Why Do All These New Video Games Look So Old?
You spend PS4 money, you get SNES visuals. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Flick through any preview piece for games coming out in 2015 and you'll spot a litany of lavish-looking delights. From Bloodborne and The Order: 1886 on the PlayStation 4, to the Wii U's first proper Zelda game, there are some seriously handsome adventures forthcoming that make the very most of today's console power.
And yet, here I am, most eagerly anticipating a handful of games that look to much older aesthetic approaches for their stylistic hooks. I'm not talking about the vintage animation of something like Cuphead, as compellingly drawn as Studio MDHR's run-and-gunner is. Instead, I'm more interested in the games that seem as if they could be rendered - in stills, at least (and admittedly from quite a distance) - on a Super Nintendo.
Foremost among these wonderfully retro-coloured attractions is Hyper Light Drifter, an action-adventure game in the Zelda mould that I've been tracking ever since its Kickstarter announcement and debut trailer in September of 2013. Estimated delivery for the final game was set at June of 2014, but creator Alex Preston's long-term health issues - he was born with a heart condition - have slowed progress. The game's Wikipedia page still lists a "late 2014" release, but recent preview pieces point to an unspecified date next year.
However, nobody, surely, is too concerned about waiting a little longer, given what we might get. This game has promised to be special from the outset - a proper old-school tough dungeon explorer - and its visuals are a trip, both in the sense of their psychedelic kineticism and their throwback pixel art. I mean, just look at this beautiful thing:
I must have watched that trailer tens of times now, but that final "boss" scene at the 1:30 mark still brings me out in chills. I cannot wait to play the final game, which is scheduled for release across a host of platforms, including Windows, PS4 and Vita, Xbox One and the Wii U.
Another comparably 16-bit-y role-player is also due to arrive on the new-gen consoles and PC / Mac alike, namely Titan Souls. Described as "Shadow of the Colossus meets Dark Souls" on reveal by Rock, Paper, Shotgun in late 2013, what began as a quickly assembled "de-make" of the nothing-but-bosses PS2 classic Shadow of the Colossus, put together in mere days at Ludum Dare 28, has transformed into a full game in development by Acid Nerve, with support from Devolver Digital. Again, this is like porn for me:
The Titan Souls gameplay trailer
Titan Souls' one-hit deaths and single-arrow attacks feel a far cry from the overpowered protagonists commonplace in contemporary gaming - there's no chance of your tiny avatar here becoming a god among grunts as you proceed through a series of 25 gargantuan bosses. (Each of those has just a single hit point weak spot, too, but you'll have to be quick-witted and digitally dextrous to nail them.)
"The process of playing involves dying a lot," developer David Fenn told Polygon, immediately positioning his game as a Dark Souls-like grind, albeit one that looks more like it's set in the Hyrule of the early-1990s than the threatening environs of Drangelic.
Remaining on the de-make front, and keeping things tied to Zelda, N64 classic Ocarina Of Time has a 2D makeover in the works. It's 10 percent complete as of the end of September, though whether or not the Alternative Gamers team will be able to finish their project before Nintendo's lawyers intervene remains to be seen. You can check out the impressive efforts so far in the gameplay trailer below.
As someone who was first ensnared by gaming culture in the 1990s - particularly during those pre-PlayStation years where the SNES and Mega Drive battled for 16-bit supremacy in the playground, and Amiga owners got to gloat about their Sensible Software and Bitmap Brothers titles - the concept of the de-make is forever appealing: both because of simple nostalgia and the more practical question of whether or not a modern game's spirit can carry over to more archaic design templates.
Looking at the fantastic pixel art of Sweden's Junkboy makes me think that a great many modern hits could easily enough translate to de-make status. His interpretation of Bayonetta, for example, could be straight out of Sega's shooter catalogue - or, rather, from their numerous collaborations with Treasure - and his take on Halo turns Master Chief's mega-selling series into a Turrican-alike.
Junkboy's pictures are just that: they don't move, you can't play them. More's the pity. On the topic of moving pictures, though, one particularly violent South Korean movie, 2003's Oldboy, has inspired a particularly bloody browser game, where the player must guide the hammer-wielding Oh Dae-Su through that corridor, filled with armed thugs. Hammered, as it's appropriately titled, was created by one David Abbott for this year's LUC Prize, and you can play it here.
It isn't just Junkboy who's adept at turning something shiny and realistic (enough) into pixel-perfect art reminiscent of a bygone era. Matthew Frith does a fine job of taking easily recognisable movies and films and rendering iconic characters and scenes in a style that owes a good amount to the most classic of LucasArts games, hence Kotaku compiling some of his best work under the headline: "The Best 90s Adventure Games We Never Got".
But we're getting away from the retro-geared games that you can play both in the future and the here and now. There are some great options available already, from the hyper-violence of top-down, Drive-referencing murder-sim Hotline Miami, to the frenetic firepower of Super Time Force and the retina-popping puzzles of Fez.
The success of these games is helping to paint the future in similarly blocky terms. Which is great for older sorts who still drag their Mega Drives out from under the bed when their other halves aren't looking (oh, hi!), as well as younger players who missed out on a previous age of games design, where everything didn't have to come with HD textures or run at a smooth 60 frames per second.
Coming up, beyond Titan Souls and Hyper Light Drifter, is Animal Gods, another retro-role-player currently on Kickstarter, where makers Still Gamers are looking for a£16,000 investment. It certainly looks the part, its trailer delivering on its makers' intention of pairing "the tight and polished action of The Legend Of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds with a cast of characters and touching story moments [reminiscent] of classic 1990s JRPGs". Taking things to blocky extremes is Thomas Was Alone - which receives Xbox One and PS4 ports in November - and Project Totem, a puzzle-platformer with a twist, due out equally imminently on the same consoles.
Nintendo has seen its retooling of 1980s hits, the NES Remix series, prove a success for Wii U in 2014, and is taking its two packages to date across to the 3DS in November as Ultimate NES Remix. What we have here isn't something new in the threads worn by its predecessors - this is Donkey Kong, the first Super Mario Bros., Excitebike and Kirby's Adventure (and loads more) disassembled and rebuilt as short-play, single-hop-on-the-bus experiences collected into an overall value-for-money package. It looks really old because it is really old.
As you complete challenges set in these golden oldies - scored on an out-of-three-star scale, depending on the time you took to reach whatever goal was set before you - you unlock more of the game's main remix levels, where Nintendo classics collide; Link having to avoid Donkey Kong's barrels, for example. I've been playing it on and off over a week or so, and so far haven't progressed particularly far - both because of some alarming difficulty peaks and, perhaps, my own stupid body. I don't think I have particularly massive thumbs, but they're far from ideally proportioned digits for the 3DS's minuscule face buttons.
The trailer for NES Remix
I've got 62 stars at the time of writing - no great shakes, but enough already to understand the core appeal of the NES Remix series. When games play well, they don't age, whatever their lack of gloss. Ultimate... has an option to play Speed Mario Bros - the first game, supercharged, with Mario skidding about like he's an F1 car tackling the Antarctic Grand Prix. And it's completely brilliant - a flashback from 1985 that stands up in challenge and entertainment value to the plumber's most recent 3D World Wii U escapade.
In fact, I'm playing it right now, probably, when I could be finishing up Alien: Isolation, or Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, or Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, or any number of bigger, louder, but certainly not faster games. Because it's what I know, just slightly different - which is probably why I'm so excited for the likes of Hyper Light Drifter, taking, as it does, plenty of cues from games of my youth.
Sure, I'm keen to dive into Bloodborne and all its garish ghouls and pristine blood splatters when that arrives; but I also know that truly amazing games don't need tremendous visuals to secure long-lasting appeal. Which is why Tetris is the biggest-selling video game in the world, and anything by David Cage isn't.
Ultimate NES Remix is released for Nintendo 3DS on the 7th of November.