A large part of enjoying video games, for me, is nostalgia, and I suspect many others share that sentiment.
There are a handful of games I play over and over again, or maybe at least revisit every few years, because in doing so I’m able to feel the sense of wonder and immersion I did when I was very young. And when I play contemporary titles, I often find myself chasing that metaphorical dragon, that feeling of childlike wonder and complete immersion in a game, becoming part of its world, participating fully in its lore and story.
Developers know this, and often try to recreate familiar experiences in hopes of capturing this magic. Some succeed more than others. For example, Steam is packed with platformers and faux-JRPGs rendered with pixel-art graphics and chiptune soundtracks reminiscent of various 8-bit and 16-bit games of a bygone era. These, of course, range in quality from excellent to piss-poor.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, except that it’s merely recursive. These new games, banking on the appeal of nostalgia, ultimately forget that when 12 year olds, like I was, booted up Super Metroid or Chrono Trigger for the first time, they were not doing so to scratch a nostalgic itch, or to relive the glory days of 16-bit gaming–we were popping those carts into our sun-yellowed Super Nintendos eagerly anticipating a fresh new adventure, a brand new experience.
Here is precisely where Hollow Knight gets everything right: Hollow Knight is a fresh, new adventure, and does provide a brand new experience.
Hollow Knight’s graphics are not pixel-art-based–rather the game exudes a feeling of being animated, breathing and organic. Character models and their motions are detailed and fluid. The backdrops are haunting and rich, providing the impression that the world the characters inhabit is large, detailed, interesting, and fully realized. The world of Hollow Knight is beautiful.
The sound design is not chiptune-based. The soundtrack is emotive, delicate and orchestral, complex-yet-catchy themes fading in and out between in-game areas and events. Just as Chrono Trigger fully utilized the SNES’ audio capabilities to represent orchestral themes that would be performed by live orchestras to this day, Hollow Knight utilizes all modern resources available to include a recorded soundtrack that is not just auxiliary, but essential.
Sure, Hollow Knight is a 2D platformer, and cannot be described without using the term “metroidvania.” Granted, its basic mechanics and gameplay do superficially resemble those of Castlevania and Metroid titles. In fact, many of its game systems will be readily familiar to those who have loved those titles for years. However, in my opinion, the retro gaming scene, along with various mobile and handheld titles have firmly established that 2D, as a game format, will forever remain a viable choice, regardless of the technology available to even fledgling game developers. This game is not a throwback title.
What makes Hollow Knight such an amazing experience, for me, is that it doesn’t just harken back to those classic games that enchanted me as a kid. Playing Hollow Knight for the first time makes me feel the way I remember feeling when I played those classic titles long ago, a feeling of wide-eyed adventure–a feeling that very few new games are able to rekindle.