Nostalgia in Gaming: The personal nature of retro games


I am a sucker for retro gaming.  Any game that takes me back to the 8- and 16-bit era invariably gets my attention. It’s a relentless attraction that is easily explained: growing up, I played a lot of video games.[i] But by now I figured I would have had my fill of early 90s gaming the same way I had my fill of third-wave ska and Cheers. But no. That attraction to retro games is still going strong. And I am far from alone.

Located on Chicago’s north side, People Play Games is a game resale shop that specializes in vintage video games. Unlike Gamestop, which doesn’t stock games past the last generation of consoles, People Play Games is a brick and mortar establishment that doesn’t sell video games as it sells cartridges filled with distilled nostalgia. They also repair old consoles and gaming peripherals, a service that is surprisingly hard to come by. There aren’t many stores that can restore my dusty Super Nintendo to its god-given purpose[ii] of reminding everyone I suck at Contra 3.

The store is a bit pricey but it’s clear that cost is not a deterrent for customers looking to take a trip down memory lane.

My point is nostalgia sells games. Or, in my case, it invokes an urge to write about it. This leads me to a question I’ve been wrestling with for a while: is the nostalgia gamers feel towards retro games any different than a bunch of twenty-somethings playing the FernGully drinking game? Is it somehow more powerful?

I think it is. And as stupid as it seems to try and quantify types of nostalgia, it comes down to the nature of games as an art genre. In particular, what do games do that other art doesn’t.

Jane McGonigal is a game designer, author of Realty is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, and, despite not responding to my calls, emails, or candygrams, my future wife. McGonigal believes that games cause “urgent optimism “which she defined as “the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief we have a reasonable chance for success.”[iii] This is applicable to why nostalgia is so apparent in gaming. For starters, gaming is probably one of the few contexts where challenges are almost always seen as something positive. Throughout our daily lives we are faced with countless challenges and overcoming them instills a sense of satisfaction in us. However, our satisfaction usually only comes after the task is completed and the rewards reaped. The actual act of overcoming a career-related challenge, for example, does not bring a sense of satisfaction. Oftentimes, it’s a source of stress.

Now imagine that constant cycle of work and reward is made available to you at a young age. In a lot of ways, it’s almost unfair. Video games give kids a context where challenges are presented in a way that is never daunting. Meanwhile, real life challenges for kids (school, random erections, whatever) do not always feel conquerable. In games, if you fail, you immediately know why and have some idea of how to strategize. That kind of immediate feedback is rare outside of games.

When someone walks into a store and gushes over a copy of Mike Tyson’s Punch Out! it’s not just a “Gee, I remember this!” moment.  It takes the person back to a series of challenges that were overcome by work so enjoyable it was classified as play. This fact is harnessed regularly by the gaming industry. I’m a sucker for it. Last year, Atlus published 3-Dot Hero Game Heroes for the PS3, which was such homage to the original Legend of Zelda some critics thought it was more of a rip off than a tribute.[iv] I bought it. I played it. I grinned like a jackass the whole time because it was a constant reminder that all the hours I spent exploring Hyrule were not only enjoyable but they paid off.  I found treasure, killed the bad guys, and saved the princess. Universally, there is no greater human achievement than saving a princess.

Retro games also take us back to a pre-Internet time where accomplishments felt more personal because the solution to a puzzle wasn’t just a Google search away. Granted, you can simply refuse to use online resources but we are living products of the information age. If we want to know anything, we Google it. Gaming in the late 80s and early 90s meant that in-game strategies were either invented by the player or came from more personal sources like friends and family. I would even argue that gaming magazines are a more personal affair than the catchall Google search.

As a point of clarification: I’m not saying the information age has changed the way we play games for the worst. The sheer amount of information online has saved me the personal shame of calling my 10-year old cousin every time I have a Pokémon related question.[v] Instead, I’m merely saying that the Internet has made the notion of solely relying on personal acquaintances for gaming tips kind of silly. This is especially true in online games where not using online resources doesn’t mean others won’t. Metagaming[vi] was less of a factor before the Web.

Independent game developers often use stylized 8-bit graphics as art direction. This is both an interesting artistic choice but it also taps into a powerful, aforemntioned emotional response to retro games.

Minecraft is one of these games. Minecraft is an open-ended game where players craft tools and build essentially whatever they want. The game is simultaneously 3D and 8-bit, which is best described in a thought exercise: imagine you were placed inside the original Super Mario Bros. for NES and instead of being restricted to moving left or right you could move in all directions and you could destroy and move every pixel to make whatever you want. The game has taken many an hour from me and is the only game I’ve played that lets me build a respectable replica of the living room from All in the Family.

The game is exploding. Even though the game is still in beta, as of writing this, the game has 5,336,292 registered users, 1,590,889 of which have pre-paid for the final version.[vii] In the last 24-hours alone, 31,530 people have registered and 8714 people pre-purchased.

The “build whatever you want” motif is no doubt the draw here but pixel art like that in Minecraft is here to stay.

Games in general are a personal experience. When we sit down and pick up a controller, the immersion allows for escapism. Although two people may experience the same game, the escapism experienced (like any art) differs from person to person. However, revisiting video games of our youth allows us to face challenges of a former self, an experience that is unique to gaming.

So yes, noble reader, hang onto your SNES. It’s the closest you’ll come to experiencing time travel. But your Garbage Pail Kids? They can go eat a dick.

[i] Full disclosure: the most athletic thing I did as a kid was see Space Jam in theatres.

[ii] I’m using god in a general sense here. I wouldn’t want to leave readers with the impression that my god, Mechamagma is the “true” god because he is made of lava and has giant drills for arms.

[iii] For as much as I want to put things inside this woman, I will concede she has some theories that I don’t agree with. McGonigal believes that when we play games with other people we often bring “the best version of ourselves” to the game. I won’t disagree that playing games with other people pushes us to learn and adapt quicker but the relative anonymity of online gaming doesn’t inspire respect. I have been called a “dick smoocher” too many times on Xbox Live to buy into this theory completely. Then again, maybe SmoocherOfDicks isn’t a great Gamertag.

[iv] Despite the countless elements “borrowed” from the Legend of Zelda franchise, they replaced Link’s iconic heart meter with apples. I’m still undecided if this was done out of respect or just arbitrary because they’re both red and sorta the same shape.

[v] Roughly every ten minutes.

[vi] In simplest terms, metagaming takes place when external factors influence a game. For example, when someone mathematically proves the best way to build and equip your character in World of Warcraft that’s metagaming in action. Elitist Jerks are the unofficial gold standard for this.

[vii] Users who pre-pay also get to get access to the beta, which, admittedly, is the driving incentive.