My friends, we are now in the bright age of the "retro-revival" but I am sorry to say that I am not very pleased with what I see
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I have a confession to make: I personally do not like Super Mario 64 and all of the subsequent 3D Mario games. For whatever reason, my brain simply cannot wrap itself around the concept of controlling Mario in three-dimensional space and it frustrates me beyond belief that I went from feeling like I had complete control of 2D Mario's every motion to, even after years of trying, struggling to even perform the simple action of jumping up to hit a power-up block.
My younger high school self, disenfranchised by the march of 3D gaming, would probably be delighted to know that now, in 2009, it seems that we have finally reached the age of the "retro-revival." We not only have genuine "retro-games" appearing on Virtual Console, DS, and other platforms but we also have new "retro-games" such as Mega Man 9 and Contra Rebirth. Yet, although I am finally in the promised land, I am not happy because when I finally get over the sheer glee of being here, I quickly realize that something stinks.
My problem with the current state of "retro-games" is that I feel that the majority of "retro-gamers" have become complacent in their expectations of "retro-games." We are so desperate to see another game that utilizes these classic mechanics that we lose or choose to ignore our objectivity and lower our standards when these games do come out. I feel that the consequence of this is that we as a group are now seen by developers as "easy money," an easy market to capitalize on with only a minimal amount of effort needed. Konami is never going to give us a 2D Castlevania game that will surpass Castlevania: Symphony of the Night because they know that they can throw out an unambitious 2D variant on Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or release another remake or port of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and we will eat it up like starving dogs.
The fact is, a good sequel MUST move forward in some way shape or form. It is the same with books, movies, games, and any other respectable art form in the human experience. I already have a great film about family and what that means (Francis Ford Coppola's film The Godfather); if you are going to continue the story, the sequel ought not only to further the story but give me some new things to think about and reflect on. If the sequel does not do this, why should I spend my time on it when I could just re-watch the original work again? The same is true of games. Why should I play a new Mario game if it does not offer me anything new that I could not have gotten out of the previous game? In the beginning of this C Blog entry, I claimed that I personally did not like the 3D Mario games. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I respect them for bringing in new things and new ideas into the Mario series. Lucky and blessed are those who have brains that are capable of enjoying these 3D Mario games and the new experiences that Shigeru Miyamoto brings to life.
"Retro-gamers" heralded the release of Mega Man 9 as the beginning of a new era of "retro-gaming." It is no secret that I am probably the only person on Dtoid that not only did not like Mega Man 9, but hated it with a passion. I must also admit that I am thus far generally unimpressed with the "fruits" of this new era of "retro-gaming."
I do not like Mega Man 9 for one simple reason: the game was made to target "stereotypical retro-gamers" and the vast majority of players have been blinded by nostalgia and unable to realize that if you eliminate the element of nostalgia and move past the admittedly clever marketing campaign with the homage to the ugly American box art, the resulting game is simply not very good and, to be honest, is pretty insulting to "retro-gamers."
I hate to pick on RetroforceGO! because I greatly respect the cast and I do feel that they have done more for the "retro-game" community than possibly any other podcast or fan entity out there but listening to the Mega Man 9 episode of the show (episode 62) made me sigh because it showed me exactly how extremely intelligent and insightful individuals can be collectively blinded by the power of nostalgia.
The resounding message I got from that RetroforceGO! episode was that Mega Man worked best as an NES game, either Mega Man 2 or Mega Man 3 depending on who you ask, and that taking it out of that ruins it. To be fair, this opinion seems to be the norm now for most Mega Man fans and "retro-gamers." That being said, forgive me, but I think that this view is absolute bullshit. Mario changed and evolved. Zelda changed and evolved. Punch-Out changed and evolved. Final Fantasy changed and evolved. Dragon Quest changed and evolved. Not only have these franchises and more changed and evolved, many of them have done it again and again. If all of these franchises can successfully negotiate its growing pains, I find it not only ridiculous to claim that Mega Man cannot do so, but flat out insulting to the franchise.
The thing that bothers me most about the view that Mega Man needs to stay 8-bit was the fact that I was alive and playing videogames throughout Mega Man's lifespan and I know as a fact that this is not true. If anything, Mega Man was a series that was hounded and arguably met its downfall because it refused to embrace change. Yet, it seems to me that Mega Man history has in recent years been completely rewritten by nostalgia-loving "retro-gamers." When developers were blowing away gamers by invigorating 8-bit franchises on 16-bit consoles, Capcom was still making 8-bit Mega Man games that just about everyone at the time was tired of. Mega Man 7 on the SNES didn't suck because it was 16-bit: it sucked because it came near the end of the SNES life cycle and looked and played like a fairly ordinary and unambitious game. To be fair, Mega Man 7 is actually one of my favorite Mega Man games but I also do confess that it simply did not have the WOW HOLY SHIT factor that many SNES games like Super Metroid and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past had. Of course, it certainly did not help that Capcom was in fact doing a lot of interesting and exciting things in the Mega Man X series and in fact, Mega Man X2, one of the best Mega Man games period, had come out right before Mega Man 7. Similarly, the problem with Mega Man 8 was not the fact that it was 32-bit: it was the fact that the game felt unambitious and tired, there were tons of frustrating moments in the game, and the English voice dubbing was so horrible that the English dubbing for the original Speed Racer anime sounded like voice-acting gold.
