Sitting in my lounge on a lazy Saturday morning, I can hear the Super Mario Bros theme tune coming from my kitchen. That tune is an instant time-warp for me. The moment I hear it, I’m a child again – sat cross-legged in front of a TV on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean and completely unaware that I’m about to have an experience that will change my life.
I’ve rigged up my old NES in there, and my 8-year-old son is trying out cartridge after cartridge. He’s already learned the fine art of blowing on the connectors, moving the cart quickly across his lower lips while he exhales like a flautist with an expression on his face that’s eerily similar to that worn by my little brother as he did the exact same thing 30-odd years ago. A face filled with hope and anticipation, tempered by a healthy disbelief that blowing on a cartridge could suddenly make it work. When he pushes that cart in and down and is rewarded by a solid power light instead of the blinking one that we see so often, his face lights up right along with the title screen. He’s tried out Ice Climber, Donkey Kong, and Kid Icarus so far. All of them were switched off with a flourish. He loves Super Mario Bros, but he knows it’s hard. It’s always interesting to see how long he’ll stick with it.
It isn’t long.
I’m taking a lot of pleasure from introducing my kids to videogames. I started them both young; these days, my daughter spends time playing The Sims and Minecraft, as well as lots of little novelty DS games. I don’t think gaming ranks that highly for her though, in terms of how she likes to spend her time. That’s fine – as a videogame player I’d like for my kids to get them, but at the same time I’m happy that she’s her own person. As long as she’s happy in what she’s doing, I’m happy. Maybe one day she’ll find that game – the one that kickstarts the relationships with games that us people who play them a lot all remember having. Maybe she won’t. For a while, I thought Monster Hunter World was going to be the one – but too many failed attempts to hunt a Pukei-Pukei killed off that interest.
Meanwhile my son will play pretty much anything that’s put in front of him as long as it’s action-packed enough to hold his attention. He’s worked his way through most of the Lego games. He plays Minecraft, and Plants vs Zombies. Recently, he’s played Sky Force Anniversary with me and has become one of my go-to crewmates for voyages on Sea of Thieves. And now, he’s ejected Super Mario Bros, and I hear the sounds of the cart being changed – the harsh whistling blow, the clatter of plastic, the click of the power switch. Then I hear the title screen music from The Legend of Zelda.
A few years ago, at my wife’s insistence, we went back and watched a load of old black and white movies. Casablanca was in among them, but the one that I fell in love with was It’s A Wonderful Life. I think my wife wanted to watch them, in part, because her late mother had always talked about her love for those movies. I also think she wanted to watch them for the simple desire of wanting to understand our own place and time in the world a little better. Consuming entertainment from the past has a way of helping you understand the context of the time and how our present has been shaped by it. When I started listening to rock music in my teens, some people I knew were eager to get me listening to the music of The Beatles and The Doors – as if hearing those old bands could somehow improve my experience of listening to the bands that were dominating my CD player at the time; Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
I think this approach works for movies and for music. It’s a valid one for books too, for my money. However, in the case of videogames, I think it’s a little bit more complicated – mainly because it’s comparatively easy to fall in love with old movies and music, or at least to appreciate them. The structures of movies haven’t changed in all the years between Casablanca and now – the basic tropes remain the same, even if the visual effects have improved dramatically. The same can be said of music – where a great song will stand the test of time, in spite of progress in instrumentation and technology taking place after the fact. A game from 30 odd years ago though? It’s a totally different beast to the games of today. The evolution has been fast, and it has been brutal. Previous apex predators toppled in a moment to be replaced by bigger, meaner, and generally much prettier monsters, with new branches of the family tree spinning off in hundreds of new directions and with the most promising new species developing in the most unlikely places.
For those of us that remember these old games, the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia are sat firmly across the bridge of our nose, I think. When we think back to them, we’re reminded of lots of things – the circumstances of that first experience, how they made us feel, and what we discovered as a result of them. We remember the music, because some of us have been humming those chiptune melodies for the decades since. We remember the graphics not for the blocks of pixels they were but for the sense of discovery and possibility that they inspired. We filled in the blanks of their narratives and their graphical shortcomings with our own imaginations, and we often remember the pleasure of filling those blanks in for ourselves with a happiness that drowns out and overcomes the memories of frustration at the difficulty of the games. Put simply, old games are damn hard and ugly, and it’s hard for people coming to them for the first time in this day and age to fall in love with them. I think some people can see their value, but ‘seeing value’ isn’t the same thing as ‘falling in love with.’
My son’s relationship with games is one that I struggle to understand – it’s more similar to the relationship that my brother has with them to the relationship that I have myself. He’ll play them right up to the point that the frustration is driving him nuts… and then he’ll play some more. It’s something I never did. I was always told “games are about having fun; if you aren’t having fun, stop playing” and it’s one of the few pieces of advice given to me by my immediate family that made sense then and still makes sense now. I’ll always just turn my Xbox off before I get to the point of actual anger. As soon as frustration begins to enter the room, I start making my way out of it. I’ve never broken a controller through getting pissed off with a game. My Destiny fireteam inform me that when I get annoyed during a raid, I just go quiet. As kids, my little brother was the one who’d rage at games, and he still does. My boy definitely has that streak in him, and it’s the old games that bring it to the surface the fastest.
It’s weird to me that he seems to just expect to be able to win, and he expects to be able to do so immediately with whatever game he picks up. I think part of the problem is seeing me play these games. As I grew up with them, I’m pretty sure some of them have infiltrated my muscle memory – I can fly through levels at top speed and complete them with an efficiency that he finds incredible. Since I make it look so easy, he assumes that it *is* easy. He didn’t see 8-year-old me, dying time and time again on Cheep Cheep Bridge. He didn’t see me falling to my death so many times on Contra that my death tally would cover the Great Wall of China if written out. He didn’t see me getting eaten by Jaws time after time after time. All he sees is the result of that effort and the learning from those mistakes – and no matter how many times I seem to tell him that no-one ever learned anything without making mistakes, and that the only reason I can play these games so easily is because I’ve been playing them for 30 years, he just gives me his patented “yeah right, Dad” look.
I guess I’m hoping that games are teaching him to lose graciously, just like they did me.
In the kitchen, I hear an angry exhalation – the beginning of a shout at the TV. Time to intervene… and to suspect that my hopes on that final point are misplaced. At least for the moment.