On principle, I hate nostalgia. I never went beyond a couple of episodes of Stranger Things, I wouldn’t be caught dead listening to an 80s radio station, and I sure as hell don’t have a Metallica t-shirt.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my Queen and my Pink Floyd, Back to the Future is an amazing movie (which I saw in theatres when it came out in 1985, with my Dad, my partner in movie going experiences back then), and my first Star Wars was The Return of the Jedi, when I was 6 years old (Mom joined us for that special occasion, it was my 6th birthday). And yet, you won’t see any piece of merchandise about any of these things around my home. Even though I’m in the perfect age group (a 45 man with a relatively large exposition to pop culture, growing up), I loath all the nostalgia bait stuff that we can find everywhere.
Am I totally immune to reminiscing about the “good old days”? Not really. There is a slice of pop culture that I definitely feel nostalgia for, and that still fascinates me to this day.
It all started a few decades ago. I still remember not getting any sleep for a couple of weekends. You see, close to my parents house there was a market every Sunday. Produces, eggs, clothing, peanuts by the kilogram (one day I’ll talk about my love for peanuts), music cassettes, you name it, it was all there. But one thing in particular caught my eye and I begged for my Dad to get me one of those someday. A magnificent Space Revenger LCD game system, by a company named Tronica.
It’s kind of hard to explain to a modern audience the appeal of a gaming device with just one game, fixed sprites, and only a couple of possible actions to perform. It’s a bit like saying that we only had two (2) TV channels: it was the best we had, and you had to be there. But that blue device, a vertical handheld that beeped and bopped in demo mode, when me and my parents walked by the sellers stand at the Sunday fair caught my imagination. I needed one of those. The Saturday night before my Dad finally bought it, I could barely sleep with excitement.
Fast forward a few years. The twilight years of the mighty Spectrum. My Dad got us one, I can’t remember the occasion. There was no possible educational excuse to buy a Spectrum back in the day. Today one can use one’s PC for doing serious work (besides playing some wicked triple-A games), but with a Spectrum, you are pretty much gaming all the time. Any other possible uses are, at best, good intentions. That +2A model gave me my first sleepless nights. Before alcohol, going to the disco, even dream about girls or anything like that, the Speccy made me watch the first light of the day fill our dinning room (where the only TV in the family stood, a necessary component for the Speccy). Granted, each game took 6 minutes (at least) of an annoying (but definitely nostalgic) high pitched sound to load. But still, I played and played on that machine to no end.
Let’s take another l jump forward. 1992-ish. Nintendo had just started selling their machines in Portugal. We got to see and play NES on toy shops, amazed by the graphics and sound of Super Mario Bros. But since Nintendo arrived that late in Portugal, the NES wasn’t the only gem they brought. And I remember that on a 1st of December of either 1991 or 1992, we got a Super Nintendo.
You can’t imagine how magical that little grey box was, and the jump in graphical quality. Heck, the jump in any quality! Up until then, gaming experiences for me were made of monochromatic, high pitched, limited (but still extremely fun) games. This was something else entirely. Instant loading of magnificent, 16-bit, 256 simultaneous colors on screen from around 32k in total! The Speccy had like 16 colors in total, or something. Oh and the SNES had full stereo, total orchestral (or so it seemed) sounds and music.
We played Super Mario World countless times. And we got Street Fighter 2 as well. Oh yeah, the arcade game that everyone was crazy about in the early 90s. The SNES port was the next best thing, a high quality conversion, even by today’s standards. Then we got Zelda, A Link to the Past. Love at first sight. We also got the insanely difficult Star Wars (before the whole A New Hope renaming). Never made it far in the game. And we got Prince of Persia, my favorite version of that game.
You see, the games before the 16-bit era were, again, made of a bunch of good intentions, lots of imagination to fill in the gaps, all wrapped into brilliant ways to overcome the technical limitations of the time. Still, for me, with today’s eyes, they didn’t look that great. Not to dismiss my fellow retro gamers from other eras, but an Atari (any Atari!) game still seems rather primitive to me, the NES games looked similar to someone’s homework in a Computer class. It was in the 16-bit era that games finally got some technical “breathing room”: space (literally) for colorful characters and objects (that we can actually distinguish and recognize), sound and music that is more than a sequence of different-pitched beeps, and depth, so much more depth than in the vast majority of games before it. It was possible to sink around 60 hours (!) in a game like Final Fantasy VI, brilliantly written, with touching characters and a compelling story.
