Like the Space Invaders-shaped ice cubes at the bottom of my glass of scotch, this collective good will toward nostalgia in game design is bound to dissolve in time. Mario and 8-bit friends will forever be timeless, but our infatuation for retro pixel art and re-masked genre exercises can’t last forever–revivals are trends too. Just as music critics asked a decade ago, “How long can this garage rock revival last?”, I’ve wondered the same about indie developers that continually dig through our 8/16/32-bit catalog for old games to pair with new ideas. The problem is that these ‘new ideas’ are running out, and, more and more, we are seeing indie games that harbor a familiar face without the daring sense of imagination that drove us to them in the first place. When does video game nostalgia become a crutch for developers if not now?
Mario Forever 4, one of the year’s most downloaded indie games, is a shameless, unlicensed Mario clone. There is no end to people’s love of familiar games, but is this something we should really be celebrating?
I’m not suggesting that indie developers sell their first born and mortgage their house to fund their Call of Duty/World of Warcraft-hybrid that runs on the Unreal 3 engine. Indie developers gravitate toward simpler game design and visuals for good reason, less can go wrong. Even ID Software’s John Carmack started with a shameless Super Mario Bros. clone for PC in his Softdisk days. Indie games have grown in their popularity this generation due to the freedom they hold when it comes to things like pricing, controversial content, and unorthodox design. Between console services (Wiiware and such) and web sites that surround flash games with features we expected exclusively from major console releases earlier this generation, like achievements and leaderboards , indie games have been given an opportunity to turn their studio-backed overlords into mere competitors–how many more people are familiar with Braid than Mercenaries 2 since their release in August ’08? The important thing to remember is that Braid survived due to it’s novel use of time manipulation, encompassing story, and tricky puzzles, being 2D and sprite-based isn’t enough.
It’s 2010: girls are as likely to wear a retro-gaming shirt as guys, and video game designers have become the new pizza boy in porn (or so I read…) Retro games have become cool and don’t indie developers know it! Whether it’s a modern game being reinterpreted through older hardware (ASCII Portal) or making a game that slavishly follows a once celebrated classic–Super Vampire Ninja Zero does for beat em’ ups what beat em’ ups did for themselves 15 years ago–too many indie games have nestled inward rather than kicking outward. This isn’t to discredit games that base themselves on familiar art styles or mechanics, since a twist on a familiar concept can make for the greatest surprise. Terry Cavanagh & Stephen Lavelle’s Judith has the presentation and controls of Wolenstein 3D, but it plays within these confines to explore the limitations of perspective and interactivity in that retro classic, that it looks like Wolf3D is inconsequential to the end experience. But, for the most part, indie games that explore abstract concepts and unconventional art design, like The Devil’s Tuning Fork and Machinarium, are the ones that make the truly memorable experience within the realm of indie games.
The Devil’s Tuning Fork uses its graphical limitations as a core gameplay mechanic. The player is blinded by darkness and must use echoes of his own footsteps to navigate the game’s world.
The ugly truth is that retro remakes and tributes are a safer bet to develop and a comfort for both new and old gamers. As long as there is one extra frame of animation, one extra weapon, or one more in-joke, bloggers and gamers will continue to show these calculated projects indie mercy. While we shouldn’t completely discourage young developers building on common ground, it’s time we put the past behind us and celebrate the games that make us uncomfortable in their uncompromising vision of gaming’s future. Who knows all of what that future holds, but one can already see gaming Tarantino’s who pay tribute to the medium within their own world (Bayonetta’s loving ode to Space Harrier and Outrun, No More Heroes 2’s 16-bit minigames ) and indie games that invoke retro favorites only to forsake their idols. Video games are too young of a medium to endlessly consume and celebrate the familiar. Punk is dead and this retro-revival is dying, so I’m going to play through Judith again but not before I pour myself one more glass. This time, less ice.