The nostalgics have won. That was the defining message of this year’s E3 expo in Los Angeles.
Fans have been demanding Shenmue 3 for over a decade, while a Final Fantasy VII remake has been the stuff of spiky haired dreams since Square Enix started obsessively mining the series for spin-offs, reboots and sequels to sequels many years ago.
So the fact that our prayers have been answered is terrific news, right? It’s better than Christmas. It’s the best thing that could ever conceivably happen. It’s... oh wait, we have fallen right into a nostalgia trap. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wallowing in the quicksand of reminiscence, but it’s important to remember that sequels to, and remakes of, legendary titles will never realistically be able to live up to our expectations. It’s also worth thinking about why, after such a long time, these two games are coming out now.
The answer is pretty simple – nostalgia sells and these days it has its own store: Kickstarter. Pillars of Eternity, the entirely fan-backed homage to Baldur’s Gate, earned $4m. Shenmue 3 raised $2m in under nine hours and is now at $3.5m. Over the years there have been dozens of campaigns to get Shenmue 3 released, but until Kickstarter participants had no real power or access to change Sega’s mind. Now Yu Suzuki has given at least the beginning of that power to the fanbase. If Square Enix had sought crowd funding for FFVII, we could expect a similar stratospheric figure.
Sure, most of the investment for Shenmue will come from Sony or other companies, but $2m in a day clearly signifies how much of a market there is for the game. The Final Fantasy VII remake will be published by Square Enix but the company already knows it is on to a winner: re-releases for Final Fantasy VII on Steam, and on the PC in general, have been met with profitable fanaticism. There’s a lot of love for this era of Final Fantasy (VI-X) but Final Fantasy VII has always been the focus, it’s the trump card.
The thing is, what happens in the future? How far can this nostalgia industry go?
For a long time, Final Fantasy VII all but defined the role-playing game (RPG) genre – especially in the West. It had a huge influence on my childhood and was one of the first games I played and fully understood. But that’s the thing, it was my childhood. Nostalgia binds personal memories with the games themselves to create a heady, though misleading concoction of joy. I’ve hoped year after year for these announcements, but I’m still very apprehensive. This is about more than the re-release of two old titles; it’s bringing a culture of gaming back into a world that, for better or worse, has moved on. Shenmue and Final Fantasy VII were very different experiences but they were both, in many ways, pioneers in their sectors and some of the most memorable moments of both games were the inane quirks which don’t fit neatly into the sleek user experiences we see in most games today.
Indeed, by our contemporary standards, Shenmue and Final Fantasy VII were clunky and often unintuitive. In Final Fantasy VII moving could be confusing if you couldn’t clearly see where your character was or where you were trying to get to. Do we all remember climbing up to the Shinra offices and having to grab that swinging pole? That wasn’t fun. It was an atmospheric, gripping and inspiring scene but it wasn’t fun.
Ditto for Shenmue where Ryu would often get stuck running into walls, wouldn’t turn properly or the game would provide intricate combat moves which you’d only rarely get to use. Both titles provided elaborate levelling systems and character progression that could, by and large, be ignored. The materia system in Final Fantasy VII was great but its finer points were rendered irrelevant due to the game’s relatively tame difficulty. Shenmue had alternate move-sets for dedicated players (flashback to spending four hours training Double Blow in a car park) but again there was no real need to do this.
The feel of Shenmue
What made Final Fantasy VII and Shenmue resonate with me was the atmosphere they created. I remember when I first played Final Fantasy VII I spent about fifteen minutes just standing on the train back from the first mission, the music, the sense that we’d just achieved something huge and should take a breath and relax, the dialogue... it was amazing. The graphics didn’t matter – each intricate detail of the train moving was enough to enthrall me.
Shenmue’s level of detail was mind blowing at the time; it seemed to provide an accurate snapshot of Japan in the late 1980s with all the mundane rhythms of everyday life baked into a gripping narrative. Ryu had to get home before 11pm or his housekeeper would scold him the next day, he had to go to work, talk to people he didn’t like, engage in awkward conversations about sailors, as well as do exciting things like fight a gang and avenge his father. It was all part of the magic for me, playing in the game’s arcade and thinking “better head home in 10 minutes or I’ll be in trouble with Ine-san tomorrow”. It was a level of realism I’d never experienced in a game before and that’s why I have such fond memories of it.
But the games I think of as classics may well be unapproachable, lacklustre and irrelevant to the current generation of gamer. Will this market find Shenmue’s hilariously “off” English dubbing endearing, would translation errors which became almost meme-like in the original Final Fantasy VII get the same warm reaction today? I doubt it. But then if nostalgia can fund and sustain a game, publishers don’t need to appeal to the demographic that will be horrified by the shortcomings of older titles. This is where there could be problems as two worlds collide: will shiny new reboots get wider appeal while alienating core fans apprehensive about overt changes to game systems? Or will the games be obsessively faithful to the past, ensuring that only committed fans will want to play them?
And even the most ardent of nostalgics may well be disappointed. After years of lavish open-world spectaculars like Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto 5 and Witcher 3, will Shenmue and Finally Fantasy VII feel a teeny bit... anemic? There’s little replayability with either of them, after all. They’re both linear, fixed stories with limited worlds to explore. 1997-1999 wasn’t an era of DLC or additional content, Final Fantasy VII had its secrets (and secret they stayed unless you picked up a magazine with hints); Shenmue had options, but not a lot of real freedom.
True, Pillars of Eternity proved that nostalgic games can still provide more content than most people have time for: in that game, if you finish every quest you can replay as a different character with a completely different background and see a whole new aspect of the story. Final Fantasy VII never offered that choice – there are many who would say it never should do. Beyond reliving a brilliant story and chasing secrets you may have missed in an earlier playthrough, there was no real reason to replay Final Fantasy VII. There might be an expectation that Shenmue 3 and a remade Final Fantasy VII should offer vast open worlds with randomly generated experiences written in such a way that don’t make them generic but, in my opinion, that would not be in the spirit of either game.
I’m not saying this isn’t Super Christmas Time, I’m just saying we have to be realistic. The Final Fantasy VII remake trailer gave me goosebumps and I’m sure any Shenmue 3 promotional material (by this point even a graphically updated Ryu drinking a can of delicious soda) will have the same effect, but to avoid heartbreak and disappointment we have to wait to see what these games will actually be.
I mean, although Final Fantasy: Advent Children carried the license and had most of the major characters in it, I didn’t find the experience that compelling or interesting. Obviously it was a film not a game and the story was contrary to a lot of what you experience in Final Fantasy VII, but all the glitz and updated CGI graphics couldn’t fill the void or hit me where the original Final Fantasy VII had.
By all means get excited, but bear in mind it takes more than nostalgia to make a fulfilling game. And anyway, we can’t truly say our work is done until we have Half-Life 3. And a new Legacy of Kain. And... oh you get the point. The thing about nostalgia is, it’s never truly satisfied.
This article was written by Jonathan Allford, for theguardian.com on Friday 26th June 2015 06.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010