Everyone has nostalgia for something, from playing with your friend down the block, to the meal your grandmom used to make, to the artifacts of our childhood. In the world of the internet the word seems to come up most when talking about video games. Everything old is “fueled by nostalgia”. Games like IWBTG are, apparently, nostalgia trips for 20-somethings who miss the games and the difficulty of their youth. In a sense, this is true. A lot of us go and download ro~ I mean buy Virtual Console versions of games we played in our childhood to relive our childhood. I mean, who would play these games now? Certainly not young kids!
… Yet this isn’t quite true. As I’ve mentioned before, the I Wanna Be the Guy forums were never filled with mid-late 20-somethings pining for the classics. The forum was filled with high-schoolers. I’ve asked them on occasion ‘hey why do you play these old games’ and the answer has pretty much been consistent… Because they’re free and really good. That’s a lot better than you can say about the quality of games on newgrounds. So amazingly, I had a forum full of kids who knew the references in IWBTG and played those games even though those games came out before they were even born.
Should we be surprised about this? I doubt most of the people who read my blog would be surprised, but I think you all know people who would be. Why? We have kids buying LPs of bands far before their time and playing the music on vintage equipment. We got upcoming film students falling in love with old black and white movies. Many people have favorite books written spectacularly long ago.
The past is not superior. The past is valid. The past is ripe and rich for examination. Contemporary media is a puzzle we enjoy and piece together and opine about in a tricky way. We don’t know what will withstand the scrutiny of time. The past, on the other hand, has been meticulously cultivated so we can easily find its best bits. In the now, you’ll get a good album, book or movie every so often. When you dig into the past though, time is compressed, leaving a dense layer of goodness. Even if you exhaust that layer, the past is so dense there is plenty to discover. We make an assumption that because something lacks quality in certain areas (graphics, usually) that no one will ever be able to go back and enjoy it. Why should we assume this? We do this all the time even with contemporary media. Or mobile games look worse than our console games. Our TV shows look worse than our movies. We are able to accept these limitations as long as the core of what we’re consuming is good. I have a friend under 20 who’s only been really playing games for 3 years and talks about games like Super Metroid, Final Fantasy 9 and the original Metal Gear Solid, all while he plays and enjoys modern games. I’ve heard one of my favorite podcasters, John Siracusa, talk about having his kids play old N64 games. According to him, they don’t notice the dated graphics. They also want their 4:3 TV programming stretched to fill the whole screen. We’re less discerning about these things than we seem inclined to assume!
As silly as it might sound, I don’t find myself feeling much nostalgia. The old retro games I love now are games I couldn’t stand as a kid (Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania). Many of my favorite NES games of my childhood are almost unplayable to me now (The original Legend of Zelda). The generation I was born into shaped me and informed my tastes and values, but ultimately it’s about the quality of the games I’m playing and not the emotions I ascribe to them. If I’m playing an old game, I give it some leeway on some things, just like I woul an old movie, regardless of whether it was part of my childhood or not.
Then theres the pixel art aesthetic. I know many young kids who make pixel art games. Many film students, pre-digital, also made Black and White movies. The reason is because pixel art isn’t the aesthetic of the past, it’s the aesthetic of accessibility. It survives in a form detached from modern times. People of my generation pine for scanlines, and screen curvature and color bleed. Modern young game makers employ them for the opposite reason. Pixel art is crisp and clean. It’s sharp edges and straight lines look beautiful in HD (Where pixel art on a console on your TV will look like crap). High res, beautifully illustrated sprites look even better, but they’re prohibitive. Unless you’re the guy who made Dust, you’re not doing that by your self. Old men get mad that modern indie games don’t get pixel art right for all those reasons I said above. They buy high end CRTs or upscalers and other equipment to capture the perfect look of their childhood… and that’s fine, but the modern pixel art movement is more important. Pixel art is not about nostalgia. Pixel art is a -modern aesthetic-. Crisp, yet lo-fi. a retro throwback, with modern sensibilities. It borrows from the past, but it is not the past.
The most ironic part of all of this is the ones most likely to deride something as just a nostalgia trip are people of the generation who could feel nostalgia for it in the first place. It seems almost like ‘nostalgia guilt’. We assumed the things we loved as a kid are not worth loving. Sometimes we’re right, but I see more old gamers trick themselves into thinking that enjoying older games is an immature frivolity, even when the younger generation is beginning to dig into our old libraries.
Nostalgia can sometimes trap us in our youth, but the past in ALL art forms is littered with gems. Don’t assume it’s nostalgia. Sometimes something is just good.