Thursday, January 5, 2012

80s Nostalgia and the Appeal of Retro Gaming

One of those existential questions that plague retro video gamers is the degree to which nostialgic memories of their childhood may be clouding their judgment on the merits of retro gaming. Pretty much every retro game forum out there probably has at least a couple of threads devoted to this topic and it is always rearing its head in arguments between fans of modern and classic games.

Its a tough question to answer. A lot of people seem reluctant to admit that nostalgia plays a huge role in their attraction and insist on enumerating a long list of objective reasons why retro games are better than current generation ones. I know I do this all the time. On the one hand there really are a lot of objective reasons to like retro games better than modern ones. On the other though it is hard to deny that nostalgia plays a big part. In my case I would go so far as to say it is the main reason I prefer retro games and in particular retro games from the 80s.
I really notice the effects of this in my reluctance to fully embrace consoles made after the late 80s. The PC Engine and Mega Drive are about my cut off point. While I can enjoy consoles made after those ones and really love my N64 and Super Famicom, they just don`t elicit the same response in me that earlier consoles do. This is clearly visible in the content of this blog. Note the excitement when I bought my Intellivision or Epoch Cassette Vision, two consoles that I didn`t even have any games for but which happen to have been produced in the early 80s. Contrast that with the fact that every time I go into my local game shop I pass by stacks of Sega Saturns, a console I do not own, that are selling for dirt cheap along with tons of software for them. These just don`t interest me anywhere near as much as the consoles that existed in the 80s did and I attribute this fact almost 100% to the fact that its only the stuff that was around when I was a kid that moves my heart.
For me, retro gaming pretty much ends at about 1990 when I started high school. Of course I also like consoles made after that, but for me the 80s are where it is at. When I play my Famicom I am transported back in time to a world of colorful Swiss Swatches:
Members Only Jackets (that green one there is mine, god how I miss it. Note also the calculator watch on my wrist, the tube socks on the guy behind me and....dam, everything in this photo is good):
Star Wars Toys:
G.I. Joes:
And of course Natalie from the Facts of Life:
So there you go. To all you modern gaming fans out there I concede the point: I like retro games mainly for nostalgia.

Related Posts:
-Emulation Schmemulation: 5 Reasons You Should Own an Old Console
- 80s Girls and the Famicom: Miho Nakayama`s Tokimeki High School Idol Hotline


  1. For me, personally, it's split. While the NES was my first console, I don't actually have too many memories of it. I remember playing Mario and Duck Hunt and Tetris and CastleVania and Track and Field at my friend's house, but that's the extent. I certainly never had a Famicom when I was a kid, and my favorite games for it I never played when I was a kid. Some of them, like Atlantis no Nazo, never even came out in my home country. I simply enjoy the gameplay of these old games, especially platformers.

    The SNES on the other hand, that's a whole other deal. My childhood spanned the entire decade of the 90s. And a lot of things, SNES, N64 and PS1 included, are very close to my heart and, while I love the style of things from the 80s as well, seeing things that are definitely from the 90s makes me feel all tingly.

    I've bought very few games for my SNES since dragging it up from my basement. I've only bought F-Zero and Stone Protectors, a game based on my favorite action figures when I was a kid while the rest are all the old ones I played to death when I was a kid. Donkey Kong Country 1-3, Super Mario All-Stars, Aladdin, etc. While my NES and Famicom collections are significantly bigger. I'm not totally sure why that is. Probably accessibility has something to do with it, but maybe the nostalgia for SNES is too strong. I'll have to buy a Super Famicom when I get back to Japan and see what happens.

    As far as modern games vs. retro, I definitely prefer retro over modern. It's kind of a running joke with my friends that I'm awful and can't understand anything with modern games and slightly better at retro games. I mean, I do have games like GTAIV, LA Noire, Skrim etc. installed on Steam and appreciate that those games can give me experiences that Famicom and SNES can never give me. But at the same time, I love playing the old Famicom games, and I really love the indie games that have retro game elements to them like Super Meat Boy etc.

    In conclusion (because I'm not even sure if what I wrote makes sense anymore), I really like the gameplay of retro games whether they're actually retro or just new indie games, but nostalgia still plays a big part sometimes.

  2. I put my obsession with all things Famicom down to "a nostalgia for a childhood that I never had". I was around when the NES was in its prime but I wasn't really interested in videogames. I was quite a serious child! Now I just want to be one of those kids blowing into their cartidges at the start of game Center CX.

  3. Nate - great comment, it makes perfect sense. It sounds like we are quite alike, only a few years apart in our childhoods!

    I didn`t actually have a Famicom as a kid either, which is kind of one of the things I like about it. It reminds me of the 80s but only in a general way. Same with the Intellivision actually as I didnt have one of those either.

