Or, how to win a market without really trying.
If you are in your late twenties or your thirties, you remember how cool, awesome, and indeed rad the Eighties and Nineties were. Everything was vibrant and colorful. It seemed like everything was made for you as a kid. I definitely remember it being that way. Nickelodeon was TV made for me. Nintendo and Sega were competing for my loyalty so I could make my parents spend their money on video games for me. Books like Redwall were written for my adventurous, young soul. Pepsi and Coca-Cola assured me their rivals tasted like battery acid. New jack swing and hip-hop were finally going mainstream. The Lego Maniac and Chuck E. Cheese were dudes you wish you could actually chill with because they knew how to have fun. Skateboards, backwards baseball caps, brick-and-mortar arcades, Ronald McDonald and his peeps versus the Burger King Kids Club, daring to eat Apple Jacks cereal because we eat what we like…egads, the list goes on and on of the stupid commercials I saw on television so many times that I can recite them from memory despite not having seen them in two decades. Ah, good times.
Eventually, there comes a time when every child grows up. I long for the liveliness of my youth as much as the next person (he said, not even yet thirty years old), but the wide-eyed, imaginative, innocent years inevitably give way to the faded cynicism of old age. That does not mean that my exuberance for life is lessened for it (except for those days that clients yell at me for reasons completely beyond my control) but it does give me reason to pine for the simpler times, when climbing on the table to reach the cookie jar was an adventure in stealth to rival Metal Gear Solid instead of an example of why I live alone. Many, if not all, of us long for a time when we were not burdened with obligations like rent, student loans, taxes, long hours at work for little pay, children, cars breaking down, and that one co-worker whose face you can’t stand. Life is cruel like that. Still, we have to learn to let go and accept that responsibility comes with age. All play and no work makes Jack a burnout at college.
Yet all that no longer need be the case! Enter nostalgia-baiting, the omnipresent reminder in our media culture that reliving the past not only can be fun, but should also be exploited! This is everywhere and it is almost disconcerting to behold its ubiquity. I hesitate to call this a bad trend – on the whole, it is innocent enough – but there is a peculiar fondness for it right now that smacks of hostility to novelty. Have you seen the deluge of remakes and reiterations of stuff in the past few years? We have a new Ghostbusters film coming out. The Ratchet and Clank movie is an adaptation of the very first game, which was also remade as a new game. There was a film adaptation of Land of the Lost. Does anyone remember that TV show when it was on Nickelodeon? Does anyone remember that the Nickelodeon syndicate broadcast was from a 70s show of the same name? Does anyone want to remember the film adaptation that bombed at the box offices? No need for that; just watch the new “Gilmore Girls” series, or the new “90210” and new “Melrose Place.”
Want to laugh at bad movies of the past? There are people like the Nostalgia Critic that pander to your tastes. Want to enjoy old video games? Goodoldgames.com and Steam have you covered for a huge swath of what you’re looking for. Just like watching those really obscure things like that Pepsi commercial that was at the start of the VHS recording of Home Alone that somehow you obliquely reference and then your girlfriend knows exactly which commercial you mean because the two of you are of a hive mind? There are YouTube channels a-plenty specializing in retro stuff like that. Need to hit up an out-of-syndication television series? Break out the Netflix. Care to relive your favorite Nicktoons of yesteryear? The Splat is now a nightly broadcast block through Teen Nick that plays Nickelodeon programming of the 80s and 90s (i.e. the good stuff, and none of the garbage that came thereafter). Again, not a bad thing, since I find myself biased toward a lot of media from times past that seemed more – oh, what would the word be? – relevant, perhaps. Or maybe timeless is a better word. After all, “Fuller House” makes two jokes about Donald Trump right out of the gate in its first episode. I do not know what was so compelling about “Full House” that “Fuller House” had to become a thing, but here we are.
