Retro throwbacks can learn a lot from Regular Show’s treatment of nostalgia

Regular Show is like Clerks for kids, and I am always surprised by how clever its writing is. Like a lot of Nickelodeon’s output in the mid-to-late nineties it appeals on two totally different levels, often simultaneously, to capture the hearts of the kids and the minds of (often) their parents.  While it is a genuinely funny show with great writing and excellent physical comedy –   it is Regular Show’s references to pop culture and phenomenon more familiar to anyone over the age of 30 that is most admirable, and in many respects, is what lifts the series so high above its contemporaries.  No matter where you look it brings back iconic images of our collective childhoods – from hair metal to tape decks – paying homage to multiple decades of culture built by Generations X and Y.  It is a decisive victory for the strength of the cultural milestones built by more than 20 years of youth culture.  It is a cartoon so thoroughly steeped in nostalgia that I can basically smell the Cottees Cordial and my mouldy old Competition Pro.

And it doesn’t rely on cheap visual aesthetics to convey a convincing portrayal of life in the 80’s and 90’s, rather it is the clever use of period-specific pop culture and technological milestones that brings this nostalgia trip to life.  A reference to the 1979 cult classic film, The Warriors, is cleverly juxtaposed onto a storyline that in and of itself feels utterly modern, yet does just enough to really tickle that nostalgic itch.  It never feels the need to rub nostalgia in the face of the viewer and in doing so never feels forced – rather it feels like an homage to a time and a generation of Western culture.  And a bloody good one at that.

TheRegularShow the warriors

Contrast that to the treatment of nostalgia If Regular Show was a video game, sharing the same aim to bring back something iconic of our youth, it would be far less subtle (and dare I say clever) about doing so.  There’d be pixels and chiptunes and it would well and truly feel like a product of its time rather than an homage to it.  It isn’t enough to reference a time and place it must be painstakingly recreated – pixel for pixel – to be something of the era.  I have a lot of respect for this approach in some ways – but in others it places misguided (and often intrinsic) value on nostalgia over and above respect for a product of the past.  Somewhat paradoxically the game based on the licence – Regular Show: Mordecai and Rigby in 8-Bit Land  – breaks the rules seemingly set out by its source material and goes for misplaced nostalgia over clever writing.  It was created to be a product of the 8-bit generation rather than one that pays respect to the time, resulting in something that brings the weakness of the games of the time right to the forefront.  It looks the part, but unfortunately also ultimately plays the part, resulting in a shallow and cardboard representation of a decade of video games – a trap that far too many retro-style games  fall into when trying to bring back that time and place that so many of us hold dear.

The dawn of video games was an exciting place that should be explored, restored and remembered – but few do it with the delicate touch required to elicit real feelings of nostalgia or fondness.  Rather they rely on visual and sound aesthetics to simply recreate the time, often at the expense of the sentiment required to truly do more than a decade of popular culture justice.  Regular show is more than just Clerks for kids, it is a victory for the strength of the culture built by Generation X and Generation Y, and proof of the enduring nature of the time and place we grew up in.  But it is also the template for how nostalgia should be treated within creative mediums.  The sooner the game industry catches onto how to better catch that intangible but insatiable feeling of nostalgia, the better we’ll all be for it.