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Why are so many old games coming back? We asked developers why they chase nostalgia

Throwback Thursday

Remember that thing you like from 10 years ago? It’s probably getting a sequel. Shenmue 3. Evil Genius 2. Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines 2. The calendar of upcoming games is packed with throwbacks that will revisit the worlds we left behind over a decade ago. Oddworld: Soulstorm is heading back to the strange homeland of Abe the skinny green freedom farter. Mechwarrior 5 is booting up a bipedal destruct-o-bot that was powered down in the year 2000. If your favourite childhood game is not getting a sequel, it's probably getting a glittering remake.

Reviving forgotten entertainment relics is nothing new (hi, George Lucas) but the recent glut of resurrections has made me wonder: why are developers and publishers so keen to go back to old ground? Why do they want to chase this sense of nostalgia? So, I asked them.

The obvious answer is that there’s money to be made from harvesting people’s nostalgia. None of the developers I spoke to would put it in such plain terms, but let’s put it firmly in our big bag of reasons anyway. Publishers, at least, love the smell of an “established franchise”, even if they think it crude to admit it.

On the creative side, the reasons were more complicated. For some it was about growing up, for others it’s about making a dusty old thing fresh again, and some just liked the idea of re-visiting old lands because it “makes people happy”. For the makers of Evil Genius 2, a spy-foiling management game, it’s about surpassing the 2004 original, even if people don’t notice.

"It's an exciting challenge as a developer," says Ian Pestridge, the game’s art lead. "I think there's a perceived memory of a game you played, and sometimes reality can be very disappointing as Thanos once said. So the opportunity to reimagine it as a sequel means you can recapture that nostalgia."

His comrade in counter-spying, producer Ash Tregay, agrees. Making a follow-up to an older game is about "living up to people's memories”.

“It's one thing to basically just do a graphical overhaul of an old game and go: there it is, it's still as you remember it,” he says. “And that is truly playing to people's nostalgia, I feel. Whereas coming up with something that competes [with] and exceeds their expectations based on their memories is something else entirely.

“That's taking what made an original game great and interesting at the time, updating it and expanding it for a modern audience, and making that genre new again...”

For management games about building enough toilets for your henchmen, that means making things neat and tidy, clickable, easy to learn. As well as adding in a bunch of stuff we take for granted. But things are different if your game is a cult favourite role-playing first-person vampire ‘em up. The makers of Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines 2 want new players to be able to walk the shady alleyways without running into the bugs of yesteryear. But they’re also making it for the people who remember the dark times. The loyal fangdom.

"I think, personally, the reason we're seeing a lot of these is because gamers are getting older,” says Cara Ellison, a writer on the neck-biting RPG. “I'm like 33 now and I think that the original Bloodlines is my favourite game, and the reason I want to see a second Bloodlines is because I have fond memories of that game.

“I think we're seeing a lot of these games because as people are aging they… still want to see more of that, especially if it's mature-er."

Bloodlines 2 will tread on familiar themes: immortality, bloodlust, comically bad dancing. But it’s also a story about old versus new, we're told. The ancient vampiric clans and the corporate tech industry of the new age do not always gel. A lot has happened in the 15 years since the first game came out, and for Paradox producer Nikhat Ali, this is less a throwback than it is a transplant. Up-rooting the Buffy-era fang-folks of 2004 and re-settling them in a new city, a new era, to see how they behave.

"I think, perhaps... people really want the more intimate narrative stories,” she says. “To bring back that really close look [at] a city, and the different vampires in it. How do they experience contemporary Seattle? How do they experience the issues that plague us these days?"

Not all nostalgia-fuelled games desire such upheaval. Some are happy to be flashy do-overs, like the upcoming remake for Final Fantasy VII. But I couldn’t speak to the makers of that one, so I went to see the Destroy All Humans remake instead, a third-person alien blast ‘em up that is such a throwback it included Rammstein’s Ich Will in its announcement trailer, a song even more dated than the original 2005 game.

"I always like to say we're trying to do a remake not really of the original game but rather how people remember the game,” says Dennis Schiefer, producer at Black Forest Games. “So we want to catch that childhood memory."

A human being destroyed in Destroy All Humans

Here, everything in the world of Crypto the alien has been re-produced from scratch, except the voiceovers and music, which are taken wholesale from the original (with a few extra lines where needed). Crypto has new powers and can do multiple nasty things to humans at once, unlike the original game. There are a lot of other small "quality of life" changes to make playing it easier on the thumbs. I asked Schiefer why he thinks there are so many old games coming back to life.

"It's clearly the nostalgia,” he says. “People haven't played the game in a long time and actually want to replay them. But if you pick up the original it's quite disappointing...

“But I also think it's a bit of a contrary move [against] those pay-to-play games, like shooters with loot boxes and things. And going back to just a simple single player game where you buy the game, you have the game, there's no in-game shop and stuff like this."

It's harking back to some sort of "simpler time". Yet even he agrees that not every game deserves to be remade, revisited or remastered. There is a point at which we should sometimes let things go.

"Certainly, for some IPs, I would sign that right away,” he says. “It really depends on the game... there are also some games that wouldn't gain from better graphics or modernised gameplay because they work the way they are. And I wouldn't touch them. But some games offer themselves to be redone."

Interestingly, when I ask Tregay of Evil Genius 2 the same thing, he agrees.

"There are certainly some titles,” he says, “where I'm just like: I'm happy with them as they were, no need to remake them."

But he won't tell me which ones. Even when I tell him I think Sonic should be taken to the veterinary clinic and permanently put down. It feels like those making these familiar-yet-shiny worlds know there are examples where indulging a sense of deja vu would be pointless. But they’re reluctant to be the gatekeepers for that. More importantly, they are convinced their own game is worthy.

“There's a reason why there's a new Terminator movie coming,” says Zoran Roso, marketing man at publisher Deep Silver. “There's a reason why people still flock towards Star Wars decades after the first movies came out.”

Roso is working with developer Ys Net on Shenmue 3, the long-awaited sequel to the Dreamcast games of yore. The Shenmue games are about fist-fighting and forklift racing, an esoteric mix of martial arts game and life sim, full of odd minigames.

“I think great franchises are great franchises for a reason, and Shenmue is certainly among those that have a huge fan-following,” says Roso.

He is not wrong. Shenmue 3 is a monster of a sequel. It is one of the most heavily funded games of the Kickstarter rush, and after many delays it is now due out in November. It has the momentum and weight of a game that will be sold in good numbers, regardless of quality. Which only reminds me of the money I put in our reason-bag at the start of this article. There is untold cash to be made by tickling people's nostalgia glands and handing out HD rose-tinted glasses. But Roso does not see it that way. It's about making people smile, he says, or even weep.

“To see a lot of people... grown men start to cry and go crazy about it. It kind of reinforces the fact that a lot of people have been really waiting for this, so I think there's good reason for such franchises to come back and to be continued.

“As long as it makes people happy, why shouldn't you?"

Disclosure: Cara Ellison wrote things for RPS once upon a time, and a few of us are friends with her, even though she’s a massive show-off – oooh look at me, I’m Cara, look at my videogame, la la la – pfft.

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