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Videogame Nostalgia

December 2005

Recently I dusted off an old Game Boy, the original version sold in the early 90’s. It still works fine. I came across while boxing stuff for a move, and the only game I have for it is the cartridge currently in the slot: Tetris.

I put in some batteries and started playing, and the gameplay, the old black & tan LED screen, the simple controls, and especially the music brought a flood of memories back. I remembered long trips in the back of my parents car amusing myself with these games, immersed in the constructs of code that had sprung from the minds of imaginative Japanese programmers.

I remembered trips to my Grandparents in LA, the long drive down from northern california, when my only respite from the endless blur of farm crops was the Game Boy. I actually felt a deep sadness come over me when I listened to the melodic little tune that plays after you win the game.

Then I remembered a more recent sight: some kids in their 20’s, around my age, with t-shirts that said “ROOTS” under a graphic of an old-school Game Boy, or a graphic of a controller for the original NES. The sight struck me as stupid, after all, who in their right mind would look to the world of antiquated consumer electronics in their search for identity?

My generation would, that’s who. No, we’re not in our right minds, but its not as bad as it seems. That t-shirt is identifying the same nostalgia I feel for a simpler time, yes, one not long ago to those over 40, but a very long time ago for me. Before Y2K and 9-11, before Grand Theft Auto and Tomb Raider, before videogames became more like movies than they are like toys.

Now, videogames are the rising commercial art form: Steven Spielberg is getting into the business. An October 14th, 2005 Associated Press article cites the “increasingly intertwined interests of Hollywood and the video game industry” as behind the recently announced teaming up of Spielberg and Electronic Arts, the owner of “Madden NFL,” “the Sims,” and many other major titles.

Every time technology moves forward, one looks back on yesterday’s stuff with disdain. But last week’s stuff looks a little less unattractive, kind of quaint, and last years stuff becomes a collectors item. The old games were primitive, true, and one could make the same argument I heard from my parents, that less refined entertainments lead to more imaginative work on the part of the child. Its the same argument: “When we were your age, we only had TV, none of these videogames” and that they heard from theirs, “When we were your age we only had radio” and on, and back and further back, to Abe Lincoln whittling a stick in his log cabin for amusement.

Its well and good to be aware of the fact that different media affect us in different ways, and to try and study the varying effects that new media have on us. But to focus on the medium while ignoring the message is a grave mistake, because it is to cleave in half something that is an interdependant whole. For example, “Max Payne,” a ground-breaking videogame of recent years. The medium itself is dependant on the hardware available to run it, the physics engines neccesary to make the game design possible, and a whole host of other factors.

But the game as an art form, if we can call it that, is a message in itself. It simulates the 3d experience of a violent action movie, but the story itself more closely resembles film noir, portraying a world of corruption, crime, drug addiction, and attempts to reach towards a bleak poetry of loss. The story exposition is told in graphic novel form with text bubbles on-screen, with a “radio-theater” soundtrack narrating the onscreen comic strip with voices, sound affects, and music.

Like a Petroushka nesting doll, one medium is contained inside another, not making any one of them obsolete, but grouping them together. Cinema did the same thing when it incorporated photography, music, and drama all into the same medium.

The early days of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System and its successor, the 16-bit Super NES and the Sega Genesis, were a period of working within strict limitations. Limitations can be stifling, but just as often, they can be a boon to creativity, and the bizarre fantasy worlds concocted to explore the possibilities of platform gaming have lasting value as popular, commercial art. Particularly for those of us who played them growing up.

The peculiar Japanese sensibility expressed in the Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog games, with its Italian plumbers and pipes and mushrooms and turnips and such, futuristic graphics and jarringly surreal, absurd landscapes, is one that I think could never have come from elsewhere. Western youth have been fascinated with popular Japanese culture for many years now, from Hello Kitty and Pokemon, to Nintendo and anime, and while I don’t claim to know the reason why this is, I think it may have something to do with ancient Shinto animism. Thats just a wild guess. Perhaps technology and consumerism are easier to integrate with your cultural imagination when you haven’t had a couple thousand years of Christian dualism to contend with. Perhaps being bombed into submission after a period of imperialist aggression acted as a horrible tonic, making a look forward into the future the only view acceptable.

Of course, it is not Japan itself but a specific man who is responsible for the dreamlike aesthetic I found so fascinating in Nintendo games. Appropriately enough, there is a Shrine devoted to the man on the internet. Shigeru Miyamoto, according to biographical information found on the internet shrine, was born on 1952 in rural Japan, near Kyoto. Interestingly, his family lacked a television set as he was growing up, and he found his entertainment by exploring the natural world around him: rice fields, rivers, ravines, deep caverns which he would explore, alone, by lantern.

Miyamoto didn’t care for the rigors of college much, where he studied Industrial Design, and often skipped class. When he finally graduated, he got a job for a toy company called Nintendo. He designed an arcade game called Donkey Kong. After the unprecedented success of this game, many others followed, including virtually every game in the Mario, Zelda, and Metroid series’.

Miyamoto is humble and eccentric, who according to Wikipedia’s page on him, rides a bike to work and insists on receiving an average salary. His list of quotes on the Miyamoto shrine reveal him as a kind of videogame mystic.

“What if, on a crowded street, you look up and see something appear that should not, given what we know, be there. You either shake your head and dismiss it, or you accept that there is much more to the world than we think. Perhaps it really is a doorway to another place. If you choose to go inside you may find many unexpected things.” Another quote has the same feeling of there being something ‘other’ that is latent in this invented world.

“The person next to you is a warrior and the space that appears empty is a secret door to another world? You either dismiss it, or you accept that there is much more to the world than you think.”

My affection for videogames didn’t keep me from reading books or being creative. It became one facet of my childhood interests, which ranged all over the place. Is nostalgia, or sentimentality, an unproductive emotion? Perhaps, if you wallow in it. At least you can do better than t-shirt sloganeering, as the guys in the Advantage has done.

The Advantage, on 5RC records, come from Northern California’s foothills, near where I grew up. They play cover songs, exclusively form 8-bit NES games, on rock instruments. Seeing them live is an exhilarating experience for someone of my generation, the music resonates on multiple levels, and you realize the fastidious genius of these songs, both cute and complex, both ridiculous and dark.

In the end, it really is the human at the other side of the tunnel, the creative intelligence behind the message- whatever medium we engage with. I’ll leave you with one more Miyamoto quote.

“Video Games are bad for you? That’s what they said about Rock ‘N’ Roll.”