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The Ghosts of Gaming Past
By David King

Off the fast track of high-tech video-game technology, another road leads back in time

Christopher Leather sits on a worn couch in the living room of his Schenectady apartment, sorting through boxes and tubs of tangled wires, dusty cartridges, orange guns and various game systems. Above him loom racks of shelves that in most homes might be filled with books, DVDs or VHS tapes, but are here filled with Nintendo game cartridges with names like Dig Dug, Kid Icarus, River City Ransom and The Legend of Zelda.

For a growing number of 20-something gaming enthusiasts who quit Little League as kids to improve their Street Fighter combos (myself included), Leather’s home represents a treasure trove of nostalgia. And while the games offer Chris as many flashbacks and as much nostalgic warmth as they provide anyone else who grew up being babysat by a Nintendo Entertainment System, they also do much more for Leather. They provide him with a weekly paycheck.

It is Leather’s job to buy up old games on eBay, dig them up at yard sales, and raid friends’ cellars and attics to find as many “antique” games as he can. Then, after he dusts them off, checks to see if they are running, and decides whether they are games he can bear to part with, he sells them on his Web site, www.nintendoparadise.com. If his bank account is any indication of the popularity of retro gaming in general, it is off the charts.

The retro gaming craze is not exactly new. In fact some industry critics thought it would peter out years ago. However, retro gaming has remained so popular that it has steered the direction in which the entire industry is headed.

For video-game companies, it has always been about the here and now. In a lot of ways, it seemed the industry once viewed its back catalog as a liability rather than an asset. The music industry does not worry that Britney Spears’ last CD was so good that no one will ever buy a new CD again. But the gaming industry, always focused on the latest technology and most advanced graphics, needs to outdo itself every time; it needs to prove that its latest product is vastly superior to its last.

The industry has finally taken notice of the surging market for old games and systems, the clamor around homebrewed systems that allow gamers to play old games from any system on one portable console, and the numerous magazines like Retro Gamer that are dedicated to the hobby.

Companies have turned the lower-tech handheld systems into altars of resurrection for classic video games such as the Mario and Final Fantasy series. Sometimes they are sold at the same price as a new game, sometimes for a little less; either way, companies are repackaging old product and getting an excited response.

More advanced systems, such as the recently released Xbox 360, have other ways for gamers to satiate their urge for the past: The Xbox 360 allows users to pay to download old favorites offered through the Xbox Live service, and Nintendo’s yet-to-be-released Revolution will allow gamers to download the company’s entire back catalogue. The greatest change retro gaming seems to have effected is that most of the latest systems have begun to offer backwards compatibility; this means that gamers will be able to continue to play their old games on the most state-of-the-art systems without having to modify the systems.

It is no surprise to me that retro gaming is popular. Just as film, literature and any other art or entertainment form has devotees of different generations of its history, so does video gaming. Though it may be hard for those who didn’t grow up with the cords of control paddles enticing them into a pixilated world to understand the urge to connect to an old game, I and many others can barely see the difference between sitting down to play through Final Fantasy 2 one more time and deciding to cuddle up on the couch to watch It’s a Wonderful Life.

What is it that has driven Gen-Xers to dig up the games of their past? For some it’s about finally playing that game you could never quite afford as a kid—the one the next-door neighbor would invite you over only to watch him play. Some have held gaming over as a means of social connection from their childhood. For others it’s about reliving a story told through the game that was as important as any childhood fairy tale, and yet for others it’s still just about getting that high score.

Leather insists it’s that longing to be comforted, to remember the time as he puts it, “when everything was good.” My own reasons, however, are not quite the same. For me it is about nostalgia, but not necessarily a connection to a time and place when everything was good.

As dramatic as it may sound for me, it’s about connecting to a time and place that I have fewer and fewer connections to.

In college, during late-night exam prep sessions, I would recall a game I played during a trip I took with my truck-driver father who could never make it to any of my soccer games. I would load up an emulator, quickly download a rom of the game, and suddenly I would be back in the dark arcade of some jumbo interstate truck stop with a pocketful of change my father had handed me.

I would recall waiting there in the arcade, overwhelmed by the lights and sounds of the machines, as he argued on the phone with my mother. The way I would slowly fiddle the smooth silver into the glowing red slots of the machine and how I slapped my hand down on the bright red button with an arrow pointing to it that said Player One.

I’d remember the anticipation I felt as I chose my character, how I would choke up as the announcers voice boomed “Round one—Fight!,” the thrill of being able to enter my initials into the scroll of high scores, and that feeling I got on the rare occasion that I would turn around to see my father watching, smiling.

dking@metroland.net


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