Back in 1998 a friend of mine introduced me to Resident Evil 2 on the Playstation. We stayed up all night playing, hours of almost constant deaths and getting lost in the wilds of Raccoon City. I was transfixed by the grim tone and terrified by the zombies that never seemed to stop coming. Resident Evil 2 blew me away and introduced me to next-gen gaming on the Playstation.
For 5 years I played all the major Resident Evil games up to and including Resident Evil Outbreak: File #2 on the PS2. That said, I did skip the on-rails light gun games and that one Gameboy release. Resident Evil 2 will always hold a special place in my heart but my favourite title from that era, and to this day one of my favourite games of all time, is the Resident Evil Remake on Gamecube.
Essentially a remake of the first Resident Evil for Playstation, the Gamecube version of Resident Evil (or REMake) updated the graphics and fleshed out the series mythology. I loved REMake and played the hell out of it on Gamecube. I played it so much I was even able to complete the Invisible Enemy mode. This was an additional difficulty setting where all enemies were invisible, funnily enough.
At the time I saw REMake as a significant step change in the Resident Evil series, an overall improvement in practically every aspect. Even years later I looked back at REMake with fondness and respect. Then Resident Evil 4 came along and redefined what a Resident Evil game was. Gone were the divisive tank controls, the constant inventory management, and the focus on atmosphere over action.
While I still feel that Resident Evil 4 is a brilliant game and the best in the series, part of me preferred REMake over RE4. So when I heard that REMake was itself going to be remade, this time on Steam, I couldn’t believe it. Imagine the best Resident Evil game with a next-gen HD upgrade! It was 2002 all over again and I couldn’t wait to dive in. I decided to break my rule of no pre-orders and bought the HD Remaster of REMake. The release day finally came and I sequestered myself to play. I’d forgotten most of the game and so it took me about 10 hours to finish it this time.
After watching one of the many endings, I had a couple of realisations about the Resident Evil series. First, I realised how much I hate the old-school inventory system. I lost count of how many times I had to backtrack to pick up a key because I didn’t have enough space in my inventory. 6 slots is just not enough. I much prefer the Resident Evil 4 inventory system which is upgradeable and more versatile. Best of all, quest items don’t take up space in your inventory. No more having to choose between ammo and a red gem to socket in a stuffed tiger’s head.
My second major realisation is how slow the older Resident Evil games are. Now, slow isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as tension and atmosphere take time to build. However, when your whole momentum stops every few minutes by opening a door, that affects your gameplay experience. I know the loading doors are a staple of the pre-2005 Resident Evil games but sometimes history needs to be changed.
What made REMake feel so fresh in 2002 makes the HD Remaster feel so clunky in 2015. I found it really tough to go back to pre-RE4 mechanics, even in a game with post-RE4 graphics. I think I was expecting a similar jump between REMake and the HD Remaster that I saw between Code Veronica and REMake. There’s a weird incongruity here with new graphics but old gameplay.
This brings me to the main point of this video: just how big a part should nostalgia play in modern video games? Recently we’ve seen a huge wave of nostalgia-driven re-releases, remakes, and re-imaginings. From Wasteland II to Grim Fandango to Pillars of Eternity, publishers are starting to realise that nostalgia sells. Of course, this is nothing new as video games have always been influenced by what’s come before. But there needs to be a balance between looking to the past and innovating for the future.
Nostalgia is an inherently positive feeling, a warm look at the past. Nostalgia is comfort and familiarity and knowing what to expect. But nostalgia can also be dangerous, bringing with it the risk of stagnation and a fear of the new. A video game industry built purely on nostalgia can by design only ever appeal to a core group of gamers familiar with the original games. Innovation and creativity would take a back seat to familiarity and repetition.
You can see this happening in the current cycle of AAA incremental releases like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. Every year there’s a new title in the franchise that keeps the core gameplay essentially the same with little innovation. These titles always sell well and part of that comes down to giving the core players more of what they’re familiar with. Because these games make a lot of money for the publishers, the yearly cycle continues.
This means the AAA industry is constantly feeding off their past successes. This behaviour isn’t unique to video games; you can see a similar pattern in most popular media. Nostalgia plays a large part in indie video games as well, but this usually takes the form of remixes or mashups. Take the upcoming title Volume, for instance. Mike Bithell’s stealth indie game takes inspiration from Metal Gear Solid, expanding it out into a top-down 3rd person non-combat puzzler. Volume’s influences are clearly visible in the gameplay but it’s trying to do something new and different.
Finding a balance between giving players what they want and giving them what they didn’t know they wanted is something all developers struggle with, whether AAA or indie. When I bought the Resident Evil HD Remaster I got exactly what I wanted, a return to the great game I played to death over 10 years ago. What I didn’t realise is how much I’d changed as a player, and how much the Resident Evil series had changed. I enjoyed playing REMake again but I didn’t have as much fun as I expected.
I think there’s definitely a large place for nostalgia in video games, both to preserve the history of the medium and to build on past work. I also think nostalgia is most effective when filtered through new ideas and viewpoints. Back in 2002, Capcom took an old game and gave it a new twist. 13 years later they brought REMake back with a new look but little innovation. After playing the Resident Evil HD Remaster, I realise nostalgia can be fun but it gets old fast.