Sunday Thoughts: Critical Nostalgia

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?

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21 Comments

  1. Exactly that, Peter, having such a choice of games is a great thing and I’m not going to mark a person down if they enjoyed a game and I didn’t. Everyone has the freedom of choice and should be allowed to enjoy a game without being picked on for it.

  2. Interesting article Peter, and a topic that has certainly been playing on my mind as something just dosnt seem right about it with me which I will try to explain.

    Firstly I haven’t played the original Duke Nukem 3D or the original Zelda: Ocarina of Time so I have no experience of how good or bad these games are.

    In the article you point out that DNF didnt do what DN3D did by not innovating and just relying on pretty much what DN3D did. Yet, this new Zelda game is the same as the old one right? It dosnt innovate and relies on the original from 1998. So from my point of view Zelda is doing nothing different than Duke Nukem is doing and although Zelda obviously comes out better for it than DNF does, is it really so much difference that they are on opposite ends of the scoreboard? Are things forgiven in Zelda (the ageing camera/controls from what ive heard) that arent forgiven in DNF.

    And is it possible that because DNF tries to be a new game yet Zelda seems quite happy to refer to itself with the same title as the original that the nostalgia cloud can work it’s way in more than it would with DNF. It sounds to me like Zelda has made a very clever move here by hiding behind itss untouchable original and not changing anything from the original and this is where reviewers may have inadvertently become slightly clouded by nostalgia while managing to see past it with DNF.

    • From where im sitting and viewing this situation, its seems that a HD remake is far more worthy an adventure than attempting to continue an age old story.

      Nostalgia is better served warm and crispy, not cold and damp.

      • But my point is that it is easy to say DNF is a, say, 1-5 out of 10 (which would seem entirely fair of the game) but it is harder for people to say The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time deserves anything lower than a 9 or 10 because the game was so brilliant at the time and it would feel wrong to score it lower, even if in modern times it isnt worth such a very high score (which of course is debatable).

      • I understood what you meant. What im saying is a message for developers.

        People prefer nostalgia served with upgrades (HD) not a sloppy serving of an out of date character.

    • That was what I was trying to illustrate, I think.

      I’ve never played Ocarina of Time before and yet it is a very good game (so far), even though it is essentially the same game as it was in 1998. I have no historical reference for it because I didn’t experience it back then but as a brand new, fresh experience in 2011, it still feels like a very good game.

      If DNF was released two years after DN3D (obviously with visuals of the time) then it would still be a mess of a game that I, as a massive DN3D fan, would have been extremely disappointed with.

      The only thing I can hope for with DNF is that it’s just been booted out the door to get it done with so they can focus on making a proper Duke Nukem game from the ground up for release in 18 months or two years.

    • Excellent post, AG. One of your finest as it strikes a chord with me. To see the Zelda review get a 10 out of 10 nearly knocked me off my chair but I realised that I need to stick this in the “remake” category when reading the review. If I were to be cynical I could class Ico HD, SOTC HD, Zelda (the new one) God of War (HD remakes) as “the same old shit but in a new wrapper” which is why I balked at accepting the Zelda score. However, it’s good for us to remember that we need to realise that the remakes simply aren’t new games and must be treated as such. It’s almost unfair to compare as it really is apples and oranges. Just oranges with a new lick of paint.

  3. I never got on with Zelda myself – in fact i’ve played and enjoyed more of DNF than i ever did with Zelda OoT . I guess that shows how opinions can vary from person to person. We all have our own metre-stick and tolerance for different gaming faux-pas and thus different combinations can be more or less appealing depending on what tickles you or get’s your goat up. For instance i would score Fallout Las Vegas very low because from what i played of it, it’s just Fallout 3 with a different story and unforgivably buggy, but i know many people have a better tolerance for the bugs and have had many hours of enjoyable gameplay out of it.
    Almost everywhere you go online atm there is a debate about DNF’s overall rating and that’s not something you see with every game’s reception.

  4. Great read, thanks Peter.

    It’s interesting how games can be perceived so differently, the old spice of life I guess. Nostalgia really does sell though, and I really can’t make up my mind as to whether I see it as: A cheap way for the big dawgs to make easy money or; A reward to us gamers who really enjoyed all the old classics. It’s a tough call.

    Either way I would love to play Baldurs Gate: Dark Alliance on PS3!

