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Old games and memory

One of my friends at work brought this thing in to the office a few months ago. A bunch of us gathered around and talked while trying to wrangle a twenty-five-year-old game console into working on a one-year old HDTV, and talked about our favorite games. Everyone over a certain age had stories of their big conquests in Super Mario Bros., or Zelda, or Contra, or Mike Tyson's Punch-Out. Everyone under that age probably listened mystified and thankful that they had been blessed enough to have Tomb Raider and Madden to play when they were kids.

They did finally manage to get the thing working, and what followed was a glorious Friday afternoon of playing old games, laughing, and blowing on cartridges to get them to work.

For about the next week, it was turned on every other day for a few minutes. Then every third day. After the second week, it hasn't been turned on at all.

Of course that could be because it's at work and we're all busy, or because the cartridges are old and finicky and sometimes it takes a while to get the thing working at all. But I think the main reason is this:

Old games are just not very much fun.

God knows I spent untold hours of my childhood and teenage years glued to the TV in the basement, playing on the NES, and later the SNES. To this day huge portions of my memory are clogged up with the locations of warp zones and ice beams and holy water, and my fingers still remember Mario's subtleties that my kids ask me to help them through the tough parts on Mario on the DS. And god knows I still waste enough time playing newer video games, mostly as a way to spend time with my kids, but sometimes just to unwind on my own.

But every time I've gotten the urge to go back and play the games I loved as a kid, I have ended up bored pretty quickly. I don't mind the pixelated graphics or the blooping sound effects, which have a kind of quaint charm. The problem is that the games themselves, played decades after they were cutting edge, are a baffling slog that somehow manage to be both boring and frustratingly hard.

Game design has come a long way in the years since. Games used to extend their lifespan by giving you a limited number of attempts/lives/continues and making you start over if you failed; the amount of the game you were able to see was inversely proportional to the number of mistakes you made. What this meant in practice was playing the early sections over and over until you could get through without making a mistake, which opened up the next area where you could start making new mistakes.

But when I think back to the time I spent playing those old, non-fun games when I was a kid, I don't remember being bored or frustrated. I legit loved playing those games, and did so for literally every second that I was allowed to (and occasionally more than that.) I know what I miss, what we all miss, when we think about those old games we used to love, is not the games themselves, but the way we felt when we were playing them. When I was twelve years old, I didn't mind having to play a level over and over again because I had the entire summer laid out in front of me, a manifest destiny of free time, unencumbered by worries about bills and taxes home repairs. I didn't have to weight the cost of every minute spend recollecting the same weapon power-up for the 77th time, didn't have to worry that I should maybe be spending my time on something more productive, because time wasn't something I was going to run out of.

I suppose this is the same thing that has always happened. Kids have always grown up and lost interest in the toys they loved as kids. Just ask any grownup who got misty watching the end of Toy Story 3. But while an adult can have a fond memory of a tangible toy they loved as a kid, can even keep that toy in a box or on a shelf, they know they are keeping that toy to remember it, not to play with it. A video game is something that doesn't exist except by playing it. I'm sure Nintendo will sell a ton of these, mostly to people my age who think they love these games, but who really love the memory of what it felt like to play those games as a kid. And those new consoles will probably be opened with joy, and plugged in and played with for a little while, dredging up fleeting memories of what childhood felt like, before being forgotten and sitting there under the TV, unused by the adults who have a vague sense that these games aren't as fun as they remembered, or by the kids who don't see what the big deal is. Just like the one sitting unused under the TV in my office right now.

The games haven't changed. But we have.


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