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The Old and Retro Games I Finally Played in 2021 for the First Time (Mostly)

I grew up as a gamer without the means for gaming. I did not own many of the consoles, and my gaming libraries were always minimal for the ones I did have. As a grown human, I have some kind of reverse FOMO for this period of my life, and I am attempting to fill in many of the gaps from the 80s and 90s.

This year I discovered a newfound passion for retro gaming, and began checking off a list that's been a long time coming. Between Switch Online, Wii U eshop, Sega Megadrive Classics on Steam, and falling in love with the RG351 and RetroArch, I played much more retro stuff than new stuff this year.

List items

  • Having never owned an SNES myself, I started Link to the Past numerous times in my larval form when visiting friends who Had Stuff. The drama and urgency of the opening few minutes left a huge impression on me, and the Super Nintendo as a console remains frozen in my brain as "That Next Level Shit." I do think there is something special about the look of LttP. To me, it is the apotheosis of what would later become thought of as "pixel art" (although I'm sure this varies for others and is largely dependent on what system one had access to in more formative years).


    I honestly did not know until this year that Zelda games are traditionally very heavy on trekking through dungeons. It felt like that was the lion's share of the gameplay -- slowing down to puzzle over... um, puzzles, and raising the stakes since you can be kicked out to the start of the dungeon to try again if you die.

    My biggest revelation, though, is that Yung Flattener would never have finished this game. Without walkthroughs and a very smart search engine to point me at the exact clip within seconds, I'd be surprised if he finished any dungeons at all. Thankfully, I streamed this and had chat cheering me on, legitimately invested in my progress. I'm glad they did, and now it's clear to me why so many people consider Link to the Past the best Zelda and a perfect video game in many respects.

  • Where the heck did this game come from? Is this a Berenstain thing? Did it pop into the timeline, an errant shard of another shattered and much cooler universe?

    In 1994, I prided myself in knowing everything about Aliens and/or Predator and *especially* the crossover between the two. This game is short and fun, has a higher than expected Anime Index, and it looks fantastic. The gameplay is more complex than I expected from a beat-em-up. As a general AvP dorkus malorkus, this explores a lot of the fun sci-fi ideas in the franchise: alliances between humans and Yautja, cybernetics and android stuff, rogue military leaders, and of course mad science experimentation. It's one of the few arcade beat-em-ups that makes me want to play through it again with another character after completing it.


    I guess this is from some kind of discarded early script for an Aliens vs. Predator movie? I guess Linn may have inspired the character design of Ibuki from Street Fighter? I guess one of the characters is a robot version of Arnold Schwarzenegger??? The rabbit hole one is able to get into with this game is sprawling.

  • I played through 1 & 2 in quick succession, and they could not be more different within the realm of Mario games. It was a delight to experience all the decisions and divergences from what I think of as the "main" series (meaningless now, after two bobillion handheld Mario SKUs). SML1 is fun and sometimes maddening after the fashion of SMB 1 and 3 -- lean, sequential platforming challenges that are broken up (delightfully, IMO) by the airplane auto-scrollers.


    Everyone shut up, I've got the music in my head.

  • Now we're talking. SML2, frankly, shocked me with its sophistication. It is much more the sum of its parts, and I could not believe this came out on a Gameboy. It has so much more SNES DNA than its predecessor. Are there any other Mario games where you actually spend the coins?

  • Add "any Sega console" to the list of consoles I never owned. Aside from some difficulty spikes and strange pathing, the idea of Sonic as Fast Mario finally clicked for me. In 2021, there are more Sonic games than there are nodules of beef on a very sloppy chili dog, but it still felt like the right move to start with the first one.


    Obvious though it may be, I did not know that the franchise was essentially an early speedrun platform, which explains the branching paths the player can take through the levels. I wanted to answer a couple of lingering questions:

    1) Why do people love Sonic and other Sonic characters, and how much of that is unironice, and how much is Meme Influence?

    2) Are you supposed to avoid getting hit, or are you supposed to Go Fast?

    No answer to (1) was forthcoming, but exploring (2) taught me that you cannot approach these in the same way as a Mario game. Growing up, I had generally considered them impossible, but the truth is that they are intended to be run and re-run (a thing that, at my age, I am not going to do).

    I don't place a ton of stock in the present idea of games "respecting the player's time" (if your time is more important than video games, why the hell are you playing video games?), but I have a hypothesis that somewhere along the line this franchise will become something that you can just sit down and play without oodles of training. So: Where / when does that happen, if ever? And the answer is......

  • ...not here!


    I suspect that the love of the greater Sonic universe is very much based around its characters, and here we witness the seeds of that universe beginning to branch out. What a terrible mixed metaphor. Seeds don't branch!

