Videogames and Nostalgia

Jagged Alliance 2, X-COM, and Fallout 2 are some of the best games I have ever played and are part of my most beloved franchises, and I am far from alone in that. These games have some of the most hardcore fans ever seen in computer gaming. The Jagged Alliance and Fallout series have fan sites that have remained active and relevant for over 15 years. I love and have invested myself heavily in all of these franchises but I have passed on most remakes and re-imaginings of them. I learned to let go.

When Jagged Alliance: Flashback launched out of Early Access this week, I hoped the response would have been positive, but I expected a backlash. A quick look at the Steam review section for the game confirmed my expectations. A lot of them say, it is not good, it is unfinished, it is a bad game. Unfortunately, most of these remakes have been done by small studios with very limited budgets, but that is not the only thing that usually goes wrong. Making games is hard, and pleasing hardcore fans is harder. They continually push back and criticize any remake while always hoping the next one will be better. I know these types of fans because I used to be one myself.

I saw that a common critique for JA:F was that it was a good, or at least a decent, game, but that it did not feel like a Jagged Alliance game. This is how I used to describe the X-Com remake, that it is a good game, but it is not X-Com. I later came around and stopped saying that because I realized that despite comparing it to the original and feeling that it came up short, I couldn’t stop playing. However, I know that there are a lot of hardcore fans who would never touch the new X-Com game. The same thing happened when Fallout 3 was released. The feelings that the fans seek from these remakes is the same feeling they had when they first encountered the series. These feelings, born of nostalgia, will never be replicated by any remake because they lack the context of the release. Like Final Fantasy 7.

People new to videogaming have no doubt heard of FF7, and that it is the most amazing game ever. Then they go play FF7 and they don’t get it and they think the game sucks. And compared to modern games, it does in almost every aspect. The fact is, if you did not play FF7 on a Playstation in 1997, you just won’t get it and you never will. At the time of its release, it was a bold and engaging title that did many new things at the time that set trends in JRPGs that are still followed today. However, those trends have been built upon and thus evolved far from what they started out as. To play FF7 now, for the first time, is like using a car phone and expecting to be amazed. All we can do now is to look back at FF7 and remember how it affected us and how it made us feel. I still think back on it fondly from time to time, but I also know the foundation it has set has evolved.

But some people crave more from the classics. They want to feel the same as they did way back when they first played it. What they are seeking in these remakes is not an update or a re-interpretation, but the feeling of wonder and awe from being confronted with the material for the first time. That feeling is gone. The best thing we can do now is to reinstall those old games, boot up that old Playstation, and reminisce. It is nostalgic.

By modern standards, old games are terrible. Jagged Alliance 1 had turn based movement on at all times. It was not fun moving a squad of six mercenaries across an empty sector by taking turns. In X-Com, you needed to live capture a certain alien enemy for a vital armor upgrade, but this alien rarely spawned after the first few missions. Old games had mechanics that by today’s standards would be considered not fun. They are archaic and come from a time when a game did not have to have mass appeal. The remake of X-Com streamlined a lot of this and removed many of the poor design decisions of the original. I liked some of those decisions but I also know that they would not have made the game accessible.

Nostalgia makes it almost impossible for developers to recreate old franchises that please the hardcore audience. Between updating archaic design and seeking a feeling that cannot be recreated, there is little for them in a remake.

I might play JA:Flashback, and I might even give Wasteland 2 and Xenonauts a try while I am at it. I might enjoy them or I might not. One thing I am sure of is that I will reminisce, with a smile on my face, what it was like for me the first time I played the games these are based on. And I will be curious to see how they changed the game design, much in the same way I like listening to cover versions of songs I like. And if I don’t like the new games, I still have CDs of these classics somewhere in my closet, so I will be OK.

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