Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Goggles Do Something: Nostalgia and Video Games

Let me start off by saying that I am in no way deriding the right that anyone has to fond memories of the things they’ve grown up with: be they video games, music, or anything else under the sun. That being said, I’ve come to believe that nostalgia is a tool; not only that, but it’s a powerful one that can be used both for good and ill.

Because I’m the ripe old age of 25, I can say that I remember growing up on the cusp of what would become an enduring evolution of the video game industry. I remember playing NES when I was but a tiny lad, bugging my mother to get all the backs of the Kraft Dinner boxes that had tips and tricks for Super Mario Bros. I also remember owning the original Game Boy, the immense frustration I felt at never being able to get to the last level of Super Mario World, needing help to get there let alone beat the final boss - as a strange aside I loved the chicken shooting cloud that you fought before him - and playing Tetris despite probably being too stupid to really understand how to not get myself killed by my own incompetence.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these memories, they’re in fact some of the happiest of my life. But at the same time I recognize that it’s a double-edged sword. Today I would be remiss to say that I feel the same magic as I did back then when I play Team Fortress 2, Assassin’s Creed, even whimsical games like Katamari Damacy. Is it a case of the magic being gone? Have video games simply gotten worse since we started playing them?

To put it bluntly: absolutely not.

I think that those gamers that have siblings significantly younger than them might understand this better than most: to see the joy on their faces as they discover video games for the first time, whether it be the latest incarnation of the Mario series, Angry Birds, or even free flash games. Surely there is some of that wonder in their eyes, showing you a mirror of what you no doubt must have experienced the first time you stepped into a virtual world.

But of course, as time marches on so to must we keep stride, and in doing so we start to lose that magic. It’s not that the games aren’t just as special as they always were, it’s just that to a gamer that has over 20 years of gaming under his or her belt there’s a lot of pre-existing, strongly ingrained strata that everything must compete with to earn that coveted chance to make them stop and be awe-struck for even a moment, let alone a whole play-through. This isn’t even going the ever increasing demands that life continues to put on everyone as they age, between school, work, and other non-gaming hobbies, the time to sit down and play a 40 hour RPG or even a 20 hour action game just seems to fade away, and of course when people quote total playtime they often assume that it’s either doing the bare minimum to get to the end, or aided with walkthroughs and the like, both of which while useful for saving time end up ultimately detracting from the overall experience of exploration and discovery via one’s own merit.

Added to this is the fact that as we grow and mature, our tastes change. Sure, I still enjoy any Mario game as much as the next guy. But the thing is games that younger players might find challenging and relish getting hard fought victories from are, for the seasoned veteran, something that only barely registers as challenging or even worse, seems like a monotonous grind.

The thing is that with nostalgia, it also runs both ways. Nostalgia can make something that was good but otherwise unexceptional seem to be great, the great seem to be spectacular, and the spectacular seem untouchably perfect. Likewise it can make the mediocre seem passable, the bad seem mediocre, and the worst of the lot seem somehow a lot more palatable. Hell, I remember thinking of a game for the Game Boy where you play a man digging holes to trap aliens. I remember the game as absurdly fun and challenging, and yet, if you take a look at it today (youtube a game called Heiankyo Alien, I’ll wait).

It’s not really anything to write home about, is it? Sure, it's not the worst thing in the world, but let’s face it that game is clearly showing its age, and while some games do hold up better, it’s the fact that they are among our first gaming experiences that decide what games will forever be remembered in the annuls of our minds.

Now, I’m not saying that Super Metroid, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario 64, and hundreds if not thousands of other games that we fondly remember are bad, it’s just that modern games often don’t stand a chance to compete, likewise why we’re often shocked when we introduce the younger generation to some of our favourites only to be met with raised eyebrows and chides of “how could you like that game?”. Getting the damn kids off the lawn won’t be far away, but then again given enough time the kids being raised on Ratchet and Clank will be saying the same thing to their younger siblings or, heaven help us all, their children, who will no doubt have their own cherished titles: they just don’t know it yet.

At this point I've no doubt given the impression that nostalgia is a terrible thing, when that's hardly the case, because it's the nostalgia that keeps us going sometimes, and that can even get us to try new things. When you hear that a game plays or is strongly reminiscent of something that you recall fondly that's all the more encouragement to give it a try, and while sometimes you simply end up disappointed, there are just as many pleasant surprises out of such discoveries as their are let-downs, at least on a good day.

In a roundabout way, the point I’ve been trying to make here is that there might be problems with the way the current generation is working out, but saying that older games were better just because is just passing the buck and doing no one any good whatsoever. That’s why in looking at games of current and past generations I plan to delve into what works and what doesn’t while hopefully avoiding falling into the pit trap that nostalgia often shoves under our feet.

1 comment:

  1. Very well written. I too have felt for some time nostalgia is something that can do both good and harm. The most recent example I can think of the latter is the XBLA Scott Pilgrim game, which wasn't lacking in nostalgia but failed to but an exciting, compelling game in there.

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