Gamers are a nostalgic bunch. Much like passionate readers, who regard print books with a kind of totemic devotion, gamers love to revisit the technologies of yore, even as we drop ridiculous sums of money on the latest and greatest innovation. At last year’s Seattle Retro Gaming Expo, I watched hordes of people descend to coo over old consoles and explain to their often-bemused offspring that once upon a time, this is what fun looked like.
Nostalgia for an old technology is tricky, though. Though an avid reader, I was actually never one of the anti-ereader crowd. I have a few beautifully bound old books that I treasure, but I bought a first-generation Kindle and have never looked back. As far as I can gather, the problem may be that I have a deficient sense of smell. I know a lot of readers who can rhapsodize at length about the smell of a book. I never found musty paper that entrancing—I just wanted the stories.
Which is to say that I’m not a particularly nostalgic person.
The crowd-funded Hyper Light Drifter, released March 31, 2016, is then not really created for people like me. It’s a beautiful game that manages to use the dreamy ambiguity of 8 and 16-bit style in a way that feels sleek and purposeful. It’s an homage to the old Zelda games that manages to stand up on its own two feet with complex, challenging combat.
It’s also hard as balls. The shoot-dash-slash-dash rhythm of combat is smooth and addictive, but the boss fights require memorizing every single beat of the encounter before you can succeed. Yet it was in this slashing, dashing and dying (and dying, and dying, and dying…) that I found the deeper nostalgia that drives Hyper Light Drifter.
When I received my first NES with a copy of Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt, I spent months learning every single level until the triumphant and deflating day when I finally beat the game. Mario was basically my first boyfriend (and Batman my second). I eschewed human contact, eating at tables, and probably a decent chunk of my homework until I had mastered the game.
In those days, the difficulty of a game mattered because unless you wanted to live at Blockbuster or had peculiarly indulgent parents, new games were expensive and not easy to come by. And once you beat a game, it was dead to you. You could try to go back and recreate the old joy, but it was impossible.
And in the difficult boss fights of Hyper Light Drifter, I found something like that old obsessive draw. Just one more try, I lived two seconds longer that time! Well, once more, then I’ll certainly go to bed. I’m so close now! How can I stop? Dev Alex Preston in an interview described distilling the game into “a more refined, pure crystal meth version, rather than having it blown out everywhere.” If the critical accolades and rapturously tormented Steam reviews are any indicator, they’ve succeeded.
This has been a banner year for challenging games, with popular titles like Dark Souls 3 and The Witness boasting their difficulty at every turn. The Witness’s Jonathon Blow has claimed, “there’s at least one puzzle in the game right now that almost nobody — like 1% of players — will ever be able to figure out.” And players have responded with an obsessive devotion that has spawned an oddly charming Tumblr devoted to “The Witness puzzles in real life.”
In Dark Souls 3, players regularly berate one another with Gamergate-speak to “Git gud.” One delightful blogger claims that Dark Souls 3 instills conservative values because it was “built to teach gamers all about STANDARDS.” If the game is frustrating you with its difficulty, well, “Git gud, skrub.” (Apparently compassion and manners are not among the standards the game instills.)
Yet, leaving aside rude rhetoric, is this demand to invest in a game really more complex than a demand for love? If Witness fans see their beloved everywhere, and Dark Souls players berate those who don’t properly invest in or appreciate their paramour, isn’t that love?
And though Hyper Light Drifter invokes nostalgia with its lovingly crafted animations and gorgeous landscapes, it’s the difficulty of the game that demands the obsessive love of yore. It holds out its cruel boss fights like a promise ring, asking me to go steady with it. In an era when my Steam library boasts dozens of bright shiny titles vying for my attention, Hyper Light is an old-fashioned romantic that wants to be my one and only, at least until I triumphantly kill my beloved with success.
Just don’t tell Mario.