Don't Go Down Memory Lane


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.


I'm not sure if Starcraft is sufficiently aged to consider tripping down memory lane when I fire it up. However, at eight years old it holds up incredibly well. For me it is the game I most often retreat to when I consider loading anything new on my less than uber gaming PC. With this handicap of not having the latest Alienware, I am forced to take the cast-off games from my friends who have more robust machines. So games like Max Payne, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights get some new life breathed into them on my box and I am none the wiser. What is this Half Life 2 you speak of? I'm sure I shall be "in the know" in another 2-4 years when it is time to upgrade my hardware.

If we are talking truly retro, I'm not sure how much time I could spend on Rygar or the original Castlevania. I remember them fondly, but having unlocked the original Metroid on the GBA Metroid Zero Mission, I suspect if I did revisit them I would spend the requisite ten minutes monkeying around and then shut them off. Speaking of monkeying around, I am occasionally tempted to try to hunt down the Qbasic gem Gorillas that was built into"… I want to say Dos 4.x? Either that or try to find it's freeware/shareware big brother Scorched Earth.

Tazer Floyd (and demiurge, of course)--

I think I agree with both of you on retro gaming What interests me is the comparison to retro-music.

Today's musical instruments are identical to past musical instruments. Certainly everything went electric at some point, but (if I had the skill) I could pick up a banjo and make new music exactly like it was made on that old inch-thick vinyl record I found in my grandpa's garage. The 'live' experience of music then would have been the same as the live experience of that music now (assuming parity of performance: acoustic to acoustic, electric to electric, etc). The important thing is that I could make compelling music that everyone would accept as new and perhaps even innovative, without actually doing anything new or innovative outside of the composition. In general. The invention of new instruments (ie, the theramin) does occur, but it's not exactly the focus of making 'music'.

but games seem fundamentally different. Old games ran on old instruments. We don't use those instruments anymore. The new instruments are similar to the old instruments, but one could not compose a new game on an old instrument and have it generally accepted. Or rather, when one makes new compositions with these old instruments, one usually ends up with some form of indie art, rather than a game.

another way of looking at it: 'gameplay' is actually the granular, instrumental phenomenon, and the layer of interactivity (grafix) is the area of creative composition. The key is composing beautifully on the right instrument. so an old gameplay style, matched with a very nice new dx 9c grafix engine can, indeed, be better than its retro predecessor.

which is why I both love and hate retro gaming. the retro game which represents that perfect teaming of both the instrument (the gameplay) and the layer of interactivity (the grafix) is truly a gem. but the retro game that just looks bad and doesn't really work is a stinker, in my opinion. The latter though, where they suffer from excessive ambition, can often be perfected with later technology.

Unlike music. a particularly ambitious piece of music shall remain as it is, no matter it's failings. a particularly ambitious bit of gameplay that couldn't muster the grafix to convey it can be revived and reinvigorated.

I think there are some games that can withstand the turning of time. For myself I still sit down for an hour or two of Elite (from the Acorn Electron)which I installed onto my PC. Sure I wouldn't play it to the same level as Freelancer however it still has the ability to keep me enthralled for hours. Same with games like Populous, or Powermonger, which i played on the Amiga, which I have also available on my pc.

I think the problem is that we expect to have the same enthusiasm for these games, as we had when we were 10 years old. however we forget that since then we've become quite dependent on better graphics, better controls, and the ability to save quite easily.

I wouldn't expect older games to keep me interested for long, however, I am careful not to burn myself out on them. I play Elite probably 3 times a month, along with Powermonger/Populous 1&2. Other games like repton? Nah. No replay value for me.

Just a heads-up that you got a reference from the Maximum PC homepage/weblog. Quoted here because it doesn't seem to have a permalink.

Maximum PC: Will Smith wrote:

The Problem with Gamer's Nostalgia

will_smith.jpg We all do it, myself included. We look at "˜classic' games through nostalgic glasses, remembering the good times we had with games "back in the day". This GamersWithJobs story about gamer nostalgia hits the nail on the head"”we're much more forgiving the first time we experience a new gameplay mechanic, and we (as gamers) expect to see constant refinement and improvement as we play new games.

Going back and playing Goldeneye or Half-Life now just wouldn't be as amazing an experience as it was when we first played. With a few notable exceptions, when I revisit my old favorites they don't seem as awesome I remember them being.

While I agree with the GamersWithJobs guys basic premise"”older doesn't necessarily mean better"”there are still lessons to be learned from classic games. The biggest problem many of today's games face is accessibility. While a few modern games do a decent job guiding you through the early portions of the game in an entertaining and still informative way, most just force you through a tedious tutorial level or worse; they toss you into the fray with no idea what to do. Making a gamer's first 10 minutes with your game tedious and un-fun is a sure-fire way to guaranty that they don't buy the sequel. ///Will Smith

Posted on Aug 4, 2006 at 12:32 PM

Excuse my French, but this is bullsh*t.

You began the article by talking about your friend's excitement about the Conker sequel and how dissappointing it was for him, saying "Did I really waste my time with this junk?" as if it were the same game; it's not. it is a different game. Did you or your friend go back and play the first Conker game and become bored with it too? It doesn't say. As if noone ever made a bad sequel to a good game.

I also notice how you bitch about how hard it was to get your SNES emu running on Xbox to play Super Metroid while Metroid Prime 2 sits on the shelf, and the momentum of the article had me waiting for you to say that Super Metroid wasn't as good as you remembered, but you don't. You make no comment on it whatsoever. Just Because Metroid Prime is a great game, that doesn't mean that Super Metroid wasn't. In fact it contradicts you Conker logic.

I scroll down and see that you're surprised that you're not getting flamed, but I don't really think that you actually said anything other than "let's look forward, not backward," but that's pretty obvious.

The reson that old games are better is that the limitations of the hardware caused them to focus (for the most part) on making the game fun, as opposed to now, when the focus is on making it look better.

I'll agree that the early Castlevania games had some very clunky controls, but I always thought that. I knew when I was 7 that Mega Man handled better than Simon Belmont.

I play older games frequently, and I cannot think of a single instance when I have thought to myself, "Why the hell did I ever like this game?"

Excuse my French, but this is bullsh*t.

You get one French exclusion, but only this once. I'd suggest toning it down a bit if you plan on sticking around.