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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.