    I agree on the modern/ retro thing too. I play some modern games on my PS2 (though I guess that is retro now too) and particularly like sports and racing titles on it. I think that is one of the areas where the improvements in graphics, etc have really given the newer ones an edge. Other genres though I am pretty strictly a retro guy.

  4. Kendra - LOL, it is never too late! Those kids on Game Center CX have all the fun.

  5. I grew up in the nineties, me, so not only do I enjoy the systems of that era (especially ones I didn't get to play), but I also enjoy those from the 80s, since my dad played a lot of NES when I was young. Seeing as my dad was a HUGE RPG fan, that'd probably explain why I especially like those.

  6. I'm a bit of a mish-mash, Sean, but I'll definitely admit a large part of my fascination and/or obsessions with certain retro games and systems is based on nostalgia. For me, though, it isn't really about recreating my childhood; on the contrary, it's probably more about creating a childhood I never had -- as I always wanted a Famicom and PC Engine and even, say, a Sega Game Gear, but never got any of them. (Don't get me wrong, I had plenty of systems, but I didn't get any Japanese ones until I was nearly an adult.)

    There are plenty of other reasons I at least slightly prefer retro games and systems to modern ones, though. For instance, I really like the aesthetics of them -- and by that I mean the in-game graphics as well as the cart designs and cover art -- and I also really like some of the genres that were more prevalent back then (such as platformers and archaic, turn-based RPGs).

    So, for me I'd say my interest in old games and systems like the Famicom can be partially blamed on nostalgia and partially blamed on other factors such as aesthetics. I'd guess that's true of a lot of folks, though...

  7. Skyrunner - yeah I`m like that too a bit in terms of the father/son aspect. Actually my dad is a bit too old to have gotten into video games per se, but he did like computers so we had a Commodore Vic-20 and later an Apple IIC in my place when I was a kid. He liked to use them to do grown up stuff involving the keyboard and I just used them for games using the joystick!

  8. Bryan - yes, I totally agree. I think there are a ton of great reasons to like retro games that have nothing to do with nostalgia, including the ones you mention.

    I`m also with you about this not recreating your childhood but creating a childhood you never had. Of all the retro consoles in my collection I never had any of them as a kid myself. The closest was my NES, but I didn`t get that until I was 13 years old so it was a bit too late to form part of my childhood memories.

    What does attract me though is that these are all things that remind me of my childhood without actually having been a part of that childhood. It is stuff that I would have loved to have had but never did until now. I remember as a kid, for example, seeing an ad for Burger Time in the pages of a comic book. I never actually got to play that game as a kid but when I got a copy for the Famicom (also for my Intellivision) I was so excited. It was like after 25 years of waiting my quest to find out what that game was like was at an end. Great feeling.

  9. Excellent, insightful breakdown of thoughts behind the staredown between subjective nostalgia and objective merit when it comes to retro gaming fondness. Thank you for sharing this.

  10. Thanks, NintendoLegend! `staredown` is indeed a good word to describe it!

  11. I'm definitely a retro gamer as well, but I wouldn't go as far as to say I'm not interested in modern gaming. However, even on newer systems I'm still interested in NEW games THAT PLAY LIKE OLD GAMES.

    For me, I guess the cutoff point is about the same time relative to you: beginning high school. Once you start high school, your childhood is pretty much set in stone and it's hard to get as excited about newer video games which only rehash the epic adventures of one's early youth.

    From an artistic perspective, I find graphics more pleasing when they are primitive. I like using my imagination and not having everything fed to me as if it were a bad movie. I like not having to watch a terrible CGI story for 5 hours while playing my games. I like being challenged, and I like having a high score to beat.

  12. I hear you, 8-bit. I love the primitive artwork and graphics of old games too. It definitely forces you to use your imagination more, it kind of makes the world you are playing in seem so much bigger as a result.

  13. Some great point you made there Sean. I agree that for almost all retro gamers, nostalgia plays at least a part in it. For me, it is just a part but a significant one nonetheless. I was into 'modern' gaming from the mid 80's (the Master System and Spectrum ruled here at that point) up until the Dreamcast, so anything after that fine console is something I'm not very interested in. This obviously means I like retro gaming for nostalgic reasons but it also means the range of games and systems I like is also much larger than yours :)

  14. Oh, by the way, who the hell is Natalie? Or Facts Of Life for that matter? :P

  15. Hey Simon,

    Interesting! I was only into current games during the 80s, except for a breif period in 1998-1999 when a roommate had a Nintendo 64 and I played that like crazy (and thus it is the only post-80s console that I feel any nostalgia for).

