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Is the games industry nostalgia gold rush here to stay?

SNES Mini, Crash Bandicoot, Sega Forever, Wipeout, Xbox Originals… what next for the industry's 1990s obsession?

I was told off this week.

I had been repeating that this summer for games offers little outside of some decent Nintendo titles.

"You keep forgetting Crash Bandicoot," said my retail friend.

I laughed. "Sure, it's a nice piece of nostalgia," I reasoned. "But it's hardly going to set the market alight."

"Pre-orders are brilliant," came the reply. "We've upped our order twice. I think it's going to be the biggest game of the summer."

I shouldn't be surprised. We've written extensively about the marketplace's current love of nostalgia, and that trend only seems to be accelerating. In the last two weeks alone, we've seen the news that original Xbox games are coming to Xbox One, the reveal of the Sega Forever range of classics for smartphones, and now the best-selling SNES Mini.

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The Mini SNES sold out in 23 minutes on the UK Nintendo Store

The trend isn't new. Classic re-releases have been standard for over a decade. However, the recent surge in nostalgia can be traced back to the onset of Kickstarter and the indie movement, which brought with it a deluge of fan-pleasing sequels, remakes and spiritual successors.

The trend reached the mainstream around the 20th anniversary of PlayStation, with Sony tapping into that latent love for all things PS1. And today, nostalgia is a significant trend in video games. Look at this year's line-up: Sonic Mania, Yooka-Laylee, Super Bomberman, Wipeout, Crash Bandicoot, Thimbleweed Park, Micro Machines, Metroid II... even Tekken, Mario Kart and Resident Evil have found their way to the top of the charts (even if they never really went away).

It's not just software, either. Accessories firms, hardware manufacturers and merchandise makers are all getting in on the act. I even picked up a magazine last week (on the shelves of my local newsagent) dedicated to the N64. This is the industry we live in.

Crash Bandicoot joins Resident Evil, Wipeout and Tekken in a throwback 2017 line-up

Crash Bandicoot joins Resident Evil, Wipeout and Tekken in a throwback 2017 line-up

Nostalgia has manifested itself in several different ways. We've seen re-releases (Xbox Originals, Sega Forever, NES Mini, Rare Replay), we've seen full remakes and updates (Crash Bandicoot, Final Fantasy VII, Resident Evil 2), plus sequels and continuations (Elite Dangerous, Shenmue 3). We've seen a plethora of spiritual successors (Yooka-Laylee, Bloodstained, Thimbleweed Park) and we have also witnessed old-fashioned game elements re-introduced into modern titles (split-screen multiplayer, for instance).

It's not just games. We've recently seen nostalgia-tinged TV such as Twin Peaks, Stranger Things and X-Files, plus the cinematic return of Ghostbusters, Baywatch, and Jurassic Park. Yet this trend isn't so new for film and TV (or music, either). And that's because they're older mediums. The demand for nostalgia tends to come from those aged 30 or above, and with video games being such a young industry, we're only starting to see the manifestation of this now.

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Twin Peaks, another 1990s comeback

It's perhaps also more significant in games because of just how different the experiences of the 1990s are to what we have today. In terms of tech, visuals, genre and connectivity, video games have moved so quickly. We simply don't get many games like Crash Bandicoot or Wipeout anymore, which makes the demand for them even more acute.

Can it last forever? Or is this destined to be another gaming gold mine that gets picked to death? It's difficult to say. Nostalgia isn't like MMOs or futuristic shooters. This isn't a genre, but an emotion. A 'sentimental longing for a period in the past'. In theory, the clamour for old games and genres should get broader. In ten years time, those brought up on a diet of DS and Wii will be approaching 30. They'll be reminiscing of the times they spent on Wii Sports and Viva Pinata. And the nostalgia wheel turns again.

Nevertheless, what we're starting to see now is changing expectations of consumers. No longer are they pandering to every Kickstarter that promises to resurrect a long lost concept (sorry Project Rap Rabbit), and they will not tolerate a nostalgic releases that fails to deliver (sorry Mighty No.9). Lazy ports or half-hearted efforts will not win you any fans. If you want good examples of how to do it, look at Nintendo with the inclusion of Star Fox 2 in the SNES Mini, or the documentaries hidden in Rare Replay, or the special PS1-style case that Sony created for the new Wipeout. This is the games industry and the same rules apply. You cannot get away with rubbish.

