Friday, June 18, 2010

Cutting Too Much Slack for the Good Old Games

rose_colored_glasses_beagle Nostalgia.  It’s the driving force behind most of our pop culture these days. 

Every summer there’s at least one movie based on something from twenty years ago.  Sometimes they’re good.  Most times they’re not.  VH1 started drilling a similarly timed well, only to move closer and closer to the present as it ran dry.  Hip-hop sampling’s always trafficked in a certain amount of weird nostalgia (Puffy using “Kashmir,” anyone?), and you can see it creeping into the 80s with tracks like Jay-Z’s “Young Forever.”

Why the 80s?  Well, the people who grew up in the 80s are now old enough to spend money on things (outstanding student loans notwithstanding).  So naturally, instead of creating new things for them to like, Hollywood and most every other media industry churns out thing movie after song after TV show based on a brand or character people already have affection for.  Nostalgia is a safety net, and people who finance things hate falling.

Video games are notorious for senseless iterations and reboots predicated on nostalgia.  It’s the perfect industry for it, too.  The industry began blossoming into it’s current form in the 80s, and the adult audience paying for games now loves new versions of games they remember fondly.

But what would we see if we took off our rose-colored glasses?  Can we expect anything good from games conceived in the past?

I started thinking about this when news surfaced about the upcoming Mortal Kombat game.  Could this game be pitched successfully today?  And if it made it to development, would anyone take it seriously?  A rainbow-colored army of ninjas hunts Earth’s best fighters through an alternate dimension, which is ruled by the Shredder, his shape-shifting right-hand man, and their four-armed pet.  I suppose I could make any game sound this ridiculous, but it’s a lot easier with something as crazy as Mortal Kombat.

What could a new MK game possibly offer us?  Despite the fighting genre laying low for a few years (until the recent success of Street Fighter IV), MK games kept coming out, and people kept not paying attention.  Is there still joy to be had in executing a bloody uppercut?  Was there ever much to be had outside of the blood?  I’ll always remember talks I had on the school bus with kids whose parents didn’t know how about the ridiculous gore output of the hottest new fighter.  But I couldn’t tell you much about how the game played, other than “Back, back, B – get over here!” and Sub-Zero’s freeze ability. 

If you created a list of MK’s “features,” – punching people through floors, babalities, and ninja robot assassins – took away the name of the franchise, and rattled them off for as an idea for a game, my reaction would be a hearty “Why?”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         That said, the game’s extensive E3 coverage suggests there’s an audience for this.  I imagine any fighting game die-hards would stick to Street Fighter IV, so it must be fans of Mortal Kombat’s rich fiction.  Oh wait…

I think it’s actually just manboys with fond memories of dressing up as Sub-Zero for Halloween.

This is not just about Mortal Kombat.  For an industry just now reaching it’s thirtieth birthday (I’m thinking post- post-Atari crash), it’s shockingly reliant on old properties to get the job done.  To show you another example of misguided nostalgia, I can point to one of Microsoft’s launch games for Kinect: Sonic Free Riders

The forthcoming Kinect launch is fraught with pitfalls both potential and assured.  The biggest problem of all is the software lineup.  None of the launch games look promising (unless Harmonix’s Dance Central can, in fact, do for dance games what Guitar Hero did for the plastic music genre), and the one licensed character in the lot is Sonic (no, Jill from Biggest Loser doesn’t count).  Sonic’s been irrelevant for decades.  When the most noteworthy thing your character can do is crop up in another company’s nostalgia-based fighting game, you’ve got problems.

Nintendo are geniuses about handling nostalgia.  Like graceful toreadors, they taunt and tease us with franchises we adore, only to pull the cape aside and send us crashing into a wall of nerd rage.  At this year’s E3, however, Nintendo pulled out all the stops.  We’re getting a new Zelda, a new Kirby, more Pokémon are on the way, and a new Kid Icarus game – cue record scratch.

A Kid Icarus game?  Why?  Gamers only began clamoring for it in the past few years when, while watching Nintendo release wave after wave of casual party games, people started asking for less-than-marquee franchises in the hopes that Nintendo would just put out a “real” game for once.  In 2007, GamePro donned its rose-tinted shades and praised Icarus for combining the abilities of Mario (platforming), Link (collecting items), and Samus (shooting stuff) into one cohesive game.  I guess so.  But modern games demand at least some semblance of context (unless you’re Mario, in which case decades in nonsensical contexts have made nonsense your legacy), and I’m afraid a Kid Icarus title will suffer from over-explanation. 

goldeneye Another game whose mere announcement received rousing applause at E3 was the upcoming Wii remake of GoldenEye 007.  Nintendo preceded the announcement with a montage of focus group gamers gushing about how much they loved GoldenEye back in the day.  Sure, it was a groundbreaking title.  Its popularity set the stage for later console revolutionaries like Halo.  But has anyone reading actually played GoldenEye recently?  It looks like butt and plays like mud.  Leave it in the past.  Don’t dig it up, trundle it out, prop it up on the Wii, and expect people to experience the same magic of the original.  Smash Bros. filled that role.  Halo filled that role.  Games like Left 4 Dead and Modern Warfare fill that role now online. 

GoldenEye was a special exception to the rule that all licensed games suck.  Mortal Kombat rose to prominence because of it’s animation style and blood in a time when Street Fighter ruled the arcades.  Sega fans remember Sonic fondly because the Genesis did what Nintendon’tKid Icarus was a game that some people played and is now remembered fondly because it’s the only franchise other than Ice Climbers that Nintendo hasn’t been milking for decades now. 

We don’t need to resurrect these titles.  We don’t need to repackage them or recreate them.  With games like Red Dead Redemption, BioShock, and Mass Effect hungry to change how we interact with our entertainment, I’d rather keep my eyes forward than looking back.