Nostalgic Dissonance Is Why I’m A Sad Freak


Nostalgia. Ugh. Even typing that word makes me hurt a little on the inside. “A sentimental attachment to something from your youth.” That’s the general gist of the dictionary definition. The traditional dictionary, anyway. In gaming culture we’ve got our own dictionary with a slightly different entry. It reads: “A sentimental attachment to a video game from your youth, provided it was released before 1995.” Apparently, anything past that date just isn’t ‘retro’ enough to be worth getting all giddy about. Which is fine, I guess, provided you’re a normal human being that spent most of your formative years worshipping at the altar of a very specific gaming monolith. I didn’t, though. I’m a freak.

Unlike most of my generation, I didn’t get into gaming until the late 90s. More heretical still, my first (and for many years only) console was that wonderful grey slab known as the PlayStation 1. For those of you not familiar with your gaming chronology (for shame!), that means one thing: no classic Nintendo. Yeah. No Mario. No Contra. No Metroid. No 8/16-bit. No chiptunes. And no absolutely anything that the majority of developers and players consider Holy Scripture. Retro gaming, in my sense of the phrase, involves the big-ass polygons, half-decent attempts at voice acting and lush anime sprites. Those are the things I can get ‘nostalgic’ about, as opposed to this mess of pixels and annoying *blips* everyone seems so keen on idolizing.

A Game Of Pixels And Polys

See this diagram below? On the left is my gaming childhood. On the right is (probably) yours. Guess which one gets all dat sweet indie scene love?

I just can’t comprehend this version of nostalgia that’s always being shoved down my throat. It seems…wrong. I know that I’m supposed to be a good boy and get excited by all this 8-bit razzmatazz, yet I feel nothing.

I’ve come to call this condition “Nostalgic Dissonance” when I’m forced to put it into writing. Or alternatively: “WHAT? BUT MY CHILDHOOD GAMES WERE WAY BETTER THAN YOURS!?” when I’m feeling less eloquent about the whole thing. It might seem rather trivial but, no joke, it’s become a real problem for me since I started writing about games. Why? Well, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but out here in indie game land we’ve got supposedly ‘nostalgic’ video games gushing out the wazoo like we’ve been binging on 1Up mushrooms 24/7.

See! See! I made an awkward, ill-fitting reference to an old Nintendo thing! Can I be a true indie gamer now? Ha! Man, if only it was that simple. I’ve learned the hard way that nostalgia doesn’t work like uh…like one of those ‘hidden picture’ things. It doesn’t bloody matter how long I stare at it; there will never be a sudden epiphany where it all falls into place and I can finally see the swan or the plane or the old lady cradling a baby or whatever it is that everyone else sees. I could spend the rest of my life playing Retro City Rampage and never truly understand why any of it, bar the obvious GTA references, has any significance to anyone.

So Uh….This Is The Loading Screen Right?

“…having a gigantic circle jerk to classic Nintendo products is a key part of what makes up indie gaming as a movement. You may not be conscious of it, but it’s built right into our DNA whether we like it or not.”

Again: this is a real, honest to goodness problem for me. Most of you will have no idea how infuriating it is being a fan of indie games, but also having to fight an unwinnable battle against Nostalgic Dissonance every single time I glance at our news feed.

Example: Conventional indie wisdom dictates that the graphics in Penny Arcade Adventures 3 are ostensibly da shizzle. I mean, just look at it! IT LOOKS SO LIKE FINAL FANTASY 6 FOR CHRIST SAKE! WOOOOOO! THIS IS UNDENIABLY THE GREATEST THING EVER! </sarcasm>

OR it looks like total ass.

“Well, you’ve never played those games, have you? So of course you won’t understand the utter magnificence that lies before you!” said the convenient straw man I just made up. To which I reply: “Dude, I have played the living shit out of classic Nintendo era games, FF6 included, many of which I consider to be some of the greatest games ever made. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I was a full grown adult when I first played them, so I’m about as ‘nostalgic’ for those games as I am about this morning’s breakfast.”

I just don’t ‘get it’, alright? Simple as that. And I will never ‘get it’. The only thing I will ever ‘get’ is more and more annoyed every time someone heralds an indie game as the second coming of Cave Story because it “perfectly blends old school values with modern sensibilities“ or “harkens back to my youth“ or “contains vague allusions to an old Nintendo game I may or may not have even played”.

