Is nostalgia necessary to enjoy old games?

I love replaying old games from my childhood, but recently I’ve checked out a few that I’ve never played before. This got me thinking – is it better to play old games with the benefit of nostalgia, or can they be appreciated just as much as a first-time discovery?

The power of nostalgia

Captain-Comic-DOS

Everyone knows how strong that tether of nostalgia is. The games we played as a kid will always be tied to the things we had going on at the time, and they help us remember that. It’s a comforting, cosy context. Even games that we played during bad times seem to soften that sadness (it’s unlikely we loaded up the Mega Drive in order to feel worse). Replaying those games takes us right back to the rose-tinted past – and you can’t recreate an association like that.

Nostalgia helps us bond, too. Hey, who remembers Populous? You played that too? Now we’re getting all the feels from the past, and validation from the present. There’s a whole community out there revelling in these memories together. The advent of emulators has helped that too, making it possible to replay pretty much any title from any platform.

Discovering an old game fresh

But what about playing one of those games for the first time? Can it be as enjoyable, or do veteran players have it better? Is their experience somehow richer for having been there and done that at the time?

To look at some examples of my own, I’ll start with The Secret of Monkey Island. What with it being such a highly acclaimed, genre-defining game of its time, from the minute I hit the load screen I couldn’t shake the feeling that my experience was going to be more diluted compared with those had by players at the time. It was years since its release in 1990, and I knew so much about it already that I found it hard to view it fresh. There’s just so much lore, so many gags and famous puzzles that do the rounds on blogs, forums and social media, that it’s impossible to avoid.

And that poses a big obstacle – the more prominent the game, the harder it is to experience it organically for the first time. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it – far from it – but I was constantly mindful of the fact I was retreading a well-worn path.

So let’s take a lesser-known game instead, like Maniac Mansion. Even older as a 1987 release, with simpler graphics, and free of the notoriety had by Monkey Island, I felt more like I was coming to a ‘new’ game when I played it. I was unaware of most of the puzzle chains, and I was unfamiliar with games involving multiple playable characters (unless you count The Cave and Thimbleweed Park, which are more recent).

Maniac Mansion

Importantly, Maniac Mansion felt very much like a game I would have played at the time, had I been aware of it. The graphic style is close to that of Space Quest II – released the same year, and the game that started my love affair with adventures. I felt myself slip back to that era; I played it with my 12-year-old hat on. In that respect, I consumed it with a mixture of modern appreciation and ‘pseudo’ nostalgia – I might not have known that specific title back then, but I can appreciate it in the context of other games I played.

Gaming evolution

Naturally, an advantage of playing a game on release is appreciating how it fits into gaming history; seeing how the mechanics, graphics and genre elements are improved and built upon. That’s something that’s difficult to ‘feel’ playing something retrospectively.

Half-Life (1998) turned out not to be one of my favourites – I found it slow and just didn’t enjoy it. A lot of Half-Life‘s acclaim comes from its contribution to the FPS genre, considered pioneering in terms of graphics, gameplay and story. Which leaves me wondering if, had I played it at the time, I might’ve appreciated it on that level at least, even if I didn’t enjoy the game itself so much. Doom was much the same, but because I enjoyed it, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t properly appreciate it for its innovation.

I don’t think technical advancement is everything, but it was pretty important back when video games were constantly evolving in complexity and accessibility. Noticeable improvements in things like graphics and gameplay definitely enhances the experience, and that gets lost in the context of today when the leaps in technology aren’t quite so big.

Then vs now

There are certainly benefits to playing an old game for the first time now. I’m older, and (supposedly) wiser, with more gaming experience and better skills (cough), and less likely to get stuck or fed up.

What’s more, in my 90s household, the lack of the internet and its helpful hints and walkthroughs meant I didn’t have a hope in crap of ever finishing some of those games – especially the ruthless likes of Space Quest. There were helplines and such, but woe betide me if I added that to the phone bill.

There’s also now a virtual world where we can share those experiences and thoughts with other players – whether you’re a veteran or newbie to that game. And a number of those games are more readily accessible today than they were at the time, thanks to distribution sites like Steam and GOG.

Space Quest on Steam

But nostalgia becomes more meaningful as we get older and the world gets shittier. Nothing can replicate the memories of discovering a game when it came out, and how pure and innocent the world seemed. Those memories are cemented forever, and no amount of first-time playing can provide the same feelings as remembering when you were right there, solving that puzzle or completing that level with dizzy childhood glee.

Future nostalgia

Nostalgia requires time and, who knows, perhaps in ten years I’ll be as nostalgic about playing Doom for the first time in 2019 as I am now about playing Space Quest in 1987. We have our childhood memories of playing some great games, but we’re still making the adult ones.

I for one can’t wait to be that old lady bleating on to the unsuspecting young masses – at which point the very concept of computer games may be entirely different, or no longer exist at all.

8 thoughts on “Is nostalgia necessary to enjoy old games?

  1. While I think it is debatable whether Maniac Mansion is really less famous than Monkey Island (with the NES port helping to reach the console audience that otherwise would have missed it, I´d argue it might even be more famous) I think you raise an interesting point when you mention the feel of a game you *would* have played.

    In the past 3 years I replayed and played a lot of old games on the Mini Consoles by Nintendo and Sega. I played games I had finished myself a lot, finished some I never did back in the day and played some I only heard of or some I even never had heard of.

