Thursday, April 8, 2010

When the Oldies are Not Goodies: The Questionable Legacy of Nostalgia

Game Over Photo copyright Mykl Roventine - original at

Once upon a time, people didn't buy videogames. They went to an arcade, and bought playtime in twenty-five cent increments. How much time a quarter bought was completely dependent on the skill of the player. An unskilled player would find their progress barred quickly, and need to supply more quarters. A skilled player could proceed much longer, and was thus rewarded for the time, effort, and money poured into gaining their skill. The public nature of the arcade also rewarded the skilled player with the opportunity to show off in front of others. This provided the unskilled players with something to aspire to and suggested that it would be worthwhile to keep feeding the machines with quarters, so that they too might someday bask in similar glory. So it made a great deal of financial sense for arcade games to feature limited lives with more available for purchase.

Eventually videogames moved from the arcade to the living room. Here it was much harder for a player to compare themselves to other local players, and there was no need to keep the quarters flowing since games were purchased outright. The reasons to limit lives had vanished, and barring the progress of unskilled players now served mainly to disrupt the experience and prevent those players from seeing all the content of the game for which they had already paid. This limited the games' potential audience - why buy a game you can't expect to make it through? Financially, it made no sense whatsoever for games played in the home to feature limited lives.

But that didn't stop them from doing it anyway. From the original Super Mario Brothers on the NES all the way up to New Super Mario Brothers on the Wii, mainstream games have still not completely shaken off the limited lives trend. Why?

Life counter in Mario 1Life counter in Mario Wii

No game is designed in a vacuum. Designers unavoidably carry certain assumptions and associations into their work - genre conventions and ideas reinforced by all the games the designer has ever seen. When designing a side-scrolling platformer, for example, a designer may consider how to give the player extra lives, and what to do when the player runs out of lives, without ever questioning whether there need to be limited lives in the first place. Limited lives are just what side-scrolling platformers do.

This can be a good thing. No player wants to be misled - there is value in being able to look at a box and have a pretty good idea what sort of gameplay can be found inside, especially with games as expensive as they are. But it can be a bad thing, too. When too many assumptions go unchallenged for too long, game design stagnates.

It's important to be aware of the assumptions brought to game design, and to question them. One should ask: if the game were designed in a vacuum, with no predecessors to emulate, would this feature be included? Would it even occur to the designers to include it? Most importantly, does it really improve the game?

Indie and art games are, naturally, home to much experimentation and rejection of convention. The free sidescrolling platformer Tower of Heaven (PC, download here) serves mainly to examine the assumptions implicit in its own genre:

Screenshot from Tower of Heaven
"If you're not familiar with the game, here's the central conceit: A nondescript protagonist named Eid is trying to climb the eponymous Tower of Heaven, but the deity at the top keeps throwing down increasingly restrictive laws. Your job is to platform your way to the top while obeying all of [the] laws, lest you be immediately smitten. . . .

What's interesting about Tower of Heaven, though, is that, after the initial shock of a new rule being imposed on you, it plays like a traditional platformer. . . .

The [game's] strength isn't that it adds anything new to sidescroller gameplay, but that, by giving those genre tropes and clich├ęs a source (in this case, God), it exposes them as arbitrary and artificial. In fact, the entire game is about re-evaluating what is 'sacred,' and, if need be, destroying it."
Joseph Leray, Nothing is sacred: killing God atop the Tower of Heaven

Because their development, marketing, and distribution costs are so much higher, mainstream game designers are slower to take risks. But at some point, even they started to question whether we really needed limited lives in our action games. Developers such as Naughty Dog and Insomniac said no, and gave us the well-received Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Clank franchises. They aren't the only ones, either. Limited lives are gradually disappearing from games, though it's going to be a while before they're gone completely.

At this point, however, it isn't just unconscious retention of assumptions. There are enough games around subverting the limited lives expectation that it's no longer an automatic expectation in the first place. It's been repeatedly demonstrated that a game can be tremendously successful without limited lives. Including them now is a deliberate embracing of old ideas in order to evoke that special beast called nostalgia.

Let's take a look at one of the most nostalgia-fueled releases of recent years: Mega Man 9.

"Mega Man 9 will be much closer to Mega Man 2. . . . There are many gamers who claim that Mega Man 2 is their absolute favorite."
—Designer Keiji Inafune, as quoted in Mega Man 9 - exclusive interview with the mind behind the machines

Mega Man 2, released in 1988, was incredibly well-received and is still considered by many fans and critics to be the high point of the series - a series which has since stumbled. With the recent explosion of retro gaming, Capcom recognized an opportunity to return Mega Man to its roots.

