Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. It is something that connects our childhood to our adulthood, for those creative types like game developers, it is a source of inspiration in how to bring joy to other people. But something that nostalgia can do to people is paint a better picture of the world that what it really was. This usually leads people to place the cherished memories of their past on a pedestal, as a source of aspiration rather than a source of influence, and for games, this leads to a lot of criticism that a modern game is simply not a older title.
I was reading a game essay called Saving Zelda the other day, which was basically a long rant about why modern Zelda games suck when compared to the original The Legend of Zelda. What struck me as the most odd though is that that author Tevis Thompson, spends so little time actually explaining why the original was so great, of which I can think of a few reasons but rather just stated its perfect as a matter-of-fact and that modern Zelda games need to return to mimicking that 1986 classic rather than learning from it, like it has.
One particular section of the Saving Zelda essay that sums up my fears is the example of how new Zelda games should be more like the first.
“If Zelda is to reclaim any of the spirit that Miyamoto first invested in its world, it needs to do a few things. It needs to make most of the map accessible from the beginning. No artificial barriers to clumsily guide Link along a set course. Players know that game; they know when they’re being played. Link must be allowed to enter areas he’s not ready for. He must be allowed to be defeated, not blocked, by the world and its inhabitants.”
The language of this section hides the meaning and when simplified, would make any game design shudder. Thompson is basically suggesting that the Zelda games should have the same kind freedom to let players explore and get into trouble when they go out of bounds. What this is saying, is to essentially punish the player for doing what they are suppose to do, which any game designer will tell you is a terrible thing to do. In some regards, the original Zelda game isn’t even that much about exploration, and these “shackles” that Thompson discusses, these artificial barriers, are just as present and just as artificial in the original but instead of simply acting as a marker of progression, they use the threat of the game over screen, which to many, signifies the end of the play session. Not exactly ideal, because it leaves players guessing at where they need to go, to tread cautiously everywhere they go in fear that the game will yell at them that they walked off the right path and kill them.
Another example of this include criticism of Diablo III‘s art design, thought of by long time fans as too colorful to be be as “serious” as the old games were. This is despite the fact that Blizzard gave several reasonable explanations of how the new art style benefited the game:
“Now in terms of the actual texturing, this texturing, where they grayed out everything and it’s very flat and the monsters are all kind of a similar tone — that does not play well. It’s very boring to run through more than a couple of times, and it’s very difficult to tell creatures apart and pop them out of the environment. So those things don’t really work for us. A lot of the lighting stuff I think is very cool, but it’s also not very doable for us.“
The Blizzard team even mentioned how even though they remembered Diablo II has dark and gritty, there were a lot more colors than they remembered. Nostalgia is also pretty unreliable, only remembering the good and usually forgetting the bad and these are not isolated incidents. Fans have complained about the usually most hated features of point and click adventure games being removed, Even games like Resident Evil have received flak for removing some of the most obnoxious design choices (mainly the awkward camera) though I’ll stop there because I don’t have much experience with that particular series.
It is this idolization of bad game design that I think also puts a greater rift between players and developers. I have read a couple of articles already warning developers about taking player feedback seriously, for example this interview with game designer Simon Strange:
“When someone says ‘I don’t like this,’ that’s really important and you have to believe them. But when someone says ‘I don’t like this because-,’ you can often kind of ignore their ‘because,’ because they often don’t have the data to understand what’s going on,”
In this case, Thompson is missing the data on why Zelda games have become more guided over the years because his nostalgia glasses prevent him from seeing that the original Zelda game made a mistake and nearly all future titles have streamlined something that just as counter-intuitive as it was unnecessary.
Other instances are the criticism of the motion controlled combat, Thompson saying:
“It creates a moment-to-moment pacing problem, inserting pauses, start-stop-repeat, and thus you rarely chain moves together with any sort of fluidity. Enemies are patient, almost polite, and usually allow for individual encounters, yet in a game about mastering a sword, you never even duel. “
Aside from the fact that I’m pretty sure you duel at least 3 bosses and some mini-bosses, to me this is a tell-tale sign that Thompson is unaware of the finer points of designing mechanics around motion control, in this case, not exhausting the player with flailing endlessly. The pacing “problem” is actually a pacing solution to keep the game engaging, the pauses are necessary for the game to flow at a pace that won’t turn people away from the game, and I do believe it is because Thompson has the original Zelda game in such high regard that he can’t see this, but rather can only what makes it different, which in his mind, means its wrong and like he prefaced, the games feel like work because they’re different.
What Thompson has ended up doing is basically declare that the faults of the newer Zelda titles are that they are not the original Zelda, or they are not Demon’s Souls (which seems like was the inspiration for the entire article because what he ended up describing was Demon’s Souls but that is an entirely different beast all together), which to me seems a bit unfair. His nostalgic view of the original The Legend of Zelda has him advocating bad design choices and his entire thought process seems entirely self-centered on creating a game that caters to him and him alone. This is ultimately what nostalgia does for people who cannot accept it as a perspective but instead as a fact. To strip down improvements made to long running game titles, or anything really, because the past was better and it doesn’t need an explanation. I’m scared of this because if the nostalgic were to get their way, we would never experience new ideas in a franchise, it would be the same show over and over again, and while people like Thompson claim it can be different, that a franchise like Zelda or Star Fox, or Metroid can be different and still the same, they offer no solutions. Even Mario, who Thompson claims needs no saving because it has held true to its core, has actually changed so much since the original game, with new ways to play, new items, and more and more features. I think nostalgia is great, but when it begins to ruin your future experiences, then I think its time to let go of the past.
If you want a brief look at other incidents of where nostalgia can poison a person’s perceptions of modern games, check out the TVtropes page: They Changed It, Now It Sucks for video games.