2016 Successfully Used Familiar Faces to Introduce New Ideas

This past year taught us that it's possible to appeal to people's sense of nostalgia while teaching them new ways to play.

Ecclesiastes 1:9 assures us there's "nothing new under the sun," and if you're a thirty-something fan of video games and pop culture, you probably don't have a hard time believing that. What's old is new again; what's past is destined to come back around. I just hope new Slap Bracelets fix that manufacturing flaw that let my ten-year-old friends and I remove the steel "blade" from its cheap cloth covering and wield them against each other like knives.

Nostalgia is big in the games industry. In fact, nostalgia arguably fuels the industry in varied and interesting ways. The NES Classic caters to retro enthusiasts and part-time gamers alike because, depending on who you are, it either "features a collection of stellar games that are champions in their genre," or "it's packed with a whole bunch of games I loved playing as a kid." That's why the adorable unit sold out in no time, and arguably could have sold way more if Nintendo had met demand.

Nostalgia for the Pokémon series fueled the Pokémon GO phenomenon of summer 2016, and that rekindled enthusiasm seemingly spilled over to propel Pokémon Sun and Moon's sales into the stratosphere. Super Mario Run's record-breaking launch can also arguably be attributed at least in part to buyers who were curious about the game despite maybe not touching a Mario title since childhood.

Is it unhealthy for an industry to be so nostalgia-driven, though? Are developers and publishers leaning a little too hard on the past in lieu of innovating for the future?

Opinions will differ, but I personally don't think catering to people's bottomless appetites for nostalgia results in stagnation. New ideas are important, but so is delivering enjoyable game experiences that large audiences can enjoy – thus keeping the lights on at the developer's studio.

That said, a game developer's decision to cater to old memories doesn't give them a pass to phone in their work, nor does it excuse them from trying to innovate whenever appropriate. The Super Smash Bros series heaps on the fan service like nothing else, but it also introduced a new sub-genre to fighting games. Super Mario Galaxy features tons of familiar faces and oldschool gameplay concepts, but it also re-invents platforming. In fact, Nintendo is pretty much the king of offering new experiences through old properties, and presumably we'll see more of the same with whatever it develops for the Switch.

With any luck, the Switch will deliver new ideas via old friends.

Interestingly, nostalgia can also help people glom onto weird new ideas. AR (augmented reality) games aren't new, but they weren't a household term until Niantic slapped a Pokémon shell onto Ingress. That's not to suggest Ingress lacks a fanbase, but Pokémon GO's phenomenal popularity can be attributed in large part to the sheer appeal of catching Pokémon in the "real world."

This compromise between "new" and "familiar" is something fanfic writers know well. People are far likelier to familiarize themselves with your writing if you first offer them a shred of familiarity, e.g. a story featuring a loved character from an established property.

I'm just one person with one big fat opinion, but I feel privileged to be working at this very interesting juncture of gaming history. People who grew up with Super Mario Bros are now introducing their kids to the plumber via consoles, handhelds, and smartphones, but at the same time there are fresh new ideas out there. People embraced Splatoon (one of several new ideas we may see out of Nintendo's younger staff in the next few years), and Overwatch continues to rule fandom.

And people are getting really excited about indie games, even simple-looking fare like Undertale and Stardew Valley. Incidentally, both games were engineered thanks to nostalgia for established series, specifically Earthbound / Mother and Harvest Moon. But no-one is going to argue that either game is stagnant, a rip-off, or otherwise cheap clones meant to cash in on gullible gamers looking to re-capture the joy of their childhoods.

(Well, hopefully not. Nobody wants to get riled up so close to the holidays.)

The gaming landscape is a much different place than it was ten years ago, and the industry is only going to get more unpredictable from here on out. One thing's for sure, though: Nostalgia will continue to be a draw. Hopefully developers will continue to use its power for good things.

Tagged with Articles, NES Mini: Classic Edition, Pokemon, Pokemon Sun and Moon.

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