Mega Man 9 promotional package
Mega Man 9 was released in 2008 but made to resemble a game from twenty years earlier, complete with eight-bit graphics and a chiptune soundtrack. Even the cover art paid homage to the franchise's early days by being deliberately inaccurate and awesomely weird. A promotional package was put together with an old NES cartridge bearing the Mega Man 9 cover art and containing a mini CD with info and art from the game. One such package sold on eBay for $750. With Mega Man 9, Capcom clearly tapped into something people wanted. It is a game powered by nostalgia. So it's not surprising that it would deliberately embrace a wide variety of otherwise-outdated design choices.

Mega Man 2 was made for the NES, and therefore faced certain limitations. The system did not have enough memory, for example, to keep track of all the enemies Mega Man had defeated - as was common for games of the period, just about anything that left the screen was forgotten. The result is respawning of offscreen enemies: destroy an enemy, walk away and come back, and the enemy is there again, just like the first time you encountered it.

Mega Man 9 also features offscreen respawning, but clearly it is not a hardware limitation. If Mega Man 9 had been designed in a vacuum, and there had never been a Mega Man 2 to emulate, would it have even occurred to the team to include offscreen respawning? This gameplay mechanic, just like the look and sound of the game, is a deliberate design decision intended to evoke good memories.

Mega Man 9 stage select screenshot

Some changes over time - like shifts in art styles - are just changes. They aren't inherently good or bad. Making a modern game look like one from twenty years ago is an aesthetic choice. It's a bit like making a modern film in black and white to elicit a certain mood.

Other changes, however - particularly ones involving gameplay mechanics - are actual improvements. Videogame design is a rapidly-advancing art. Many old games, even ones considered classics, are virtually unplayable by modern standards. The aforementioned example of games gradually shedding limited lives? A clear-cut improvement, of the most common sort - a decrease in player punishment.

All too often, nostalgia-based games lump both kinds of changes together. The result is a game like Mega Man 9, with pleasingly retro graphics and sound, but completely outdated mechanics such as limited lives and sparse checkpoints. To some subset of people who grew up loving Mega Man 2, it's all nostalgic. But the rest of us would enjoy the benefits of twenty years of advances in game design. Leaving in outdated mechanics and hoping to compensate for them with nostalgia severely limits a game's potential market. After all, there are a lot more gamers now than there used to be - many of the people who might buy a game today weren't playing games twenty years ago. They don't have a pile of good memories for a new game to rely on.

Making games in this way is like building a house in the Victorian style, and deliberately leaving out electricity and modern plumbing. It may be more authentic, but nostalgia isn't about authenticity. It never has been. Nostalgia is about making the past better than it actually was. It's about reliving the good and omitting the bad. The perfect nostalgia-based game, therefore, should preserve what made people love its predecessors, but smooth out the rough spots from when designers didn't know any better.

Victorian house photo copyright Matthew Lee High - original at - text added by me

Fortunately, developers seem to be realizing this. The next Mega Man game, Mega Man 10, famously included an Easy Mode. Bionic Commando Rearmed - a remake of another twenty-year-old NES game - was eventually patched to remove many of the game's most punishing elements. Retro Game Challenge - a compilation of games in the style of twenty years back - includes cheat codes to mitigate any potential frustration.

Videogames are a young medium. Only now are retro gaming and nostalgia-based releases becoming commonplace. We're still figuring out how to handle them - what to update and what to leave respectfully untouched. It doesn't help that there are a vocal minority of fans who cry foul at any deviation from pre-established trends. But the greatest strength of videogames is their ability to offer different experiences to different players.

When deciding just how closely to emulate the NES's capabilities in Mega Man 9, the designers recognized that some but not all gamers would enjoy a return of the flickering sprites and graphical glitches that had been found in Mega Man 2. Consequently, they are optional. Why not let the outdated game mechanics, such as limited lives, be optional as well?

Games have come a long way since the days of the arcade. It would be a shame not to respect their history, but it would be a worse shame not to respect their progress. If we want games to live up to our rose-colored memories, it is not enough to let them be as good as they were. We must let them be as good as we remember.


  1. "The result is a game like Mega Man 9, with pleasingly retro graphics and sound, but completely outdated mechanics such as limited lives and sparse checkpoints. To some subset of people who grew up loving Mega Man 2, it's all nostalgic. But the rest of us would enjoy the benefits of twenty years of advances in game design."

