Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Unpacking that Nostalgia Thing

Occasionally out here in gameblog land, this accusation of nostalgia comes up. Usually it’s a New School player that’s being condescending towards an Old School player. Or sometimes it’s an Old School guy that really wants to make his corner of the OSR more innovative– making the “R” stand for renaissance instead of revival, say. But this isn’t really a really discussion about nostalgia. It’s just using the term as a swear word, smearing other gamers, or setting up a straw man. It’s just a way of saying, “your taste is somehow inauthentic… whereas mine is the result of being thoughtful, deep, and in touch with myself.” I sit back and look at this carrying on and I think “joystick buttons.” Then, before a coherent thought can form in my mind… I think about that really cute girl I saw at the gas station the other day….

Wait. What were we talking about again…? Oh yeah… joystick buttons. When I was a kid, joysticks only had one button. I played a lot of River Raid on the 2600. Jump Man on the Commodore 64. Loderunner on the Apple II. Hours and hours of Star Raiders on the Atari 800XL– and stuff like Montezuma’s Revenge. Mountain King. Mail Order Monsters. Man, there were some great games back then. I remember when the Nintendo came out and every game looked to me like some variation of  Super Mario Brothers. I could just not understand how it could be so popular– what happened to all the variety and experimentation…? And then there were the dinky little controllers. They didn’t have joysticks… just that pad thing, right? (My thumb gets sore just thinking about it.) But the kicker was the buttons. I couldn’t handle it. You had an “A” button and a “B” button and there was all this stuff you had to do in the game with them. It wasn’t just that “A” would make you jump and “B” would make you shoot. There was all that “A B B A” stuff. The “A B Up Down Left Right” craziness.

I never learned it. I never made the transition. Call me lazy. Tell me I grew up. Make up whatever kind of excuse you want. But don’t call me nostalgic. The games just weren’t worth the investment if you ask me. And it wasn’t just the Nintendo. The art of video game took a real hit when everything went to 16 bit. The programs got bigger. They couldn’t be written by a lone hacker any more, but became more like movie productions. They became so expensive to make, the companies that made them got really, really conservative. And way too often fancy graphics and sound became a substitute for game design and playability. I would not trade a single J D Casten game for anything from the 64 bit era. And the controllers of today have not just a bewildering amount of buttons, but they have multiple joysticks as well. I have no idea how people can figure out how to play games with them. Yeah, it’s the 21st century. But if I walk into an arcade, I’d rather play Tron, Time Pilot, or 1942 than anything else.

It’s a matter of taste, sure. And yeah… my tastes were formed in the eighties. The wider culture moved on, but I didn’t move with it. I genuinely like the old games better than everything that came after. Just like my grandmother thought Glenn Miller was cool ’til the day she died. And yeah, I’m an old crank, too. I’m still me, though. In my mind… I’m still eighteen. I haven’t changed that much, have I? But I’m standing there at the gas pump and I look over at sweet young thang and I think… man, that girl is gorgeous. (Girls didn’t dress like that when I was in school. They had poofy hair and shoulder pads and too much eye makeup.) But that girl. Just look at her, for crying out loud. And then in a split second it all falls apart. It’s the moment that she turns the key and those awful sounds start emanating from her stereo… I can’t handle it anymore. She instantly goes from the mental box marked “alluring” to the another one marked “alien and inhuman.” And it’s no comfort to realize that this is probably how the Beatles seemed to my grandmother.

I love games. I the ones I grew up with, sure. But I am perhaps even more enamored with the games that were produced before I hit the scene– stuff I didn’t even know existed until I became an adult. The people that made them had completely different ideas about gaming from my generation– as different us my era was from the Magic and White Wolf phase. In the days before Ebay and Amazon… back when going to a game convention was pretty well impossible for me… there was essentially no way to get my hands on out of print games. If it wasn’t on the store shelf and if my friends didn’t have a copy… it basically didn’t exist. This created the impression of there being some sort of golden age just out of reach….

And now… it’s all here. I can go get these old games and people will fill up a table to try them out at conventions with me. People of all ages. Even people that probably have horrible taste in music. (In fact, I know some of them have horrible taste in music: the last girl to sit at my table complained that “99 Luftballoons” was too repetitive.) But all these differences in age and taste… they just don’t matter once the game gets going. Sure, we have to hash out the finer points of the rules sometimes. We have to talk through our expectations. But to this day, the 1980 Moldvay Basic D&D set can produce as immersive of a game experience as it did thirty years ago. And I don’t have to be an electrical engineer to keep it going, either.

