Nostalgia is an incredibly powerful force. Catching a certain scent in the air or hearing a few bars of a familiar song can instantly transport us to another time and place. Nostalgia can make us melancholy, it can make us incredibly sad, or it can fill us with a childlike type of happiness. Modern videogame developers and publishers are well aware of this fact, regularly trotting out the characters, visual styles, and gameplay types its audience first encountered in their youth as a shortcut to sales success. Whether these call-backs to the past are innovative or lazy, though, makes all the difference in whether the ensuing game is worthwhile.
It’s impossible to discuss videogame nostalgia without mentioning Nintendo. The last major company to bridge the early days of the home console market and the modern games industry, Nintendo maintains an empire that owes its existence to players’ memories of the past. Because it was responsible for releasing a laundry list of the best games of the 1980s and ’90s — Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and, of course, Super Mario Bros. — the company is able to use its roster of iconic series to create titles that produce nearly instantaneous nostalgia. This isn’t to say that Nintendo’s work is always stagnant. Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D Land are both recent games that used familiar characters, settings, and mechanics, but reworked them in fascinating ways. When faced with a change in technology, the company is capable of reinventing modern games (consider how influential the Nintendo 64’s newly 3D Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time were). Yet it is also, more distressingly, capable of recycling previously established mechanics in series like Pokemon, New Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, Pikmin, and The Legend of Zelda. This is an extraordinary shame because Nintendo is fortunate enough to not only have some of the most creative minds in the industry working on its development teams, but also some of the most enduring and flexible characters in games.
Consider Namco/Namco Bandai’s handling of the Pac-Man franchise. Pac-Man itself is a household name, but, unlike Mario and friends, wasn’t first conceived of in a game that allowed itself to transition so easily into modern titles. As long as Mario jumps now and then, he can star in just about anything. Pac-Man, on the other hand, pretty much has to be playing cat and mouse with ghosts in some kind of maze while gobbling down pellets. Really the only choice that Namco Bandai has had in modernizing the character is in making prettier versions of the original arcade game. Pac-Man Championship Edition CE DX shows what could be the limit of the formula. Series creator Toru Iwatani returned to the template, shrugging aside years of ill-conceived attempts at turning Pac-Man into a Mario-style mascot platformer, with the only substantial update to the 1980 classic to date. By tweaking the focus of the game from surviving a progression of static mazes to one where the player is asked to rack up as many points as possible in an evolving level, the game felt new again for perhaps the first time in 30 years.
It isn’t likely that anyone — not even Iwatani himself — will be able to push the formula any further than Championship Edition CE DX has, though. Since Namco Bandai, unlike Nintendo, hasn’t been able to find any truly effective way to give Pac-Man and the ghosts any real sense of personality, it can’t survive forever. Without sequels to the original arcade game that extend the breadth of the series, there’s nowhere left to go. The mechanical innovations of Championship Edition CE DX are probably decades too late. Nostalgia for the Pac-Man character has probably carried Namco Bandai as far as it’s going to. Characters like Mario, who Nintendo refused to let fall into a mold, are now just as well known for starring in kart racing, tennis, and role-playing games as the 2D side scroller that made him popular in the first place. It’s been heartening to see Nintendo making signs that it remembers the importance of innovation like this in the last year, even as it continues to release rehashes at nearly the same pace as its more original titles. Bankrolling the creation of sprawling RPGs and handheld strategy titles is the smarter path for a developer that wants to stay in the business for the long term. Focusing on high definition re-releases and tired sequels is not. As series like Pac-Man show, nostalgia can make players buy the same game over and over again, but not forever.