Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
Every so often one of the major game developers will release a game meant explicitly to harken back to the classic games--usually RPGs--of the early 90's. Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy VI, and Chrono Trigger, in particular, have had such a profound influence on the turn-based RPG genre that there's a clear desire among developers and fans alike to recapture what made that era so seemingly special for gaming. While looking to excellent games for inspiration is perfectly natural--building on the shoulders of giants and all that--there are a few issues with the mindset surrounding these classic games that tends to make their modern would-be spiritual successors largely fall flat.
Problem 1: Retro Games are All Different
The immediate issue with making a "retro-inspired RPG" is that the classic games these new games try to emulate are each entirely unique experiences. There is a tendency, I think, for gamers to remember these games as a set. This isn't a surprise, really; the RPGs from the first half of the 90's that have become part of the established canon of video game literature (if such a thing exists--I would contend that it does) are all strong, well-received games with similar art styles and fairly similar mechanics. There are enough superficial similarities between these games that it's very easy to look at the surface-level commonalities and assume those commonalities are what made the games strong to begin with. These games had detailed-but-heavily-pixelated artwork, top-down world maps, random encounters, and a number of other shared touches that are exceptionally common in modern knockoffs. While these things hold a level of nostalgia for longtime gamers, they are not what made the games effective and they do little to benefit today's games unless used with purpose.
The similar art styles, for example, were a product of the technology available at the time. If Final Fantasy IV's creative team had had access to today's graphical capabilities, you can bet they would have taken advantage of the technology. That the art of those classic RPGs is so appealing is a product of the skilled artists--led by the phenomenal Yoshitaka Amano, in Final Fantasy's case--who were working on the games. It is largely because of the work they did with the limitations they faced that we think so fondly of 16-bit spritework in RPGs. What this means, however, is that a modern RPG with a similar style and weaker art direction is not going to be nearly as captivating. Nostalgia can only carry a game so far, and an art style should be selected in order to further the game itself, not out of a somewhat-misplaced reverence for the games of the past.
This is also true, to a lesser extent, of things such as world maps and random encounters. These things worked for the classic RPGs, and because they were in all of those RPGs, they tend to be in all modern attempts to recreate the feel of those games. This decision-making process is problematic. Approaching a game from the standpoint of, "We need to include this because these other games did the same thing" is limiting and can result in a weaker game overall. It's natural to be aware of older conventions, but what's important is making decisions based on what's right for the game you are making, not what was right for games from 20-30 years ago.
This over-fixation on superficial commonalities leads developers and players to overlook the things that really made those classic RPGs so strong. Each game is as good as it is for different reasons. Final Fantasy IV is drastically different from Final Fantasy V is drastically different from Final Fantasy VI once you get past the airships and the crystals and the titles. Final Fantasy IV is a bog-standard but tightly-written high fantasy adventure in the vein of The Lord of the Rings or a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, while Final Fantasy VI is a gritty semi-open-world steampunk story with morally questionable characters and a charismatic villain whose plan to take over the world actually succeeds. Boiling these games down to their number of pixels drastically understates how distinct they are. A mentality of "Let's make Final Fantasy IV again" would not have produced Final Fantasy V or Final Fantasy VI, and that's where today's developers tend to run into trouble. It would take a great deal of luck to create a game that can stand alongside the classics by trying to imitate them. There are stylistic trends that have fallen somewhat out of fashion--hidden sidequests and secret party members and the like--that can be incorporated into new games, but a game without a strong fundamental concept isn't going to be nearly as compelling as the classics, even if it's been painted to have a similar look and feel.
Problem 2: Retro Games are Flawed, Too
Another issue with trying to imitate retro games is that these games all have problems of their own. Game design as an art form has developed quite a bit in the past 20-ish years, with many quality-of-life improvements making modern games generally less frustrating and more fun than their predecessors. Whether it's by streamlining and simplifying menus to save time and create a more fluid user experience (Persona 5), eliminating dated and unnecessary mechanics like lives and continues (Super Meat Boy), incorporating dynamic difficulty settings so players can be just as challenged as they like (The World Ends With You), or any number of other things, modern games tend to be more enjoyable experiences on the whole. Implemented poorly, these mechanics can, of course, hurt a game overall, but in general, they're a huge positive. If you want to see how far we've come, just play the 1992 RPG Shin Megami Tensei. It was a very good game for its day, and it remains a conceptually interesting and important game, but for someone used to modern gaming conveniences, playing that game is a slog. Granted, games like Chrono Trigger hold up somewhat better, but they are still considerably less player-friendly than modern offerings.
The problem with this is that when developers try to imitate the strengths of those classic games, they often end up imitating their flaws as well. As I detailed above, people tend to focus on the superficial similarities of older games rather than their underlying differences, which leads modern imitators to pick up another superficial similarity: the lack of modern game design conveniences. 2017's Sonic Mania is a great example of this. The game was an homage to the old Sonic the Hedgehog games--particularly Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles--and while there are a lot of things it does very well, there are a few frustrating elements of the game that are present only because they were present in the original games. The game's hypersensitive crushing physics, for example, are taken directly from the older Sonic games but do little more than frustrate the player with ill-timed deaths. Even a simple change like making getting crushed deal damage instead of killing the player outright would go a long way towards improving the player experience, but Sonic Mania's loyalty to its inspiration also blocks it from making those sorts of improvements. There's a sense that because the original games were good (which they were), anything that was in the original games must also be good (which is not true).