    Two words: Cave Story. The Wii version is worth getting even if you beat the Pc version.

  2. @MadTinkerer:
    It's very heartening that Cave Story came to WiiWare. Daisuke Amaya poured five years of life into this work, and for quite a while there was no way to shower money upon him in response. I like being able to cast economic votes. :)

  3. First of all. Cave Story owns... and yes, giving money to both Pixel and Nicalis was a big motivating factor in my picking it up on day one.

    Second, I feel like you're selling Mega Man 9 short just a little bit, because it does retain a lot 8 bit tropes, but in respect to things like balance, pacing, and level design, things that were very hit or miss in the late 80s, it's a very smartly and carefully designed game, and very much informed by the mistakes made in past Mega Man games.

    Third: just thought you'd find this interesting, but Giant Bomb, whatever opinions one might have about their approach to reviews, have coined the term "NosCon," which is kind of like retcon, but refers specifically to attempts to appeal to nostalgia when rebooting a series, a la Contra 4, Sonic 4, Mega Man 9, the rebirth series to some extent.

    I don't know if the term will ever be accepted outside of Giant Bomb, but it's worth spreading the word, as I think it applies in some way to what you're saying here.

  4. @Jave:
    Yeah, I didn't mean to imply that Mega Man 9 hadn't incorporated any design improvements. I agree that in exactly the areas you mention, it shows a lot of progress.

    I took a look at Giant Bomb's explanation of NosCons. Potentially useful concept, though I'm not a big fan of the name. :) Thanks for informing me of it!

  5. I often ponder the significance of nostalgia based gaming as well. One of the things that I've struck on is that fans of "classic" gaming experiences want to relive the feel of the game. In new games which attempt to appear old, this doesn't necessarily mean copying all the same mistakes. I think it's very important to add though, that the huge degree of imperfection is what gave many old school games a large part of their charm.

    You used the respawn example from MM9, and noted that the game wasn't designed in a vacuum. Why wasn't it? Well, it was in part due to the fact no such cultural vacuum is available yet, but more due to the fact that gamers themselves could never be expected to live in this vacuum state. They have certain experiences and envelopes that govern what they consider to be "good gaming". To that end, I would say that one of the things that gave Mega Man 9 its sense of nostalgia was the fact that it shared not only the triumphs, but the blemishes of the earlier works in the series. Surely each one of us has fond memories of grinding millions of mets in the hope of getting even a measly power pellet! AS SURELY AS I LIVE!

    Well, I do anyway, so forgive me if I don't sign any petitions to have the respawn factor excluded from any future Mega Man (/Men) games. Those memories are places I revel in.

  6. I have some concerns about the development of games away from Player Punishment means. While certainly, lots of games have no need for lives and needlessly restricting players from seeing all the available content is very pointless -- I feel that more to do with how these features are implemented and the nature of how we commonly address game narrative.

    Nethack remains my single favorite game for dying and saving mechanics. Death is permanent, saving also quits the game, and reloading a save deletes the save file. While this is more than a little prohibitive to players outside of the fringe who enjoy rougelikes, it does eliminate the triviality of death in most other games -- it becomes a consequence of note, rather than just something to get in your way.

    A similar exploration of this basic idea is shown quite clearly in the silly little flash game, You Only Live Once. To me, the important part of death in a design is as a consequence to action, not as a punishment for lack of skill. In many modern games since the advent of quick- and auto- save, we've been trivializing the consequences of player actions in order to preserve a preconceived narrative.

    Personally, I feel that the idea of writing out a deliberate story for a game is going to become increasingly ridiculous as our ability to create convincing simulation improves. Ultimately, I want what the player does or doesn't do, succeeds or fails at, to have an impact in outcome of the game -- and if player punishment is the only choice, I will take it.

  7. The use of lives in a vs mode for Mario Bros Wii makes sense because there is some competition there, so kicking your opponents off the edge by using a weapon, or jumping on them while they try to jump over a chasm should take points (and lives) away from them.

  8. I was replaying Super Mario World for the SNES and was wondering about the point of multiple lives. In every Mario game from Mario World on, at best extra lives are a meaningless addition you never have to worry about. Every time you load your game you start over with 5 lives, and if you die too many times you simply start from your last save point, at the same basic location you were recently playing from. At worst, you find yourself replaying levels you have already beat just to save your game.

    And yet green mushrooms are still scattered throughout the game, as useless as they are, and I still spend time trying to get them.