Method To The Madness

All those chunky pixels, sound effects, low-res sprites, crappy voice samples, badly translated texts, high score tables and all that other jazz? I can appreciate them, but I will never love them. Even if I wanted to. I CAN’T love them. Ever. I started gaming at the wrong place and the wrong time, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Like I said, I’m a freak.

But don’t confuse my bitterness for naivety; I know full well why we’ve found ourselves in this sorry state of affairs. For one thing, it’s dirt cheap to cobble together a simple pixely 2D homage to whatever Nintendo thang you played as a kiddie. But building something equivalent to the multi-disk monstrosities of the PS1 era, though? That ain’t so cheap. There’s also the fact that the rest of my fellow PS1 lovin’ master race is probably still in their late teens right about now, which is still a little too young to be conjuring up sexy love letters to the days of yore.

That’s not to say I’m expecting an explosion of PS1 love in the indie scene any time soon, though. It’s become clearer and clearer to me recently that it’s just too damn late for all that now. For better or worse (i.e. for worse), having a gigantic circle jerk to classic Nintendo products is a key part of what makes up indie gaming as a movement. You may not be conscious of it, but it’s built right into our DNA whether we like it or not. Just look at our current logo here at Indie Statik, for god’s sake! It’s in a fucking 8-bit style font! Even I didn’t think that was odd when I first saw it because, yo, it’s an indie site, and what’s more indie than 8-bit? It’s so ‘nostalgic’, after all.

Indie…Indie Never Changes…

And much as I hate to admit it, I don’t believe for a second that our mentality on that stuff is ever gonna change. Because hey, guess what? The next generation of indie fans are lapping it up just as much as the old timers. Just look at the number of kids attending Mine-Con! The little twerps aren’t old enough to even begin comprehending what nostalgia actually means. To them, ribbing on old Nintendo era stuff has nothing to do with prostrating one’s self before the gods of Mt Miyamoto; to them it’s just an artstyle. Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s just a fact of life now, one that makes this freak a very sad freak indeed.

I’m sad because, as it stands, there are no indie tributes to the games of MY youth, nor does it look like there ever will be. I will never get to experience ‘nostalgia’ the same way millions of indie fans do every day. I will never be able to boot up the Steam indie page and see a bazillion screenshots that make me feel all gooey inside. No one will ever make a clone of Ape Escape or Jade Cocoon or Vagrant Story. No one with any talent cared enough to pay homage to those big-ass polygons I loved so dearly.

I’m sad because people will celebrate even the most garbage of NES games until the end of time, yet my beloved Demo 1 T-Rex sits unloved and alone, departmentalized into a long forgotten corner of the public conscience like an uneventful family dinner.

Damn it; do any of you even remember the Demo 1 T-Rex?


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  • TheFlyingWelshman

    I suppose I agree with your ideas on all this, I don’t really see it as a bad thing. I grew up in the same era of gaming, polygons and all, but I feel that the “retro” graphics allow for added creativity without making it too expensive to create. While the old polygon graphics were fine at the time, I still love replaying them, I feel that they don’t hold up as well as “retro” graphics do. Of course this could just be what you mentioned about how we are just used to it at this point. All in all, some interesting points in here to give some thought, thanks for the article.

  • anoon

    I agree: T-Rex Demo was awesome.

    The issue I see with PS1 style retro/indie games becoming a trend/style/thing is that a lot of what gave those big chunky polys their particular personality we would now consider graphical artifacts of poor technology: glitches.

    Dithered transparency, jittery Z fighting polygons, warping non perspective corrected texture mapping are part of what defined the PS1 look, but do little to enhance the actual gaming experience; in fact I would argue they have a negative impact and detract from it.

    Take for example Resident Evil 1 on PS1: The hardware was incapable of rendering the environment in realtime, so the backgrounds were prerendered. Objects that were interactive were realtime however, and the resulting disparity in visual quality made it painfully obvious what it was you were supposed to me mucking about with in any given scene. Contrast that to today’s Resident Evils all rendered realtime where the world is more cohesive, yielding a more believable experience.

    That all said, I too would like to see some developer take on a 1996 Style. I have even considered it myself as I venture into the world of indie development. But if it does happen, I would expect it to be some combination of PS1 era looks with a carefully chosen selection of modernized rendering quirks.