If we could compare games evolution to the movies evolution, the old Atari stuff might be the silent movies era (with some great entries in both fields, don’t get me wrong), the NES might be the first talkie and color movies (again, some great creations there), and the SNES and 16-bit in general is the Technicolor age. Using the whole spectrum of colors, gigantic sets, tons of characters. If Final Fantasy VI (or Chrono Trigger) could be mentioned in the same breath as “Gone with the Wind” or “Ben-Hur” (my fellow movie lovers will pardon my blasphemy), then Super Mario World might rub shoulders with “The Wizard of Oz” or “Singing in the Rain”. Better yet: 16-bit games are the equivalent of (good) animation. The Disney classics, or Mr. Miyazaki masterpieces.
The SNES years were a bit like myself at the time: a bit naïve, filled with hopes and dreams, cute colors, no responsibilities. Several more sleepless nights with Mario, Zelda (actually Link), Ryu, Kem, and the Prince that came from Persia (he wasn’t really a Prince, at least until the end of the game).
We also got a PC around that time. I’ll write more about it in the future, but our first 2 games were Doom and Mortal Kombat. Amazing times to be a gamer. I was also a huge fan of the arcades, and I spent my fair share of “moedas de 25 escudos” (our equivalent of quarters), but that also will have to wait for future musings.
We had another Nintendo console, the N64. We had both the PS1 and PS2 as well. I’ve upgraded my PC countless times, saw the Doom spiritual successor, Quake, its 3 sequels, saw the Command and Conquer franchise being born and wither. Several decades passed. But to this day, my favorite era of videogaming are the 16bits. The SNES/Megadrive time, with its pixel art, colorful screens, challenging games, and entire odysseys contained into RPGs.
The 3D consoles never quite caught my eye. By the time we got the first PlayStation, I was already working so unlike my brother, I never finished Final Fantasy VII, or dwelled deep into the Metal Gear games nuances. Even in the PS2 era, only a handful of games caught my eye (I’m looking at you, Silent Hill games), but the sleepless nights playing console games were long gone. Don’t get me wrong, I would still do an (almost) all nighter playing Quake, C&C, or Deus Ex. My focus in life had shifted towards different types of games (although console gaming at the time was also shifting from the happy go lucky days of the 16 bits).
I almost forgot about my old SNES, my Spectrum gathering dust and rust at my mom’s attic, my gaming diet consisting almost exclusively of PC tittles, when two things happened, more or less close in time, but with high impact: I found out that we could emulate older consoles on a PC, and Nintendo released the Gameboy Micro and the Nintendo DS (ok, 3 things).
Granted, my PC wasn’t powerful enough to emulate a SNES yet (or the fancier arcade games), but Spectrum was perfectly at grasp. Oh the memories. And not having to wait 7 minutes for a tape to load. It was a great experience, but it was something that would have to wait. Technology still had some catching up to do. The Gameboy Micro (and later the DS) had much more impact.
At the time, the Gameboy Advance was touted almost as a “portable” SNES (technically it was inferior, but it was close enough to get away with it). Nintendo fully banked on that (Nintendo always fully banks on anything it can), and re-released the whole collection of Mario games from the NES/SNES era, alongside several first party games that were very similar to SNES games. Graphically, soundly (is that a word?) and in spirit, Metroid Fusion and Zero Mission could perfectly be SNES tittles, just like the 3 Castlevanias released for the GBA, and games like Advance Wars. This little device (the Gameboy Micro was the last version of the GBA line, with a tiny screen smaller than 3 inches) had married two of my now favorite trends in videogames: 16-bit and portability.
Fast forward (the last for now, I promise) to today. In the last few years, there was a boom into the so called retro handheld devices market. What started as NES clones lumped into a disformed plastic case that vaguely resembled a Gameboy, is now a market populated with countless devices that use old phone screens, old phone components, the magic of emulation and some design stealing from the leading brand (Nintendo always kills it in the handheld market). Powering those devices is the software magic of emulation (now we can emulate almost any generation of consoles), and good old Linux (or Android). The result? The perfect nostalgia bait for an old gamer like myself, stuck in the 16-bit era, that loves the thought of having the old classics in the pocket, with the high quality of XXI century technology.
So this is my nostalgia blind spot. 16-bit games with cutesy graphics, that can be surprisingly deep sometimes, that I’ve consumed again and again throughout the years, wrapped in increasingly mind-blowing pieces of modern tech. It definitely brings me back good memories, and it will always be my favorite era of gaming (tied with the 90s/00s era of PC gaming).
I might never own an AC/DC album, or I couldn’t care less about the Indiana Jones DVD (Blu-ray) boxset. But guess what’s in one of my (many) coffee mugs.