Christmas and the New Year are always a time for reflection and nostalgia and more importantly, eating so much Quality Street that chocolate bubbles up your nose whenever you hiccup. Good times. But with it, there’s always that tinge of regret that it can never be quite like it once was; when Santa seemed possible (instead of, as we all know, quite real) and packages under the tree were little parcels of magic and surprise instead of quite probably socks.
It’s natural, I know. But I regret that I can’t ever see myself being as excited, as pumped up, as shaking-magazine-pages-to-make-the-screenshots-move as during the 90s, waiting to crack open games like Day Of The Tentacle or Grim Fandango, or Street Fighter II for the SNES. As far as games go, I’m not sure anyone quite does any more. Not in the same way, at least.
Oh, I’m not saying that kids don’t get excited to rip open presents or anything like that, just that when it came to computers and gaming, there was something distinctly more magic about them back in those days that we don’t really have any more. Going into an arcade and fantasising about a day when games like that would be playable at home for instance. Mags like C&VG seemed the luckiest things on Earth to have access to systems like the Neo Geo, with each review not so much buying advice as a brag that yes, they had £200 worth of game right there and could play it and all you could do was sniff the paper and try to get a whiff of its quality.
That raw sense of magic hasn’t been around for many years now. Yes, the NES and the SNES were technically upgrades, but they also had that primitive impossibility to them – something as simple as a Mode 7 effect or the allure of ‘blast processing’ speaking of a whole new world of technology and experience. It didn’t hurt that in most cases, the games of the age were distant, typically untouchable things.
Perhaps there was a demo unit at a nearby Toymaster or similar… I know my love of the NES was sparked by a demo at a department store in Harrogate where you could play five whole minutes of games like Mega Man and Castlevania 2 and Solar Jetman… but for the most part you were on your own. There was no YouTube to show off every secret and glom onto. The closest was if a game you wanted was lucky enough to feature on something like GamesMaster, and you’d get maybe 30 seconds of actual footage to record onto VHS and rewatch until the tape ran thinner than the plot of a Scooby Doo cartoon.
I suppose in a way, I’m lucky that my nostalgia is still a living, breathing thing that I can dip into more or less whenever. The NES, the SNES, the Mega Drive (or if you prefer, and don’t mind being wrong, the Genesis) all have a special place in internet culture’s heart.
With constant returns to classics, games like Zelda: A Link To The Past are still hailed as among the best games ever made. Of late, the push towards recapturing an era on things like Kickstarter and in indie games like Shovel Knight for platformers and Undertale for JRPGs, and of course, the upcoming Final Fantasy VII remake. Don’t get me started on the dreadful PC port of Final Fantasy VI, mind you, since I’m not really allowed to swear here and so must remain quiet.
But I do often wonder what, if anything, will supplant this nostalgia. Individual games for systems like the Playstation 2 get a piece of it, but there never seems to be the full, all-encompassing wave of it that not only appeals to those of us who were there at the time, but the next generation that hooked onto it. There, it seems to tap out largely around the introduction of the Nintendo 64, primarily for Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time.
After that, it folds back in on itself. Perhaps that’s because those systems marked an end to consoles and PC gaming feeling like a rare thing instead of simply A Thing That Was Everywhere. Perhaps it’s just that ‘retro’ was established by people more or less my age, with the word generally harking back to a largely imagined mid-90s golden age that still seems like yesterday. Oh yes, we can say, like grizzled veterans, still mentally poring over the Argos catalogue in front of Saturday morning cartoons, we fought in the first console wars. We saw life in VGA, and it was Good.
Games like Super Mario World and Street Fighter II have never really left the geeky public eye thanks to endless parodies and references, in much the same way that Space Invaders and bloopy-bleeps still represent gaming to the mainstream, despite being almost 40 years old.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the games of the 8-bit and 16-bit era have such incredible charm with their pixel-art style and cleanliness, while early 3D games have aged about as poorly as yoghurt behind the radiator. It’s so much easier to hold onto the warm fuzzies when looking at a picture of something like A Link To The Past than, say, the original Tomb Raider, complete with smeary textures and a Lara Croft model capable of putting peoples’ eyes out on the street.
But really, I think what it comes down to is a matter of scale – that games and gaming and consoles and everything that went with it were, until the turn of the millennium, not simply entertainment products but a whole world in and of itself. The consoles and games you had. The ones your friends had. The ones you lusted after.
The big decisions like Sega vs. Nintendo that weren’t simply a question of a few exclusive games, but philosophical decisions of choosing a side. You were a Nintendo Kid or an Amiga Owner or a PC Person Who Will Be Validated in the way that you’re simply not when you buy a PS4 or an Xbox One these days, and if you were in any of the scenes, chances were that it dominated your perspective to a far greater degree – even if not enough to be taken in by things like, say, the Nintendo Cereal System.
These days, games are different. Everybody plays, something at least. The industry is too big and too wide-spread for it to feel like your own little world; too many games shooting down the pipe for many of them to embed properly in the same way that playing Zelda for the hundredth time or inventing new ways to defeat Super Mario World while blindfolded allowed. Who has the time for that when there’s some flashy, must-play AAA release every week, instead of a handful of games competing for one, or maybe two presents a year? As any kid who ever got more than one NES/SNES game at once knows, there’s no better way to not appreciate what you have.
But of course, there are exceptions. It seems unlikely that a whole generation won’t grow up looking back as fondly on Minecraft as their predecessors did on Lego, just as Blizzard will likely be able to coast forever on the years of fuzzy feelings generated when World of Warcraft was an institution instead of simply a game and nobody who played Pokemon will ever not instantly be able to tell their Hitmonchan from their Hitmonlee, even if trying to cooly feign indifference.
There’ll always be nostalgia. There’ll always be something new to base it on and bounce it off. It’s only natural that its focus has moved, and that the older you get, the harder it is to feel that same burning passion that locked something like Mario forever in the gooest part of your brain but makes something like a new Assassin’s Creed feel like just another game. At least there’s one compensation – nostalgia doesn’t fade, it only grows stronger. Somewhere in my head, it’s always Christmas Day, circa 1992, ripping open a copy of Street Fighter II for my SNES.
That was a really good day. I hope everyone has at least one Christmas like that.