    Off the top of my head, I might go with:
    Low poly models
    Limited or no lighting (flat shaded or limited gouraud shading)
    Low res, diffuse texture maps (no normal or specular maps)
    Mostly rigid body skinning for characters, with some amount of artificially simulated vertex jitter
    Dithered transparency
    Lower screen resolution?

    Nice site BTW. I dig it.

    • Gerrard Winter

      Personally speaking, the whole “pre-rendered background with real-time characters” thing was my absolute favourite gimmick from the PS1 era!

      It illustrated how far ahead developer’s ambitions were compared to what their tech could actually do. And coming up with such a funky work-around like that? Man, there’s just something so beautifully quaint about the whole thing……..

      Also, please do make a 90s inspired game if you can. I’d love to see it!

  • sam

    i agree with you quite a bit, i can love the pixel art aesthetic sometimes but it doesn’t make me feel nostalgic. like you, i’ve grown up in the playstation era of games, and i’d really love to see more games with that chunky polygon look!

  • Kota X

    Well I understand your point, but I think that is just nostalgia that push game developers to use this “retro” style. My first console was the playstation 2 and if you ask me “what do you prefer “Crash Bandicoot and the Wrath of Cortex” ( one of the first games I played) grafics or “Chrono triger’s” (that I just played the ds version last year)?” I’d certainly say Chrono triger’s one, not because it remembers me of my childhood, but becouse i fill there is something about pixel art that atracts me way more than the 3D newer graphics and seeing this kind of anrt being used on indie games(at least for me) it’s awesome. I want to become a videogame designer and I problaby would do games with this “retro” style. Anyway good article I never tryed to see this way.
    (last thing sorry for the bad english)

  • Mepe ruse

    Nostalgia has very little importance to me i play computer games for one reason…to ha

  • Mepe ruse

    Nostalgia has very little importance to me i play computer games for one reason…to have fun.

    Nostalgic dissonance has no bearing on the games i play, i don’t care what period of gaming is trying to be recreated i only care if the game looks interesting to play & enjoy.

  • Wonkyth

    Mr. Winter,
    I believe you have struck a chord within me.
    In considering this, I shall attempt to take into account the fact that I am part of a far younger gaming generation, being born in the early years of the 90′s.
    I am, I suppose, a freak: I have never owned a console. (practically, as last year I acquired a set of Nintendo Game Boys, for the purposes of producing chiptunes)
    I find it amusing, and take a kind of hipster pride in the fact, that my earliest gaming experiences were that of Liero, CyberDogs and Triplane Turmoil. (for the record, it would appear that the Finnish produced some of the finest games of the age)
    Save for mountains of shareware — some of which was damned decent (THANK YOU SPIDERWEB AND ID! <3 ) — which would pour in on floppys, I had to go to great lengths to get games such as Warcraft and Age of Empires; I distinctly remember trading three month's savings for a copy of GeneWars, which I know for a fact was sixth-hand by the time it reached me.
    Tales of paltry hardship aside, I find that my particular nostalgia is one of isolation.
    The majority of the games I played were demos, and even when I do chance upon someone who has actually heard of The Lost Vikings, they certainly never have any memory of those first four levels that I know so well.
    As for modern games as Nostalgic Throwbacks, what could one possibly throwback _to_? It's not as if many of them had a distinctive art-style, and those that did are generally considered to look like balls; hardly the retro vibe a developer would seek.
    Even when it comes to polygons, the pickings are fairly slim. The two most polygonal games from my childhood would be Half-Life and Serious Sam. Half-Life 2 — the most obvious revival — has precious few of the original baddies or weapons, while Serious Sam 2 and 3 do not contain the crazy knife-wielding gravity-defying deathmatch platforming nor the hilarious flowery gore settings. Heck, I can't even stomach the gratuitous viscerality of the most recent Serious Sam installment, let alone appreciate it as a nostalgia.

    So here we both are, amid a sea of tropes recalling that which we do not comprehend.
    I think I feel your pain, although it is likely of a slightly different nature.

    So I guess there's little left to be said: Here's to recreating the games of our tender years!

    • Gerrard Winter

      Nice to know I’m not alone here! Sounds like you got it even worse than I do though. Hang in there buddy, hopefully our respective days will one day come!

  • Stevicus

    Good article. I can get behind you in your nostalgia dissonance to some extent. I was raised on the Super Nintendo and the N64. Tons of indie games take me back to my SNES days, and very few to my N64 days. Well I definitely get that reachable Super Mario/Mega Man itch scratched, I don’t get my Star Fox 64/Banjo Kazooie itch scratched… ever.

