Lost Sphear proves making 'Old School' games isn't easy

Nostalgia is a fickle thing.

Everyone experiences it differently as it’s tied to personal, subjective memories of the past. When I walk down a street I remember from my childhood I may start to feel nostalgic in the same way I do when I play a game from my childhood. But even the most similar nostalgic triggers can be experienced in dramatically different ways.

With games like Lost Sphear, they’re clearly designed to elicit a certain emotion from the player. If you grew up playing Japanese roleplaying games in the '90s, then chances are elements of Lost Sphear will look incredibly familiar. We even broke down a bunch of the game’s many influences.

But with such clear examples of how to do things well, why is it so hard to make a new game that “feels” old school? Shouldn’t making games today that look and play like games from decades ago be relatively easy?

Rose-Tinted Glasses

The biggest obstacle facing modern retro games is the fact that human memory isn’t trustworthy. If you close your eyes right now and imagine your favorite video game, I’d bet that it looks better in your head than it did in real life. Your memory likes to fill in details that make sense and serve to enhance thoughts rather than strictly play things back as if it were a recording. This makes memory notoriously unreliable.

So how do developers compete with an idealistic, imaginary game that you’ve invented inside your own head? The best course of action is usually to just not even try. That’s why you get so many studios trying to reinvent old ideas so that they can capture the nostalgic crowd, but still have something fresh for newcomers. And this is something that Lost Sphear does really well.

On first glance the combat system is extremely similar to Chrono Trigger, for example, but in Lost Sphear you can also move your characters around the battlefield. By taking existing concepts and iterating with new ideas it not only helps keep things fresh, but improves upon older concepts that we likely remembered more fondly than they really were in the first place.

Changing Expectations

This issue is compounded by the fact that the demographics of what make up the gaming market are vastly different than they were a few decades ago. The types of stories and themes and settings that gamers in the 90s wanted isn’t going to be the same as what gamers want now.

That makes it extremely difficult to compare games across generations. For example, even though they exist in the same franchise, how is one to compare the strengths and weaknesses of games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and A Link Between Worlds? Or Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy VII? Especially when the two games are made by the same company, but at very different points in time in the company’s development.

Often you’ll find fans crying out for a game that’s like the games they remember from their childhood, but then when a developer tries to follow that formula closely, it comes out feeling like a derivative and uninspired mess. On the other hand, if it changes too much then fans are unhappy because it isn’t true to the core of the series.

Redefining Expectations

All these things considered, it’s easy to see that the deck was really stacked against a title like Lost Sphear. Not only did it have existing baggage from the games of yesteryear between the Final Fantasies and Dragon Quests and Chrono Triggers and more, but it even had its own precursor, I Am Setsuna, to contend with as well.

Developers are finding themselves in increasingly difficult situations in recent years as they’re pulled in all directions, particularly in terms of retro game development. For every Axiom Verge, a title that pays homage while also innovating in creative ways, there are a dozen Mighty No. 9-esque flops.

Lost Sphear is going to go down in the gaming history books as a divisive title. The critic and user scores are both hovering around the low to mid 70s on Metacritic, showing some mixed feelings, while our own review was quite positive.

Anytime you try to replicate the feelings of the past you’re bound to result in a bit more criticism for even the slightest misstep.

Are you playing Lost Sphear? What are your thoughts on trying to create retro game in the modern era? Let us know down in the comments below!