Video Games Are Better Than Ever So Why Are We Trying to Revisit the Past?
The Vega+ and Commodore PET phone show us that some gaming memories are better off as, well, memories.
You might have seen the announcement of the Vega+ a few weeks ago. If not, it's a handheld ZX Spectrum, basically, allowing you to relive the glory days of 1980s gaming with about a thousand pre-loaded, gaudily colored, and once-slow-loading games you half-remember from when you were probably a barely developed fetus. At the time of writing, the Vega+ has more than tripled its Indiegogo target of $140,000—people really want this thing in their lives.
But the Vega+ is just another gadget, a toy, a time-filling distraction in the long line of stuff that comes out aimed solely at nostalgia glands. And it's the piece that's broken this particular camel's... opinion spine? What I mean is, the Vega+ annoys me. It's not just the announcement of a new, portable time machine back to when games came on cassettes, meaning a younger sibling could tape over Chuckie Egg with that week's top ten singles, that's got me wound up—it's that people, real-life living and breathing human beings, are so ready to fund such a thing.
I'm just going to say it: Games today are better than games used to be. But here we have the recycled re-release of a massively out-dated computer, albeit redesigned as a handheld to allow for on-the-shitter sessions, that people are chucking money at instead of newer, way more interesting video game projects. And face it: How many people who buy the Vega+ are really going to use it regularly? The vast majority of Spectrum games are best off remaining in the past, and I'm going to guess that 95 percent of purchasers quickly realize this and place their new portable on a shelf, never to be touched again in anger.
Do you remember those 101-in-1 cartridges that you could pick up on overseas holidays, from the dodgy electronics shops just off the market square in that Spanish town you don't recall the name of? Of course you do. And do you remember how many of those games you ever bothered to play more than once? Again, absolutely, because it was two. And that's exactly the same sort of ratio between gold bullion and grotesque bullshit you'll find with the Vega+'s thousand games.
Because to come back to my earlier point: Most old games are shit, frankly. Load up anything from a so-called "classic" computer or console (by which we mean long since supplanted) and, more often than not, it will seem like shit when compared to one that came out last year. It will be something cobbled together by an idiot in his bedroom for the Spectrum. It will be another fucking platformer for the SNES. It will be something that tries and fails to use 3D in anything approaching a decent way for the the original PlayStation. It will be anything on Dreamcast that isn't the meager handful of games that were actually any good for it.
Unchecked nostalgia is a disease, one that afflicts us in all walks of life, but one that I see being taken financial advantage of the most in the world of gaming. It's not just the Vega+ that's guilty of taking cash to reserve you your memories in a rather tepid new way; there's also the RetroN 5, the endless re-releases of Mega Drive games for all of your consoles and handhelds. This piece of trash.
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In 2012, SNK (Playmore) got on the nostalgia train with the Neo Geo X. The aim: to rinse a substantial chunk of cash from gullible gamers who really couldn't do without Fatal Fury. The reality: The handheld console was cheap and nasty, and many who parted with their money for it soon remembered just how little fun a whole bunch of Neo Geo games actually were. Super Sidekicks aside, obviously.
It's the actual games, too, with everything being re-skinned and redone to work on new consoles and computers, making me share in the Old Man Yells At Cloud opining of Dan Griliopoulos's opening paragraph to this Stardew Valley review. To paraphrase: Can no game just be left to die?
Your history has been monetized, your reaction of unthinking positivity has pound signs littered all over it, and the short history of gaming is one that is going to be endlessly recycled because of it. Fuck it, the thing prints money—so why not do it like that?
I'm not totally down on nostalgia, of course. You can see that here, where I wrote about great SNES games that you should play, right now. And yes, I appreciate that some of you might now be branding me a hypocrite, but here's what I'm trying to say: Just because it's an old game, perhaps on a "classic" system, by a "legendary" developer, doesn't make it a good one.
The problem comes from people reacting positively to a new veneer being lathered atop some old junk just because they remember something from the time when their critical faculties were somewhat lacking. Sorry to break it to you, reader, but Altered Beast was shit. Go back, play it now, and realize the truth.
Your memory plays tricks on you, so when some new snake oil salesman comes along saying, "Hey, buy this miracle retro product and all your dreams will come true," the lizard part of your brain that craves the warm embrace of the past lights up. So you buy it, you buy into it, and you fuel the continuation of this endless cycle of blinkered nostalgia.
I don't blame you. I've fallen victim to it, too. Though admittedly, I don't think anyone fell prey to the rebranded Commodore phone, as that was just bloody silly. A cheap Android phone branded with a dead name and some free emulator slapped on it?
But we can get through this—we can be pickier about what we allow ourselves to tint up all rosy-like. We can really sit down inside our heads and think, Was the original Zelda really the best in the series, or am I just telling myself that because I totally lost touch with the series by the time the quite obviously superior Wind Waker came out?
We can download our emulators and our collections of ROMs, and when we excitedly tell our friends, we correct them when they say "that's amazing!" and demand to have a night where you all sit there playing all the classics. Because they're thinking of shit games, and they're thinking their childhood memories equate to actual quality. They don't. We can be more discerning with our retro choices, like by playing nothing other than WWF No Mercy.
Blind nostalgia is a disease. A curse on us all for being so prone to uncritically accepting what childhood memories tell us as fact. A luxury we could do without. "Old" doesn't mean "good"—it can, but it's not an automatic thing. And when it comes to something like the Vega+ or the Neo Geo X, it is actively harmful.
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