Thursday, April 03, 2008

Overdrawn at the memory bank: The power of nostalgia in games

I've been splitting my time recently between Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. The two games couldn't have less in common, except for one thing: they both tap into a deep well of nostalgia as an implicit part of the gameplay. These aren't your typical sequels or spin-offs. Unless you had some prior emotional attachment to the source material, it's likely that these games wouldn't make any sense to you at all.

Smash Bros. draws on well over two decades of some of the most popular and enduring gaming franchises around, from Donkey Kong through Pikmin. For those of us of a certain age in the early 1990s, the question of who would win a fight between Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog was a matter of grave import. Now, we can finally learn the answer. Hell, if you've ever played a video game in your life, you've probably spent time with more than one of the Smash Bros. roster. The whole experience of playing it is like being on a runaway train through nostalgia country.

But here's the thing I don't get about Smash Bros.'s popularity: The game is terrible.

Above: Your childhood memories exploited like the Brazilian rainforest.

I have never had fun with a Smash Bros. game in my life. Mostly, that's because the weird, floaty controls sometimes make me wonder if I'm commanding the right character. (I will grant the possibility that with four combatants onscreen, I often am trying to command the wrong character.) Now they've added a crappy adventure mode called The Subspace Emissary, and it is such a lousy example of platforming that I would have stopped playing it after about half an hour if beating it weren't the only way to unlock several major characters. The controls just aren't made for precision jumping and environmental navigation, and with few exceptions the levels are repetitive and boring.

The Subspace Emissary
, to its credit, doesn't really try to hide that it's just playing you like a fiddle. There's a story that makes no sense -- something about all the evil Nintendo characters trying to turn the good Nintendo characters into trophies -- but it's all just an excuse to burn through the cultural capital Nintendo has built up over the years. I'm reminded of when a heel pro wrestler gets on the microphone and insults the city he's in, just to score some easy boos. Smash Bros. is one cheap pop after another:

Look! It's Link, from The Legend of Zelda!


Look, it's King Dedede!


Considering that Nintendo has been coasting on its major franchises in this generation, all Smash Bros. does for me is remind me that there was a time when these characters and their accompanying motifs meant I was in for a wonderful time. For all Nintendo's innovation on the hardware side with the Wii, Twilight Princess and Metroid Prime 3 were only more of the same, with a slightly different control scheme (in fairness, Super Mario Galaxy did innovate to a greater degree). And that's the case here.

Nintendo is banking, literally, on the fact that millions of people already know and love these characters. Obviously, if you like the game to begin with, this will strike you as no problem. For me, I can't help but feel like Nintendo's exploiting their most valuable properties -- or they're exploiting me.

Crisis Core similarly looks to the past for inspiration. It's a prequel to one of the grandest achievements in the gaming canon, Final Fantasy VII . But it does something Smash Bros. fails to do, and that's add to the original game instead of just strip-mining it for its vast, revenue-producing resources.

Above: Sustainable, long-term nostalgia farming.

Admittedly, I didn't approach Crisis Core with quite the level of built-in love for its source material as I had for some of the characters and settings in Smash Bros. (Metal Gear Solid and Metroid in particular). I played FFVII only once and loved it, but couldn't give you a detailed synopsis of the story, or the exact materia combination I used to vanquish the Ruby and Emerald Weapons. Still, the last time I played one of these FFVII spin-offs, I think I was doubly disappointed that it wasn't just a bad game -- it was a bad FFVII game.

Well, Crisis Core is a good game. A very good game. It succeeds on its own merits, as a stripped-down, portable RPG. The gameplay reminds me more of Final Fantasy X than VII -- there's no overworld screen, and your character, Zack, travels from one locale to the next essentially on rails. Zack fights battles on his own in a nearly real-time manner. Although you can queue up Zack's next action -- attack, cast a spell, use an item -- you can also guard or evade an enemy's attack at any time. Doing so uses up Action Points, which are analagous to Hit Points and Magic Points, so it's not always the best idea. It helps to streamline the gameplay, while still maintaining that basic Final Fantasy feel.

The Final Fantasy VII connection isn't the crux of Crisis Core's appeal, but it does serve to flesh out the universe and deepen the fanbase's understanding of the events of FFVII. In the original game, Zack was a character seen in flashback. He was integral to the narrative, but only in backstory. Crisis Core puts him center stage. The game essentially is that cutscene blown up to full size.

Consider how well-known characters are used. Sephiroth doesn't just pop up in a cheap cameo, like Frank Sinatra in Around the World in 80 Days. We knew, from Final Fantasy VII, what Sephiroth had done. We didn't understand why. Crisis Core fills in that picture. And in the hero, Zack, we have an inversion of the usual alienated Final Fantasy protagonist. Zack starts off as the idealistic company man, and grows disillusioned as the reality of Shinra and the SOLDIER program becomes clear to him. If you draw a line from Zack's naivete through Cloud's nihilism and his eventual redemption, you'll come up with something like a circle.

