Previously, I discussed the draw of nostalgia as a marketing and creative force in gaming. As that post suggested, nostalgia is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon, and so it makes sense to examine the modes under which nostalgia can be said to operate. For my purposes, I have broken nostalgia into three essential and successive operative iterations. Nostalgia can be used to simply imitate old experiences in an empty pastiche, to recreate those experiences in a novel and enjoyable way, or to create an entirely new experience with hints of the familiar.
To begin, imitation tends toward a kind of empty repetition, but in the best circumstances can be seen as a kind of homage. It's not necessarily a bad experience, but it often is, because a lot of times there's a lack of understanding about what really made the original experience great in the first place - it's pure, unadulterated nostalgia that fails to provide any kind of new experience. An example can be seen in games such as Saturday Morning RPG, which is ultimately little more than a barrage of images from the ‘80s, such as Transformers, GI Joe, He-Man, Star Wars, and Back to the Future. It seeks to make you remember rather than experience.
For an example outside of games, these are a lot of the same problems for which Ready Player One was criticised. The basis of the novel and film was that players were able to shape the virtual environment around them in whatever ways they could think of, but inevitably just duplicated concepts and objects that originated elsewhere in more novel experiences. There was no path towards creating something new. We’ve already seen characters drive DeLoreans and undergo Voight-Kampff tests; if that familiar and comfortable set-dressing is removed, what is left for the audience to experience? What story or character moment transcends its inspiration? Many critics and audiences felt that the answer was “nothing.” Ultimately, in games and other media that rely on imitation, the audience winds up with a thin premise based on better stuff that they already have access to, created in the hope that their fondness for those will magically translate to this.
Recreation is delivering a quality experience in the style of a nostalgic product. It's not a "new" experience, but there is an underlying attempt to recapture not just the feeling of the property, but the actual qualities that make it good the first time around. Sonic Mania is an excellent example of this concept being successfully applied. For years, Sega had actually lost sight of what people enjoyed about Sonic games. The gameplay failed to translate into 3D the way Mario did, and fans’ love for the character and world of Sonic was eventually eclipsed by lackluster gameplay experiences. But Mania mixed together level designs, enemies and traps from previous Sonic games, constructing novel experiences out of familiar elements. From moments as dramatic as including the final boss of Sonic 2 at the end of its first level to those as mundane as the inclusion of new shortcuts in places players may have thought they knew by heart, Sonic Mania was able to go back and recapture what was good about the original games, thereby delivering a play experience that was fun and challenging in familiar ways. It seems simple, but that's a critical element where a lot of low-quality nostalgia fails - these products need to be fun in the same fashion as their originals.
For examples outside of gaming, we can look at Star Wars and Indiana Jones, which were modeled off of Flash Gordon and adventure movie serials, respectively. But rather than retreading them beat for beat, they instead recaptured the original qualities of those properties. Star Wars captured the planet-shattering stakes of Flash Gordon, along with the colorful characters and mysterious, alien villains, but the plots of the two franchises have only superficial similarities between them. Likewise, Indiana Jones Recreated the world-spanning adventure tropes of the serials' quests for treasure in exotic foreign locales, but updated the setting to WWII and increased the stakes in order modernize the storytelling for a more modern audience. These films recaptured the spirit of the originals without outright duplicating them beat-for-beat, and that was one of the keys to their success.
Finally, creation is taking those old ideas - that retro aesthetic or a familiar play element - and tweaking it into something brand new. After all, we all must look forward at some point. The past needs to bend toward the future. For this mode, I will forego a film example and concentrate on what I believe to be the single best example in any medium of how to take nostalgia and turn it into something entirely fresh and new: Undertale.
Undertale's approach is to take familiar design elements and contrast them in some very subversive ways - from the mechanics to how the player relates to the characters, Undertale's design constantly makes the player re-evaluate how they are approaching the game. On top of that, the game is extremely clever about switching stuff up. This is true not only in the mash-up of RPG and shooter genres, but also in the way certain attacks require specific movement patterns to avoid, or the entirety of the Mettaton battle, which suddenly exposes players to a variety of new mechanics. And I won't get into the final boss fight for fear of spoilers, but it once again raises the bar for creative reinterpretation.
So, while the game may remind you of classic bullet-hell shooters like Galaga and Space Invaders, it never tries to become them. And even though Undertale began its development as a mod for Earthbound, it ultimately never winds up trying to become that, either. It may have began as Imitation, but there was a component of innovation that transformed it, and continued to transform it until it became something entirely new. This is what good nostalgic content should do. The act of nostalgic Creation is rooted in a specific history, just as both Imitation and Recreation are, but unlike those, eventually that innovation results in a product that is its own unique experience.
Ultimately, nostalgia need not be mere reiteration or repetition. While I think we all long for some comfort from the past, in the end, it's really the future that we're trying to get to. Nostalgia, oddly enough, can be a bridge between the past and the future; resulting in games that make what's familiar seem fresh and exciting. That's nostalgia at its very best.
Dr. Daniel Gronsky is a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Science, focusing on media studies in film and video games.