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Classics and "The N Factor"

This is not an editorial about mathematics ("n factorial...n!"), nor is it about the "Big N" (though Nintendo and the topic at hand are certainly not mutually exclusive items). Today, I'd like to take time to consider a special word, used regularly in my vocabulary, cited as a source of either joy or cynicism among game journalists. Yes, I'm talking about nostalgia.

At this point, all gamers that have reached the legal age of adulthood have fond memories of some long-outdated title, and most people know the franchise-starting classics, such as Mario and Sonic. But RPG fans have their own favorites from times long past: Phantasy Star, Chrono Trigger, Shining Force, Earthbound, or any number of Final Fantasy games. These older titles still compete in the gaming market thanks to the wonderful world of remakes, but even in those games' original forms, there are those gamers who swear that they haven't seen an RPG that tops their personal favorite since the 16-bit era.

As a game critic, I've thought long and hard as to how one should "rank" games from different eras. The experience is totally new. Technology has, of course, had an influence on visual arts, music, performance art, and film, but those changes pale in comparison to the rapid growth of the game industry. The closest comparison the game industry has is the film industry, which in the last century has seen the advent of sound, color, blue/green screen, and more recently, CG and other special effects. Videogames, on the other hand, have had about a 30 year lifespan and have gone from Pong to Mass Effect. Seeing changes these big in our generation makes it difficult to figure out what is meant by the word "objective."

Consider the following illustration: let's say I have a teenage son, and I'm in my 30s. My son and I sit down and watch two movies: The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Bourne Identity (2002). While both my son and I recognize the changes in quality and standards on a technical level, we are able to take in and enjoy both films. And as for comparing the two, we can do it with relative ease. Later that week, my son and I try out some RPGs. First, we play a couple hours of Secret of Mana. Then, we play a couple hours of Final Fantasy XIII.

In this scenario, which will my son like more? Which will I like more? And, ultimately, which is the "better" game? It's too difficult to say, is it not? Perhaps the question itself is absurd, as though we were asking a person who studies architecture to rank the Parthenon against Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. And here's where we introduce our second key word: classic. When I use this word, I use it in a very strict, simple sense. Perhaps you've heard the definition before: "that which stands the test of time," something that is loved, not just in the generation it was created, but for all generations to come. There are "classics" in every medium of art, but, of course, whether or not a videogame is "art" can be debated. However, even in its short lifespan, we are quick to call certain games "classic" already. The Legend of Zelda, for example, is a classic Nintendo game.

But even if a game is classic, and is recognized outside the generation within which it was first introduced, gamers will continually prefer the newest games because of how heavily we rely on technology for improved graphics, sound, mechanics, and accessibility. So, back to the original question, how do I compare a game of a past era (whether it be a "classic" or not) in light of the emerging games? How does the "retro reviewer" properly score the RPGs of the past two decades? To this, I have a concrete answer, though it may be somewhat controversial.

To properly score the game, it ought to be scored within the context of its time period. Consider the game relative to other games released in that same year, or on that same console, or in that same generation (8-bit, 16-bit, etc). To do this, of course, it's safe to say that you have to have been there to understand it. That, or immerse yourself in the games of that era, ignoring the present-day releases, to get a good idea of what games were like at that time.

(As an aside, I'd love to see someone actually do the latter, by force, on a child. I cannot imagine it working, due to the required time and social constraints, as well as the sheer absurdity of the experiment, but imagine raising your son on Atari up until age 6, then Nintendo, then hit 16-bit near puberty, then 32-bit and so on up to adulthood. Simulate another generation's experience on that child, and would he take to it more willingly than someone who's had a PlayStation 4 since birth? I'd think so.

What is the mode, or vehicle, by which a person can get back to that state? Despite its being ridiculed for warping a person's rationality, I dare say that nostalgia is the best method for reviewing the older games. The word, of course, has an emotive power to it. It is a wistful, sentimental sort of word. But it suggests a desire for things of the past, an earlier stage in life, and the happiness that came during those times. And tell me, when you first put Shining Force into your Sega Genesis, were you not happy?

The first reaction I suspect a reader might have against this plan is that it forces the reviewer to forego any critical thoughts or sentiments made against that game, or its whole generation, in the years to come. To this, I offer two replies. The first is that this seems hypocritical, since we review new games all the time without the benefit of hindsight; if the new games are given this perspective, the old games may well deserve the same opportunity. My second reply, a more reasonable one, is that after putting oneself in that nostalgic mindset and doing some writing, one can also use the aforementioned critiques of the next generation as a guide to consider just how well the game performs, not just within its own generation, but within all gaming history.

Nostalgia allows me to remember what was so great about Chrono Trigger the first time I played it, so when I see someone else try it out after having played some next-gen console, and they say "well it's cool, but it's really outdated," I can remember a time when it wasn't outdated, and what effect that RPG had in its own time. This is an important factor, one that should never be ruled out when reviewing and ranking games from past generations against those of the present.

- Patrick Gann



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