    Really what it comes down to, as you explained, is what is affordable and convenient to do. I just started making a point and click adventure game as a hobby. I’ve just been using Microsoft paint to make my pixel graphics. The reason I chose pixel art was 1.I like the style, and 2.It’s very easy to create.

    I guess I’m just fortunate to have had a Super Nintendo since I was born.

  • Max Roahrig

    Finally, someone who shares my pain!

    I think the reason folks are all keen on 8/16-bit stuff is because of how iconic the playstyles are, and how “videogames” the art styles are. The tech of PS1/N64 era games just didn’t look as good (even though I still love the muddiness of the N64). Plus, the budgets for indie games would go up tremendously if you tried to replicate the look of early 3D games. Can modern game engines even look that crummy? I sure hope so, because I’d LOVE a game that looked like Shadows of the Empire and played into my nostalgia of that era.

    • Gerrard Winter

      Jeez. Shadows of the Empire…… I’d forgotten about that one! Damn near blew my mind as a kid it did!

  • John

    I found this article very interesting. But I think, as someone who was born 1992 and enjoys the 16-bit stuff, that this is mostly just a matter of personal taste not nostalgia. Though I’m sure it is a factor for some.
    A good article to see on an indie game site though, would love to see more “indie-game critical” articles like this.

  • Anon

    I grew up on the Dreamcast, and I prefer the pixel art aesthetic over vectors and realistic 3D, because it looks really neat from a visual standpoint. I have zero nostalgia towards 8-bit/16-bit games. You’re not a freak, you just happen not to like this particular visual style.

    And as for you, not to worry. I predict a low-poly trend starting up once the pixel art fad dies down in a few years (and I really do hope that I’m right, because I also enjoy that style as much as pixel art – it deserves to be explored to a much greater extent). There are artists around the internets that already make their own low-poly stuff, and it’s quite good. Only a matter of time.

    • Gerrard Winter

      I sure hope you’re right!

  • namuol

    I’m kind of in the same boat. Kind of.

    My first console was an Intellivision. Look it up, if you must. The sad thing is that I had an Intellivision back when the NES was ubiquitous and my rich friends already had an SNES, Genesis and a Game Gear. Meanwhile, I played pretty much one game: Astrosmash! (The exclamation is part of the title).

    My next gaming platform was the original Game Boy. The music of Super Mario Land and Tetris Attack can hit me with a wave of nostalgia unlike any other “oldschool” soundtrack.

    My next console was the PS1 as well, on which I played the most of my games until I finally got a proper internet connection. After that it was PC games and nothing else. For a long time.

    Then along came Cave Story. Mind you, aside from the occasional fling with an emulator, I only had the slightest experience playing any games like it from the Famicom era. And yet it blew me away. It was fantastic all around, and I don’t think there’s anything to dispute about it. I think the reason it’s so good is the absolute attention to detail and a _very_ comprehensive and even unique style. The music!

    My point is this: I don’t think “nostalgia” is really the main reason people enjoy certain games with oldschool visuals or sound effects. It’s simply easier to spin a cohesive web of style when it’s lo-fi. This means more time can be spent on details and gameplay, which are what really push a good game over the edge into being a _great_ game.

  • Jon Kittaka

    I’m a game dev who works with pixels. Arguably I work in a “nostalgic” retro style, but I try to use pixels in a unique and interesting way. I don’t feel a whole lot of nostalgia for nes/snes nintendo classics, and my first console besides gameboy was the PS1. I use pixels because it allows me to put a lot of care and attention into details while simultaneously creating a sizeable world. I also think there are a lot of subtle game design strengths to minimal graphics.

    I love elegantly done low-poly character models and I also think there are a lot of great subtle things about prerendered backgrounds that are really interesting. Maybe one day if I have the motivation and resources, I’ll attempt a game with FF9- or Crash Bandicoot-era graphics.

    But I don’t think you should feel so bad! If a game is only good because of nostalgia factor, it’s probably not that good and you’re not missing out on much. If it is good a good game, then you can probably enjoy it despite not reminiscing over its art style! Plus, tons of the best indie games aren’t retro style. I just looked at the indie section on steam and only 3 or so out of 20 featured could even remotely be considered SNES-like