In both cases, the callbacks and references to games we already knew and loved work best when they're used as a spice, and not as the main course. Although millions of gamers genuinely enjoy the Smash Bros. gameplay, and a small minority even make money on it in competition, the latest installment strikes me as a bloated, aging rock band playing all its old hits. Nothing about it adds to our appreciation of the source material.

By contrast, Crisis Core crackles with vitality. Instead of reminding me what it felt like to play Final Fantasy VII for the first time, it's giving me something more valuable for the future: memories of what it felt like the first time I played Crisis Core.


Matthew Gallant said...

"Although millions of gamers genuinely enjoy the Smash Bros. gameplay"

Count me firmly in that category, Smash Bros. is my favorite fighting game series by far. The first SSB was one of the few fighters that couldn't be boiled down to a fancy version of Street Fighter 2. The way it did away with the health meter and blended platforming into the combat was masterful.

That being said, I definitely agree that "the latest installment strikes me as a bloated, aging rock band playing all its old hits." Brawl has more fan service than any other game in the series, and the Subspace Emissary was awful. I've been enjoying the multiplayer a lot, but mostly because it's more of the same.

"[...] the exact materia combination I used to vanquish the Ruby and Emerald Weapons."

HP Absorb + Knights of the Round + Mimic, IIRC ;)

Mitch Krpata said...

That's a good point. The emphasis on ring-outs is still unique to fighting games, I think. And the different items and environmental hazards are a far cry from your usual weapon-based fighters.

One thing I was afraid of doing in this post was acting like everybody's simply been duped into liking Smash Bros. Even though I don't enjoy the game, it's not as though it's poorly made or has never had an original idea. I think I'm frustrated because I really want to like the game that stars all these characters.

That was definitely the materia combo. Nothing like inputting one command and then watching the battle unfold for the next ten minutes.

Daniel Purvis said...

Man, Crisis Core: FFVII doesn't even have a release date in Australia yet! So, I'm importing it instead. Should have the copy today, or tomorrow. In any case, I'm going to love the step back in time.

Kill Emerald weapon I had the same set up as Matthew: Knights of the Round mastered (+HP Absorb, thanks Matthew), with Phoenix mastered and paired with Final Summon, each character also had Mime. I actually defeated him twice in two different battles, the first using this combination all I had to do was just hit "Mime". Second time, Cid got hit and reduced to All Lucky Sevens (health on 7777) and I put the controller down, waited half an hour and came back to find I'd one the battle haha.

Can't remember Ruby weapon but it was a bitch.

Anyway, I'm going to love Crisis Core, I know it. Heck, I actually like Dirge of Cerberus, though I totally recognise it was a terrible game.

However, Smash Bros can go fuck itself. I've never taken to the game and can't see it as any more than a "nostalgic time-sink". If I had party friends round, I'd prefer to play SingStar, Halo or pull out Tekken Tag Tournament then play Smash Bros. I hope the series dies with this latest incarnation, hehe.

avixe said...

As a guy who never really got into Smash Bros. but knows all the characters, I have to know: who is in fact favored to win? Mario or Sonic?

Mitch Krpata said...

Daniel, you're in for a good time with Crisis Core. I'll be interested to hear what you think of it.

avixe, I think it's pretty clear that Mario is a little bitch compared to Sonic.

Michael said...

Oh Mitch, you're such a hater! ;-)

Call me a sucker, but I've thoroughly enjoyed this edition of Smash Bros., and my wife and I are having a blast plowing through Subspace Emissary mode together. Yeah, we like all the cameos and crazy Nintendo self-referential stuff, but I think there's plenty of fun game in there too, especially given the appalling lack of co-op games that provide real fun these days.

I do think you're being a bit too hard on the controls and fighting system. I'm with Matthew on this series being my favorite fighting game, and I know that makes me a lightweight to all the Virtua boys. But I find the "floaty" physics appealing and fun to manipulate. Sure there's a certain randomness to who wins, but that's a Nintendo design philosophy that goes way back and, to me, makes the experience fun for gamers who aren't from hardcore set.

I mean, didn't you even get the slightest little grin when the giant Nintendog appeared, covering most of the screen and demanding your attention?

C'mon, Mitch, soften up that hard old heart of yours! [big grin]

Mitch Krpata said...

I do get the instinctual response to lots of the characters, theme songs, and the like. But that's exactly my problem with the game: I feel like they think I'm a puppy dog, rolling over for treats.

Besides, it's a rule that every six months or so I need to crap all over some beloved franchise (cf. my posts on Halo).