I’ve always been fascinated by how games writers and players talk about nostalgia. To be more specific, I’ve been fascinated with the unspoken assumptions and limits regarding how people discuss nostalgia. It’s a topic I could write at length about, but to choose just one facet, there’s what games try to accomplish through nostalgia. It’s almost never just a call back for its own sake. Nostalgia is a powerful and flexible tool developers can use to relate to the present through what the past has to offer. Read Only Memories and (especially) VA-11 Hall-A, for instance, are creative endeavors: they invoke nostalgia to explore alternatives to the world we currently live in.
Retro City Rampage, on the other hand, is far more insular in its use of nostalgia. It has absolutely zero interest in exploring alternatives or evaluating what value, if any, the objects of its nostalgia have in today’s world. If anything, the game shuts down inquiry like this by shrouding players in a veil of ignorance. It overwhelms them with action and spectacle, and then asks them to affirm whatever value it’s already read into its own past. Far from being creative, Retro City Rampage is a meaningless celebration of destruction for its own sake.
If you were to read most of the video game criticism that’s been published in recent years, you’d come away with the impression that video games abound in social ignorance. Some games exhibit a level of political awareness and merely fail to acknowledge a potential issue, and many others deny the problem in the first place by suggesting they exist in a political vacuum. Now I’m not here to argue that these games don’t exist. Rather, I want to point alternatives; games whose strengths lie in their hyper-awareness of the issues at play. Games like Jet Set Radio. While the game’s most appealing feature has always been its zealous energy, what sets Jet Set Radio apart is that its energy is not the product of social ignorance. If anything, the game is all too aware of how capitalist ideals structure our lives, which is why it suggests transcending them by turning life into a radical performance. Given how stylishly Jet Set Radio renders those performances, it’s hard not to be swayed by the game’s arguments.
By now, anybody reading this should understand how avid a fan I am of the Kingdom Hearts series. So much so, in fact, that I still feel the need to begin all my writing on these games with an insecure disclaimer that announces my love for them. But that doesn’t mean I’m above criticizing their shortcomings. In fact, I had to wrestle with such thoughts while playing Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, the most recent entry in the series. It’s a game that feels caught in an uncomfortable place, only able to half recognize its own potential. Unfortunately, halfway just isn’t enough. Halfway leaves the game stumbling between brilliance and normality.