A few weeks ago, one of my roommates came home clutching a copy of Conker: Live & Reloaded. He had played the platformer on the Nintendo 64 years ago, and wanted to experience it all over again on my Xbox. "This game was such a blast!" he exclaimed while loading the disc. His enthusiasm was contagious, so I sat down to watch him play.
His excitement lasted all of an hour. He'd spent it plodding from one generic area to the next and struggling with the controls. He'd had it with the same tired enemies blocking his way, he'd long stopped laughing at the poo jokes, and any interest he had in the disaster that passed for a plot had long since moved on.
"I don't get it," he told me, tossing the controller aside. "This game used to be so much fun. Did I really waste my time with this junk?"
Nostalgia is funny like that. Sometimes rose-colored glasses are a lot like beer goggles.
As a society, we're prone to believe that the past is inherently better than the present. Everyone knows someone who goes on and on about how great his or her high school years were. I can't speak for anyone else, but I wouldn't go back to high school at gunpoint. And yet, the concept of "the good old days" continues to linger. Canada's favorite son Bryan Adams waxes nostalgic about the summer of '69 as if those first few awkward attempts to get into a girl's pants were the highlight of his life. Films like Stand By Me glorify a simpler time when all children had to worry about was finding a dead body before crazy greaser hoodlums could hassle them. If you listen to pop culture, the present blows.
The same goes for the world of electronic entertainment. Gamers have bemoaned the death of originality in the industry for almost as long as it's been around, claiming that nothing will beat the old classics. But I wonder if we're not putting too much focus on our memories of these games and less on their actual game play. More often than not, these old games aren't as great as we remember.
Here's an example. Konami's Castlevania had interesting monsters, catchy music, and a great gimmick: a guy with a whip. But if you went back and played it today, chances are you wouldn't bother playing past the second level. Why are the newest games in the series so drastically different from the original? The answer is because gamers demand more from their hobby now, and there's just not a lot of meat on those old bones. But when the fully 3D, story-driven sequel fails, they point at the original on its lofty pedestal and demand an experience that lives up to their memories. It's a double standard that's next to impossible to satisfy.
We spend so much time focusing on how great our history is that we often fail to appreciate current titles. I once spent an entire weekend trying to get a Super Nintendo emulator to work on my Xbox with the sole purpose of playing Super Metroid. I obtained the emulator from shady Internet back alleys, searched for a site that allowed me to download the English ROM file without having to sign up for a year's worth of Viagra, uploaded the software to my modded console, and set to work trying to figure out how to make the emulator display on my TV. That hurdle cleared, I then had to configure the application to search for the ROM somewhere other than the DVD drive. Then I had to remap my control scheme. Then I had to attach the whatchamacallit to the the thingamabob. All the while, Metroid Prime 2 sat on the shelf, lonely and neglected like a kid in a Lifetime Original Movie.
The nostalgia craze has rocketed so high that companies can't resist taking advantage of it. Microsoft doesn't release sales numbers for their Live Arcade service, but unofficial polling shows that games like Gauntlet and Smash TV have each been downloaded from the service by over 75,000 people, with the retro-inspired Geometry Wars at over 180,000 downloads. Even at $5 a pop, that's a lot of revenue. Nintendo hopes to expand on that business model with their Virtual Console service, launching alongside the Wii. The big N hasn't announced what games will be available, but the general consensus is that most of their first party titles from the NES, SNES, and N64 will be available, and at prices rivaling Microsoft's. While the masses applaud these companies for their old-school offerings, they often forget that they're paying good money for games they've already played.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't be using these services, and I'm certainly not saying that enjoying classic games is bad. What I am saying is that nostalgia can be a dangerous thing. It's easy to look in the rear-view mirror and conclude that the future of gaming is doomed, but you'll never be able to keep your eyes on the road that way. It's time we put away the Conkers and Contras and Castlevanias of our past and focus on the games we have yet to dream of. It's time we enjoy the good new days.