In Defense of Nostalgia

“That’s just the nostalgia talking.”

After reading Liore’s post about starting to play Final Fantasy 7 for the first time (from the latest Steam sale), I started thinking about nostalgia. After all, I still consider FF7 in my top three favorite videogames of all time. I have undoubtedly played other games for longer – and it’s likely that I’ve played “better” games since then – but a component of what I describe as “favorite” includes impact on my life.

Nostalgia is always used as a pejorative in videogame discussions, a way of dismissing the assertion that X is better than Y, or that X is still good at all. Hell, I have probably used the term in the same manner. But it seems clear to me now that the “charge” of nostalgia is a bit too sweeping. Sure, sometimes you think something is (still) good simply because you liked it when you were younger. But sometimes you do just so happen to experience a revolution or cultural event as a child. Was the moon landing “just nostalgia talking”? Was MLK’s speeches “just nostalgia talking?”

The cultural impact of FF7 in gaming specifically cannot be overstated. It has sold 10 million copies as of 2010, which might not sound impressive for a game that came out in 1998, but keep in mind that that still makes it the best-selling Final Fantasy title of all time. It pretty much popularized the (J)RPG genre in the United States, and arguably sold the original PlayStation by itself. The graphics, which admittedly don’t hold up well at all today, were revolutionary at the time. And the music? The end of Disc 1? One-Winged Angel? There is a reason why so many people cosplay as FF7 characters and not, say, characters from FF6 or FF4 or FF9.

But let’s assume that is just nostalgia talking. Well… when does nostalgia not talk? Is everything from the past suspect? Do things only get better over time? Are all the good things in gaming just conveniently occurring right now? (Hint: Many MMO bloggers are saying no.) I am not entirely sure that a hyper-focus on the present is any less ridiculous than a longing for the past.

I will be the first to admit I have criticized someone for having “rose-colored glasses” in regards to wistfully looking back to, say, TBC WoW game design. And I do actually still stand by those criticisms: there is nothing about TBC that I don’t honestly and truly believe Wrath improved (with the exception of Kara, maybe). But… I dunno. I’m not sure anymore that I can legitimately claim “that’s just nostalgia talking” in one instance and not levy the same damnation on a game like FF7. Vanilla WoW or even TBC WoW were just as groundbreaking at the time, in their contexts, as FF7 or anything else. Cataclysm? Much less so.

Nostalgia remains a tricky subject though. Can something be both legitimately revolutionary and not hold up to today’s scrutiny? Probably. Like… Pong, maybe. And surely there are others too, although the first thing that came to mind, Super Mario Bros, actually holds up IMO. Secret of Mana? The music alone buoys the game. And, again, I’m not entirely sure why a game “not holding up” is necessarily a deficiency of the game anyway. A timeless classic in other mediums remains amazing by definition, but it is not as though we continuously invent new ways of reading books or watching movies. Meanwhile, there are millions of different iterations on combat systems or simple object interaction. Holding games to the same standards of books and other mediums seems like an unfair comparison in that regard.

And really, who cares if it is “just nostalgia”? Regardless of whether FF7 holds up, it had a significant impact on my (gaming) life if nothing else. I created save files in front of every CG cutscene and showed my friends when they came for sleep-overs. Remember the Mako Junon Cannon firing? I was showing them that one and my friend David quipped “Is that the gun?” when the camera was panning to the side turrets. I paused a beat and then said “No, that’s the gun” as the Cannon came on-screen. That IRL moment couldn’t get more cinematic if we tried.

As I mentioned at the top, I have undoubtedly played other games for longer amounts of time, and probably have played objectively better games too. Nevertheless, I’m not entirely sure whether my favorite games of all time list have really changed. To be honest, I haven’t thought about it all that much. Bastion was good enough to dislodge some SNES game, surely, but which one? Hell, can I even get myself to play my supposedly favorite games again? And if I can’t, should that even mean anything?

