Retro Resurgence: Why I Stick to the Nostalgia Subculture

Final Fantasy VII

When I was probably less than four years old, my parents handed me the un-pocket-like gray brick that Nintendo dubbed the Game Boy. Bundled with it were copies of Tetris, Centipede, and the worst Godzilla game ever made (and that’s saying a lot—all of those games are atrocious). I later went on to receive Pokémon Red as a birthday gift. I remember being so young that I couldn’t read the instructions in order to deliver the parcel to Professor Oak—I just kept running around in circles. When I finally got my hands on Super Mario Land, I had to be in the room with my dad so he could translate Daisy congratulating Mario at the end. Yeah, I beat that game before I could read—a feat I still hold as bragging rights to this day.

A few more games went on to round out my collection, and even though I wasn’t supposed to, I started sneaking my Game Boy to school for recess. My parents were always afraid of me losing my games or getting into trouble. Not to mention if you didn’t duck under the wooden playground to hide from the chaperoning teachers, you’d get your games taken away.  To be a gamer at school was to be part of a secret society, a covert community of kids who knew that salvation from mundane recess activities meant having each other’s backs.

I was tragically awful at making friends, which led me to typically avoid most kids, but I became close with those select few by making small talk about the games we had. These were the pre-internet days, and in order to survive, you had to swap rumors and gossip about games—Missingno., the link-cable tricks, the fabled Pokémon Green version, the thing we called Pikablu (it was Marill). As a hyperactive kid who drove away babysitters, the fact that something so small and seemingly portable could get me to shut up and calm down was astounding to my overwhelmed parents.

To keep my destructive and bratty behavior at bay, they carted over the unused Sega Genesis from my sister’s room to my own. From then on, I must’ve played Sonic the Hedgehog 2 every night until I was into the double digits. I was so in love with the game that my best friend and I would role-play Sonic and Tails (I was Sonic) and create our own sort of mythos for the characters. We’d base whole playground scenarios over how Sonic couldn’t swim, or how Tails invented some renegade robot that we’d have to defeat. Somehow, the world of gaming grounded  me in reality when my parents couldn’t get me to sit still. I might’ve been a bratty kid, but the characters in those games told me to behave—to be cool. They gave me an identity, and something to strive toward.

I stuck with gaming for a long time. I got a Sega Dreamcast on what was probably the best Christmas of my life. I begged my parents for an N64 solely so I could play The Legend of Zelda. I always made sure to play my cousin’s PS1 when I visited (which is where I got my first glimpses of Final Fantasy VII).

I remember fighting with the older kids about how the Gamecube would be infinitely superior to the Xbox—then eventually going on to own both consoles (I was right). My other older cousin gifted me his PS2, which I had to carry in my lap the whole two trains rides back up to New York. I wore out all of the buttons on both my Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS. Somehow, I junked my way through two Xbox 360s (those things must be made of glass). Every day after school, we’d head to our friend’s house to play Wii—particularly Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Every single day. It’s strange to think, but gaming was a large majority of my life, social and private, for a while.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl

As I got older, my parent’s generosity ran out, and so I slowed down a bit gaming-wise. I just couldn’t afford it! So I delved into music and books, some hobbies that were more “mature” and “constructive.” Activities that people deemed “acceptable” and “productive.” I’d later go on to realize that gaming helped shape many valuable aspects of my personality—platformers lent me problem-solving skills, RPGs boosted my reading comprehension and interest in immersive storytelling, and I’m sure the fast button presses gave me a head start on fast fretwork when I began playing guitar. All in all, gaming was a positive influence on my creativity.

When my dad decided to upgrade to a Blu Ray Player, he bought us a PS3 to kill two birds with one stone, and I found myself hurled back into the forefront of gaming culture. I had a job that gave me a glimpse of pocket money. For the first time in years, it was possible to keep up with games to support my hobby again. All seemed well.

I’m not sure when any of it started, but somewhere during my last years of high school, gaming began to feel dull. I rarely had play sessions that went beyond an hour with only a few a week. I stopped caring about the newest gossip. Sure, I tried to keep up with the titles I really cared about—Final Fantasy XIII, BlazBluePokémon Black and White, BioShock Infinite, etc. But things didn’t feel the same.