    But I am a sucker for main characters with slightly different abilities, and although there's not much story here, it begins to flesh out the character(s) of the series.

  • I had never touched a WarioWare until this year, and did not know what there was to love about it. It's weird, funny, gross, stressful, and full of a yucky sort of charm.


    Each microgame is a sort of mental arc that begins with "Oh, I'll never be able to do this" and sometimes ends with "Not only can I do this, I think I broke it." I streamed this one and had a blast. Oddly enough, I found myself trying to 100% the grid of microgames. I still do not consider myself finished with it.

  • I've never played Quake until this year! How nice it is to have a classic game from a different era with different thinking around quality of life (i.e., none) re-configured to be more accessible and approachable for modern sensibilities. I haven't quite beat it yet, but it fills a few needs:

    - Simpler environmental design that lets the player W+M1 their way through.

    - Simpler multiplayer design that lets the player W+M1 their way through.

    Both of these things need to come back. Everything is too balanced now. Some of us have jobs and deserve to turn our brains off once in a while.

  • I got through ME1 and about halfway through ME2 this year. (Disclosure: I played all three back in the day, so this one is an exception here.) I diverge from the standard thinking with regards to the trilogy that 2 is a better game in every way, only because there is a directness to 1 that is pleasurable in a minimalist mindset. If you insist on comparing it to its descendants (which I think is kind of unfair), it's not simplistic, but it is uncomplicated.

    Among my most heinous gaming takes is this: The Mako was fine, great even, and while the probe system is satisfying in its own right, it was criminal to bring it in as a replacement for exploration.


    I was watching through Star Trek: The Next Generation while playing this (as in, not at the same time, as I don't believe in multitasking games and TV), and it made for a great companion piece. The inspirations for ME are not hard to find (episodic speculative questions, and LOTS of shared aesthetics). It solidified my theory of the inverse StarTrekification of Mass Effect over time: the series became less of a matter of pairing those big Roddenberry-esque questions with human(ish) drama, and more a matter of exploring the so-called sci-fi game "Ur story" (advanced aliens leave behind uncanny tech, human chosen one saves galaxy) with more satisfying but ultimately regressive combat. (How far in the future is this? And we're still shooting solid slugs? And we reload? What universe is this again?)

  • When this game was still new, I actually borrowed an N64 from a friend who went out of town for a weekend and made it to the Death Mountain before I had to give it back. If the SNES is permanently "That Next Level Shit," then the N64 lives in my brain as this strange and wonderful transitional phase, where franchises like Mario and Zelda had to both translate old ideas and habits for a polygonal 3D world, as well as create new norms and vocabularies for an evolving playing field of 3rd person action.

    I was very fortunate to experience this game -- which is much, much weirder than people generally acknowledge -- with the help of stream chat and my friend Six31 (who knows the game inside and out and plays through the randomizer regularly) coaching me through via audio chat. There's no universe where I complete this game without that assistance, and I'm so glad we did it.


    The N64 wasn't just a turning point, it was a corner. A lot of the N64's contributions stayed with the system -- worn down by players who needed more streamlined control schemes, more ergonomic and functional interfaces. This is not a criticism, because it was anybody's ball game at the time, but camera control and toggling view and aiming modes, inventory menus and things of that nature were very difficult for me to un-learn and re-train. (I don't have the buried muscle memory, because I never owned an N64. See also: going back to Goldeneye after years of First Person Shooters on console.)

    The game's importance to its own series and to gaming as a whole is immediately evident. It's an aesthetic powerhouse. What other game from this era makes use of music and sound as brilliantly as Ocarina of Time? From *any* era? While other games were trying to get the most and best polygons, Ocarina of Time was making use of an entire physical sense for many people, its songs burrowing into the cerebral cortices of kids at very formative ages. Think about that next time you have a critique of OoT, even a valid one; you're debating with brain matter. For many people my age, this game is understandably carved in stone. It earns every bit of that, and although I struggled with the controls, I enjoyed the hell out of it.

    I didn't even mention things like the day/night cycle (which does a lot of the legwork convincing a brain that it is a world, not just a game level). It's endearing in almost every facet.

    To even start enumerating the games that Ocarina of Time influenced, overtly and more subtly, would be futile. Many games are good *because* of what they explicitly owe to this game. (*Waves to Soulreaver and Darksiders.*)

    I will end on this: If you really want to feel some emotions, complete four decades on this planet and really engage in a fantasy game where the main character jumps back and forth between his older and younger self. There's a relevance there beyond gaming, and I'm not nearly young and wise enough yet to verbalize that wisdom.

    (Thanks again, Six31, for the coaching and infinite patience. Good times, good times.)