My fathers eyes mist over every time he recalls seeing my mother for the first time. He tells of how he encountered her on a bus in Belfast in the mid 60s and he knew that she was the woman he would end up marrying. Aside from the cries of stalker from the crowd at the back, I believe we can all empathise with this sentiment.
I remember playing Zelda 3: A Link to the Past many, many years ago; back when I had one pair of shoes to last me a year; back when people still liked Margaret Thatcher; back when I could get a packet of Chewits for 10p. As soon as I inserted it into my Super Nintendo I was hooked. The thought and love that seeped through every inch of that game was plain for all to see. The mechanics of Zelda games have become staid in the intervening years but in 1987 it was fresh and new. I would push a block and magic would happen in another part of the screen. Lateral thinking was a requirement not a by-product.
Ben Kuchera (@benkuchera) of Penny Arcade said recently in a tweet that the games we hold in highest regard are the games we played between the ages of 8 and 15 years old. He may be onto something. They steal a piece of your heart and leave a fragment of themselves there. The same goes for most forms of entertainment. Is Star Wars the greatest film ever made? Certainly not, but few films can ever compare on a level playing field with a story that has been told a thousand times before and since. It is the story of an orphan boy with a destiny. People will even have strong fondness for the book that they studied for an English exam while atschool.
It is interesting to ponder on the notion that somehow my early teenage years are ones that are remembered with any fondness. Puberty is a difficult phase for all of us, where we battle acne, social acceptance and a sense of who we are as people. Is it because these scions of entertainment were the catalyst to social acceptance? It could be that we found solace in the movies, books and games of our youth that gave us escape from the harsh realities of growing up. I am sure there is a doctorate to be researched in pursuit of the answers to those questions but there is no doubting the potency of nostalgia. Marketers try and harvest it every Christmas and every time a new ecosystem is introduced (such as the iOS app store) some of the biggest success stories tap into some form of retro nostalgia. How many of us have bought an old favourite to play ‘on-the-go’?
Invariably the reality does not measure up to the memory. The brain visualises and fills in gaps that bring the memory more in line with recent technology. This is not such a problem with books and film as technology has not advanced as much in the intervening years aside from some improved CGI. In fact, with regard to film, the poorer visuals only stand to enhance the love for the memory. It is the feeling of extra love and sympathy for a wounded dog. It is imperfect but we love it all the more for it. We can see past its faults and into the deeper beauty underneath.
For games, this is very different. Technological advances continue apace whether it is in improved resolutions, polygon count or sophistication. I recently played one of my favourite games of all time. The original Syndicate was a power trip. As a player you were given limitless options and powers with which to control your environment and complete your mission. Each mission was a playground with which to command your team and be a badass. It was a joy to play. Fast forward to 2012 and through the wonders of GOG and DOSBox I was allowed me to relive this classic before embarking on playing the (surely) inferior remake.
It took around 5 minutes for the veneer to crack and the reality to set in. It was nothing like I remembered. In fact, it was completely unplayable. None of the powers mattered when you were battling limited (some might call them shoddy by today’s standards) controls. The playground was in fact a 640×480 grid with limited scope for movement. I was shattered. I played the remake and it was superior in every regard whilst maintaining the fact that Starbreeze’s version remains a distinctly average game in the modern era. Perhaps it is safer and prudent to say that the original version was much more memorable than the modern game. It is not a better game by any metric other than scope of ideas.
When trying to compare games of different eras, think about the way we articulate our arguments. The battle between our memories and objectivity is one often lost to emotion.