It was around this time that I stumbled upon the expansive retro gaming market. The internet was exploding with new content every day. New mods of old games, articles detailing hidden gems that were almost lost to the ebb and flow of history, videos unboxing mint-condition systems released twenty years ago. Retro communities were coming to the forefront in ways that they hadn’t before. YouTubers couldn’t get enough of the anomalies and pure “what the fuck” moments of the older gaming days. For me, it was a renaissance of the reasons why I fell in love with gaming, a renaissance of my own identity.

I wound up spending more money on retro marketplace games than I ever spent on the newer up-to-date physical ones. I was able to finally beat Resident Evil 2, a game that I was too scared to play for more than a few minutes as a kid. When Sonic CD was released to marketplace (in a definitive version—go download it now!), I couldn’t believe I’d missed out on such a revolutionary Sonic game, one that was released in tandem with the Genesis classics.

I went out and bought a PS1 for dirt cheap. There was an endless abundance of gems I’d missed when they were released the first time around—games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which shamelessly rips off one of the best game series ever, Metroid (but with RPG elements and vampires!). My time was spent browsing through countless cartridges, discs, and forgotten trinkets off Amazon and Ebay. I dusted off the Dreamcast from under my bed and played games I hadn’t touched since I learned to read.

But what about retro gaming struck such a chord with me? It wasn’t like I hated contemporary games; in fact, when I found a game that held my attention, I’d play it in one or two sittings. So what’s so captivating about the blocky graphics, simple gameplay, and low-budget production?

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

For many, it’s nostalgia, and I’d be lying if I said nostalgia wasn’t a huge part of the allure for me. However, I think the retro gaming resurgence is due to much more than a collective yearning for the sanctuary of our simple childhoods. When I look at the unabashed joy of retro gamers, I think it’s due to stressing gaming as gaming first and foremost with no strings attached, and very little gimmicks. Just look at the influx of games that are based on retro graphics; Minecraft is arguably the most successful game out right now, and it looks like a Windows 98 PC game!

There’s obviously something inherent in the “retro” style that draws people in, captivating them in a way that hyper-realistic graphics just can’t do nowadays. It seems like every other year there’s a breakout retro-inspired title—Castle Crashers, Mega Man 9 and 10, Shovel Knight, Scott Pilgrim, Super Meat Boy, AVGN Adventures, Terraria—the list goes on and on. Since delving into retro gaming, I really haven’t gone back. Why the shift now, though?

For starters, retro gaming is surprisingly cheap. Fresh shrink-wrapped games these days cost almost seventy dollars with tax, and that’s not including the heap of DLC released. For anyone with a limited income, especially college students and minimum wage workers, that’s just too steep of a price for a hobby. For retro, the vast majority of games cost a fraction of what a new Xbox One, PS4, or Wii U title costs. Only rare, first editions of certain games go for a high price—and those games are typically released cheaply on virtual console and marketplace anyway! I can’t remember the last time I spent more than fifteen dollars on a single game. Some are available for a measly dollar or two, if you know where to look. The biggest expense in starting out will probably be the forty bucks or so for your first console (still less than a single new game!).

Then there’s the fact that you actually are likely to own some retro games you don’t even remember having. Check your closets, crawlspaces, and basements, because if you were ever a gamer when you were younger (or if any of your family members were), you’re bound to find some old relics lying around that are barely even touched. Ask around your family! Recently, my sister gave me a bunch of NES games she found in her husband’s old junk. Your attic is a treasure trove—go hunting!

Friends are also a valuable resource. I haven’t owned a working DS in years—my friend lent me his limited edition Dialga/Palkia Pokémon DS and couldn’t care less when I return it. Most people are very willing to lend out or barter their retro gaming stuff. As they get older, they’re trying to save money and space, so reach out! There’s always some great opportunities for trading and swapping. I’ve posted on my college’s bartering Facebook page and have already found some cool deals. Internet communities are tight-knit and very responsive.

In term of accessibility, it’s impossible to forget Steam. The digital store has nearly anything anyone could wish for. You could get lost in the libraries and deals for hours. Wait around for a holiday sale, and soon enough, you’ll find a complete collection of a game series. Mega Man just released in a retro collection with the first six NES games, and I’ve only heard good things. My friend got the whole Sonic the Hedgehog catalogue for less than thirty dollars. How could you argue with that many games?

