Breaking My Backlog #12 – The Messenger and Saturday Morning RPG

I’m not the biggest fan of nostalgia. I know that may be an odd statement, since two of my articles last month were specifically built around nostalgia. But, it’s true. As a concept, I find nostalgia to be very troubling. It’s not that I don’t like to look back and relive some of my happiness from my childhood. I think, by now, it should be evident that that’s a huge part of what I do. However, all too often, I feel like the downsides of nostalgia outweigh the benefits. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your wistful memories of childhood, or even revisit the media of your childhood in an effort to re-experience those feelings. It’s just important, in doing so, that you remember how easily nostalgia can be weaponized.

It’s impossible to talk about nostalgia in current times without also talking about capitalism, especially when video games are concerned. Video game companies are all too ready to package up our childhoods and resell them to us with new descriptive words like “remastered” or “new collection.” And we pay them a premium to do so. Of course, this doesn’t apply if you’ve never played the games. These collections can be a great way to experience them for a cheaper price than trying to track down cartridges from 30 years ago that may or may not work. But, we all know that the people who haven’t played the games aren’t the primary target of these re-releases. They target those of us who have played these games before by invoking our sense of nostalgia and then sticking us with the bill.

Remember Spyro? Don’t you love Spyro? Then, fuck you. Pay us 60 dollars and you can play Spyro again.

This is probably the video game topic I get most cynical about. I think, at the root of that cynicism, is my desire to experience fresh creativity. Nostalgia can be a wonderful thing, but ultimately, I want developers to focus on moving forward and creating something new, not living in the past and releasing old games to make a quick buck. It’s why when I play games like The Messenger and Saturday Morning RPG, I tread carefully. I play them because I want to see how they engage nostalgia, but I also want to see if they do anything new within that context.

Both of these games engage nostalgia in separate ways. Saturday Morning RPG is the most egregious offender in this regard. This game vomits references to 1980s media on your screen, and then it tries to find some semblance of a good game within them. And, to be fair, they succeed in some ways. At the beginning, the references are fairly cheeky, and they’re pretty funny. There are some deep cuts here, and it would be impossible to list them all. Even the gameplay itself — mostly fetch quests broken up by a turn-based battle system featuring a few mini-games — is classic and fun at first. The different attacks and skills are all fairly interesting, and the scratch-and-sniff load-out (requiring a rock-the-thumbstick-back-and-forth activity to activate before each battle) provides some variety in how you approach and play battles. But, once you experience all of this forty or fifty times, it gets a little repetitive. There’s not a lot left to see. By about halfway through Episode 3, I was thoroughly bored, and the battles consisted of me attempting to do my most powerful attacks to defeat the enemy quickly and move on toward the end of each episode.

When the gameplay itself gets boring, Saturday Morning RPG can only rely on the nostalgia factor, and again, its attempt to do this ultimately feels weak. The references to 1980s pop culture come through fast and hard, but the game never does much with them. They’re just there. You can almost imagine the developer standing behind your screen grinning and saying, “didja see the reference to transformers? Didja? Wasn’t that great?” Again, nothing inherently bad about this, but ultimately, what’s the point? Why invoke all of this if you don’t actually do anything with it? Why waste your time? Why waste mine? If you’re going to engage my nostalgia to sell me a product, then you have to make that product worth something.

Parody can be a good thing, but hollow parody leaves me wanting.

The Messenger approaches things differently. Rather than rely heavily on nostalgic references, The Messenger uses a nostalgic framework to show something new. On first blush, the game is heavily inspired by the original Ninja Gaiden. You run and jump and grab onto walls and slash enemies. The graphics look 8-bit, and the only reason I could even tell a difference between this game and one released 30 years ago is that The Messenger controls like a dream. Where The Messenger sets itself apart from other games that engage our nostalgia is that once the nostalgia effect wears off — and it does by level 2 or 3 — a pretty fantastic game emerges.

The Messenger is the best of both worlds. The control scheme, the level design, and the combat system just work, and that’s fantastic. Despite looking like a game from 30 years ago, everything feels fresh and unique. It’s a similar to Celeste, where the developers used a classic look to create something that feels remarkably modern. This is even more evident halfway through, when the game shifts to a 16-bit style exploration game. It works really, really well.

Even the story — a ninja is given a scroll and tasked with delivering the scroll to the top of a mountain to defeat a demon king — is something that would totally be written for a game from the 1980s and 1990s. But, the game realizes this, and it never takes itself too seriously. There’s quite a bit of humor here at the game’s expense, which seeks to soften a bit of the blow of the buckwild story, and it succeeds. If anything, I wish the game would take itself more seriously. I understand that I’m probably in the minority here, but I’m a huge fan of media that goes all in on a wild story and commits to it 100-percent. If you look at some of the most classic media from the 1980s, that’s what you will find. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is about two losers who will someday change the world, but only if they pass a high school history test, so they have to travel through time to do it. Goonies is about a group of kids in Oregon that somehow stumble upon a treasure hunt in their own backyard filled with traps and puzzles that exist within this world for some reason. Labyrinth is about David Bowie’s sexy dancing and bulge. And every single one of these stories commit to the bit without question, and they ask us as viewers to suspend our disbelief just long enough to do so.

And we do, and it is awesome.

The fact of the matter is that media companies are always going to use our own nostalgia to sell their products. Choosing to buy something is mostly emotional (usually the justification for buying something after the fact is based on reason), and nostalgia is a powerful emotional force. Most video game players grew up playing these games, so some of our best memories are shaped and informed by this experience. It’s an easy sales technique to tap into that.

I would just hope that as we go forward we, as consumers, can grow a little more discerning in what we expect of them if they choose to engage our nostalgia. At least, I hope I can. Because I’ve already bought Resident Evil like 12 times, and I just don’t think I should buy it again the next time Capcom releases it.

Backlog Update:

I’m making my way through the list. I have completed a few more games that I haven’t even written about yet.

Total Backlog: 269

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