It comes down to a degree, nay, a smattering of cynicism. After all, one must inevitably ask, “Cui bono?” (no relation to Sonny) and find that it is as my tenth-grade history teacher always advised: look to the pocketbook. After all, Doug Walker, the Nostalgia Critic, was noted as an up-and-coming entrepreneur by the magazine “Entrepreneur” in late 2009. Hosting a site like Channel Awesome, with so much content and traffic, adds up, so money has to be going in for that to be a sustainable model. Nickelodeon has to have companies jockeying to get their spots during commercial breaks when The Splat block airs, for those companies know that the audience is old enough to have disposable income to afford their products. Valve is making money hand over fist in selling old games licensed through publishers, who are themselves maximizing profits by eschewing the delicate issues of retrocompatibility and platform exclusivity. Let me not even get started with Netflix, whose success has made its stock spike to absurd level in even just the last year and is making increasing millions of dollars in revenue, all for being what HBO wanted to be before HBO knew what it wanted to be. It’s a gold mine out there!
“But if it’s harmless, why the cynicism?” I would not be myself if I did not question what everyone was up to in making their profits. After all, I see plenty of people making millions of dollars a year with far fewer academic credentials than me, and arguably doing less to contribute to society as a whole than me. It is this sense that someone is pandering to my perhaps-mistaken recollection of a better time, untainted by the dourness of reality. More than that, it is the sense that it is easy. Granted, for productions that analyze or entertain and use nostalgia as the object of scrutiny, it is still hard work. Even there, though, there is an argument to be made that taking using someone else’s prior work as a springboard for your own projects is less of a challenge than coming up with something entirely from your own head. Insofar as anyone wants to argue that there is no more originality because everything has been done, that has always seemed like the lazy man’s way of saying, “The proliferation of media has led to a market saturation and the general consumption of media catering to the lowest common denominators has caused a dearth of invention.” Put another way, it is saying, “There is so much garbage out there that I would rather complain about it than care.” Great. Now that we have that out of the way, new media continues to come out all the time, building upon other, older media. That does not mean the new stuff is worse than the old stuff (except when it is, like what Cartoon Network has tried to pass off in the last ten years). Sure, I would like something totally new and innovative in a video game, but long-running franchises are so much more likely to be safe vehicles for raking in dough, so why would developers bother? I’m looking at you, Nintendo. It comes down to avoiding trying something new in favor of doing something safe. Sonic Team hit it big with Sonic the Hedgehog, so it is way easier to crank out a new Sonic game every year than try its hand at something entirely different. That is what discourages me about the saturation of the nostalgia market: reluctance or even hostility on the producers’ part to innovate and experiment because of the risk. I get it. Risks are risks, but long-running series have to start off as fresh somewhere.
Nostalgia is deceptive. Nostalgia would have us believe that the past is better than the present. That gets is stuck in a time loop of never improving and we keep repeating prior mistakes. We see it in our video games, our TV, our movies, and our politics. We cannot get anywhere if we refuse to go anywhere. However, getting lightning to strike twice can be a fool’s errand. The Transformers movies had diminishing returns with every outing, and really only started off strong because of their reliance on the nostalgia of the cartoon series and toys. The new “Thundercats” lasted only a season. How many times will the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles be rehashed? Someone is cashing in on your happy memories, and if that does not getting your cynicism juices flowing, I do not know what will.
Point in short: consumers and producers alike really need to be less averse to trying new things. Independent creations are becoming bigger in different media, which is an encouraging trend. It means we have more self-published books and more indie devs releasing their games. Not all of it will be good. We are not bound to accept everything because it was self-published but we would do better to embrace something outside of our comfort zones. Maybe we need not get every iteration of the FIFA or Madden series when they have stagnated to the point of smelling like a frog carcass in a fetid swamp. Perhaps we could try some cheap indie game on Steam and see if the $5 investment was worth it. A while back, IP and I tried an indie game on Steam called Ibb & Obb. Off the beaten path, yes, but we had fun with it. There were worse ways to spend our time and money.
Look, all I’m asking is for you to try something that looks interesting even if you wouldn’t normally go for it. It’s not like I’m asking you to go outside or anything.