It doesn’t matter that games like Red Dead Redemption 2, Borderlands 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare are among the biggest video games of the past year. When we think about video game culture, it is the games from the earliest video game consoles of 30 years ago that are still dominating our thoughts and our hearts. Super Mario Brothers and Sonic are just as much a part of the broader gaming culture as Minecraft and Fortnite.
For a medium that is continually moving forward technologically with new iterations of video game consoles every 5 to 8 years, often without backward compatibility with older gaming systems (meaning you can’t play your old games on new machines), why is it that we still maintain such nostalgia for the games of the ’80s and ’90s?
The Mini Nintendos
In 2016 Nintendo embraced the enthusiasm for retro games with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System: Classic Edition, followed a year later with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System: Super NES Classic Edition. These were mini consoles that literally fit in the palm of your hand that each had 20+ original games built in from when the consoles were initially released in the ’80s and early ’90s. This was absolutely a nostalgia push to target people who grew up playing the games as kids.
What Nintendo hadn’t understood was just how much demand there would be. The initial release of the Mini NES consoles saw them sell out immediately, with enthused gamers (and reformed gamers) staking out stores rumoured to be receiving limited batches of the consoles.
It isn’t as if the games on each of the mini consoles weren’t available – for years gaming fans had been downloading these games through official channels (like downloading old NEW games onto the Nintendo Wii) or through downloading them from pirate sites and playing old games through emulator software. So, why was the Mini NES/SNES so appealing? The nostalgia goes beyond the game itself. What made the mini consoles such a drawcard was the combination of these beloved games, delivered on a console that looked like the consoles gamers grew up with, and controllers that had the same look and feel.
For video game fans, connecting to the past isn’t just the ephemeral experience of engaging in on-screen gaming environments, but there was a tactile connection that a lot of gamers felt with the hardware too. Don’t forget, the experience of owning a Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989 was as much about blowing air into the cartridges to get the games to actually load as it was about playing the games themselves.
Video Game Bars
As in-home video game machines got better, with improved graphics and more in-depth gaming experiences, the video game arcade experience started to get pretty tired. While people may have stopped visiting Timezone for Sunday Lock-In Sessions in the mid-’90s, nostalgia for arcade machines continued on. While some adult enthusiasts bought arcade machines to play at home in their very grown-up garages/man caves, the more pervasive return of arcade machines has come in the form of bars which provide the experience of drinking booze while playing old school games.
Visit any major capital city and you’ll find one or more bars that will serve you a drink and offer a large range of video games to play. In Sydney, gamers can play a handful of machines at Newtown’s 1989 bar. Brisbane retro gamers can play for hours at Netherworld. Melbourne has Bartronica and others.
While, like with the mini retro game consoles, the tangible connection to older style game machines is a big nostalgia trigger for gamers, arcade bars provide more than just a touchstone to entertainment of years gone by. We are drawn to arcade bars for the permission it grants us, as adults, to play these games in public. It is one thing to play Dr Mario for hours in the privacy of our own homes on our mini consoles, but in public it’s seen as a frivolous use of time. But, put a beer in the hands of the person excited to play car racing game Daytona, and it legitimises the experience as an adult pastime.
While we are revelling in the video games of the past, it is interesting that there is limited interest in the games that came after that early ’90s era. You rarely hear people clamouring to engage in raids in Counterstrike, play that weirdo dolphin game from the Sega Daydream or pine for Crazy Taxi. There’s no doubt people also revel in the hottest new games, but our nostalgia buttons are pushed by a time of gaming innocence – that era where video games went mainstream and we all fell in love with an Italian plumber who could never find a princess in the correct castle.
Catch Irish comedian Dara Ó Briain, host of comedy panel show talking all things video games, Go 8 Bit: The Video Game Show on Mondays to Thursdays at 6:30pm on SBS VICELAND.