Nostalgia, arch nemesis of the long-awaited video game sequel

This is the era of the long-awaited sequel and the fan-pleasing remake. Shenmue, Resident Evil 2, Final Fantasy 7… so many people are finally getting what they've wanted for so long, and they'll be satisfied forever. Or will they? In two years' time, when these games are out, those same fans will likely either be complaining something isn't 'right', or – more likely – will claim to prefer the original for myriad reasons. Nostalgia itself, not the actual quality of these remakes or their descendants, is the problem here.

It's like trying to date someone when you're still madly in love with your ex. The new person might be amazing, perfect for you and all-round 'better', but the relationship is never going to work. Take, for instance, Killer Instinct. Fans wanted a new, proper Killer Instinct sequel for nigh-on two decades… and then they got one. And it's great! A bright, nuanced fighting game that plays quickly, has been taken up by the tournament community and looks gorgeous on Xbox One. But how many KI fans have you heard saying they can die happy now? None. Even the most vocal KI fans in the office practically forgot all about the new game within a month. The years of clamouring for a sequel had become so deafening, any celebration when it actually arrived was inevitably going to be an anticlimax.

The reason for this, primarily if not exclusively, is that there is nothing quite like the magic of a new game when you're young. Something about the world of possibilities waiting inside the cartridge/disc ignites a youthful imagination like wildfire. So it's little surprise that virtual worlds very easily create the same kind of vivid, freeze-frame memory that nature reserved for things like a perfect family holiday in real life.

The part of your brain that warms/fuzzifies normal events into fond memories (primarily as a defense mechanism, but we'll come to that) absolutely loves to work its magic on video games. You're familiar with the 'rose-tinted glasses' expression that describes the way people tend to forget the bad parts of memories as they get older and just focus on the good – even retroactively find good in a situation that was bad at the time. It's absolutely true, and scientifically tested.

Studies have shown that recollections of a happier time can make a cold room feel warmer. It's almost like nostalgia is a defense mechanism, like prisoners remembering delicious home-cooked food while starving. In fact, the word itself is made up of the Greek word for house (nostos) and pain (algos). Literally 'the pain of missing home', it stems from the depression experienced by homesick soldiers. In uncomfortable or unsettling circumstances, your brain will raid its vault of happy memories and allow you to find comfort in them.

Now, I'm not saying we're all man/woman babies, but many gamers find their very identity in the games they loved as a child. These formative experiences can shape entire personalities – the way we decorate our homes, the clothes we wear, and who we choose to spend our time with. If kept in check, it can give us a healthy, solid emotional grounding and a safety net for when life gets tough. But if unchecked, it can be all-consuming.

Most people reading this (and certainly writing it) will be somewhere in-between. Passionate and knowledgeable about games and absolutely certain of why the classics are so amazing. But that passion can be dangerous too. Dwelling on such yearnings can create an impossible situation where no game can ever live up to the expectations placed upon it.

Being too vocal about the need for a long-awaited sequel can also artificially inflate its importance, making it appear that lots of people want a certain thing, when the reality is it's only a handful. That's undoubtedly why Sony and Yu Suzuki chose a $2,000,000 Kickstarter goal for Shenmue 3. Did people really want the game, or was it just few hundred vocal, hardcore members of the community? The longer a game goes without a sequel, not only does it gain mythical status (not always deservedly) among its fans, the more niche it becomes too.

This is not something that can ever be fixed by the community itself. Suzuki, like everyone else in this situation, needs to make the game he wants to make, not the game the fans want him to make. Sure, he's saying it will be 'the game the fans want' - of course he's saying it - but what the fans actually want is another helping of that Yu Suzuki magic that was so prevalent in the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s. Not just Shenmue, but Virtua Fighter, Virtua Racing, Daytona USA, OutRun, Afterburner... all were instantly and utterly captivating because they were so revolutionary.

However, none of those games could be released in their exact forms today and be met with the same universal acclaim. VF looks like cardboard box people, Afterburner doesn't really play that well, and who would want to play a pseudo-3D game about a car driving along a beach today? Sounds like an iPhone game. Afterburner aside, the rest all still play superbly, but the fact remains nostalgia ensures they remain more than the sum of their parts for a lot of people. For such breathtaking impact to happen again (and it'll be difficult), Suzuki needs to surprise. The original Shenmue is still sublime, but it's also horribly outdated in many ways now. It needs to change.

Some long-awaited sequels can and have surprised in the right way. I tried to think of some examples, but the list is very short: Street Fighter 4, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and Fallout 3. They're all classics now in their own right, but they also all share a fundamental design philosophy: they're all modernised interpretations of their classic predecessors.

It's not enough to just make more of the same. If Crystal Dynamics had simply 'rebooted' Tomb Raider by making more levels in the original engine, it would have been laughed out of town, even though it would have been the most authentic experience possible. OutRun 2 could never have been a 2D Super-Scaler experience. Fallout 3 is essentially Oblivion in an apocalyptic future. All these titles retain the fundamental values of the originals, but turn them into great, modern video games.

And, as it turns out, that will make fans happy. Granted, Killer Instinct also did that, but perhaps not with quite enough conviction or originality. But an element of 'newness' is the only way that new nostalgic memories are ever going to be formed. And they are. I've got happy memories of playing Street Fighter 4 round at a friend's house. Of trying to blow up Fallout 3's indestructible dad. Or trying to keep X-COM soldiers alive because they're all named after friends.

But even I must admit, while I love all of these games (well… Fallout 3 isn't as good as Skyrim), none of them quite have the same special, magic place in my heart as my childhood favourites. But that's OK. I understand why they're so deeply ingrained into me and that allows for a greater acceptance of other things.

And accepting new games and experiences is the only way you're going to be able to make those warm, fuzzy feelings happen for them in the future. A game may appear to pale in comparison to old favourites now, but in 10 years' time, I bet it'll be a different story. Just look at Wind Waker. Nostalgia for the past (aha!) meant people hated on it, but now it's revered as one of the best games ever made.

And that's why I really, really hope the new sequels on the horizon are absolutely not what we've all been asking for. You only get one first-time experience with any game: don't spoil your first date by wishing it was with somebody else.

Justin Towell

Justin was a GamesRadar staffer for 10 years but is now a freelancer, musician and videographer. He's big on retro, Sega and racing games (especially retro Sega racing games) and currently also writes for Play Magazine,, PC Gamer and TopTenReviews, as well as running his own YouTube channel. Having learned to love all platforms equally after Sega left the hardware industry (sniff), his favourite games include Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams, Zelda BotW, Sea of Thieves, Sega Rally Championship and Treasure Island Dizzy.