Old games are awesome

As far as this blog post’s title goes, I was really worried they wouldn’t be. I’ve spent the last half decade of my life on a downward spiral when it comes to playing video games. Certain games on certain platforms have been absolutely incredible and I’ve loved almost every second, but the vast majority of games I’ve played, I guess since the current generation of consoles debuted, have been disappointing. I shudder when I think of how many games I’ve bought and never completed.

That got me thinking about my childhood, where my memories of gaming are the happiest times of my life in a lot of ways. If I want to go to a happy place, I think about Super Mario Land on the Gameboy, or Secret of Mana on the SNES. The memories and feelings they bring back are guaranteed to put a smile on my face and I’ve longed to play them again, especially when I’m trudging through something modern and I’m barely enjoying it.

I’ve been scared to though, because what if I’m misremembering and my feelings about it have been moulded that way by a subconscious that heightens those memories, in large part because I have such terrible other memories from around the same time. Life as a little Sommefeldt in the early 90s was particularly challenging and games brought some real relief and escapism. It’s partly why I can easily get lost in movies and TV shows as well.

So I’ve fired up emulators from time to time and invested in the classic controller and games on the Wii Virtual Console, since my love affairs in the early 90s almost exclusively happened on the NES and SNES, the latter in particular. I’ve always stopped short of playing for more than an hour or so each time. I didn’t have the real controllers. I couldn’t handle the real cartridges. I didn’t get the feeling of sliding the NES games into the belly of the thing, followed by that incredibly tactile click as it latched into place after pressing the caddy assembly down against the pressure of the springs. That loud clack as you power on a SNES, after blowing the cartridge without even thinking. It’s about more than just the games it turns out, so I never got too attached to playing the games via emulation.

Recently I’ve realised I don’t really game at all now and my spare time is consumed by world-beating procrastination or programming on some side projects I’m trying to get off the ground. For someone with such fond memories of gaming, it’s like I’ve died, somehow unable to fill that procrastination time with something I’ve enjoyed since I can remember. Playing Citadel on the Acorn Electron in 1986 is the game that triggered my love of games, for crying out loud!

So I did it. After years of wanting to, I bought a SNES.

Super Street Fighter 2, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Starwing have been first on the menu, with Super Mario All Stars and Yoshi’s Island waiting for me on my desk at work as I type this. The SNES came with a couple of controllers: a slightly wonky one from a PAL console with the longer cable, and one perfect controller from the Japanese Super Famicom with a short cable.

I can’t stop playing it. The games are as perfect as I remember, and it’s surprising how much I do remember about the games, especially Link to the Past. Hidden secrets that you can’t figure out without extensive play time have come flooding back. Timing-specific combos in Super Street Fighter 2 are pulled off with ease, as if I last played it bare weeks ago. In reality I haven’t played SSF2 for nearly 15 years. The sound and feeling of powering the console on and off take me back to my childhood bedroom in Cruden Bay and I’m having the best time and I think it’s true to say that I’ve rarely been as happy enjoying my spare time in my entire adult life.

That the games are so good even today, even on a big LCD TV rather than a small CRT, especially where I have to sit only a few feet away because of the length of the cable on the controller, is a testament to just how amazing they really are. It’s easy to see why in the main, too: they’re so incredibly simple. The constraints of the hardware, storage and the inputs from the controllers meant that programmers couldn’t be wasteful and fun and great design literally need to be packed in as simply as possible. The games were created by handfuls of people in months on tiny budgets, rather than sprawling teams of hundreds of developers burning through tens millions of dollars and taking years.

That feels like such a terribly broken thing when you play games on the SNES. There’s no good reason why amazing simple games can’t be developed on modern systems in short spaces of time in small budgets, but nobody wants to do it on current consoles or the PC. The current day explosion in similar simple games has happened on phones and tablets and it’s only the input issues that stop certain types of games being really great on touch-only devices.

It’s not been perfect, but that’s been the fault of the age of the console and the games almost exclusively. I lost an 8 hour Zelda save, and hit a black screen with the music still playing after winning a round against Akuma in Street Fighter, both after what seemed to be electrical glitches or possible battery age problems in Zelda’s case. I can’t wait to play the games I have on the way and plan to buy in the future. I’m not even that bothered by losing the Zelda save because the game’s amazing and I’ll love replaying it.

So if you’ve been holding off on playing some old school games because you don’t want to ruin the memories, don’t! Buy the original systems and get stuck in and I doubt you’ll be too disappointed. Most of the systems can be had for reasonable sums on eBay (less than £50 for a SNES, a game and a couple of controllers here in the UK) and only the rarest or best games cost more than the price of a cinema ticket.