Nowadays, with the digital distribution platforms provided by many of the industry’s giants, groups of indie developers with low budgets and bright ideas have found a great entry-point to the gaming market. Given the financial limitations and small personnel of those companies, most of them – wisely – set out to build titles of straightforward structure and presentation.
Frequently, the path chosen in order join simplicity and charm is one: 8-bit graphics. It is hard to pinpoint when that visual revival started, but by looking back on the recent history of videogames, one old-school landmark in particular stands out: Mega Man 9.
By 2008, the year of the game’s release, the state of that franchise was not very distant from the situation in which Sonic finds himself ever since 3-D graphics became the norm. Although the Blue Bomber never reached the embarrassing low points hit by Sega’s hedgehog, a considerable amount of time had passed since the character had last starred in an adventure of remarkable quality.
Capcom’s solution to the problem was simple. In order to push the franchise forward, they would look into its past by producing an 8-bit game – with all its graphical, musical, and control boundaries – in the 21st century. Six years later, when the amount of games of the sort that have appeared since then is counted, that move does not look like such a big deal. However, back then, it was somewhat bold.
Nobody was really sure whether or not there was still a market for that kind of software. Capcom was playing a low-risk and high-reward game; after all, it was a massive company investing in a low-budget title featuring its most beloved mascot. Still, nobody likes to see a product sink in failure, and Mega Man 9 was the simplest of games launched in the midst of a battle of high-definition graphics. It was, by all means, an ant – albeit a popular one – among titans.
Mega Man 9 hit it out of the park. In fact, it did so well that it warranted a sequel, which would be released two years later to equal commercial and critical accolades. It proved that experienced players craved for brutal and bare-bones games in the middle of all complexity found in modern efforts, and that a new generation of gamers was willing to discover and enjoy the industry’s legacy.
The greatest testament to the success of Mega Man 9, though, was the huge amount of 8-bit and old-school titles that would flood the online marketplaces to the delight of fans and critics alike. Super Meat Boy, the Bit Trip series, To the Moon, Cave Story, Fez, La Mulana, and the recently released Shovel Knight are just some of the examples of works that, perhaps, would not have gained the deserved attention had Mega Man failed to open up the gates.
Games of that sort have to contend with a factor that can be both helpful and perilous: nostalgia. It is no secret that all 8-bit titles try to bet on that fondness towards the past with the goal to charm players who lived through that romantic era. Almost invariably, it works; throw in some nice chiptunes, a few references to old treasures, and well-crafted blocky visuals and the game will produce a good bunch of smiles on an older audience.
In spite of that, relying on nostalgia alone to build a quality game, a strategy used by Retro City Rampage, is a recipe for underwhelming results. A few moments of feel-good remembrance of old times do not make a good game by themselves. Actually, tackling the production of an adventure of the sort is not taking a shortcut to greatness carried by the wheels nostalgia; it is the killing of a dragon full of old tricks. Acknowledging that is the first step developers involved in such a project must climb on their way to positive results.
All in all, there are two types of audiences that must be charmed: youngsters who are used to flashy new visual standards, and players that – through hours of gaming spread across numerous generations – have seen and experienced quite a lot.
Charming the former group usually demands the crafting of old-school games with touches of modern gaming. Developers and companies alike have learned a lot during all these years, and polishing the simple 8-bit gameplay with the knowledge acquired on those failures and successes is vital.
Meanwhile, alluring the more experienced audience goes through the finding of a way to make surprising design choices to create inventive levels. That is a tough path to take considering the amount of 8-bit classics out there that have fully explored bags of ideas, which goes to highlight how hard it is to produce a game of that sort on this day and age. Another easier, yet still daunting, option is using 8-bit graphics as a platform for some brand new gameplay ideas.
Super Meat Boy, while drowned in its brutality, made its gauntlets ridiculously short, which shows a great degree of awareness towards the frustration most 80s gamers went through when playing long levels with no checkpoints whatsoever. It added modern ideas in a purely old-school cauldron of gameplay.
Mega Man 9 tried to emulate the masterpiece that was Mega Man 2. And, confined within the use of a structure that was identical to that of its much older brother, it found brilliant ways to put out a set of incredible levels and abilities that displayed great creativity.
The Bit Trip series invented multiple gameplay scenarios of ancient simplicity but newly found concepts that gave birth to a contemporary game dressed in the looks and easy-to-digest spirit of long-gone arcade titles.
And then, there is the incredible and very fresh Shovel Knight. It is a game that draws clear inspiration from the Mega Man blueprint. Its levels are uniquely themed, clever bosses await at the end of each stage, and the titular character can master many useful abilities.
In order to keep things interesting to both newcomers and long-time players, it employs great level design ideas, scenarios with multiple beautiful 8-bit layers, an overworld in the vein of that of Super Mario Bros 3, and towns filled with intriguing NPCs and tons of shopping opportunities that are a clear nod to Adventure of Link. It is old-school 8-bit gaming made stronger by ideas that came during or after that era.
It goes to show that even though there will always be various games that will try to gain notoriety only by relying on nostalgia, the only ones that will be praised enough to stand side-by-side with the blocky works of art of yesteryears are those that seek to bring something new and remarkable to the table.