Problem 3: There are Great Games Being Made Today
This ties in to the two issues above, but nostalgia games often seem to come from a belief that today's games are somehow not as good as the games of yesteryear. It's understandable why some people might feel that way--Final Fantasy XV, for example, is not nearly as satisfying as many of its predecessors, so if the older Final Fantasy games are what got someone interested in gaming, that person may see the more recent games and feel the industry is going downhill.
This mindset ignores the bigger picture, though. First off, art is hard. Even the best creative teams aren't going to hit every game they attempt, and with long gaps between major installments of certain series, a good creative team going ten years or so between a real hit is not unreasonable. Beyond that, though, when one studio starts to fall from a dominant position in the industry, another is usually waiting to take its place. Square Enix may seem to be floundering right now, but Atlus has been on a significant positive trajectory for the past 15 years or so, with 2016's Persona 5 taking the awards for best RPG and best game ever in a recent series of polls conducted by the gaming magazine Famitsu. Eventually Atlus won't be as dominant--perhaps after Katsura Hashino retires--and some other company will gradually take its place. The fact that, for example, Final Fantasy games are not as strong as they used to be does not mean that games as a whole--or even just RPGs--are not as strong today as 20 years ago. I would argue that the games produced today are stronger on average than the retro games we tend to romanticize, we're just somewhat biased by the fact that the games we remember are, for the most part, the games we loved. For every Final Fantasy IV, there were tens if not hundreds of unremarkable RPGs few people remember
Romanticizing and trying to imitate retro games does a disservice to games old and new, ignoring the masterpieces of today and trivializing the masterpieces of the past. Classic games are not great because we remember them; we remember them because they were great.
The Bright Side: Some Games Get it Right
While retro-throwback games tend to be disappointing or forgettable, there are a number of games that originate from that desire to recapture the greatness of the classic games and that still manage to be solid-to-excellent offerings in their own right. These are the games that successfully tread the line between modeling themselves after classic games and incorporating modern game design principles.
The indie game Undertale is a great example of this. Undertale is partially an homage to the Nintendo RPG Earthbound, but Undertale has a strong an unique underlying premise (an RPG where the goal is to not kill anything you fight), and the game manages to create a distinct, meaningful, and artistically strong experience that draws from Earthbound's word-play and whimsy while remaining entirely its own work. Undertale is clearly indebted to Earthbound, but it doesn't copy the older game in the slightest. The art style, music, characters, and writing are vaguely reminiscent of the older game, but nothing feels as if it is present simply because it was present in Earthbound. Somewhat ironically, by avoiding direct imitation, Undertale comes much closer to recapturing Earthbound's strengths than it otherwise might.
Square Enix's Bravely Default team is also pretty good at this. Bravely Default and Bravely Second owe a lot to the older Final Fantasy games--especially Final Fantasy V--but they aren't hesitant to diverge where necessary. They incorporate very modern touches like the ability to change the random encounter rate alongside staples like airships and crystals, and the games are clever enough to use the expectations established by typical retro-imitators to subvert player expectations. The games have flaws (especially in terms of storytelling), but they aren't afraid to take radical steps away from the "accepted" retro formula, which, as with Undertale, results in an experience that feels closer to a modern interpretation of the classic games than the straight imitators can provide.
The Bravely Default team's next game, Octopath Traveler, releases on Friday, and after playing through the extended demo I'm rather excited. At first glance, it seems like a standard retro-imitation game--pixelated graphics, turn-based combat, and the like--but there is much about the game that is decidedly modern. The game's visuals actually consist of 3D models--complete with gorgeous lighting effects--that are simply covered in pixelated textures. This gives the game the look of something like a diorama, almost reminiscent of the Paper Mario games, and the strange decision feels like a perfect way to pay homage to the game art of the 90's: the 3D look takes advantage of the Nintendo Switch's graphical capabilities while still acknowledging the game's influences, and the strange contrast of models and sprites almost feels like a metaphor for retro RPGs still standing strong in a world that has largely passed them by. The game's battle system takes very little from the 90's, instead hybridizing one of Bravely Default's mechanics with something resembling a core mechanic of Atlus's recent RPGs, and the Final Fantasy VI-esque openness is accompanied by a helpful mini-map and and sidequest log. The storytelling structure is also entirely its own, telling essentially eight separate short stories instead of one long narrative, almost reminiscent of the obscure SNES RPG Live a Live.
It remains to be seen whether Octopath Traveler will live up to its promise, but even if its creative team is still unable to create a lasting game on the level of the classic RPGs, I see in the spirit of Octopath Traveler a model for all nostalgia games: a strong concept independent of the game's inspiration, thoughtful nods to the classic games it wants to emulate, and bold steps away from those influences where the game itself demands it.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition