It's hard to find an RPG fan who doesn't have fond memories of the "16-Bit Golden Age," that revered era when developers seemed to release nothing but instant classics. Twenty- and thirty-somethings all over the world love to wax poetic about the early 90s, a time when videogame production was driven more by creativity than graphical power, more by innovation than formula, more by TLC than DLC.
Take a moment to flip through the App Store or Xbox Indie Marketplace and you'll find striking evidence of this obsession with the old-school; today's indie RPGs are packed to the brim with sprites and textures that wouldn't be out of place on a Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis. The obvious explanation might be money – powerful graphics are expensive, and indie developers not named Notch are always broke. But is that the only reason iPhone RPGs like Guardian Saga and Ash aim to emulate that 16-bit style? Or is there something inherently appealing about classic turn-based gameplay?
And then there's that million-dollar question: Were all those old-school RPGs really all that great, or is our perception just tainted by nostalgia?
Psychologist Jamie Madigan, writing on his blog "The Psychology of Video Games," argues the latter, saying that we tend to have selective memory when it comes to our favorite old games. We only remember the good parts.
"A substantial body of research has shown that we are predisposed to remember more of the good things in life," he says. "The emotional footprints of positive memories tend to fade more slowly than those of negative ones."
Old games can take us to states of euphoria by triggering our memories of the past, Madigan said, which can convince us that they're superior experiences, even when today's games are leaps and bounds better.
"We engage in nostalgia because it has psychological benefits," he said. "It makes us happy and improves our state of mind, especially when we need that kind of mental pick-me-up. Specifically, nostalgic reverie about a time when we were enjoying ourselves or finding ourselves particularly competent or connected to other people raises feelings of self-regard, which is a feeling that well-adjusted people tend to like."
So maybe when we play these new old-school games, our minds are leaping back to better days. Days when we didn't have to worry about insurance and car payments and keeping our jobs in this shitstorm of an economy. Days when we could sit back and zone in front of the television for hours and hours without getting arrested because we forgot to feed our kids.
Game developer Adam Rippon would disagree with that theory. He says it's mechanics that made those games feel so special -- mechanics that many modern RPGs can't seem to get right.
"I do think that there actually was something special and unique about the games from the 80s and 90s," Rippon told me in an e-mail. "If you look at the teams who made the early Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy [games], those were very small teams by today's standards. Design-by-committee rarely produces something as compelling as the vision of a single designer, and I think that small teams can produce better, more adventurous games. And when too much money gets involved in a game's development, I think that very often the design gets polluted by business needs."
If anything knows how to capture nostalgia, it's Rippon's game, Dragon Fantasy, an homage to old-school RPGs. Borrowing from namesakes Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest as well as other classics like Earthbound and Lufia II, Dragon Fantasy feels like it arrived here on the DeLorean from 1985.
Despite some control issues and difficulty spikes, it's a lot of fun – the dialogue is sharp, the 8-bit graphics are interesting and the turn-based, menu-driven combat can be curiously addictive. But when I play Dragon Fantasy, I can't help but ask myself why I enjoy it. Do I really love walking from place to place, entering random battles, and selecting options from a series of menus? Or am I just chasing after memories?
In many ways RPGs are magic tricks – or, as G.O.B. would call them, illusions – and we play them because we like to be fooled. We enjoy the feeling of going on an adventure, even if we know that we're really just moving pixels around. We love to watch our characters grow more powerful, even if we realize that we're only seeing numbers go up and down. We want to feel like we have choices, even if we know that we're playing something with a predetermined beginning, middle, and end.
But we're older now, more skeptical. We view new games through a lens of cold cynicism, simply because we have the experience to know when we're being fooled. We've seen it all before. And sometimes, the only way to get our minds back to that innocent, enthralled state is to tickle our nostalgia bone – a bone that has made Square Enix billions of dollars by driving us to buy endless remakes of games like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger.
As Madigan says, that's not necessarily a bad thing. We're still experiencing those euphoric feelings that make videogames so pleasurable. Maybe there is something about the rhythm of turn-based combat that appeals to our statistic-fueled left brain cells, or maybe we're just constantly trying to remind ourselves of better times. It doesn't really matter. What matters is that we buy into the illusion. Isn't that what we're all chasing?
Jason Schreier is a freelance writer/editor based out of NYC. He's a contributing writer for Wired.com and spits out words for
all sorts of other sites and publications, including the Onion News Network, Kill Screen Magazine, and G4TV. Also he's been thinking about getting a puppy. You can follow him and his hypothetical, eventual puppy on Twitter at @jasonschreier.