Pah… Back in my day we had PROPER nostalgia
Nostalgia is a tricky beast to get right. It seems like every gamer in the world fondly remembers the golden age of gaming, those halcyon days when games were the real deal, before these awful pretenders swept in and ruined the neighbourhood for everyone. Of course, the big problem with all of this is that no-one can agree when exactly those halcyon days were! Each new generation cherishes the products that brought them into the fold, and so “retro” tends to become an ever advancing front, best described as “any game from more than ten years ago”.
Want to feel old? I mean, really depressingly old? Google the phrase “PS2 Nostalgia”. There’s a whole group of people out there pining for the good old days of the Playstation 2 and Xbox era, celebrating retro classics like Final Fantasy X, or the original Halo. I mean, who doesn’t miss the good old days of burly space marines blasting aliens in a military sci-fi setting. They don’t make games like that anymore, do they?
Lumo doesn’t truck with such recent memories, however. From the first minute of the game, Lumo sets out to deliver only the finest platinum-grade old-school nostalgia, taking the player back to almost literally the dawn of home computing. In times of yore, when attributes clashed, and the best chips were blitter (and if you get both of those references, you are as old as me!), the children of the early 80’s were discovering the joy of gaming in their own bedrooms for the very first time. The limited hardware power of the time meant that early developers who wanted to create believable 3D environments turned to isometric techniques as a way to build believable 3D environments. These techniques spawned a substantial genre on the early hardware, featuring such heavyweight hits as Knight Lore, Fairlight and Head over Heels.
Anyway, enough history lessons and back to the review. Lumo is an overt throwback to this genre of game, with the same isometric perspective and basic gameplay as those aforementioned classics. Your character is a likeable little wizard, attempting to gather four special artifacts (for reasons not entirely clear) from a world chock-full of endless references to its forebears. So the mine entrance has “manic” inscribed above it in multi-coloured pixel letters, whilst a neighbouring room holds Monty’s old placards from his time on the picket line. The main character bears a more than passing resemblance to Sabre-man. The teleporters play ZX Spectrum loading noises when you use them. The crates say ACG Industries on the side. The list runs and runs as the entire game reveals itself to be an endless love letter to a childhood spent swigging Soda-stream cherry cola and pounding rubber keys.
All of which makes for an experience that is awash with the heady air of nostalgia for elderly gamers like me, but it’s hard not to wonder what a younger audience is likely to make of all this. Early on there’s a single room where the game switches to a radically different visual style and setting in a brightly coloured tribute to “Alien 8”. It clashes horribly with the rest of the world and would feel bizarre if you didn’t get the reference, but how many people are really out there who remember that? There are many of these odd moments scattered through the world of Lumo, like the right green sword you can find resting against some barrels in an otherwise pointless corridor. I assume this is a nod to an old game, as I recognise the Spectrum palette green instantly, but without understanding the reference, I’m really just trudging through a bland room with an ugly thing in it.
That is the big problem with Lumo, summed up in a nutshell. There’s a fine line between reverence for the past and letting that reverence consume you, and often Lumo doesn’t get this balance right. It meticulously replicates the form and functions of an old genre of gaming, but in doing so, it also replicates the faults. Long sequences of pixel perfect jumps are demanded, all the more difficult due to the perspective. This challenge is presented without even the kindness of a death pit and respawn below them, so if you miss the final jump, you plummet back to the floor below and have to laboriously clamber back up before you try again. Now, yes, this kind of frustration was commonplace in the “good old days” but that doesn’t make it good. Modern game design surely has faults, but today’s titles usually have more respect for the player’s time than that, and let’s be honest, they are much better for it!
Lumo’s blind adherence to nostalgia is perfectly illustrated in the alternative play mode offered, “old school” mode. This mode disables saving your game and adds a limited pool of lives, along with a “Game Over” screen when you run out of them. You see? Because that’s how the old games were. Except why would you want this, under any circumstances? It’s an option that adds nothing except development time to the project, included for the sake of symbolic fidelity to the past, but of no actual value to anyone.
Now, all of this griping is not to say that Lumo is entirely without pleasure, as when it’s payload of memories hits the mark, the warm glow of recognition it inspires can be genuinely delightful. One of the four items you must collect is a truly obscure piece of 8-bit hardware that I recognised, but had long since forgotten existed. Seeing it rendered again in such loving detail, complete with the original manufacturer’s logo on the front, was a real standout moment for me, and one that softened my heart towards the game somewhat.
Sadly this softening only lasted until the next sequence of confusing jumps, and I was soon back to hurling expletives at my screen. As I pushed further into the game, and the level designers started to reveal their sadistic side, I really started to wonder if those occasional hits of nostalgia were worth the trouble I was enduring to reach them. Several of the later rooms I reached made me want to contact the designers personally and ask them what exactly they were thinking. “You know that slippery maze you built out of ice blocks and suspended above a pit of spikes? Is that fun? Will players enjoy that?”
But I feel like I already know the answer I will get. It’s old school. That’s what things used to be like. We are just recreating the style of those older games. The problem, of course, being that old games were secretly all rubbish. Nostalgia is a dangerous drug, and the side effects of it can make us blind to the truth. Our treasured favourites rarely survive a second look. Most of us have had that N64 Goldeneye experience, right? There’s a salutary lesson in the thirty minutes you’ll spend, awkward controller in hand, wondering how your teenage self ever managed to sink so much of their time into the blurry, choppy mess that is currently on your TV screen. Time is a cruel master. I might have loved Knight Lore when I was a kid, but I’ll be damned if I want to spend even five minutes playing it now!
In the end, Lumo comes across as a game that never had that Goldeneye experience. Shrouding itself in the safety blanket of childhood, i treats the past like a precious relic, which must be revered, and honoured without criticism. It excitedly digs into the rich seams of nostalgia under its feet, but its enthusiasm blinds it to the filth caked onto its treasured haul. Time travellers should beware! On your journey into history, you might discover the majesties of the past and relive the glory days of a once-proud civilisation, but sometimes you just end up knee deep in muck, catch cholera and die.
Lumo was reviewed with a download code of the PC edition, provided by the developer.