Nostalgia alone will not guarantee success

Nostalgia alone will not guarantee success

Of course, big companies can't live off nostalgia alone. Nintendo can't build a business from just re-selling us Super Mario World (even if it seems to try sometimes). These moments of retro glory can often be fleeting. Will a new lick of paint on Crash Bandicoot revitalise the brand and deliver it back to the mainstream? It's not impossible, but unlikely. More often than not you see a brief surge in gamers reminiscing over a time gone by, and then the IP drifts back to the era from which it was plucked. Musical comebacks are often short-lived and movie remakes are, typically, poorly received.

Yet there are exceptions every now and then. Major UK 1990s pop group Take That made its big comeback in 2006, but it did so with a modernised sound that has seen the band return to the top of the charts and stay there for over 10 years. In 2005, the BBC's Doctor Who returned after 16 years. It was faster paced and far more current, and it remains a permanent fixture on Saturday night TV.

And last year's Pokémon Go, which stayed true to the IP whilst delivering it in a new way and through new technology, has elevated that brand to the heights not seen since the late 1990s.

"Nostalgia is a seductive liar, that insists things were far better than they seemed. To be successful with it in the commercial world, you need to keep that illusion alive"

They say nostalgia is a seductive liar, that insists things were far better than they seemed. To be truly successful with it in the commercial world, you need to keep that illusion alive. You must create something that looks and sounds like it comes from a different era, but actually plays well in the modern age. And that's true whether it's Austin Powers or Shovel Knight.

Indeed, nostalgia isn't always about the past, it can help take us into the future. One unique example comes in what Nintendo did with The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. The company altered the traditional Zelda formula with that 3DS game, and made it more palatable to fans by dressing it in the same world as 1991's A Link To The Past. It worked, and set the company up to take an even larger risk with its seminal Breath of the Wild.

If the SNES Mini taught us anything, the clamour for all things 1990s remains strong. For developers and publishers who were smart enough to keep hold of their code from that era, they may well reap the benefits.

However, there's a broader market opportunity here than just cashing in on past success. There's a chance to resurrect IP, bring back lost genres, and even rejuvenate long-standing brands in need of innovation.

It's a chance for the games industry to take stock and look to its past before embarking on its future.

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Latest comments (12)

Daniel Hughes PhD Researcher, Bangor UniversityA year ago
There's a chance to resurrect IP, bring back lost genres, and even rejuvenate long-standing brands in need of innovation.
One of my favourite games so far this year is Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a full-blooded remake of the second (Japan-only) Fire Emblem game, and I honestly feel that remake has more to offer the future of Fire Emblem and SRPGs than the last couple of new Fire Emblem entries do. What might a remake of Adventure of Link bring to Zelda?

I would hope more publishers (including Nintendo themselves) follow up on the release of Star Fox 2, and begin to either re-release or recreate games that haven't had a Western release yet. Or, where appropriate, release games that never saw the light of day! Granted I expect Star Fox 2, as an early 3D game built on limited technology, will have aged terribly, but it's still part of the industry's heritage. In a fast-moving industry such as gaming, the near-obsession with nostalgia and heritage isn't necessarily negative. It also drives an ever-expanding literature of videogames, like the recent N64 anthology, and the upcoming Kickstarted 'A Profound Waste of Time', or the fanzine Hyperplay RPG, inspired by the SNES magazines of the mid 90s.

We have both the technology and the financial systems now to catalogue and access gaming's history like never before. Microsoft seem oddly aware of this, even though they're the youngest of the big three, boldly attempting to make most, if not all, Xbox games across three generations available on Xbox One. It's a shame Sega Forever has been marred by technical problems across Android and iOS. Virtual Console (for all its faults, it brought European gamers gems like Sin & Punishment and Earthbound) among other services demonstrates that emulation works brilliantly on consoles. How much better might Sega Forever be if it comes to Switch, PlayStation and Xbox in the near future?

Thought provoking article, Christopher. As my comment suggests, I think there's a wider engagement with gaming's history going on than 90s nostalgia, though there's no doubting that 90s nostalgia is a very powerful thing indeed.
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There is an industry learning to utilised its back catalogue in a way that the movie and music industries have long since mastered. That's true. But a part of it comes from the recent surge in social media-driven nostalgia in the 1980s and 1990s. It's not a new trend, really, but it exists throughout entertainment. The reaction to the idea of a new series of SMTV Live brought a smile to my face.
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Hugo Trepanier Game Designer, Behaviour InteractiveA year ago
Very good article and very good questions to ponder!

My dad bought some Beatles albums 3 or 4 times in various formats and reissues as the technology progressed. This is a pattern we can expect to see with every generation, though on different levels.

However, in my experience there is something disheartening with video games. I usually prefer to hold on to my dear memories, because often when I replay really old games I tend to feel somewhat disappointed; not all of my nostalgic early-year favorites have aged that well. The memories seem better preserved, albeit perhaps inaccurately.

