The Power of Nostalgia


By Eric Ashley (@flapjackashley)
Is there a bigger, more powerful emotion than that of nostalgia? Whether it be watching some old TV show that we used to love when we were younger (in my case, it’s “Saved by the Bell”) or hearing an old song that takes you “back to the day”, nostalgia is so powerful that it can forgive the fact that some of what we used to like then we would not be able to stand now – the show I mentioned being a good case in point.
But Nostalgia is especially powerful in the video game genre. Whenever I watch a YouTube gameplay video of some old NES game that I used to play, I can recognize it as being horrible today – but I still love it because it represents memories from a day gone by. Why else would I still find reasons to defend a few putrid games by publisher LJN (the masterminds behind “Friday the 13th”, “Jaws” and others) who seemingly turned every movie license into a crappy game experience. Just look at “Back to the Future” for a prime example of how to take a beloved movie and turn it into one of the worst NES games ever made.
Are there any downsides to nostalgia? Nintendo milks the nostalgic hearts of gamers all the way to the bank repeatedly. There were hints of this happening even back when “Super Mario All-Stars”, a 16-bit upgrade to four classic NES Mario titles debuted on the Super Nintendo within the first year of that console’s existence.
But Nintendo really tapped into something with “Animal Crossing” on the GameCube about a decade later. Within the game, there were objectives to collect multiple “NES” systems for your animal house, and each represented a working unit and would allow the gamer to play a classic NES game, full screen from the GameCube game itself. Among the most common titles were Pinball, Excitebike and Donkey Kong – and among the more rare were Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, which were never officially made available domestically and required a Game Genie to unlock and play. This feature was so popular that I personally feel it is responsible for making the Animal Crossing franchise as successful as it is today. Even those the NES games were taken out of later installments, it was those that drew many a gamer into the world of Animal Crossing and got them hooked.
Nintendo struck gold again in what I believe was a true test of what would become the Virtual Console feature on the Wii. The Game Boy Advance SP was issued in a Limited Edition NES design (which fetch quite the pretty penny on eBay these days), and along with it came ten classic games from the NES era – for $20 a pop. Millions were sold and a couple years later, the Virtual Console service for the Wii was announced at E3 to wild applause and fanfare. Releasing what were basically ROMs of old NES, Super NES and Nintendo 64 games (at the cost of $5, $8, and $10 respectively) to be played on the Wii was a brilliant move… because it played on that nostalgia of gamers everywhere.
However, Nintendo is finding out the hard way that the power of nostalgia can turn on you if you try to run it into the ground. Virtual Console services are also present in their current systems, the Wii U and 3DS platforms, but because of the non-transferrable nature of Nintendo and the ununified account systems, one cannot buy a Virtual Console game on the Wii U and share with and play it on their 3DS… they would have to buy both, separate versions.
A company can also ride on the coattails of nostalgia too long. A common criticism against Nintendo these days is that instead of creating new IPs and fresh experiences, they recycle the same franchises and characters from the last twenty years. What were the biggest Wii U titles last year? Super Mario 3D Land and an HD remake of a GameCube Zelda game. Those games are no doubt fun, but are they fresh enough to help carry a struggling console? Sales numbers would suggest not.
Nostalgia can also come back and bite gamers and developers in other areas. Long running franchises can feel the sting of the power of nostalgia. Whenever there is a new Resident Evil game announced, Capcom has to decide what kind of game to make it. For me, nostalgia dictates that I want it to be the classic, survival horror feel of the original trilogy, but does that make me an old stick in the mud for not progressing to enjoy Resident Evil 4 or 5 which ambitiously brought a new look and feel to the series? And if they did ever fully return to its roots, would I complain of it being too similar to the first three and just rehashing a much better game?
The power of nostalgia cannot be denied. Those Game Boy iPhone covers are extremely popular for a reason. When I look back at my gaming history, I tend to look more fondly at games I played as a kid than I do at games I play now. I am more forgiving to them and more harsh on the new generation. But in that same token, does nostalgia hurt me and hold me back from enjoying new games or new ideas in classic franchises just because they aren’t like how they used to be? Will I become jaded at Nintendo for rereleasing the same old NES games over and over with every new Virtual Console in every new system they put out? How much Mario can I take?

Gaming is a Big Business. And that is why nostalgia is probably the biggest double-edged sword of them all.

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