Mega Man 9 bothers me because it shows me that in the nearly 10 years since Mega Man 8, Capcom has not learned a single thing about what they did wrong with Mega Man back in the day. It bothers me to think that after all these years of reflection time, Capcom's brilliant solution for the Mega Man franchise is to backpedal the series to Mega Man 2. As someone who replays the entire Mega Man series (yes, even the hated latter installments) at least twice a year, I did not see anything new and compelling that the game brought in nor did I feel that the game did anything that actually warranted going to an 8-bit style. What really killed the game for me is that Capcom also fell into the "retro-gamer stereotype" trap of thinking that "retro-games" ought to be difficult and forgetting the distinction between challenging, cheap, and broken. I'll credit Capcom for making a game that is not "broken" although I would attribute that more to the fact that Mega Man 2 is not broken rather than any current work or action on Capcom's part. However, Mega Man 9 was killed for me because it is ridiculously difficult in incredibly cheap ways. Please forgive my rudeness, but I think that anyone who thinks that the difficulty of Mega Man 9 makes the game more like the classic Mega Man from the past that you love is absolutely wrong and full of shit. The vast majority of the difficult parts of Mega Man games can be trivialized by special weapons or abilities. For me, the most challenging Mega Man moment (the Yellow Devil in Dr. Wily stage 1 of Mega Man) and the most cheap Mega Man moment (the second "jump jump slide slide" section in Dr. Wily stage 1 of Mega Man 8) is nothing compared to the often-cheap challenges that populates the entire game Mega Man 9.
I asked a user question on that same episode of RetroforceGO! which suggested that the approach taken by Capcom with Mega Man 9 was lazy, especially compared to what Capcom did with the remake of Bionic Commando. Chad read my comment and then disagreed with my accusation that the approach of the game was "lazy," especially given that Capcom has said on record many times that it took them time and effort to relearn how to make a game in that older 8-bit style. To be fair, I think it's safe to say that neither Chad nor I are capable of saying whether or not the approach was "lazy" or not from an effort or financial point-of-view. However, I think it is fair for me to say that although I have not created a diorama in nearly 20 years, I am fairly certain that I can right now relearn how to make a diorama and make a diorama that at the least equals what I could have done as a kid for a fraction of the effort that I would have needed back then. I think that it is also safe for me to say that I could make a diorama that far surpasses anything I could have done as a kid for the fraction of the effort that it would take me to create a business or scientific presentation for work or a conference, which from a certain point of view, is pretty much the adult equivalent of a diorama.
I know that many players have been burned by sequels gone wrong and from a certain point of view, I can understand why they are willing to accept the stagnation or regression of a series. However, I just cannot bring myself to settle for that, not only because other franchises (many of whom started out as far worse games than Mega Man) have managed to move forward, but because I have too much respect for Mega Man as a series and Capcom as a developer.
Before the RetroforceGO! conversation left my user question, it was expressed in some way, shape, or form (I would check for the exact wording but my firewall at work prevents me from downloading that episode or accessing the RSS feed) that I was wrong in wanting Mega Man to move forward because Capcom had in fact gone forward with the latter installments of the game and failed. I have already addressed earlier why I feel that these failures have nothing to do with Capcom moving forward but rather the fact that they either didn't move forward enough or went in the wrong direction.
For many players, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link was a misstep. Considering that no Zelda game since that game has continued with the style of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, I think it is safe to assume that Miyamoto probably realized that it was the wrong direction for the game. However, Miyamoto did not simply go right back to the first Zelda game and craft a sequel out of that. He went back to the original game, looked at what it did right and wrong, looked at what the second game did right and wrong, and then went forward in a different direction, giving us The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. If you make a mistake, you learn from it, and make the right decision next time. The same is true of game design. I think it is safe to say that all of the best video games in history arise as a result of developers that are continuously trying to improve their craft, try new things, and learn from their mistakes. Mega Man 9 simply does not do any of that. Mega Man 9 embraces the "retro-gamer stereotype" that games were better in the past and made a crap load of money not only because the price was right, but also because "retro-gamers" and Mega Man fans have been so starved that we don't really bother to notice or care.
The final thing that really confused me about that episode of RetroforceGO! was that a few minutes later, once the cast had finished eviscerating my question, Topher expressed that he wanted Capcom to try something new with Mega Man 10 and said something to the likes of saying that if Capcom took the same approach with Mega Man 10, he would be reluctant to pay "full retail price" for a game due to the sheer amount of "recycled" elements (granted, it seemed that everyone on the show was somewhat reluctant to say that they would pay "full retail price" for Mega Man 9), statements that everyone on the cast agreed with. Umm, isn't that exactly what I was complaining about and what everyone disagreed with? I've played all the Mega Man games every year for years now and I don't understand why players needed ANOTHER 8-bit Mega Man game to convince them of something that they should have known years ago and probably did know back then. I don't need to make yet another diorama to come to the conclusion that I could probably work on advancing my presentation tools and skills. Consider for a moment that Mega Man was once considered one of the greatest video game series and that people were rushing out to stores to buy these games at full retail price and now some of Mega Man's greatest fans are reluctant to pay full retail price for the latest installment of the series and I think it becomes obvious why Mega Man 9, once the nostalgia has been stripped away, is very obviously not the right direction for the series.
