by, however, the wistful haze can become thicker and obscure the way that things really were. Magically, you can laugh about being pantsed by the school bully or belching during your first kiss. But not everything fades to memory, and sometimes remnants of the past refuse to perish even after faltering from relevancy. Imagine if the augmenting effects of nostalgia could be loaded into a hypodermic needle and injected into any fond memory that hasn't aged well. What facet of your childhood might be worth reverting back to the way you remember it? Your favorite game franchise, perhaps?

Game developers everywhere have apparently found the magic tonic, and it’s being splashed around like champagne in a rap video. From the Blue Bomber to the Ninja Turtles, no childhood idol is being left behind in the ravenous rampage to revamp retro classics. The digital and retail marketplaces are being proliferated with stellar throw backs to yesteryear. Whatever a given publisher’s reason for updating an old series may be, an obvious pattern has emerged; when a classic franchise begins to struggle, hop in the time machine to remind people why they fell in love with the series in the first place. Using Metacritic’s aggregate scores as a rough guideline, we argue that two distinct types of retro-revivals have emerged, and that each has marked success compared to recent, non-retro efforts.

Retro Sequels

Ah yes, retro sequels. These games aim to pick up where a classic series’ left off.  Ignoring current sequels like the future never happened, retro sequels offer old fans of a series familiarity, and give newcomers a chance to engage in a classic series while it’s relevant.

The Mega Man series has seen more spin-offs than a VH1 reality TV show, and the twisted road leads all the way to 2008’s Mega Man Star Force 2. The card-based strategy game for the DS is the most recent original game in Mega Man’s lineage, but it would be nearly unrecognizable as a Mega Man game if not for the title. It holds a harsh Metacritic rating of 55. About a month later Mega Man 9 hit the downloadable scene. The formula was simple; make another 8-bit Mega Man with graphical glitches, challenge, and nostalgic charm all intact. The game was a hit and landed an aggregate score of 81. The huge 26 point disparity between the recent entry and the retro sequel marks one of the most notable gains seen by going back in time with a sequel.

Konami’s most recent effort in the Contra series before going retro is the 2004 PlayStation 2 title Neo Contra. The game took advantage of 3D gaming engines, and with the change dropped the trademark challenge the series was known for. The game holds a lowly rating of 65 on Metacritic. Jump to 2007. Konami releases Contra 4, a retro sequel for the DS which eschews all the advancements of graphics processors and 3D engines. The game looks remarkably similar to Super Nintendo’s Contra 3, but with graphical polishes in all the right places. As is the case with many early 2D Contra games, Contra 4 is incredibly challenging. It received a Metacritic score of 83. Again, we see a substantial difference between the series’ natural evolution and its retro sequel.

If there is one series that other developers should have been taking notes from for a long time, it’s Sonic the Hedgehog’s portable games. The Sonic Advance series has stuck to the hedgehog’s platforming roots, quietly spin dashing in two dimensions while the main console titles cantankerously crashed and burned. The most recent game in Sonic’s line of portable games is the 2007 title Sonic Rush Adventure for the Nintendo DS. The game may have only garnered a combined score of 72, but when you compare that to Sonic and the Black Knight’s paltry 54, it doesn’t look so bad. The less said about Sonic’s Wii titles the better. Many classic gaming franchises could have benefited from realizing that it pays to stick to what you’re good at, and Sonic’s retro-esque handheld sequels are evidence.

Another legendary series that has been excellent about emphasizing its strengths is Castlevania. The critically praised PlayStation game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was released in 1997, laying the ground work for half a dozen excellent handheld games to come. Though the portable games have consistently delivered enjoyable romps through Dracula’s castle, the console games have struggled by comparison. Castlevania 64 released in 1999, managing a respectable 78, but following 3D installments failed to improve their critical reception. Why are we being so hard on a C+ average, you ask? Because the series is capable of so much more, with Game Boy Advance and DS titles like 2001’s Circle of the Moon and 2008’s Order of Ecclesia scoring a combined average of 88. Hopefully, the upcoming 3D entry Lords of Shadow will break the curse of lackluster console chapters.
Retro Remakes

The other type of retro-revival game is the remake. The majority of titles seen in the retro renaissance have been remakes. This includes everything from simple graphical updates to working from the ground up to produce a complete re-imagining of a classic game. These games are aimed to make nostalgiaholics convulse in glee, and also allow would-be fans of an ancient series to enjoy a particular game without having to concede to below par graphics or gameplay.

