The art of the retro revival

June 25, 2010

Standing in line for Donkey Kong Country Returns at Nintendo’s E3 booth, I heard the strangest thing. The guy in front of me was trying out a level, and the Nintendo rep was explaining the game’s new co-op mode.

“Wait, the original game didn’t have co-op?”

The guy was a fellow journalist, and explained that he played the previous games — all three of them. He said he remembered the game playing just as this demo did. The rep said that the original, while supporting two players, was alternating. It didn’t allow for simultaneous play.

Then he paused for a second.

“I guess you’re right,” he said. “It didn’t, did it?”

And that was it. For this man, Donkey Kong Country Returns hit the exact spot a retro revival needs to. It felt more like the original did than the original does now.

This year’s E3 was full of attempts at retro revivals. In addition to DKC Returns, there was a new Goldeneye, a new NBA Jam, a new Sonic and even a new Twisted Metal. And they’re just the latest batch of games trying to rekindle the excitement of days past. It’s important, because the excitement’s not there anymore.

“I’m not so sure about GoldenEye, man. That game isn’t as fun as people remember.”

I was standing in a local game store, as I do from time to time, talking about E3 with the store’s manager. He was excited about many things, but skeptical about the 007 revival, and he had a point. Just try going back to the N64 game now…it’s practically unplayable. The controls are clunky, the levels are uninspired and the multiplayer just doesn’t hold up by today’s standards. Everyone still has a warm, fuzzy feeling about it though.

Yet there I was, explaining how it was much better than this manager was expecting. “Oddjob, man. Oddjob.” The notoriously short character was the bane of my existence in multiplayer matches — unless, of course, I was playing him. The later Bond games, even those with Oddjob as a character, never really captured that feeling you got when taking on the little guy and the satisfaction that came when you took him down. “Remember how that felt? It’s back,” I said.

It’s all about the imperfection of memory. The challenge is not, as people think, recreating the original game as accurately as possible. It’s about recreating the experience while improving things as much as you can to meet the standards that, over time, grow even loftier.

NBA Jam is a game that holds a special place for me. I can never explain it; I can clearly tell that it’s not the best game ever, but for some reason if someone asks me what my favorite game of all time is, that’s the one. (The SNES Tournament Edition, specifically.) The series suffered over the years until its demise, and the announcement of a revival warmed my heart. I had my Super Nintendo with multitap at the ready, and I pulled it out for a few sessions before the expo. I knew it could be my last chance to enjoy the game as I once did, before the new title skewed my expectations. So it was fresh in my mind when I went hands-on at EA’s booth.

“It’s great that they brought the 2D heads back. They have so much personality! I missed that.”

I was going to correct my opponent on this. The original didn’t have these crazy faces, I thought. In fact, you could rarely, if ever, distinguish any faces at all. It didn’t seem the appropriate thing to do at the time, though, as his Clippers were crushing my Bobcats by a good fifteen points in the second quarter. (I get the feeling the home team won’t be my mainstay like it was with Mourning, Johnson and the ’94 Hornets.) But he was right in one way. The crazy heads, an addition that seemed strange in initial screenshots, just felt right in motion. So did the new dribble move, which certainly wasn’t there in the original.  

Contrast this to NBA Unrivaled, Tecmo’s 2009 attempt to bring back its basketball heritage. Or the new Tecmo Bowl. They don’t play like you remember. Which is admittedly strange, since they do play like the old ones. Exactly like the old ones. Even Sonic 4, the Mega Man 9-like revival of the beloved Genesis franchise, is experiencing a fairly lukewarm reception given the years of anticipation. It’s the same game. We want games that are just as good, and like it or not, standards change.

We have a deluge of games ahead of us that will try to scratch that nostalgic itch. Some, like the new Kid Icarus, aren’t at all like the originals, but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Others, like Twisted Metal, are maybe a bit too much like the old games — or at least, that’s what it seems. The art of the retro revival is upgrading a game without anyone noticing. It’s a tough one to master.