I dunno. I also purchased FF7 during the latest Steam sale, and am looking forward to playing it again with no mods (besides the music one that makes it sound like the PS1 original). Will it hold up? Will my opinion on it change? We’ll see. Maybe not soon, but eventually. And then perhaps I should give Xenogears and Final Fantasy Tactics another try too, seeing as they hold spots #1 and #3 respectfully.

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Posted on August 2, 2013, in Commentary and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Final Fantasy Tactics is my all time #1. It’s one of the few I played through more than once because I wanted to unlock the secret characters. I have tried many other Tactics games sicne then and have yet to find one that quite hits the spot the way FFT did. I would love to see it released on Steam the way FF7 was. I know they did an iPhone version not too long ago but I don’t have an iPhone.

  2. Nostalgia: When younger generations think they popularized something. Not that you’re much younger than me, but FF7 did NOT popularize JRPGs in the US. In fact JRPGs are *still* considered a niche taste and are as popular as they’ve ever been (adjusted for internet/online/gaming explosion of 21st c). Don’t forget there were 6 other FF before 7 came along …

    • Point taken about popularization.

      However! Depending on the sources, FF7 sold more than the prior 6 titles combined; in fact, it is basically 10% of all Final Fantasy titles by itself. FF8 held the #1 top-selling videogame in all categories for the first three weeks of its release. And yet it still sold less than FF7 by about 2 million copies.

      So, overall, I still stand by my claim. And lest I be accused of bias, FF6 was my first Final Fantasy, and I played Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, Zelda: ALttP, etc, during the SNES era. FF7 certainly did more sales-wise for the series than literally anything else – if that’s not a cultural impact, I don’t what is.

  3. Sorry, comment eaten. Here’s the rest:

    When we say that something was better about previous/current games what we really ought to ask ourselves in breaking out the meaning of that statement is: what’s different? And when you ask, for example, what was different about TBC v. WotLK, the answer seems to be a whole helluva lot. I think players can recognize general improvement, but I have the same faith they can recognize something what’s worse.

    FF7 is only one of the most successful sequels in gaming. Usually sequels tail off into mediocrity, but not FF7. Its story and gameplay were different enough to make a new generation feel unique :)

  4. I would also include Xenogears as one of my all time top games, but it has a lot of problems especially once you get to disk two. Even with all of that, it doesn’t tarnish the impact it had on me at the time. The story was more mature and nuanced the other games of its time and I felt like I was peaking into a whole world of secrets.

    I’ve heard it called a hodge-podge of religious and mythological name dropping slapped on a badly paced wall of text, but at the time it was amazing. I think the criticism is fair, but personal experience and emotional resonance trump that.

    • Yeah, I’m interested in what my future play-through will reveal. I actually knew about many of the criticisms before I even played it the first time way back when, but that was all drowned in the mind-boggling imagery and nuance from a genre that was otherwise obsessed with dragons and killing oozes.

  5. MMOs make nostalgia much more poignant. We can always play the older single player games and recapture that original feeling we got if the franchise has moved on. With MMOs it’s not so easy as when the world changes it effectively removes the the ability to experience the types of things you may have loved.

    I think your reference to Kara is a good one. Kara was much less linear than later content and really had a sense of place. I feel much the same about BRD. The changes in wotlk did smooth out many things but in doing so they (to my knowledge) have never really been able to recapture the feel of places like these. Since BRD and Kara are not particularly playable or balanced these days that “rose colored glasses” can really kick in.

    • Fair point about how MMOs are decidedly different than normal games. Good or bad, something like Chrono Trigger will still play the same way as it did 15+ years ago. In MMOs, the one thing you found fun about the game could disappear in a hotfix.

      I kinda feel that’s what you sign up for when you download the game though. It sucks watching something get worse over time, no doubt, but that can happen in any social game even if no mechanics change at all (e.g. your guild falls apart, friends leave, etc). Nothing can be taken for granted.