Also, other than the obvious bigger and already established brands I can't imagine many obscure 80's and 90's titles getting into the spotlight outside of their niche market.

The better experiences, in my opinion, are the newer titles inspired from the classics that take them to new levels. Those that can ring the nostalgic bell perfectly while still keeping up with the times and improving on the formula. I think we're going to see a lot of success here, games that look and feel retro while being nevertheless resolutely modern. Games like The Last Night, or the aforementioned Thimbleweed Park, for instance.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Hugo Trepanier on 28th June 2017 5:27pm

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Show all comments (12)
Ben Link Video Game Enthusiast and Graphic Artist A year ago
Like the article even though Xbox was the 2000's :).
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing A year ago
Nostalgia is for people too scared of the present. Confronted with the uneasy facts of today, you can either default to a future utopia or a misrepresentation of the past. Utopia has gone out of style, so nostalgia it is. Only problem, nostalgia might be good enough for a parent to buy an established brand for their kids, but it is no mechanism to create hereditary brands. A good modern Mario game will do more good, than some retro throwback version with a $5 voucher if you were born before 1990.

I say all this having loved Thimbleweed Park very much, but at a second look, it is a good game, because it is good, not because the artstyle covers up a stinker.
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Benjamin Solheim Aerospace Think Tank (Shareholder in several gaming companies) A year ago
People that were just getting started in the industry back in the early ninetines are getting to the point they have enough money and experience to start their own studios. Not as I don't have a job lets form a studio types but I have built forty years of income and I want to build my dream now. Most of them are looking at the early nineties because the eighties had just ended most people were still listening to eighties music all kinds of weird stuff as a teenagers looking for an identity, companies after the upswing of personal identity were focused on fun. Most games of the eighties and nineties it was not about the graphics that was more one of gestural strokes on the screen not details, but there was no focus on the game being anything other than a fun game.

Most of those developers looking to build their dream are likely trying to figure out what it that made those games fun. So they find out who owns the IP and offer to build a remake and then they take the game apart from the eighties and the nineties to see what people enjoy playing how long they play it and what culture and counter culture no longer effects the game. Like crash bandicoot. Most people don't remember the tv the bandit or cooties unless you bring them up but playing the game running through the game breaking through walls like the cool aid commercials or simply because certain areas of mario were frustrating to go through. Those might not even effect new players yet the game is still fun. So likely the point of the nineties remakes is to quantify what makes a game fun for their own dreams.
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@Hugo Trepanier: I agree. The way it works is to re-create the past in a way that we remember it, not as it actually was. Whether that's Shovel Knight or Thimbleweed Park. Or Doctor Who. Something that has all the iconography that tugs on the nostalgia strings, but is actually very modern.
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@Benjamin Solheim: That's an excellent observation I didn't make. The Doctor Who example I gave is very specific to what you said here. It was brought back by those that loved the show when they were young, and now happen to be running the BBC.
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Nick Parker Consultant A year ago
Would be interesting to have some age demographics on those buying mini SNES and nostalgic brands from the 90s. I also hear a few parents to kids saying "you must get that, it's great!". Games truly hit mass market in the 90's and those experiences and those since will pass down from generation to generation. It reveals a maturity in the market that games can become like great movies and great songs, they never die.
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@Nick Parker: Yes, Nintendo made a comment about it being for old fans and those that never had the chance to experience this content. I'll be interested to see how many of the latter it attracts.

The second controller inclusion makes it a strong Christmas gifting item. I'd expect plenty of dads excitedly plugging it in on Christmas day to show their children what real games are like.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing A year ago
Never had the chance? That is something EA can say when they inevitably dig up Archon again. Never had the chance is not something you associate with games having been released on multiple virtual consoles. Sure, it is a good selection of games, but outside of Starfox 2 it is hardly a list of games you could not buy before.

I guess I still cannot believe how well this melange of "here is a thing you know" combined with brand recognition and nostalgia works. +1 for every dad who buys a modern console with Axiom Verge instead of making a fool of himself with Super Metroid SNES Mini Edition.
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Hugo Trepanier Game Designer, Behaviour InteractiveA year ago
One can wonder also how the new generations perceive what us old timers considered gold in our time. I'd bet the majority perceive it as outdated, outside a small specialized demographic.

This inevitably reminds me of that scene in Back to the Future II where Marty is proud to demonstrate his crackshot skills at the old arcade cabinet in the 80's Cafe. The kids are disgusted to learn that he has to use his hands to play and refer to it as a baby's toy. Fun stuff.
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