Nostalgia is a hugely important facet of how the games industry operates. Especially in AAA spaces, the creation of increasingly expensive and enormous products — often powered by widespread labor exploitation — relies on constant iteration on known-viable formulas. Games are costly to produce and often demand a lot of time and energy from the players they’re so keen to please. Nostalgic feelings towards characters, genres, and long-running franchises are always central parts of how new sequels, remakes, and IPs find or miss their mark.

At the same time, broad swaths of the industry engage with nostalgia in less business-oriented ways, deploying familiar art or music styles, staple genre conventions, and narrative tropes to deliver something that feels new while also feeling cozy and familiar.

There are a lot of games that I played this year that are relevant to this topic. Metroid Dread, Halo Infinite, and Psychonauts 2 all poke and prod at their respective histories in different and interesting ways, and games like Kena and Death’s Door build new IPs atop very recognizable genre conventions. But at the end of the day, a satisfying nostalgic experience isn’t about just what’s reproduced, but how the reproduction (and the associated emotions) can create new effects and new experiences.

The Runner Up

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

I’ll just say this up front: Ratchet & Clank is one of my favorite series from my childhood. I got into the PS2 titles when I rented Ratchet & Clank 2: Going Commando and fell in love with its bombast and zaniness. For me, it’s the video game equivalent of a warm hug.

I have specific opinions about nearly every game in the series… but don’t worry, I’ll spare you the details. However, it’s important to note that I didn’t really care for the last major release in the series: the 2016 reboot of the original game, released alongside the movie (which I have not seen). The reboot is fun to play, but its story is shot through with an uncanny Disney-ification, presumably to cohere with the companion movie. The movie was a flop, and its creative constraints seemed to have stunted the game as well, sanding off the interesting edges in the original game’s story. All told, it’s left me with a slightly soured impression of the series for the last five years.

Of course, the 2016 remake of Ratchet & Clank still plays well because the series has been honing its mechanical identity since the early aughts. While each title has a mix of new and returning weapons and gadgets and gimmicks, the core combat, platforming, and structure have been similar all the way back to the 2002 original (spinoffs notwithstanding). Rift Apart has a bigger technological leap to straddle than previous entries, bringing the formula into the PS5 era. It functions as both a showcase of the new console and an upgrade to the look and feel of the series.

But beyond just that, it also returns to the playful humor and video-game-appropriate narrative pacing of older titles. It manages to find a much stronger pathos now that it’s free of a seemingly soulless tie-in movie marketed to children. That isn’t to say the game isn’t kid-friendly or light-hearted or, in fact, entirely predictable; it certainly is those things! But it manages to shed the feeling of artifice that tied down 2016’s remake, and returns to a tone more reminiscent of the PS2 and PS3 era titles.

Rift Apart brings the fun and irreverence of the older titles, but focuses more on new characters: Rivet and Kit, the alternate-dimension versions of Ratchet and Clank. On one hand, shifting the focus could have been a disappointment; it’s the first time since 2013 that we’ve gotten a new story in this universe, and yet we’re pivoting to these newbies! But you know what? It was the exact right move. I was glad to see characters again, but the newcomers add a ton of heart to the series. More importantly, they allow the existing heroes to simply be the heroes they’ve become rather than retreading the emotional arcs they’ve already experienced.

While a lot of my appreciation of this Rift Apart was due to the way it revived the tone of the earlier titles, it also stands up reasonably well as a showcase of the new hardware. It’s fun, it’s gorgeous, there are an inordinate amount of explosions and debris and other particles flying around all the time, and the dimensional portals — meant to show off seamless loading of new areas — never get too gimmicky. Given that the 2016 remake was the only return to the series that we saw in the PS4 era, it’s a joy to see that Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is a much more emotionally resonant revisit of a series that’s so near and dear to me.

The Winner

Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139

Nier is a fascinating franchise for me. I have a strong fondness for it that entirely predated its popularity. I played Nier Gestalt on PS3 when I was in college, a time when I didn’t pay much attention to the internet game criticism sphere. I had one friend who I chatted with about Nier’s wild shenanigans and beyond that, I didn’t really talk to anyone about it. I remember being pretty invested in its story and making the effort to get all the endings.

But then… nobody else played it. It was too niche. The strange choice to dad-ify the Xbox version in Japan — and the eventual North American release on all consoles — also seemed a bit alienating. I wasn’t even aware of the Justin McElroy fishing mini-game fiasco at the time, but it’s possible it was another small factor in Nier’s obscurity. So it came and went: a game that I thought was really neat, but that I would perpetually assume that nobody else had played.

It’s been about ten years since I played it; since then, both Nier and its quirky director Yoko Taro have become much more well-known in the western gaming mainstream. Nier: Automata was dramatically more successful than the original Nier and brought new fans into what they would quickly learn was an absolutely bonkers story universe.

When the remake was first announced, I was mostly disappointed. I didn’t feel like I needed to revisit it, not after playing through the original three or four times to unlock all the endings. As some of the early art and trailers came out, though, I started to change my tune. Maybe I didn’t remember quite as much as I thought I did. Maybe it would be cool to see the world and the soundtrack and the acting all reimagined and reconstructed.

But what I really wanted, which I didn’t realize at first, was to see the critical reexamination of a story that meant a lot to me. There’s a certain joy that comes from hearing a bunch of my favorite critics discovering a game that I already loved, and without the remake, they likely never would have. It’s cool that more friends of mine are interested in it. It’s also cool to hear more nuanced criticism of it now that the game’s reach is farther and it’s being discussed at a bigger scale (and I’m paying attention to a wider variety of critics).

Getting to replay it was also great. Seeing the differences from the dad-Nier version I played in college, and being able to look at the game with a more developed critical lens than I had before was gratifying, and I still think it deploys a fairytale-esque mastery of melancholic storytelling. Nier Replicant ver.1.22 is just a wonderful example of what I love so much about game criticism and analysis, while also being a truly affecting piece of art that was both joyful and heartbreaking to return to.