Right now, in retro-games, it’s the nineties as far as the eye can see.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my nineties favorites. On the right day, you might catch me arguing that the SNES is the best console of all time. Still, single player games have a lot more to offer than reheating side-scrolling platformers, Metroidvanias, and the early days of 3D.
Where are the new ideas?
It’s actually a trick question — there are always new games and new genres, but the current trend of nostalgia games is very focused on the nineties. It can be enough to make you sick.
Keeping in mind that game developers will always be looking to retro games for their inspiration, here are four nostalgic trends we’d like to see that aren’t from the nineties.
The Golden Age of Arcade Brawlers
Starting us off with games from a simpler time, I’ve always been puzzled by the fading away of arcade beat-em-ups or ‘brawlers.’ Plenty of genres disappeared or changed in the nineties, so when the arcade action game fell it wasn’t unusual in itself (and if we’re honest, the beat-em-up is probably as much of a nineties phenomenon as an eighties one).
No, the fact that genres fall out of favor isn’t particularly surprising. The strange part is that with six directions of movement (left-to-right, in-and-out of the screen, and jumping up-and-down), brawler games are even better suited to 3D than to 2D. Since going away, though, they’ve never really regained their prominence in the mainstream.
It could be that brawlers have been incorporated into so many other genres that their influence is too diffuse — much like point-and-click adventures evolved into modern action-adventures, hidden object games, walking simulators, and Telltale’s episodic series. Titles as diverse as Grand Theft Auto, Dynasty Warriors and Guacamelee have brawler-inspired combat, even though the traditional isometric perspective is hardly ever used.
On the other hand, the success of indie games like Castle Crashers proves that brawlers themselves aren’t the problem: the genre is simply under-represented. If a big publisher wants to shake things up, they could update the brawler for a modern audience and in the process give us something that feels different to other current action games*.
Hack-and-Slash ‘Character Action’ Games
Regarding brawlers, some will argue that their true evolution is in games like Devil May Cry, God of War or the 3D Ninja Gaiden. In both genres, you tend to have fixed camera angles, hordes of enemies and a focus on getting high scores. These games are sometimes called hack-and-slash, but to distinguish them from dungeon games like Diablo, the phrase ‘character action’ was born.
Even though character action is far more recent, these games are just as under-represented on modern consoles as their brawler ancestors. Unlike games that started in arcades, you can’t really blame their disappearance on the passage of time, or even a massive change in quality. As recently as this generation, Bayonetta 2 was one of the highest-rated games in its year of release, though it fell flat in sales due to being exclusive to the Wii U.
Right now there are no ongoing character action franchises from any of the big publishers. Even the new God of War resembles less the free-flowing combos of the original God of War trilogy and more The Last of Us or Dark Souls.
In fact, Dark Souls could give us a clue as to where the character action game has gone. Team Ninja’s upcoming Souls-like Nioh was in development hell for years, pushed back at least once because its gameplay was too similar to the developer’s Ninja Gaiden games. To be fair, the third 3D Ninja Gaiden wasn’t as well received as its predecessors, but it makes sense — with the Souls games being the Next Big Thing — that any developers working on skill-based action games might want to go closer to Dark Souls than Devil May Cry.
And yet, the popularity of Dark Souls doesn’t mean character action is any less popular. Nioh could be excellent but it’s definitely an RPG, not a gravity-defying, button-mashing, score-chasing character action game. It’s bizarre to suggest there isn’t room in the market for both: if Capcom runs out of old games to remaster, maybe they should be the first to restart the genre as a nostalgic trend.
Like hack-and-slash, the term ‘action-RPG’ is super ambiguous — so much so that they can sometimes describe the same kinds of games. But what we’re talking about here are the action-RPGs that formed the other side of the coin to the JRPGs of the PS2 generation. These included Dark Cloud or Kingdom Hearts, Odin Sphere or Fable. To an extent, the contemporary The Legend of Zelda games were also beginning to incorporate RPG elements.
Even Final Fantasy XII, after years of having a turn-based battle system, began to take the series in the action direction — specifically by having battles on the field and happening in real-time. Of the nostalgic trends we’ve mentioned so far, this could be the most popular, especially with fans of Japanese games.
Compared to the other genres, however, these action-RPGs are also some of the most expensive games to develop. After all, you’re producing at least as much content as a normal action game and a decent-size RPG, so it’s clear why in the HD era so many Japanese developers turned to the portable consoles to keep their development costs down.
What it doesn’t explain is why the big two — Sony and Microsoft, who actually have the resources and budget — haven’t continued their own popular action-RPG franchises. Between Dark Cloud and Fable, you have a lot of critical praise and audience nostalgia, but neither current-gen console has seen anything of the sort (except possibly The Witcher 3, but that is a very different sort of action). Then again, action-RPGs tend to go hand in hand with fantasy and sci-fi, which leads us to number 4 …
Where’s the fun and fantasy?
Moving away from strictly gameplay-related trends, this one isn’t just about the PS2, but something that even those who didn’t grow up in the early 2000s can probably get behind, too.
With series like Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Gears of War and Uncharted, it’s hard to complain about the quality of triple-A single player games at the moment. However, there’s a thread that links even the most ‘adventurous’ of these games and that’s, well, let’s call it a lack of fun and fantasy.
Today’s triple-A single player games are all about hard men and hard women dealing with terrorists, or mobsters, or mercenaries, or politics, or straight up war. Even Tomb Raider, once the epitome of the globe-trotting adventure, has become more grim and serious. Far Cry 4, a game that’s supposed to be about dropping the player in a massive playground and letting them do whatever they want, opens with a ruthless dictator killing a bus full of people.
It’s not that we shouldn’t have these stories, especially since video games are getting better at it all the time, but blockbusters don’t all have to be focused on darkness and the pursuit of ‘realism’.
Jak and Daxter, Maximo, Dragon Quest VIII and the aforementioned Kingdom Hearts were all very successful in their time, not to mention their countless imitators. These are stories of high adventure, funny characters and wonderful fantasy worlds. You still had your Grand Theft Auto, Max Payne and Resident Evil games, but even they were more comic-booky, out-there and colorful than their modern equivalents.
With this year’s Ratchet & Clank blowing past all sales expectations, and the upcoming remasters of the Crash Bandicoot games (though that’s a nineties series, so you didn’t hear it here), this could be the nostalgic trend that is closest to coming true. Clearly, there’s a massive audience out there that remembers the triple-A games of the PS2 era, and would be thrilled to see more games in that vein.
Phew, now that we’re done with those, we can crawl back to the warmth and safety of our nineties favorites. All hail Mega Man X and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and long live Final Fantasy Tactics.
Are there any trends you think modern games should return to? What trends in gaming do you have the most nostalgic feelings for? Thanks for reading and share in the comments if you like. Until next time, here’s to the future of the past.
*Capcom could just make another God Hand, that would get people excited.