Old Games and New Questions

There I was the other night, playing Eco Fighters on the new Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium collection. Eco Fighters is a creative and unfairly overlooked 2-D shooter, and the Capcom Arcade Stadium presents it well. Yet as I wove through flurries of enemy fire and blasted construction vehicles into scrap in some dubious effort to save the environment, one thought consumed me: how will future generations appreciate these old games?

It's perhaps not a pressing matter or even a serious one. There’s no lack of repackaged older games these days, whether they’re cheap digital reissues or lavish physical copies meant to sit on the shelf beside those decades-old original games without complicating the effect. Yet there’s a haunting reminder that a lot of these re-releases trade heavily on nostalgia—and that when this nostalgia runs dry there’ll be no appetite among the new generations for Gaiares or Dragon View or the original NES Duck Tales

Nostalgia is an unreliable thing, after all. It can be the catalyst for personal reflection and historical analysis, and it can be an unchallenging refuge that lets us wallow in the past. Whatever the incarnation, nostalgia is an undeniable part of anything “retro,” to the point where the actual quality of the work might not matter so much as the memories it evokes. 

How, then, does one make these games relevant and palatable for modern audiences with no compelling recollections of, say, unwrapping Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game on some distant birthday?

One possible solution is to grant the player unprecedented freedom in playing the game. The SNK 40th Anniversary Collection introduced a feature that let players skip to any point in a pre-established playthrough, just as easily as they might advance to a certain scene in a film. Most of the games in the collection weren’t all that interesting regardless of where one might skip to, yet it was an inventive new way to experience them—particularly in the collection’s standout, the phenomenal action/RPG Crystalis

Other re-issues dig into the games themselves, altering a few things to make them smoother or more interesting. Developer 2 seems to delight in rooting through the nuts and bolts of older games, especially those in the cruelly short-lived Sega Ages series, and adding a new feature or two that opens things up in new ways. Phantasy Star gets adjusted battle rates and experience levels that greatly improve its pacing. Lightening Force and Gunstar Heroes offer easier access to their arrays of weapons. It’s a great way to bring out a game’s best features and give those older fans a reason to pick up something they might've thoroughly explored already.

And what of the historical context of these games? Some retro-game reissues pattern themselves after the Criterion editions of movies, offering art galleries, interviews, and other extras that simultaneously entice hardcore fans and frame things for newcomers. 

Even so, such enhancements are preaching to a very devout High Seas Havoc choir. If nostalgia-free players, spoiled for choice with modern games that often imitate and even exceed the older ones, don’t care about Gunstar Heroes in the first place, they're not likely to care about new options or an interview with its designers.

It’s best to accept that these games will be forgotten by most. That’s the way of all entertainment or art: movies, television, books, theater, radio, postcards, billboards, backs of cereal boxes. The majority of it won’t be remembered at all by the majority of its audience. Why should video games dodge the inevitable?

Westone’s Clockwork Aquario arrived on modern consoles last year, nearly three decades after the game’s original arcade release was canceled. Some people ignored it. Some played through it once and forgot about it. Some enjoyed it thoroughly. And a few adored it enough that they’re still playing it regularly even though it’s only 28 minutes long and I have dozens of other games howling for my attention. 

Things would have been much the same had Clockwork Aquario actually come out in 1993: it would have been dismissed by some, briefly enjoyed by others, and dissected and venerated by an exacting few. Such is the life cycle of most video games. 

And there’s the best answer we have: let these old games decide. Enhance them and remaster them and surround them with extras, but don’t be afraid to throw them on the mercy of new eyes without a hint of nostalgia. Let them be judged on their own merits. If they were ever good games in the first place, there’ll be some kind of audience for them. 

I have no doubt that modern reappearances of the Battle Mania/Trouble Shooter games, as much as I adore them, would meet with little success beyond the Sega Genesis faithful and fans of hyperdestructive ‘80s anime heroines, but I’d also hope that at least one person with no great overriding affection for the 16-bit era still would find them charming and memorable. 

That’s why it’s sometimes enough just to see an older game bundled in a collection, translated for new audience, emulated perfectly, or even rescued from the lost dimension of cancelled things. It has a chance, just as it would have had ten or twenty or thirty years ago, and even if great hordes of modern audiences fail to mass around it, don’t worry. Someone will care.