Sonic the Hedgehog

The benefits of retro gaming don’t just stop at the accessibility point. One of the most alluring aspects of returning to the games of the past is the unbelievable attention to detail. Storylines in older games consistently relied on atmosphere and worldbuilding—they didn’t have the fancy graphics to be able to tell their stories! As a result, these games constantly featured exploration and explication of their worlds, which furthered immersion for so many of us.

Single player replayability was much more commonplace in the earlier years of gaming. While multiplayer online play is the modern day equivalent, the countless sidequests, pathways, and additional story elements helped to enrich the solitary experience. I dare you to try and get all of the Gold Skulltulas in Ocarina of Time, or to train your characters high enough to defeat Ruby Weapon in Final Fantasy VII. Compared with games like The Order: 1886, which takes less than six hours to complete (WITH cutscenes!), that’s a huge selling point.

It also seems to be the case that the limitations of the medium at the time coupled with gaming’s limited popularity caused games to avoid the trappings of overcommercialization that mainstream games today commonly fall victim to. Problems of sexism, lack of diversity, and the like are all much less apparent in retro games (though are still present). Diversity was surprisingly easy to come across. The character of Faris in Final Fantasy V was the first instance I can remember a video game character blatantly referencing their gender identity: Faris is unapologetically genderfluid. For a closeted queer kid growing up, that was so validating.

I would liken the resurgence of retro gaming to something like the boom in vinyl and cassettes in music. It’s a community driven by a love of certain formats, styles, and aesthetics. It’s not meant to replace contemporary gaming culture, but rather, exists as a subculture within gaming that is surprisingly thriving right now—a subculture which I’ve decided that for myself, personally, has more substance to it than its contemporary counterparts. Try it out for yourself sometime. Some marketplace games are as cheap as $3.99. I hope you are charmed the way I was! Just don’t blow all of your money on retro t-shirts. They’re addictive.

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3 Comments on “Retro Resurgence: Why I Stick to the Nostalgia Subculture

  1. Great article! It really is fascinating to study the history of the medium, and I’ll always keep my love for retro gaming in some form. I have kinda stopped the collecting side of things as of late, though – that part just doesn’t feel important to me anymore, especially after I came out as trans and I realized I could just be happy without constantly obtaining more stuff. But, this hasn’t diminished my love for retro games, and I’ll always be the first to defend them whenever someone claims old games aren’t worth playing. Plus, I’d never look down on anyone for being into game collecting – I know how it feels, and it can be rewarding in its own way.

    Did you ever get into the collecting side of retro gaming, or perhaps delve into the community of it? If so, what are your thoughts about it?

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  2. I’m super excited to read this! Retro gaming, and retro collecting, has been the joy of my now adult, well-payed life. And in Japan, retro gaming is so much cheaper, so it’s even more joyful. It’s funny, many of the best retro games I own are ones I didn’t own as a kid. It isn’t just nostalgia, it’s the simplicity and attention to detail. Not to mention, they were masterful at utilizing the hardware and TV limitations to do amazingly cool things. It’s just beautiful to see how creative they were within the limitations of the time!

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  3. Well said; I actually recently published an article on the same subject, though the tone was a bit different. Learning gaming history isn’t much of a thing for me, because I lived it, but I do tend to prefer older games. I do think that a decent portion of the retro resurgence is blind nostalgia – it’s affecting most every aspect of our culture, including fashion – but I don’t think that it’s entirely so. I’m a huge advocate of games being games first and everything else afterwards. You can have mind-blowing graphics, a revolutionary story, and incredible music, but if the gameplay is poor, then you have, at best, a great movie. In this spirit, I feel that a lot of new retro-styled games miss the mark, because they’re only superficially retro; they have 8-bit graphics and lots of bleeps and bloops, but fail to avoid modern gaming’s pitfalls. For every Shovel Knight, Scott Pilgrim, and Cave Story that either hit the nail on the head or polish up old experiences to make the game you’ve always wanted to play, there are plenty of titles looking only to cash in on the nostalgia craze for a quick buck. I think that, to make a successful retro game, you have to understand the classics, both where they worked and where they didn’t.

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