Tunic is my favorite SNES game
In my first session of Tunic I was immediately struck by the soft diffusing filter on the game. Every edge has a slight glow like a memory being pulled for the deepest corner of my brain. The instruction booklet is drawn with love for the era of thick gaming manuals. During the 2010s a resurgence of nostalgia exploded in the indie game world. These games had the aesthetics and gameplay of NES and SNES games. Bad chiptune music propagated during this time. The games failed at bottling the essence of nostalgia. However, Tunic nailed the feeling of remembering a beloved SNES game.
Link to the Past was one of my favorite games growing up. Even though I technically did not play it on a SNES (Gameboy Advance version), it is the quintessential SNES experience for me. The game held so many secrets that would blow my tiny mind. Entering the dark world was such a formative moment that it has affected my gaming taste forever. The top down perspective is another highlight. Seeing an inaccessible item on the far side of a screen gave me clear goals. I know I can get the item, but it is a question of when and how. As soon as I got the ability I needed, my brain would light up. Backtracking to collect the previously inaccessible items is satisfying. Every step to that item builds anticipation. It helped that running around as a cute little guy in green rocks.
Tunic understands this, especially running around as a cute little guy in green. The Fox from Tunic is a perfect character design. Their green tunic works well with the bright copper and cream colors of their fur. The purple scarf is a cute touch to the character. The shield and sword combo instantly draws comparisons to Link. This does not come off as a cheap knockoff, instead the fox feels like a mascot I already know. I passed by dozens of Tunics when searching for a game to rent at Blockbuster for the weekend.
The game explicitly plays with distant and fuzzy memories. Tunic itself is a player trying to remember the game. Opening up the instruction booklet reveals a CRT screen behind it. The screen shows a 16-bit sprite version of the game. Once I unpause the menu, the game returns to the 3d clay graphics. It is a brilliant piece of set dressing that telegraphs the nostalgic vibes.
Memory is not a perfect recall mechanism. Time distorts what actually happened. Only the important bits stand out. Tunic could have been a typical SNES game but when imaging the game 30 years later the memory changes. The graphics are better remembered than in reality. Most of the game is bare space but certain set pieces are intricate. Specifically the Library is filled with details. Books tower over the player. The chalkboards are filled with both lore information and homages to retro games. The Library and Cathedral are grand structures that contrast with the sparse overworld. Tunic’s art style thieves in the impersonation of nostalgia. The design choices swirl into a warm pot of memory.
The instruction booklet binds all of these aspects together into a cohesive whole. It brings me back to the days of reading a new game’s manual on my ride back home. The pages have the rough texture of card stock. Even though it is all digital it feels heavy. There is a weight when flipping the pages in Tunic and it’s very tactile. A clever limitation is that there is no way to jump to a certain page number. If I need to find information on page 50 that means I have to flip through to page 50. The sound when a page flips over is perfect. There are notes scribbled in “pencil” that give extra hints. On some pages there are cute sketches of the fox themselves. The digital notebook becomes a nostalgic relic.
Distortion is vital in nostalgia. My memories of games I played as a kid are not accurate. Memories become blurred. Important details are sandwiched in between blank spaces. Tunic uses the empty space and fills it with secrets. Instead of recreating the games I was nostalgic for, Tunic recreates the feeling of playing those games. Other developers should learn from Tunic. Memory and nostalgia is more complex than imitation.