Intellectually I dislike art that panders to nostalgia. My intellect thinks creating a work who’s whole purpose is to reference and celebrate some other, greater work seems masturbatory and frivolous. Rehashes and references seem like a waste of effort that could have gone to something new and original, so says my intellect. Why would someone create something like Final Fantasy VII for PS4 when they could have created a new game instead? Why would someone create Space Balls the Show instead of a new cartoon? And yet…
I passionately love the same old stuff I loved ten years ago and I love art that references that stuff! There is a pang in my chest every time I experience something that causes my old memories to resonate and that pang drives my actions as much, if not more, than my love of new things. My passions can’t get enough Psychonauts posters and t-shirts. My passions want an HD re-release of Final Fantasy VIII even though I already own four copies of FFVIII and one of them is already technically in HD (the PC version)!
My cold intellect and my dumb passions are almost always at odds and nostalgia driven content causes these two central parts of my psyche to fight like nothing else. There is but one type of nostalgia driven art that causes these two warring factions to reach a peaceful détente: new work that is nostalgia inspired. I love when nostalgia itself is used as the central theme of a new work and I love explorations and celebrations of the past that bring modern design to bear on old concepts. My favorite game, Final Fantasy IX, and my favorite Magic the Gathering block, Time Spiral, both build around the concept of franchise-centric nostalgia and in doing so create wholly new experiences that invoke the joys of yore without slavishly recreating them.
Final Fantasy IX is in many ways a celebration of Final Fantasy’s history and as Hironobu Sakaguchi’s final entry in the series it is in many ways a love letter to fans of the series’ roots. FFIX returned to the series’ original high fantasy plus steam-punk roots after FFVII and VIII strayed into sci-fi. FFIX’s character design also recalled the NES and SNES FF games by employing a super-deformed art style; yet, it expanded on that style by bringing it into 3D for the first time (FFVII used a super-deformed style for some of its overworld art, but it reverted to more realistic proportions in battle).
On the gameplay front, FFIX saw the return of the jobs that defined games like FFI, FFIII, and FFV. But, unlike those games, FFIX used those established jobs as the jumping off point for character development. FFIX did not just have a black mage character, the developers of FFIX asked why a black mage would look the way FF black mages do and built a story around the black mage’s iconic appearance and powers. Vivi wasn’t just a character who made black magic his job; he was a character who could only make sense as a black mage. The developers of FFIX performed the same personality and profession pairings with a thief, a dragoon, a knight, a blue mage, two summoner/white mage hybrids, and a monk/ninja/samurai. These deep managed to appeal to my intellectual love of mechanical storytelling and my passionate love of the archetypes hinged upon which those mechanics.
The developers of FFIX also saw fit to redeploy artifacts and mementos from past FF games in the form of key items that could be purchased from the auction house in Treno. While the items themselves were clear callbacks to earlier FF games they also served a purpose in the world of FFIX. Key items like Doga’s Artifact, Une’s Mirror, and Rat Tail could be resold to relic collectors in Treno for a hefty profit. Weapons from FF history like the Ultima Weapon, Excalibur, and Kain’s Lance made triumphant returns. Each weapon received FFIX appropriate abilities and visual treatments to keep their symbolic significance without purely pandering to the past. Even whole locations like Mount Gulug returned from the FF history books complete with an FFIX appropriate history and a remixed theme. FFIX takes the aesthetic, the mechanics, and the optimism of FF’s past and uses that symbolic language to create an entire work that examines how personal history interacts with one’s future.
Time Spiral takes a similar nostalgia-laden approach to Magic card design and set planning. The Time Spiral block was made up of three sets that each made liberal use of both Magic’s past, Magic’s core rules, and where Magic could go in the future. Time Spiral was the first set in the Time Spiral block and almost every card in the set references Magic’s history in some way. The set saw the return of dozens of old mechanics like Flanking, Fading, Rebels, Echo, and even weirder ones like Shadow. However, by taking dozens of old mechanics and placing them into one unified context the developers of Time Spiral were able to create one of the deepest and most varied environments ever. In Time Spiral drafts you could pick just about any color combination and find multiple strategies to exploit since so many of Time Spiral’s cards interacted on multiple levels. Even simple common cards had multiple applications, take Amrou Seekers for example. Amrou Seekers is almost a complete color shift, from black to white, of the card Severed Legion from Onslaught. Rather than having Fear (“This creature can’t be blocked except by artifact and/or black creatures”) Amrou Seekers has a heretofore unseen white equivalent of Fear. Amrou Seekers is also a rebel which ties it in to the rebel mechanic (rebels are capable of summoning other rebels into play from your deck) that ran through Time Spiral block. Thus, Amrou Seekers fits into just about any white deck that wants an evasive creature and it also fits into any deck that is built around the rebel mechanic. All the while Amrou Seekers references multiple old Magic cards and mechanics. That is a whole lot of complex game design wrapped in one of the simplest cards in the whole Time Spiral block. I haven’t even touched on the over 100 reprinted cards contained in Time Spiral or the more obscure references to Magic’s history (I see you Evil Eye of Urborg).
Planar Chaos only served to further build upon Time Spiral’s nostalgia influenced masters course in Magic card design. Planar Chaos took many of the established rules of Magic’s five colors (white, blue, black, red, and green) and messed with them in countless subtle and unsubtle ways. Green things could fly! Blue had discard spells! White had counterspells! Black had First-Strike! Red had a red equivalent to fear! A bunch of iconic spells were even reprinted in Planar Chaos in the wrong colors. Planar Chaos took a complex draft environment full of dense mechanical interactions and then added a bunch of uncharacteristic shifts to what every color did at a fundamental level. All of this was thanks to the leverage that nostalgia offers as a central theme. Planar Chaos only makes sense as a set when it is viewed through the lens of a parallel reality to the ordinary color balance that has been established through years of Magic history.
Future Sight further meddled with nostalgia by combining magic’s past with a bunch of completely new mechanics and worlds. Future Sight contained future-shifted cards that were ostensibly from future Magic sets and those cards have continued to echo forward almost a decade later. Mainline Magic sets still haven’t utilized all of the mechanics that were debuted in Future Sight, yet people who played during Future Sight’s time were able to draft and build around these insane mechanics. Once again the future-shifted cards only made sense within the context of a nostalgia-based set. Without the context of Magic’s past and the rest of the block, the cards in Future Sight do not stand out nearly as much.
Final Fantasy IX and the Time Spiral block are two prime examples of how to use nostalgia as a starting point to create something wholly new and original. While it would have been simple to just create two games full of references and nothing more, FFIX and Time Spiral used their franchises’ histories to inform innovative design decisions that haven’t been matched since. While both FFIX and Time Spiral may have been too referential to appeal to truly new players (this is especially true of Time Spiral block) that emphasis on history allowed me and longtime fans like me to have profoundly deep experiences. These two works were able to get my intellect and my passions to stop fighting, at least for a little while.