I can still recall the auspicious Saturday afternoon when I saw Jake clinging to the business end of an arcade cabinet, completely oblivious to reality. His body was bathed in artificial light while his face contorted in such a way that we all knew our friend was forever lost to the grip of madness. Whereas the rest of the group had scattered to search out the various electronic delights the arcade had to offer, only one of us converted a bill to quarters and set fingers to the locus of his desire without a moment’s hesitation. Jake was determined to beat Metal Slug.
That afternoon wasn’t the first time that a gamer from our group of friends had taken on such a challenge, but no-one else had ever approached that onus with such enthusiasm and confidence. It was one of the few times I’ve actually enjoyed watching someone else play a video game, devoid of any desire to try it for myself, not to mention that the experience is my only clear memory of our once-popular hangout, which has since been shut down. As I reminisce about life in the arcade, I never consider the tough times, but I always remember the day Jake Hyland became the patron saint of the coin-operated entertainment of my youth.
This morning, as I was playing a bit of Metal Slug, I began to think about the nature of nostalgia with regards to geek culture. Why is it that the video game industry can sell us the same product over and over again? Why do I feel obligated to shell out another ten bucks for a remake of the X-Men arcade game, when I remember pumping millions of quarters into that machine and never making it past Magneto? Am I alone in this apparent madness that drives me to consume any media from my childhood? Luckily, as always, the Internet had the answer.
As you may have guessed, retro remakes and re-releases stand out as a way for publishers to exert little while reaping maximum reward. Even a mediocre effort to improve upon what we knew yesterday almost assures a profitable release today. For example, let’s look at the beloved sequel to an arcade classic: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. In 2009, Ubisoft produced a remake of that game, boasting improved graphics, sound effects, and cinematics. Upon release, Turtles in Time Re-Shelled was met with reviews that would have been the kiss of death to any other title. However, due to some unknown reason, the game went on to become a hit, selling over 387,000 units on the Xbox Live Arcade alone. To any geek, that reason is as recognizable as April O’Neil’s yellow jumpsuit — it is the power of nostalgia.
Nostalgia is a psychological resource that protects and fosters mental health. It strengthens feelings of social connectedness and belongingness, partially improving the harmful repercussions of loneliness. – Dr. Tim Wildschut
Across every culture and age group, nostalgia is there to reshape how we think about our pasts. In recent years, researchers at the University of Southhampton in the United Kingdom have studied how our memories are able to help us cope with loneliness, deal with a lack of motivation, and even give new meaning to our lives. When we reminisce about that enjoyable time at the arcade, our recollections cause us to focus on happy thoughts, such as friends, family, or Final Fight. The resulting feelings leave us craving a return to the games of our past, as they present the possibility we’ll be able to recreate more positive memories to draw on in the future.
The remakes themselves serve as an interesting analogue to the feeling of nostalgia, as most releases have slight tweaks to streamline the fun factor. At the very least, there’s no need to pump quarters into your PlayStation 3. You can invite your friends over to enjoy a night of infinite continues and reduced difficulty settings, so you can finally finish that one game you always wished you could conquer in the arcade. There’s no need to beg your parents for another hour, nor any chance you’ll get stuck playing as Dazzler when the bigger kids muscle their way onto your machine. Even for a bunch of geeks scattered across the globe, there’s always the option of online play to bring the gang back together. With proper remakes and re-releases providing everything that nostalgia has us seeking, the experience tends to be nothing but good times, just like you remember from the old days.
Being the pleasure-seeking primates that we are, it’s no surprise to see that nostalgia can be so powerful that I can find myself playing old arcade classics instead of spending time with Portal 2. A remake like Turtles in Time Re-Shelled may offer nothing new to the medium, but to gamers, it fulfills all of the right needs in order to trigger a wave of nostalgia. As solitary and time-consuming as some of our hobbies may be, it’s nice to know that something as simple as seeing Shredder banishing the Turtles to prehistoric times can make me a happier geek. Even if nostalgia is nothing more than a coping mechanism to ensure I form more positive experiences in the future, there’s something to be said about how those great memories strengthen our culture as well. After my next crack at Metal Slug, maybe I’ll email Jake and ask him what he’s playing these days.