Nostalgia has a peculiar effect on many of us. It often clouds our judgement and tints our spectacles with a rose-coloured hue. But in recent years it has become an oft used tactic to part us gamers with our cash. From the repeated re-release of Sega’s classics – in various ways and on various formats – to the complete rebuilding of Halo: Combat Evolved for the Anniversary edition due later this year. Nostalgia is perhaps as much a trend for this generation as regenerating health, motion controls and lens flare.
This past week, I’ve played a couple of games that lean heavily on nostalgia to bolster their appeal. Duke Nukem Forever is the well overdue sequel to a game that was much loved by FPS fans fifteen years ago while The Legend Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a remake of the hugely beloved N64 game of 1998. Both games have received wildly differing reviews with Duke Nukem’s being generally quite poor and Ocarina’s being almost unanimously great. I’ve seen some criticism of each of the general review results by people who hold contrasting opinions to the critical norm.
I went into Duke Nukem Forever with my expectations well lowered. A game that has been in (and out of) development for 14 years, being finished by a different team to the one who started (and restarted) it was always likely to have some pretty big hurdles to climb. Especially with the nostalgic weight of expectation rested on its shoulders. I was a huge fan of 1996’s Duke Nukem 3D, as were a great many others.[drop]Duke Nukem 3D was not a great game because of the amusing one liners and the casual misogyny. Duke Nukem 3D was a great game because it took what was the pinnacle of the genre at the time (Doom II) and improved on it with different weapons, new mechanics and, most importantly, great game design which encouraged you to explore and discover. The liberal sprinkling of amusing one-liners and the protagonist’s attitude towards women weren’t crutches for the game at all, they were completely incidental to the gameplay. I believe that the ensuing seepage of those famous phrases into gaming culture has irrevocably damaged the development of Duke Nukem Forever.
Unfortunately, in the years since the success of DN3D and the extensive development of DNF, they forgot what made the earlier game great and decided to balance the entire sequel on the amusing flourishes which had permeated mass culture. The sequel focusses on the garnish and ignores the meat of DN3D. Playing Duke Nukem Forever was, for me, like returning to a restaurant where I had a fantastic meal fifteen years ago, ordering the same thing and only being served gravy.
Perhaps a more relevant analogy is one tied to gaming, so try this: Duke Nukem Forever is like if the entirety of Portal 2 had been about throwing cake at GLaDOS while she sings “Still Alive” to a weighted companion cube.
Duke Nukem Forever was a major let down for me because it failed the memory of Duke Nukem 3D. DNF doesn’t innovate in the same way its predecessor did. It adds nothing that’s new to the genre like DN3D did. There isn’t even anything that properly capitalises on the thin veneer of humour and atmosphere that is so well remembered from DN3D, in spite of that being seemingly the sequel’s strongest ambition.
The humour fails at almost every attempt simply because it’s not worked at. Most of the pop culture references are just references, with no humour or sense of irony at all. It’s just a stolen line from an outdated internet meme that even the most accumulating net-reveller has begun to forget. Just saying the things we’ve seen people say on message boards and forums for years and expecting them to magically become amusing again (if they ever were) is a risky business and, for my money, a risk which hasn’t paid off at all.
Of course, there are going to be people that love the sequel. There are people who would have enjoyed anything with Duke in it simply for the fact that they’ve had fifteen years without him and were fervently awaiting his return. There are people who find that sort of lower-than-base “humour” amusing, regardless of how lazy it might be. Some people will laugh at the use of a curse word simply because it has been used. Perhaps there are even people who revel in the acknowledgement (perhaps even validation?) of those internet memes they can vaguely remember. Good luck to those people, I do not wish to disparage your enjoyment at all. I sincerely wish I could have enjoyed it as you did.
Unfortunately, for me, Duke Nukem 3D’s memory was insulted in the sequel. I wonder how much of that is to do with nostalgia. I wonder, if I had never experienced the intelligent level design and innovative new mechanics of DN3D, would I have liked DNF all the more? I doubt it, abysmal level design and tedious gameplay are always going to put me off any game. But it’s a question without definitive answer because I did play and enjoy DN3D.[drop2]Conversely, I’ve been playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D after never having experienced it before. This is almost a direct remastering of the original game, perfectly similar in every meaningful way. The backlash, this time against high-scoring critics, has been more subtle than the backlash against Duke’s poor critical reception but it has been widely evident.
The main criticism of reviewers seems to be that their nostalgia for what is widely regarded as one of the best examples of its genre clouds their judgement of the game with regards to how it can be received by a modern audience experiencing it for the first time. I can see the value in that postulation, although I would hope that any professional critic would do their best to acknowledge and work around that issue. It’s never going to be totally possible to put the memory of the original to rest as you essentially play through it again on a new machine with spruced up visuals and mechanics.
It’s an interesting notion that, in one instance, nostalgia can be blamed for weighting critical response against a game and in the same week it’s blamed for weighting critical response in favour of another game. That seems to be the predicament we’re in and although I am personally in a better position to comment on the comparisons between Duke Nukem’s outings, I am able to report that Ocarina of Time, at least this latest version, is still a wonderful game.
As with any game, it will have its detractors and its champions but the criteria that we, as critics, use to judge the general appeal are all there in spades. It has engaging gameplay mechanics, fantastic level design and compelling narrative. I can’t make a grand judgement myself because I’m yet to get particularly far into the game but a key indicator, as with any game I approach critically, is that I am looking forward to returning. Would I still be as keen if I knew what the next area was? Obviously, I can’t answer that but it strikes me that the nostalgia factor could just as easily have tipped critical reception of Ocarina of Time 3D in the other direction. After all, if you know what’s happening you lose the impact of the narrative and at least some of the joy in the experience.
So, nostalgia can work in a title’s favour but it might also mean that we’re not as forgiving when something doesn’t live up to our own extrapolated views of what a sequel should be. I believe, from my still limited experience with both games, that the general critical response has been correct in both instances here. But I know that there will be people who don’t enjoy Ocarina of Time 3D and I know people who did enjoy Duke Nukem Forever. All things considered, isn’t it nice to have such a wide variation of games to choose from?