It had been out for less than a week before, on Friday 2nd June, The Long Journey Home (TLJH) received its first major patch. Daedalic promised a game filled with exciting exploration, the discovery of new races, and moral dilemmas, but at launch the experience boiled down to a feeling that you're taking part in increasingly-frustrating levels of Lunar Lander. The 1979 game was obviously a huge inspiration for the TLJH, but the devs learned the hard way that you can't rely on nostalgia over quality – it was a poorly-implemented version of a 'classic', and this was reflected in the early user reviews.
So what exactly was so wrong with TLJH that warranted an emergency response from Daedalic? The developers seemed to have forgotten that Lunar Lander is an infuriating experience, yet made it a core feature of their game. The fun and unique aspects of TLJH felt gated behind a poorly thought-out homage.
Imagine: you're enjoying flying around the galaxy, but to carry on exploring and interacting with your new alien friends you need to gather resources. So you visit a nearby planet. But now the game changes, now this is Lunar Lander. A minute twitch of the controls sends you veering off-mark dramatically, wasting time and resources, or worse – your lander itself is wrecked, losing you hours of progress. Lunar Lander was tough, but TLJH makes it harder still with the addition of hostile temperatures, and the potential of strong wind speeds, and high gravity.
This certainly isn't the first time developers have made a mistake like this. Modern gaming history is marred by tributes to older games that don't really do them justice, and it feels like every month there's a new take on one of yesterday's hits. I'm not saying that every title that nods to games-gone-by is bad, it's just that games have changed dramatically in the last decades. Unless there's some deeper thinking behind it, the basic pitch is increasingly unattractive: 'remember that game everyone loved? Well here it is again with a shiny coat of paint.'
Just look at the difference between the Wii's version of The Oregon Trail circa 2011, and Organ Trail which came out around about the same time. Both are inspired by the same source material and both try and update it for a modern audience, and yet Oregon was panned and Organ still receives consistently great Steam reviews to this day.
The difference? Organ Trail updates the experience more than just graphically. Sure, it makes a number of improvements on the base game but its unique ambience evolves the title into its own experience, beyond merely 'Oregon Trail with zombies'. The Oregon Trail on Wii, though, is a poorly-made update to a classic. There's little thought about how to update the game, retaining its essence while keeping it enjoyable for a modern audience. It just feels like something trying to cash-in on the glories of the past.
Bad nostalgia isn't limited to smaller and indie games. AAA title Homefront: The Revolution received decidedly mixed reviews, with technical issues being a big factor in why the game didn't sell. Yet the devs still found time to stick in an easter egg that allows you to play through the first two levels of fan-favourite FPS, Timesplitters 2. By accounts it's the only decent reason to buy the game, which of course led to criticism as to why developers Dambuster Studios took the time to lead players down memory lane, and yet couldn't fix a few gamebreaking issues on launch, or shore up the lacklustre gunplay. Not to harp on about this, but it's a bit of a kick in the teeth when your easter egg from 2002 has better combat than your base game.
Contrast this with Uncharted 4 and Crash Bandicoot. The game was already pretty fantastic – adding in Crash was just that extra special treat for fans that made it soar. Naughty Dog knew what they were doing, and how much was enough.
Mobile games have shown that people are definitely not tired of playing varieties of retro and older titles, just search Space Invaders on the Appstore and see how much comes up. But there's a right and wrong way to go about it. The most important thing, if you're going to be inspired by an older game, is that it doesn't feel shoehorned-in like TLJH or Homefront. It is terrible to play something that's clearly intended as a loving nod, the effect of which is to detract from the experience.
Credit should be given to Daedalic for responding so quickly to feedback from players, even if the aggregate Steam score dropping from 'mostly positive' to 'mixed' on launch day means it's unsurprising they've acted so fast. Now the lander portions feature improved controls and there's even a new 'Story Mode' which, on top of several other changes, increases the strength of your lander, as well as fixes fuel consumption.
I still feel the Lunar Lander gameplay doesn't fit The Long Journey Home at all, and something like FTL-style text prompts would have been a better choice: but hey, what do I know. It's at least nice to see the developer acknowledging the mode's problems and trying to fix them. Nevertheless, it's a cautionary tale. Developers shouldn't assume that the glories of their youth have the same resonance for a modern audience, or that players will accept substandard gameplay because it's 'classic.' Gaming has a rich and wonderful heritage, but the future is surely even more exciting.