We get it, the ‘80s seem like a fun time. You could hear Toto’s “Africa” on the radio, neon colors were in, and people were making movies that you would decide to quote exclusively for the next thirty years. It was an important time for video games as well. Mario and Donkey Kong debuted in 1981, Link and Zelda came onto the scene in 1986, and Mega Man started battling Dr. Wily in 1987. It’s clear why modern video games have an obsession with the ‘80s, but it needs to stop.
Plenty of games draw on the nostalgia of the ‘80s to appeal to their audience. Rad is a roguelike filled with neon, pop-rock guitar, and ‘80s lingo that even features cassette tapes as a currency, seemingly for no other reason than invoking more ‘80s imagery. Wolfenstein: Youngblood brings Nazi-killing to Paris in the 1980s. Generation Zero lets you survive in an alternate 1980s Sweden, with an aesthetic similar to the cassette futurism art of Simon Stålenhag. Some of the ‘80s obsession of gaming is a reflection of our cultural obsession as a whole, since Netflix just released a Stranger Things game on Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Xbox One. All these games are from 2019.
It’s hard to pinpoint when the ‘80s nostalgia in gaming began. There have been plenty of video game adaptations of classic movies from the ‘80s, from Back to the Future, to The Empire Strikes Back, to Ghostbusters, but the nostalgia for the ‘80s as an aesthetic rather than a cultural zeitgeist is a different trend altogether. Perhaps the earliest mainstream game featuring the ‘80s as an aesthetic is the 2002 game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which featured neon, palm trees, and leisure suits and included ‘80s themes such as the crack epidemic and the glam metal craze. Some more recent originators of the ‘80s gaming craze might be the fighting game Double Dragon Neon and the top-down shooter Hotline Miami, both of which were released in 2012 and featured bright colors and ‘80s aesthetics.Once games realized that this aesthetic would sell, the ‘80s became a trend in gaming. There are dozens if not hundreds of games that are labelled “’80s inspired.” Some draw on stylized 8-bit inspired imagery, but just as many stick to the standard neon and guitar riffs that embody this ‘80s aesthetic.
That’s part of the problem. Many games only focus on surface-level depictions of the ‘80s. Too many games add pink and electric blue to their color palette, add some “cyberspace” graphics, and write a soundtrack with synths and pop-rock guitar. Then they call it a day. They get the aesthetic down, but never incorporate anything else from the period, for better or for worse. In comparison, games that borrow aesthetics from the 1950s, like Fallout or BioShock, also incorporate thematic elements of the period, often even making social critiques of the era that they draw from.
And the ‘80s is a period that deserves some social critique. For all the glorification of the pop culture and aesthetics of the ‘80s, our culture often overlooks some of the problems of the era. Games that draw on the 1950s will often critique the misogyny and racism, obsession with normalcy, and Cold War paranoia and warmongering of the era, but ‘80s inspired games will ignore these same issues. Video games have drawn on the ‘80s for inspiration while ignoring the social problems of the era since the ‘80s themselves. The 1987 game Contra starred a team of futuristic guerilla warriors that drew inspiration from the Nicaraguan Contras of the 1980s. Of course, in real life, the Contras were a US-backed military group that committed numerous human rights violations and terrorist acts. The game erased this, painting the future Contra team as just a pair of badass dudes fighting through their enemies.
This isn’t saying that every game has to have a deeper message or tackle political issues, but when an entire era is aestheticized to the point that no one remembers the political and societal issues of the era, there’s a problem. Games could fix this by including deeper themes with their aesthetics, similar to how the Fallout or BioShock series do with the eras they draw from. An ‘80s game could focus on hypercompetitive business culture, on increasing environmental damage, on a government that abandons its citizens at home and commits war crimes abroad. At the very least, it could avoid blindly regurgitating pop culture and overplayed aestheticism with no depth.
Of course, the other option is laying off the ‘80s a little bit. The world will survive without another game filled with neon and synths.