And things changed so fast, too. B/X D&D was replaced with the Mentzer BECMI sets. AD&D Second Edition came out. GURPS went through several editions right alongside this. I remember getting these games… and some of them I never got around to playing.I wanted to write video games just like J. D. Casten and Richard Garriot did, but by the time I was old enough to understand the 6502 and the GTIA chips and the Antic and everything else… the platform I wanted to write for was gone. And yeah, I tinkered around with stuff on my Atari ST later on… but the days when you could spin up a game in BASIC and then get it published as a “type in” game in a magazine… they were completely gone. I’d missed my chance.

There are so many things I wanted to do as a kid… but I never got around to them all. I wanted to run the Isle of Dread. (I never got farther than ripping out the player map.) I wanted to run a Car Wars rags-to-riches campaign. (We never played a single amateur night event back in the day.) I wanted to execute a Gorn anchor. (It seemed impossible to pull off just reading the rules.) I wanted learn how to coordinate a defense against an unstoppable Ogre. (The Ogre always won in our games.) I wanted to explore Yrth and Jorune and the Third Imperium. (Never even played those games….) I wanted to see what it would be like if we played AD&D or Third Edition Gamma World and use even a quarter of the rules that we had always completely ignored. (Most of our games were a combination of “Choose Your Own Adventure” with maybe 5% of the combat rules tacked on.) There is so much stuff that I wanted to do. And I never stopped wanting to do it.

When you get down to it, I don’t play these games to relive any sort of glory days. There weren’t any glory days. I didn’t even know how to gamemaster and most of my friends didn’t either. And even if we did do more, we wouldn’t have done things the way I do now. In fact, I will almost always do the exact opposite of what my teenage self would have done just to see where it leads. Call this nostalgia if you want. I’m just not done playing these games, yet.

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9 responses to “Unpacking that Nostalgia Thing

  1. Runeslinger June 20, 2013 at 7:05 am

    Heh… there were no glory days! Excellent line. I think I had fleeting moments of glory before I got to college and the real gaming fun began, but that line really resonated with me.

    • jeffro June 20, 2013 at 9:12 am

      I’m not sure if it matters, but that line is intended to be spoken immediately after taking a shot of bourbon. And with a steely, Gregory Peck style hundred yard stare.

      • Runeslinger June 21, 2013 at 12:01 am

        I got that impression, don’t worry~
        I also saw it all in black&white with the shadow of a lazy ceiling fan slugglishly following a circular trail on a wall in the background.

  2. Robert Eaglestone June 20, 2013 at 9:05 am

    “But by the time I was old enough to understand the 6502 and the GTIA chips and the Antic and everything else… the platform I wanted to write for was gone.”

    Same here. If only things had been shifted by just two or three years… ha!

  3. Jason Packer June 20, 2013 at 11:07 am

    This hits on something that I think about a lot.
    I played a lot of AD&D back when I was a kid. It was very nearly my only hobby (along with riding bikes and arcade games) and we played it constantly. But I don’t look back on those days with nostalgia – because I look back and see just how *badly* we were playing then. Every game a Monty Haul. Yes, we often had great fun, but we were really, truly awful role players at the time, and would have been better off with board games, I suspect.

    • jeffro June 20, 2013 at 3:15 pm

      You want to see some horrible role players, check out STNG season 1 episode 12– the first holodeck episode. I love how the program strains to keep the NPC’s in character in spite of the “players” completely useless and out-of-character actions.

  4. Christian Blouin June 20, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    I think that the nostalgia word may get uttered when old school promoters disparage what they think is more modern systems just because the rule book is thicker. Role players makes the game, the GM fudge it all to maximize fun, the rest is often just serious sounding trash talk. I’ve got no patience personally for someone complaining about GURPS active defenses and the fact that it has more character options than red box. My favourite would be my son states that GURPS vehicles is complex as an evidence that GURPS is too “crunchy”, as if you have to use the book… This sometimes comes from people who weren’t born back then… This is when I drop the N bomb as a sarcastic device.

    • jeffro June 20, 2013 at 3:11 pm

      I do not understand this mentality that presumes that the entire rulebook is to be used every single time. The only constant in role playing as far as I can tell is that a subset of the rules is generally agreed upon. I’ve even seen that with something like Star Fleet Battles which has all the rules marked as either standard, advanced, or optional.

      I can’t imagine someone complaining about too many character options in GURPS, though. That’s just crazy.

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