Nostalgia is a word that permeates the world of modern gaming. Despite our personal definition of “retro,” it seems we all want to find something that fills a certain void. We crave an experience that recaptures a feeling we had with a game from generations past. I believe we find a “certain something” in older titles that likely has more to do with our lives at the time we first experienced it than the game itself.
I have a distinct memory of being a lucky kid with a Sega Genesis on Christmas morning. Though this memory is as distant as a time where the Sega Genesis was the “new hotness,” it still feels fresh and vivid. My dad helped me get the console properly connected to the television and I booted up Sonic the Hedgehog for the first time, cross-legged on the floor in front of a tiny tube TV weighing down a flimsy, old stand.
“SEGA!” rang out as the letters flashed across the screen. Immediately I was greeted by colors and sounds far more vibrant than what other games had shown me. My parents owned an Atari 2600 and I was pretty well-versed in the NES catalog, but this was totally next level. I still can’t quite explain it, but at that very moment, something inside me “clicked.” I was thrilled, positively enamored by this game that really consisted of little more than running really fast and grabbing shiny rings.
It’s that perfect balance of “simplicity” and “newness” that connected with my childhood brain unlike anything else. Sure, there were books, movies, TV shows, but games were clearly very different.
Looking back, we see the origins of many beloved characters that still lead the charge of their respective creators. Mario, a plumber with one hell of a ‘stache that hops on heads in hopes of saving his lady love; Link, a character who has been born into various forms, ages, and backstories to fight for the kingdom of Hyrule; and Sonic, who is really just a fast, blue hedgehog, and I think we all love him a little more when he doesn’t try to be any more than that. Of course, if you’ve played even one video game, you likely need no introduction to any of these guys, as their faces are now pretty household for what was once considered a niche hobby.
One thing that the earliest iterations of each of these “flagship” games had in common is that simplicity and newness mentioned above. As straightforward as each game may have been, it still offered something to distinguish itself from all the other stuff on the shelves. I mean think about it, in each of these titles we’re playing completely silent protagonists. Even now, they say almost nothing. These are characters who put action before utterance, moving through their respective tales with a singular goal. And when you strip away every pixel, every sprite, every MIDI track, that silence, that integrity was enough to keep our attention.
Beyond the sequel
That’s not to say that there is some inherent superiority to the “bare-bones classics.” Even in the earliest entries, the blueprint is there for something more. Sequels, though not nearly as grandiose as what we’ve come to expect in 2018, added even the smallest “something” to enhance what was originally successful. And it worked. Games operated so spectacularly within their limitations that it’s pretty amusing when we try to place consumer expectations for both “modern” and “retro” games side-by-side. At the very least, it comments on the strength of these characters alone. All we really wanted was to see them again, be them again, in new places, with new friends, doing mostly the same thing. The future was approaching rapidly, though, and we had no idea what games had in store for us.
As a gamer in 2018, I feel as if I’ve watched my heroes grow with me. I continue to see them in new ways through each installment. Sure, some have fared better than others (sorry, Sonic — I still believe in you!), but they still remain iconic.
The things I’ve experienced in gaming have played an integral part in shaping who I am and what I enjoy now. Our hobbies mean something different to each of us, but there is a certain personal connection that we as gamers enjoy and I believe it influences the way we interact with society as a whole.
Nostalgia Bytes is a column that seeks to look back on how we relate to the games we play and the effects they have on who we are in the context of society. Being a “gamer” has become a defining factor in the lives of many individuals, and yet it seems to mean something slightly different to every one of us. Despite that, we all hold one common denominator – a love for games.