Perhaps the most relevant example of the retro remake is Bionic Commando. Yet another classic Capcom game that was reborn among the boom of remakes, 2008’s downloadable Bionic Commando: Rearmed allows anyone to experience the classic in a fresh way without choking on dust after blowing into a cartridge. Revamped controls, online multiplayer, gorgeous graphics, and a dance-worthy soundtrack helped earn Rearmed a rad 86 on Metacritic. You’d think that such a great remake would have buttered up everyone’s fond memories in preparation for 2009’s next-generation installment of Bionic Commando, but you’d be wrong. Though the solid arm-swinging gameplay latched firmly onto gamers’ hearts, the restrictive, radioactive boundaries mutated the love that could have been. The next gen sequel’s 72 will forever live in the shadow of its own remake’s success. Spencer should have never lost the sunglasses.

Pac-Man has kept on doing his thing over the years, but after Pac-Man Jr. things started to get a little weird. Somehow down the road the mutant yellow dot broke into the racing circuit and thus 2006’s Pac-Man World Rally was released for multiple platforms. Ultimately dubbed as a lackluster Mario Kart clone, the Pac-Man racer clings to a dubious Metacritic rating of 44, the lowest yet in this article. The very next year saw the release of the downloadable title Pac-Man Championship edition for the 360. The Championship Edition returned to the series roots, while at the same time flipped Pac-Man’s world on its side (to accommodate widescreen TVs). The fresh presentation and addictive gameplay was a hit with long time ghost-gobblers and newcomers alike, boasting a meaty 83 rating average. Sometimes little tweaks to the original formula are all it takes, not necessarily Formula 1 racecars.

A series doesn’t necessarily always have to be halfway down the toilet before a publisher greenlights a remake, however. Street Fighter 2 has seen such a massive flux of rehashed, revamped, ultra, super, turbo, hyper, championship editions over the years that it seemed inevitable that we would see one for this generation. Enter 2008’s Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, with high definition being the operative component here. Completely redrawn sprites, character rebalancing by tournament masters, and fully functioning online earned this overhauled fighter an aggregate score of 88. With a downloadable Marvel vs. Capcom 2 coming up soon with online play, we’ll see whether simply tacking online play onto a port is enough to garner success.

Looking forward, there are a number of terrific looking remakes that will likely renovate several series that have all but bought the farm. The classic arcade beat ‘em up Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time is getting the HD treatment, which will likely shatter 2007 TMNT game’s laughable score of 44. Also, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a unique remake of the original that focuses on flight over fight, which has a shot at improving on 2008’s Silent Hill: Origins which scored 70 on Metacritic.

A Retro Future
The downloadable market is especially pregnant with remakes. The relatively new advancement of digital distribution has allowed retro remakes like Secret of Monkey Island and Ikaruga to be released at prices which would never merit a full retail release. While the Wii may not be receiving the majority of these great retro remakes, its Virtual Console service allows gamers to browse digital shelves and play the original versions of many classics.

As with any classic series there are going to be dedicated fans who love even the poorest entries mentioned in this comparison (the writer of this very article has played and beaten Castlevania 64 a perplexing half a dozen times, and completed every other 3D Castlevania for that matter). This article is not meant as a slight against the evolution of a particular franchise, but rather to highlight an interesting trend that points to nostalgia and reinvention of established properties as driving factors for the market presently.

In recent years, retro gaming has transcended being attached to particular series like Pac-Man or Mega Man, and become a flavor that can stand on its own. Games like XSEED’s Retro Game Challenge manage to draw inspiration from classic games and produce an experience that makes your DS ooze nostalgia. Popular downloadable titles like Geometry Wars and Castle Crashers hark back to classic arcade games while remaining entirely new and original properties. Epic Games’ upcoming Shadow Complex is said to borrow heavily from so-called MetroidVania old school sensibilities, while delivering an entirely unique gameplay experience which involves playing in 2D and 3D. As the retro renaissance matures, the line between retro games and some new games is beginning to blur.

Some may argue that all these retro remakes and rereleases will over-saturate the market, and cause the market’s creativity to be held in stasis. But as long as developers put time and passion into their remakes and produce games that are well received, everyone will be pleased. Also, who can argue with the logic that when money is tight, go with what you know is good? This applies logic to both the consumer and publisher.

Whether you love or loath the glut of retro remakes hitting the market, one fact cannot be ignored. Nostalgia sells, and we’re buying.