    • Awesome call on Baldur’s Gate. Loved that game. The finest co-op game ever (for me) until the Left 4 Dead franchise started.

      • Agreed, the Baldur’s Gate games were awesome. You should check out the Dungeon Seige 3 demo (from the US PSN store), very similar … i think, so much so that I ordered it straight after completing the demo (which is fairly lengthy).

      • Have thought about DS3, but too many games to play at the minute so will check back at a later date. Also, I’m EU Store so don’t think I can get it, or can I…??

      • I’m EU too (well, UK). Unfortunately, the demo is only available on the US store … why, i don’t know. However, it’s easy enough to set up a US account.

  5. Excellent article Peter.I have never played a Zelda game. Please put down the pitchforks,folks. And because the remake of the what is said to be the best of the series. I may consider getting a 3DS just for that game. Anyway,Nostalgia can be very strong when marketing a game. Everyone has heard of Zelda and i think wanted a one of the games to be remade. So Ninty listened and remade it. Also it’s a Win-Win situation for them. Fans of the Zelda series get to play Oricane of Time again and Ninty gain some profits als Zelda may have gained some fans as gaming wasn’t as big as it is today when the original was released. DNF was in development hell for years and kept moving from developer to developer and unfortunaly the game suffered for it.
    I have missed a load of classics and would love another chance to play them, if there was a HD remake of them, i would buy them and for the fans, they would be happy. I would love it if some classics were ported to the current consoles or rereleased. For example, Fallout 1,2 and Tatics could be ported to the Vita and the 3DS as the style of game play would suit them. But nostalgia can also be a bad thing, it can blind people to the flaws that the game had. For example, FF7 is an excellent game and one of my all time favorites but it did have a few flaws.
    I could write an essay on this as my opinion on this topic is huge. But i think i had better stop or my comment could end up being longer then the article.

  6. Good article and some good responses. For me, gaming nostalgia is a funny one. I’ve had some very fond memories of many games, but when I do get around to replaying them, I realise they’re just not actually any good any more. The industry has moved on so much and standards have gone up so high that its all hardly recognizable from what it was 15-20 years ago. Good old games are best left in the past imo. The whole sega mega drive collection was awful, I used to love eswat as a kid, but when I played it on that I realised how genuinely turd it is now.

    • I agree some old games are left in the past.. but it still doesn’t stop me hankering for Boulderdash, Turrican, The Chaos Engine, Swiv, and er.. Flimbo’s Quest… i’d better stop there, nostalgia overload :D

  7. Well I’ve been playing Mobile Suit Gundam: Earth vs Zeon so to this day I just find it so hard to believe how this was playing on my PlayStation 2. Today I would think that I was blinded by watching Gundam Wing as a kid. The gameplay is brilliant if I was able to get a copy than emulate then gladly I’d pay anything for the disc.

    I have no idea it makes me believe that the seventh gen as been weak. “Dragonball Z B: Tenkaichi 3” was awesome but Raging Blast failed to deliver. “Tekken 6’s” loading made me play it less.. and GTA IV was a massive disappointment all there is now is the constant mediocrity of shooters.

    Nostalgia…. it can really be a pain.

    One important question? what the hell happened to Gundam Senki? Crossfire was rushed now we’re stuck with the Hack & slash.. DW: Gundam.. thats not fair.

  8. Not directly related to the article, but quite a few people commenting they’ve never played a Zelda game.

    Whilst probably not as classic, the PS3 exclusive 3D Dot Game Heroes is well worth checking it, to say the game is inspired by Zelda is an understatement (but of course that’s exactly how it sells itself as an up to date slice of gaming nostalgia.

    Actually, yes it could be related to the article, 3DDGH shows another way to re-imagine a classic that isn’t a sequal or a simple remake. Go check it out.
    http://www.thesixthaxis.com/2010/04/19/review-3d-dot-game-heroes/

    • Would like to but moneys always in the way. :(

  9. Personally I’ve found remakes a little hit and miss. On the one hand you have the God of War Collection and Zelda OoT, which are just as good now (if not better) than their original counterparts, while the likes of Perfect Dark, Crazy Taxi and Sonic Adventure just show how much gaming has moved on.
    As a rule, I usually avoid Nostalgia titles these days and stick with new titles. That said, Halo Aniversary looks absolutely fantastic!

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