    The feeling was instantly back and it wasn´t much different for the games I was unfamiliar with.
    I played a lot of Nintendo but hardly any 16bit Sega.
    Still when I played Toe Jam & Earl I totally felt how I would have enjoyed that playing that in my brother´s room with him or my Dad and someone else just watching. Had we been a Sega household we totally would have enjoyed it like that.

    Same with the other 16bit games by Sega and Nintendo. I can totally imagine how we would have rented some of those from our neat independent game shop on that small island near the bridge over the danube owned by the nice lady that had her cute old english sheepdog hanging around the place (I realise that would be stuff for an extra story!).

    I might actually be nostalgic for playing Space Quest I – III for the first time last december already! But even then I could imagine how we would have played that in our small chamber where the Amiga was (and had it been on that one we actually would have played it there too!)

    I hardly played any Atari at all back then because it already had been replaced by the next generation when I was a kid. Yet many of the games I played on the Flashback 6 now were instant addictive fun and immediately appreciated the simplicity that I personally mainly remember from my first introduction to games which was the Commodore 64.

    Which is another thing. We got that from our cousin, because he got himself a better PC with DOS. So in that way I was actually behind what was the height of the technology and appreciated all those games from the 80s in the early 90s.

    And that sort of is still the case. I rarely get the newest stuff right away. I still miss out on stuff I might get to play years down the road. Maybe I also don´t let myself influence much by the notoriety of certain titles. I appreciate what´s good and don´t find getting into a mindset from earlier (even when it couldn´t have been my own) that difficult.

    Also some classics don´t age, I guess.

    I think a thing with nostalgia is that it isn´t the actual memories that we have as much as the filter through which we perceive them. That way it is enough to experience something that reminds us enough of what we knew to get us back into that mindset again. And so we don´t have to have played those same games, as long as they remind us enough of those we did play.

    As for the question whether some of those classics still have an impact on first time players who never grew up with that style of game we did, I guess you´d have to ask somebody younger, though(so young to not have grown up with anything like that). I´m sure you´d get some interesting answers, though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It would indeed be interesting to hear thoughts from someone who is young enough not to have played anything like those games before, but old enough to articulate it. Especially in the future when – sadly but inevitably – those games (I’m thinking adventure) are out of fashion completely. Guess we’ll have to wait a bit for that.

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  2. Personally, I think nostalgia is only important to enjoy an old game if it hasn’t aged well. I’ve reviewed quite a few 1980s games, yet only three of them have gotten a passing grade. Interestingly, the decade has fewer failing grades than the 1990s, leading me to believe the latter decade saw creators adopt a more high-risk, high-reward approach for their projects.

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  3. I tend to enjoy them better without nostalgia. I enjoyed Tomb Raider a lot, for example. Now the graphics I can stand, but the controls… ugh. I don’t remember them being so arduous. Same for something like Command & Conquer, although it’s not as bad. For a lot of things you kind of have to jump to the late ’90s or 2000s to get into modern controls and out of the teething stage.

    Where nostalgia helps is throwback games like Ion Fury, which is more Duke Nukem 3D how you remember it than how it actually was. However… Duke 3D is still good.

    It’s definitely very genre-dependent. Monkey Island has barely aged, and Maniac Mansion feels surprisingly modern. Somehow much more so than, I don’t know, Tomb Raider.

    But at the same time Super Mario 64 also came out in ’96. That still looks amazing and it still plays great. (And I don’t have any nostalgia there, only in a sense for Super Mario Bros on the NES.)

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    1. I agree that dated controls can definitely be a stalling factor with those fast-paced games. I guess I experience that less with the types of games I tend to play though.

      MM doesn’t feel especially modern to me, though when I think about it alongside TWP it seems more modern because of the similarities – but that says more about TWP really!

      I really must play Duke Nukem at some point 🙂

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      1. The MM/Zak controls are somewhat awkward — why do I have to keep selecting “what is,” why are there 50 actions some of which I only use once, why is “select a kid” right there in the actions like a pitfall… and of course it has dead ends.

        I never managed to learn the verbs or how they mapped. I largely just did a qwer/asdf/zxcv keyboard sweep until landing on the action I wanted. Definitely not a fan of the verbs. And that select a kid thing completely breaks the flow.

        But thanks to the NPCs and various scripted events it felt like I was walking around in a living, breathing world — like a better, scarier, funnier and all around more engaging Half-Life. And while Monkey Island may have pretty much perfected the formula in terms of controls and lack of dead ends, it didn’t have anything like that, nor does TWP.

        To be clear, I wouldn’t recommend MM to people who don’t already enjoy LucasArts-style adventures. I may very well have tried it in the early 2000s and dropped it in favor of the old games I did play (Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island series, Fate of Atlantis). I’ve been playing the rest over this past decade and it was just one of the last remaining LA games that I had to check out because of historical interest.

        Of course I was delighted to find so many references to TWP 😉 but having previously tried some late’80s Sierra games it just completely blew me away, even knowing it was a LucasArts title.

        I guess MM was my Half-Life experience, insofar as that makes any sense for a game I played about a year ago. It just felt so refreshing and innovative, and it made the world come alive. Zak didn’t really do that, but I found Zak much more fun.

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