  9. Mario games, from Mario 3 onward, have always been pretty good about mitigating player punishment, so that by 1990, the idea of limited lives and 1ups in Mario games might have been *functionally useless, but they're still fun to collect, which is probably the reason you can still collect them in the Wii game... and hitting 99 causes Mario to take his hat off.

  10. @Benjamin:
    I have mixed feelings about offscreen respawning. It doesn't strike me as a design flaw in the same way that punishing features (like limited lives) do. It's not something that gamers who weren't part of the NES generation would expect, but for old-school Mega Man fans it's a central assumption. And there certainly is value in the charms of 'imperfection,' as you mention. There is conflict between fueling the nostalgia of the old-school fans, and being welcoming to new ones. That's why options are so important - they let us do both. You should have games that evoke your happy memories. But I want those games to bring in new fans too, so Mega Man doesn't die and because more gamers is better.

  11. @Greg D Beaton:
    Death can be narratively valuable, and consequences certainly can be, but punishment feels like a cheat to me. Setbacks are consequences, but they are not interesting. Stories aren't changed, outcomes aren't changed - they are merely delayed. In these cases, I'd rather the punishment be removed, rather than standing between player and content without contributing any real value.

    Dying in NetHack is much more like losing at Tetris than it is like dying in Mega Man. Every NetHack game is different - starting over doesn't force the player to retread identical content. It's not punishment. It's just the end of that playthrough. If dying in Mega Man erased all my progress and I had to start completely over, this would not be interesting. It would be frustrating and a pointless waste of time. I would not play that game.

    Personally, I think there will always be room for both sandbox and linear games, no matter how sophisticated our ability to create responsive and adaptable simulations. As a gamer, I do sometimes want to create my own experience, but I also sometimes just want to experience a story a skilled writer has already laid out for me.

  12. @Sean:
    Yeah, in competitive games it's very different. There, lives are a way to keep score, not a way to block players from content.

  13. @Curtis Retherford:
    I think this is absolutely fascinating, and it says a lot about game design.

    It used to be that you needed to collect extra lives in order to have a reasonable chance of progressing (at least while you were still mastering the game's challenges). This was the reason to grab coins, and to grab the hundred-times-as-valuable green mushrooms. Because of their value, they were positioned as rewards.

    Their intrinsic value has diminished substantially, but we still view them as rewards because the games still position them that way. They are like gold stars on homework assignments - they don't do anything by themselves, but getting them is a sign of accomplishment. We go after them because the game implies that we should.

  14. Your whole position is flawed, since you somehow think that limited lives and game overs are 'primitive' game design decisions and that moving forward means abandoning them. On the contrary. There is nothing primitive about limiting the amount of lives a player has so as to increase the challenge. In fact, this is what video games are based on. The foundation of the video game is a skill based challenge, and a game over just tells you that you have not mastered the skill yet. Limited lives extend the value of a game greatly, since you will only finish it once you have mastered the skills, instead of after 8-12 hours.

    There is nothing inherently 'better' or 'more advanced' in having unlimited lives. You only see it that way because you prefer to have them. Modern games have shifted farther away from skill based challenges and more toward entertainment. Now, in my mind THIS is a regression and not a progression. It pains me to hear people who don't like overcoming skill based challenges (which is what games are about) complain that we need to move beyond them as if they are somehow wrong.

  15. In a discussion of subverting the 'limited lives' mechanic in sidescrollers, I'm surprised that Braid didn't garner a mention; it's a side-scroller in which the player fundamentally cannot die.

  16. I agree with you, when I play online games, especially ones with levels, if there are lives I usually quit. A good example is a plane dog fighting game. The first one ( had it so you could play each level. The sequel, ( had you unlock a checkpoint every 4 levels or so with lives in between, so if you die in the 4th level, you have to play the first 3 levels all over again!

    The question is why? Game designers still seem to think that making a game as long as possible is the way to go, but the reality is gamers want fun. Dying and replaying levels isn't fun, so why are you stopping the fun? Your probably just driving people away.

  17. Well, I'm convinced punishment is hindersome and has to be carefully engineered, but I still think it is a valuable and necessary component to success being meaningful. If failing isn't punished to some degree, is it even failing?

    The argument that you're being denied access to content when you fail sounds like being denied credit for a class because you failed it. It's a self-evident expression, and if anyone is blameworthy, it is the person who failed. But that's not a legitimate complaint to lodge against a system, as if the person is entitled to an outcome.

  18. As you say in new games which attempt to appear old, this doesn't necessarily mean copying all the same mistakes. I think it's very important to add though, that the huge degree of imperfection is what gave many old school games a large part of their charm.Thanks for sharing.