Few people understand how powerful nostalgia can be as well as I do. I grew up dressing as Luigi (with a fake mustache), drawing new/impossible levels for Mega Man and humming the Fever music from Dr. Mario throughout the entire first half of my life. The 8-bit era left an indelible impression on me, and I can understand why so many young developers would want go back to that well. But to reiterate something I said on the podcast a couple week’s back, the minds behind high-profile throwbacks like Abobo’s Big Adventure and Super Mario Bros. Crossover 2.0 need to take a step back and ask themselves whether or not these old-school mash-ups have anything new to say. This isn’t a popular stance, and I don’t want to sound like I’m picking on these smaller passion projects, but I think we can look at this constructively and figure out a fitting tribute that isn’t just sprite dumping.
Podcast listeners know that my tastes don’t always align with those of the rest of the Pack, but the divide was particularly pronounced with Abobo’s Big Adventure. This game was designed to cram every childhood memory into an ambitious Flash game, with several different genres represented and the most packed roster of characters this side of Super Smash Bros. To that end, mission accomplished. Playing even just the first world, you’d spot more cameos from older games than your eight-year-old self could have ever imagined. But where I take issue is that none of these elements fit together. Each step is accompanied with non-sequiturs disguised as old school sprites, but very rarely does Team Abobo let its own style shine through. And it’s a shame, too, as I love the premise.
Super Mario Bros. Crossover 2.0 has garnered a lot of love on the game blog scene as well, but that game misses the point, too. Unlike Abobo’s, there’s a unifying element here: the original Super Mario Bros. All of the 8-bit heroes (well, now 16-bit, too) have their signature abilities and moves, and the Mushroom Kingdom is basically broken as a result. That’s fine. I get that the game essentially becomes the player’s playground. The problem is that the level design just doesn’t make any sense in these contexts. Having to shoot dozens of shots into lines of goombas just isn’t fun, and I can’t help but feel that the developer could have taken these characters and designed a game that would be fun for all.
And while I’m being generally cranky, let me extend my rant to video game related literature. Namely, Ready Player One, which supposedly looks at the extensive world of MMOs on an even grander scale, while also commenting on how pop culture shapes our identities. In a sense, I guess it’s true to the times we live in, as the “references as jokes” model of comedy certainly has its fans. But when the author offers up a recreation, line by line, of “WarGames,” with little else to say besides, “Wasn’t that movie cool?” I’m left wondering what the point of all of it was. There’s nothing wrong with incorporating the Matthew Broderick “classic,” but why not ask the main character to change things up within a virtual simulation rather than have him slavishly stick to the stick.
What I’m getting at is that you can pay tribute to the past without slavish devotion to source material. Nintendo has certainly done it with the aforementioned Super Smash Bros. series, but I’d also direct gamers to the upcoming Retro City Rampage. It’s game that does its own things with its own mechanics and world, but at the same time, it features homages to characters of games past. There are parodies for sure, but when you’re bitten by a radioactive spider or the overhead city blends into a tactical espionage jungle, you can see a degree of creativity and care that some of these lesser efforts would do well to include going forward.