Here's something I want when I die: A Super Nintendo controller.
Just put that controller in my hands. That small, smooth, purple and grey wonder.
I know, I know. Real fans like the controllers with a lot of colors because that's what other regions got and other regions are better because they're not us. But that's not what I grew up with, so it's not what I want when I die. I want the purple and grey one.
This is a thing I've actually thought about: Wanting an object from my childhood in my hands when I die. I don't even really care if it's playable. It probably won't be when I die in the great, distant future of 2018. I'm also pretty certain no reasonable family member or, let's be honest with my relationship record, orderly at a care facility would actually give me that controller.
But I want it. I want in those last moments to remember the time I threw a fireball in Street Fighter II: The World Warriors at my neighbor Stephen and he started crying because he didn't know you could do that. I want to think about putting Mario Land into a Super Game Boy and having an entirely new world of games I already owned open up to me.
Nostalgia and games go together like peanut butter and similes. Nintendo's entire marketing strategy surrounds it. Sega's entire marketing strategy surrounds making fun of it. Capcom's entire marketing strategy surrounds being confused by it. But it's right there--we always miss the games that we own, as if they'll go away if we don't keep remembering them with retrospectives and “Best of All Time” lists.
True, a good portion of our culture is built on nostalgia. I drink from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mug and I wear Star Wars hoodies and fantasize about Gadget from Rescue Rangers.
But games don't just hold onto the past or reboot it for branding – they try to recreate it, time and time again. Some do it well. Shovel Knight is one of my favorite games of the last five years because it's fun and interesting and, yeah, taps into a part of my brain that didn't know what finding an apartment after a breakup is like.
Others do it poorly. Steam is chock full of pixel-art games that recreate the feel of the NES, SNES, Genesis, or whatever. They're cheap and they look like a time we don't have anymore, so we buy them and then play them for 10 minutes and say, “Oh, right. The past,” and then let them rot with Humble Bundle purchases and Steam sale impulse buys.
At a point, buying old (and old-looking) games becomes a ritual. We're supposed to buy every version of Super Mario Bros. because it's a classic. We're supposed to hope this next Sonic game is better than the last, if just because we remember a time when Sonic was good. We're supposed to play old Final Fantasy music in the car in Final Fantasy XV because old is better than new.
A lot of this is marketing. But it's marketing that works on us, because games were often an all-encompassing passion that drowned out the bad in life. And as we got older, and the bad became the important--and therefore impossible to tune out--we reached for the old games more and more to remember that blissful unawareness.
On the other hand, the classic games of our youth are by and large better than those classic cartoons we think are good but aren't good because they're bad. Have you watched the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lately? While sober? It's terrible. The beats of all the episodes are the same, there are never really any stakes, and the characters are a lot less fun than you remember.
Meanwhile, classic games are still pretty good. Super Mario Bros. is great. Final Fantasy IV is great. Hell, Space Invaders and Pac-Man are still great and they came out in a video game age equivalent to silent films of trains pulling into stations. So we aren't still playing them just because we remember them.
And it goes without saying (as I say it) that good games are still being made today. 2017 alone has been full of classics and we aren't even close to E3. Resident Evil 7. Yakuza 0. Nioh. Gravity Rush 2. All games that are good. And all games that I don't need to block out a memory of my parents fighting to enjoy.
But maybe that's what makes us so nostalgic for games. Not just because they're good but because they were good when we needed them. And because they're good, we can actively go back to them. There's less shame in enjoying something good, and more of a reason to go back again and again and again.
I would say that this is me justifying my own consumerism, but that ain't too hard to do. I still buy merchandise from crappy cartoons and wear shirts that ironically reference cereals I ironically eat because I don't know how to have emotions without a cover of snark.
That's the problem with nostalgia as an argument. Dismissing a game as childhood wonder also dismisses why it was so fun as a kid. But just saying the games are good fails to consider the popularity of new games that use old art styles for effect (and marketing). Not to mention failing to consider why games that intelligently adapt those gameplay mechanics can make something entirely new.
When I first started plotting out this essay, I really wanted to find a much better conclusion than “I don't know.” Or some witty wrap-around about Gadget or being dead, my two favorite things to think about on the bus to work. I don't know why we're nostalgic for games, or why I'm both disquieted by marketing nostalgia and drawn to it like a bug to a different simile.
Maybe that's it.
Old games aren't classics just because we remember them. And they're not just classics because they're good. They're classics because they came at a time when we needed something that was good. And they've stuck with us because they continue to be good, even as we age out of the time when they were needed the most.
And because of Gadget.
Mike Drucker is a Giant Bomb contributor and co-head writer for “Bill Nye Saves the World,” coming to Netflix in 2017. He's also written for The Tonight Show, Nintendo, The Onion, and SNL. He also co-hosts the podcasts, “How To Be a Person” and “The Room Where It's Happening.” You can follow him on Twitter @mikedrucker and watch him on Twitch under the surprising name “MikeDrucker.”