A related news item that caused "retro-gamers" to cheer in triumph was a quote from Castlevania creator Koji Igarashi in an interview with Wired.com about Mega Man 9 in which he said that: "I’m watching that very closely to see how it does. Myself, I’m a big retro gaming fan, so if it is successful that definitely opens up doors for what I can do." If you read the entirety of the interview, you get the distinct impression that cost is heavily on Igarashi's mind. With regards to a traditional Castlevania game, Igarashi says that his mantra would be to "create a game for the core fans with as low a development cost as possible." In the same interview, 1UP's Jeremy Parish speculates that Konami is not supporting Igarashi with the financial resources that he wants to do what he wants. It is not hard to read between the lines and see that Igarashi's interest in Mega Man 9 is not only as that of a "retro-gamer" but as a developer that sees this game as a way of doing the games he wants to do at extremely low costs.
From what we have seen in the recent months with Gradius Rebirth, Contra Rebirth, and now The Castlevania Adventure Rebirth, I think it is safe to assume that Igarashi and Konami was they were happy with what they saw with Mega Man 9. As such, I suppose that Mega Man 9 did bring about the "retro revival" that "retro-gamers" had hoped for. That being said, I am not very satisfied with the end result because from what I see, developers are only paying lip-service to "retro-gamers." Like Mega Man 9, Gradius Rebirth does very little that actually brings the series forward. Contra Rebirth however, not only does not bring the series forward, it actually regresses the series. At least with Mega Man 9, the "progression" of the series has been generally met with apathy. In contrast, in the case of Contra, I think that it is safe to say that between Contra: Shattered Soldier and Contra 4, "retro-gamers" and Contra fans generally like the progression of the Contra franchise. As such, it is strikes me as lazy and insulting that Contra Rebirth cannot even match the quality of Contra III: The Alien Wars, is extremely short, and lacks polish. Of course Konami is not the only offender here. Square Enix's Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, once you get past the nostalgic factor, is mediocre, sloppy, and lacks polish.
It is true that we are in the age of the "retro-revival." However, when the vast majority of developers think "retro," what they are really thinking of is "old" and worst of all "cheap." As a huge fan of Mega Man that spent his entire 4th grade drawing Mega Man levels in his notebook, I desperately want to see a Mega Man sequel that does for the 8-bit Mega Man games what Super Metroid and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past did for 8-bit Metroid and 8-bit Zelda. I believe that anyone who calls themselves a "retro-gamer" wants to see this game made and put in our hands. The problem is that we are not getting that game right now and I feel that we will never be getting that game because our existing expenditures of money has proven to developers that when it comes to the quality of "retro-games," we are not a discriminating group and we are willing to settle as long as our nostalgia bone is titillated. We are now in a situation where "retro-games" are seemingly made on the philosophy of doing the bare minimum necessary at the lowest cost in order to grab as much money from "retro-gamers." Compare that approach to what companies like Valve and Bungie do in which they are pouring in whatever necessary resources are needed into making the best game they can. Valve and Bungie feel pressured to make the best game they can because if Left 4 Dead 2 and Halo 3: ODST aren't as good as their predecessors, their audience will complain. In the "retro-scene," we don't complain about mediocre "retro-sequels" because we are happy enough that we are even getting the game. And so the cycle continues.
For what it's worth, there have been exceptions to the rule. The Behemoth's Castle Crashers may have single-handedly made the side-scrolling beat-um-up genre it's bitch. Nintendo seems to have wizened up after the average "retro-revival" New Super Mario Bros. DS game and prepared a sequel for the Wii that actually takes 2D Mario forward as opposed to sideways. Controversy-aside, Shadow Complex seems to bring back the Metroidvania style that Nintendo and Konami are unwilling to continue. As hard as it seems that I came down on RetroforceGO!, I applaud the staff for not succumbing to "retro-game" hype with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Re-shelled. As always, I have great respect for the RetroforceGO! cast for bringing attention to and pioneering the cause of "retro-gaming."
Ultimately, we as "retro-gamers" need to work harder together and on an individual level to let developers know that we are not willing to spend another cent on mediocrity and that we want a new "retro-game" to be treated with the same attention and standard of quality that a BioShock, The Beatles: Rock Band, or Left 4 Dead would receive. My friends, we are now truly in the bright new age of the "retro-revival" but we have a long way to go before we are out of the valley of the shadow of death...I mean mediocrity.
P.S. I am not at all religious and in fact I believe that I have may have only been in a church less than a handful of times. However, the religious imagery just sounded kind of cool to use and so I went with it.