As much as I dislike cliches, it is true — what once was old in gaming is new again.
For several years now, major publishers and indie developers alike have been channeling the nostalgia of longtime gamers who grew up during the 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit eras of the '80s and early 90s. New installments of beloved franchises redesigned to imitate the past, as well as new IPs that draw inspiration from multiple classic games, have been releasing with regularity these days. The retro-inspired gorgeous pixel artwork and classic gameplay mechanics have indeed stood the test of time and are once again prove viable in a marketplace where many strive for realism and substantial scope.
The Retro-Revival Era Begins
Many attribute the retro revival in the mainstream to Capcom's Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10, codeveloped by Japanese studio Inti Creates, and released in 2008 and 2010, respectively. While the industry at large was adjusting to high-definition development and beginning to push the boundaries of open-world and cinematic content, Capcom chose to revive its iconic franchise by emulating the visuals and gameplay of the original #NES installments. The bold move paid off as the games were well received by critics and fans alike, heavily praised for being virtually indistinguishable from their predecessors.
In what could easily have been a cheap ploy to take advantage of nostalgia, #Capcom demonstrated to the entire industry that retro-style games have a place in the modern market.
In the years following #MegaMan9 and 10, indie developers proudly carried the 2D-retro torch. Critical darlings such as Duck Game, Shovel Knight, Axiom Verge, Stardew Valley, Mercenary Kings, TowerFall Ascension and Pocket Rumble among many others paid loving tribute to classics such as #Metroid, #Castlevania, Metal Slug and Harvest Moon. Nostalgia was blended with modern game design techniques and control schemes for spectacular results. These titles helped scratch that itch for the types of games that simply weren't made anymore while also forging great, unique identities of their own. In fact, some of these indie darlings are considered among the finest games in recent years.
Larger companies have also been getting in on the action. Just a couple months ago, Arc System Works released Double Dragon IV, a classic-style sequel to the timeless beat-'em-up franchise. Also this summer Sega will be releasing Sonic Mania, a sort of director's cut of classic #Sonic games from the Genesis era that includes new and expanded levels. Which is basically what the Sonic fans have wanted literally for decades.
Having seen what so many talented developers have accomplished with their retro-styled games, my mind has been racing with all the franchises that could get the 2D-retro treatment, with potential spectacular results.
1. Final Fantasy
Not to knock what Square Enix has been doing with #FinalFantasy since the late '90s — in fact, I've thoroughly enjoyed almost every main entry in the franchise since — but the newer games barely resemble the series it once was. Just look at Final Fantasy XV and compare it with its groundbreaking predecessors, like Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI. The similarities even beyond visual and technical are few. In fact, that particular style of classic #JRPG that the original Final Fantasy titles were is now exceptionally rare — much to the dismay of longtime genre fans everywhere.
So here's an idea: What if Final Fantasy XVI was done in the style of a classic 16-bit Final Fantasy-like Final Fantasy VI? Imagine pixel sprites, but in high definition. Imagine a top-down view as you navigate cities and dungeons. Imagine loose guidelines encouraging the player to explore a vast world. And imagine a classic and deep turn-based battle system. Sound tantalizing? Of course it does!
The formula is tried and true, and if done well a Final Fantasy developed in this style would feel unique and fresh in the modern gaming landscape. Also, the thought of developing the next Final Fantasy in a manner that helped to rein in costs and avoid many of the challenges of modern AAA development has to be compelling for #SquareEnix. After the decade-long development saga for Final Fantasy XV, a smaller, more focused and grounded project that channels the nostalgia of longtime fans could certainly be one to ponder.
2. Ninja Gaiden
Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden may be best known for its brutally difficult 3D action games, but the franchise originated as a 2D action platformer with intricate pixel artwork in the late '80s. I suggest that #Tecmo and Team Ninja, the in-house studio responsible for developing the franchise, revisit this model for a new entry.
Imagine Ninja Gaiden's signature brutal difficulty, but on a 2D plane featuring challenging platforming and level navigation. And it simply wouldn't be #NinjaGaiden without an extremely polished and genre-defining combat system complete with smooth, responsive movement. I would suggest drawing inspiration from other 2D games with brilliant gameplay, such as Salt and Sanctuary for enemy/encounter design, and Odin Sphere Leifthrasir for control layout, responsiveness and combo systems. If well executed, Ninja Gaiden could become the sort of defining franchise for 2D action platformers that it was for 3D character-action games.
Is there a more obvious candidate? Metroid rose to prominence in the '80s and '90s as one of the revered franchises in the entire industry. It played a significant role in pioneering gameplay that focused on exploration and backtracking and was an exceptional action platformer. Super Metroid in particular is widely regarded as one of the absolute best video games ever made, 2D or not.
Not to disparage the more recent #Metroid games, which are fantastic, but it's difficult to imagine I'm alone in wishing that one day we will get to experience a new entry than emulates its legendary predecessors. As displayed in recent indie titles such as Axiom Verge and Guacamelee!, the core gameplay formula absolutely holds up and all that's missing is that beautiful pixel artwork we love so much. What better game is there to serve as a pillar of the retro revival than one of the franchises it is most heavily inspired by?
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4. Capcom Fighters
Capcom has already flawlessly translated their 2D fighting game brilliance into the 3D era. The character models and environments may be 3D, but the gameplay goodness is still as 2D and genre-defining as ever. But I still want a classic Capcom pixel fighter, dammit!
I want this largely because Capcom's pixel artwork in the '90s was godlike and matched only be SNK's Neo Geo classics. To me and many other fighting fans, the 2D pixel design and animation of Capcom's classic fighters is simply jaw-droppingly gorgeous and I would give anything for it to make a return for even a single game. Take the time to watch any footage of Capcom classics like the Street Fighter Alpha series and Darkstalkers 3. Visually, nothing quite like them exists today and to me that's a shame. This level of pixel work is something of a lost art and to lose it to the annals of history would be tragic.
Capcom creating a new fighter in the style of their late-'90s classics would set the enthusiast gaming community ablaze in the best way possible. They would once again raise the standard for pixel artwork for the entire industry and make dreams come true in one fell swoop.
The Future Of Retro Gaming
Even if not a single one of these classic franchises returns to their roots, there are plenty of indie developers still cranking out amazing games that masterfully channel the past. If you happen to be a fan of classics from the NES, SNES, Genesis, etc., then keep your eyes peeled for wonderful projects like Cosmic Star Heroine, Flinthook, Heart Forth, Alicia and many more. I sincerely hope that this wave of brilliant retro games carries on, well into the future. Given the current landscape of upcoming releases, it seems I have nothing to worry about.
Which franchise would you love to see in glorious 2D? Let me know in the comments below.