    And I guess the Facts of Life wasn`t broadcast in the UK, but it was a very popular sitcom in the early-mid 80s in North America. If you want to see what a young George Clooney looked like, do a google search for `George Clooney Facts of Life` and you`ll see him with ridiculous 80s hair since he was a recurring character on the show for a while.

  16. Hahahahaha, I just searched as you suggested and it made me laugh out loud (at work)! Tee hee hee!

  17. Yup, George Clooney with an 80s mullet will do that to you;)

  18. Hey guys
    do you know the website ?
    i just have bought more than 10 games. really bargain prince

    If you don t know i think you can find some good stuff here

  19. Check out my post about Chrome Retro Games::

  20. I was born in 93, so I was still too little to have a good time while playing SNES. Anyway, my first console was a N64, and I have the best memories of it. Paper Mario, I guess I don't need to say much more than that :D

    These days I am back to retro gaming all the way, and also discovering some amazing titles. Right now the only thing I play is Castlevania, for the NES and SNES, so I can say for sure that I am having an amazing time. It's too bad I have to rely on emulation though, I am not very found of that. But were I live is difficult to find old consoles, and the games!! It's even worse, and they overprice everything. But still, I am saving to buy my first Famicom with a bunch o great games for it.

    Retro gaming for the win!

  21. Hi sean, loved your article. Do you know the name of the swatch watch on the right of your picture,i had that watch as a kid and loved it.


  22. Thanks Toby!

    Actually I don`t know the name of that one. It was my childhood Swatch too, I think I got it in about 1986 or 1987. I loved mine too, it was an awesome watch to have.

  23. I understand your viewpoint. For me, the Super NES and Genesis are included in my old gaming. the word Retro seems to have a connotation of older games as a 'throwback' like something rehashed. My games arent retro, they're old, I never stopped playing them so they never had a reintroduction. Its the age which is why i liked the super famicon era the best...but I'll argue there is an evolution. Yes there's a big jump in graphics, but I consider it better. There were some fantastic games like Chrono Trigger, well made. But by the end some games like Seiken Densetsu 3 were a bit cluttered, and the added space of this era allowed for 'multi plotline' games. This sort of killed the school kid appeal, as you and a friend may have both played the same game but a completely different game. At least with Sonic the hedgehog 3 and knuckles, theres various game lines, 3 of em, and with Secret of Mana 2, yeah its okay at 3. I felt the 64/128 bit console era of the Playstation and N64 and stuff was the dropoff point for eras of gaming. The reason I felt was the graphics. Games like Donkey Kong Country had improved graphics over NES, but when you went to Mario 64, Tekken 3 and FF7, those large polygons were, in my mind, a step backwards. This was along the lines of 'yes we can but should we?" I understand most modern games use 3d rendering over sprites, but hey Donkey Kong Country rendered in 3d but overlayed great sprites, and that I felt was the 'best of both worlds' at the time. so if I had to make one last cutoff for 'retro' games, I'd crank it to about 1995 for the Super NES.

    There was a radio show that broadcasted video game music called 8bit88. The broadcaster stuck with what he called the first four major videogame eras. Caleco, Calicovision/Commodore, Nintendo, and Super Nintendo. The so dubbed 5th generation was the n64/jaguar/playstation/saturn. These games had enough space to allow for MP3 and real video files. This was a graphical jump, but this also meant that video, pictures and music was imported, rather than created JUST for the console. In doing so, the imagination factor was lost. Megaman 2 had a good soundtrack and was a great game, and if you remember it, your mind and imagination fills in the missing bits. But when you replay playstation 1 games with the lag of load time, the game does all the work. They must work harder to really engage you at the same level. FF4, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, this is the golden era of JRPGs and almost all of them can be played even now and if you let immerse you, it really does give a true experience. But in the PSX era, games like FF7 which are great may be on the level of the older games, but there were tons of PSX RPGs that were a bit bland and you have to really push yourself to love the game; Chrono Cross, Legend of Legaia and Legend of Dragoon come to mind. When they were new, if you were INTO games, you could truly get into it. But for the modern kids, they arent gonna like these games. But the NES and Super NES games still hold a merit, an X factor that even millenials may not be able to explain but still like. Yet lots of PS2 and PS3 games I feel will be shelved and forgotten because they werent designed with a passion and real motivation like Chrono Trigger, they were designed 100% in an office by people with deadlines...only the producer loved the game, everyone else made it as a job. And it shows.

    Maybe its because in the 80s at 60$ a pop for a new video game that you could beat in 20 minutes (by now standards) you HAD to try and make a great gameplay, graphics and loud music couldn't carry a mediocre storyline. Someone who made these 80s games liked them and it shows.