Whenever I think of the discourse surrounding this game, one point comes to mind: “Freedom Planet (finally) got the Sonic formula right.” The idea is that after years of failure from Sega as they slowly forgot the hedgehog’s appeal, a group of Sonic’s fans returned the series to its roots and restored its lost spirit. It’s an enticing narrative – the passionate individuals come out victorious over the profit-driven corporate powers – but it’s far from airtight. For example, in light of the many Sonic games that did get the formula right (the Advance games, the Rush games), it becomes clear that the problem isn’t so much that Sega couldn’t make a good Sonic game as much as it is that the community values certain video game experiences above other, regardless of their quality. However, this is a symptom of a much larger problem that’s far beyond the scope of what I’m discussing.
What I want to address is the main thrust of this argument: that Freedom Planet stays true to the Sonic ethos where Sonic itself has faltered. Already we’re implying a certain truths about the situation: that the older Sonic games have a clearly identifiable ethos and that this ethos can be perfectly understood and replicated in the present. It’s this second premise that I take issue with the most. In practice, many understandings of how games were in the past paint a somewhat romantic image, one that’s no doubt interpreted through a nostalgic lens. While studying these games for a significant length of time (as the developers of Freedom Planet certainly had to) helps remind one of the mundane reality such an image covers up, we run into another problem: how does one understand older games without letting the present day affect that understanding? It may well be impossible to avoid this issue, much less bring past design trends into the present completely intact.
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.