If I’m going to be honest, I was inspired to make this article because of a recurring topic SNES Master KI and I have discussed at length on several occasions. When it comes to modern video game reviews, there is a concept that bothers KI to no end. It goes by many names: charm, magic, heart, soul. It doesn’t matter what you call it, they all mean the same exact thing. They’re nothing but euphemisms for rose-colored visions of nostalgia, giving reviewers and gamers in general expectations no game (modern or classic) could ever live up to.
I can actually relate with KI in this regard. I too have a similar phrase that drives me up a wall. “Recapture the magic”. You generally hear it with regards to sequels, and when it comes to video games, it always has a negative connotation. It’s not uncommon to hear reviewers bemoan that a new entry in a series, whether it’s classic or fairly recent, “fails to recapture the magic of earlier games in the series”. Maybe not every time, but it’s so common, it just gets on my nerves.
These two terms may seem similar on the surface, but they have slightly different connotations. Soul/charm/etc. is generally used in reference to games in general. It’s a more generic term that can be levied as a general criticism of any game. It is generally used in reference to games that are in long-running popular series (modern Nintendo games commonly evoke this criticism), but it’s also a criticism of games in genres that were popular in earlier generations. Hell, no game is safe from it: I’ve even heard people criticize games like Madden and Call of Duty for having no soul.
Moreover, soul (et al.) tends refers to certain intangible qualities from earlier generations, usually corresponding with games from the childhood of whoever makes the criticism. Recapturing the magic is a criticism that transcends generations: even later entries in series that started within the current generation can be unable to recapture the magic that made earlier games in the series so compelling. I’ve seen people claim that series like Dead Space have already lost “the magic” and that series has only seen releases within a single console generation at this point.
A lot of what makes the whole idea that games need to “recapture the magic” infuriating is the fact that it’s generally used as a response to sequels that don’t exceed an earlier installment in the series in every possible way, shape or form. If even one aspect of the game is inferior or just “too different”, regardless of how insignificant that change might really be, that’s all you need: it’s nothing but a disappointment and needs to “recapture the magic”. Even the most minor of slip-ups aren’t immune from that stupid term.
Worse still is when it gets thrown at games that are actually good: some games that are actually on par or even superior to the most popular games in a franchise can still be considered unable to “recapture the magic”, simply because they can’t erase less popular entries out of existence. A good example of this would have to be the Sonic the Hedgehog series. Despite the fact that we’ve gotten some great Sonic games lately (and I’m including Lost World), it will never be able to escape the venerated status of the Genesis games. Even more damaging, however, are the reputations of the weaker games in the series, like Sonic ’06. Hell, many people even argue that every game in the series since 3D Blast has been unable to recapture the magic. No matter how good any new release in that series manages to be, it will never be able to truly escape the perceived taint of earlier entries. Fortunately, Sega’s dropped their obsession with trying to achieve Genesis-era levels of popularity, but it’s a disgusting sentiment all the same.
There is a loophole to getting away from the taint of “losing the magic”: ditching the series itself and going with a spiritual successor. I’ve talked in the past about the benefits of taking existing gameplay and incorporating it into an entirely new franchise in the past, but that’s one point I didn’t think of when I was writing that article. By starting from scratch with a new intellectual property, one can generally sidestep the bad reputations disappointing earlier entries in a series can garner to a well-made sequel. Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect solution: to this day, I still hear some people gripe about how much better the System Shock games were than the original Bioshock, which was both a best-seller and critically-acclaimed.
Of course, the reason that the whole obsession people have with recapturing the magic of the best game in a particular series bugs me the most is probably due to my own opinions. Generally, my favorite game in a particular series isn’t considered the best, even by me. I’ll acknowledge that Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World were better games, but that doesn’t keep SMB2 (the American version, “Lost Levels” is just awful) from being my favorite 2D mainline Mario game of all time. Going back to Sonic, Sonic 2 (for the Genesis, of course) is generally considered the best game in entire series, but even with regards to that era, I preferred Sonic CD. Even with the Classic MegaMan series, everyone considered the second game to be the best game in the entire series, but even before MM10 came out, I always preferred MM3. None of these games were bad, but fortunately due to their age (and thus, built-in nostalgia), they’re able to exist outside of the scope of the “recapture the magic” concept. If these games had come out today, they would probably all be despised: actually, for a long time, SMB2 WAS despised, especially by people who knew it was different from the Japanese SMB2, which was nothing but an overglorified level pack for the original.
In the end, all the concept of “recapturing the magic” accomplishes is creating insurmountable expectations for games in a series. It’s a pointless concept that should be entirely trashed. While the whole idea of soul (or whatever you’d prefer to call it) is just a way to justify reminiscing about “the way things used to be, back in the good ol’ days”, implying that there is a magic that needs to be regained is just useless in the long run. It doesn’t achieve anything, it’s just pointless griping over the fact that a sequel to a game you liked just doesn’t give you the same level of sensations as its forebear or because it didn’t expand to the extent or in the fashion you personally wanted it to. Sequels should be judged by their own merits, not based on some esoteric ideal set in motion by the most popular entry in their series.