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Video Games, Nostalgia, and You


Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. Nostalgia is able to warp your perception of past events to make everything seem rosy and perfect, no matter how fragmentary or flawed that perception is. I look back at my four years in high school and always manage to conveniently ignore the stressful and demeaning parts of that experience in favor of the fun times I had during school. This same principle can be very easily applied to video games. I look back upon such games as Super Mario Bros., Dance Dance Revolution and Modern Warfare 2 with such admiration, but do they stand up to the aging process? Well, to answer that question, I suppose I have to conjure another; Would I repeat the entirety of high school just for the good parts?

I spent the past few days going through a few games from my youth that I really loved playing. I'm not the oldest person in the universe, so the games I played aren't really considered "oldies." While I did spend a lot of time blasting away at my Game Boy Color, but I am very willing to admit I have never owned a Nintendo 64. I've learned that there is a cultural opprobrium against those who haven't embraced the sweet touch of an N64, though I could not have controlled when I grew up. My first console was a PS1, and so that is the path I took.

The first games I played where the ones found in Super Mario Bros. Deluxe, which consist of the NES Super Mario Bros. game and the Lost Levels sequel, which was previously only released in Japan. These games carried me through my childhood. My mother was profoundly fascinated with horses, and the family would attend horse shows regularly. Because I was seven and had the attention span of a newborn puppy, I would bring along my Game Boy Color and play Super Mario Bros. Deluxe for hours. The game's simple mechanics and easily-digestible objectives made it very appealing to my feeble brain. Coming back to it twelve years later, it's a bit primitive, but for a port of a 30-year-old game it holds up really well. It obviously can't entertain me for hours at a time anymore, but it gets its job done and it's an entertaining diversion for a few hours. The game is still plenty endearing and what it does right, it really does right. It's disappointing that it isn't anywhere near as fun or as addicting as I remember it, but as my brain developed and as my exposure to different games drastically widened, that's to be expected. I don't feel like my nostalgia is misguided here.

There is, however, a pretty large divide between games I am nostalgic for. In 2009, when Modern Warfare 2 came out, I was in sixth grade and was an incredibly popular student at my grade school. I was having a fantastic time with my life, and during that time I got my hands on a copy of the newest Call of Duty at the time. I didn't have internet where I lived yet, so I would play the single-player campaign and spec ops ad nauseum. I had a real blast with the game and, because I was 12 at the time, I was able to really immerse myself in the world and the characters. I was hot off of playing Call of Duty 4 which blew me away at this age, so I was just as enthralled and excited about playing this game. I completed the single player campaign at least eleven times and earned three stars on every spec ops mission. I spent hours trying to complete Homeland Security on Veteran and I would play my favorite mission, Wolverines!, over and over. For some reason the game really gave me a happy feeling, and I just loved to play it. I didn't really pay much attention to the story, I just made myself a part of the world and I really dedicated myself to it. I would even play local split-screen multiplayer by myself just to re-create campaign scenes and add my own spin to them. The game let my fervent imagination run absolutely wild.

Seven years and one dead imagination later, however, the game doesn't hold the same impact. Sure, how a person plays a game at twelve and how a person plays a game at nineteen are pretty different. However, I wasn't as able to immerse myself into the world of the game because the story is incoherent nonsense. Although there is still plenty spectacle to go around, I get the feeling at times that some of the characters are a little cartoony (Soap went from a quiet and timid newbie in Call of Duty 4 to an invincible action hero in the span of one game) and there just isn't as much depth to the campaign or mission structure. A lot of the missions are based around retrieving things and escaping places, which is very similar to Call of Duty 4, but in MW2 the McGuffins just don't hold as much weight. In Call of Duty 4, you had to go retrieve main antagonists and those missions had major effects on the story. In Modern Warfare 2, you go try to find someone in a panic room and Foley expresses mild disappointment when he's dead. There's just no weight there.

My further reasons for not finding MW2 as impressive anymore branch out into how nostalgia effects gaming as a whole. Imagination was a key component here, and I feel like although it was rated for mature gamers, it was aimed at gamers around my age at the time. In spec ops I had an absolute blast planning out strategies to most efficiently complete the mission without dying and making schematics to achieve that end. It actually helped me become a better organizer in real life. Now, however, most of them have simple objectives and easy methods of achieving them. Some of the missions, however, still hold up, and the ones that do are fantastic. Homeland Security still makes me sweat, and Hidden is by far the best spec ops mission. It takes the dominance you saw as a ghillie sniper in Call of Duty 4 and turns it around on you so that you have to be on alert at all times, or else you'll be made quick work of. It's fantastic stuff, and I am not at all saying that Modern Warfare 2 is without merit. In fact, it's still my second-favorite Call of Duty game. I just feel like my predisposition towards those years of my life influences my opinion of the game.

This nostalgia is why I still play Dance Dance Revolution games despite the fact that I'm a 19-year-old boy; I grew up with those games, and since I favor my youth a lot more than I favor my life now, I attach those positive feelings to everything that surrounded them. Those Dance Dance Revolution games take me less than a day to complete now, yet back in the day I spent weeks playing through every song, on every difficulty, and getting the most thorough and complete experience that I could. I thought there was a lot there, and when you're eight years old the limitations of video games are foreign concepts. When I play those games now I don't get much satisfaction out of them, and it's deeply disappointing. I get fond memories of playing those games ten years ago, and I ache more for that time of my life than I do how I felt while playing it. It's why I look lovingly at my younger years even though I was bullied for being overweight and full of pimples (puberty was not kind to me, you guys). I was a different person back then, and I liked being that person more than the one I am now, so that nostalgia rubs off into the games I play.

Too often I see people complaining that games don't know how to tell stories anymore. I feel like there has to be severe corrections made here, because for the most part video game designers don't know how to tell stories at all. It's not often you get a Shadow of the Colossus or a Call of Duty 4. Those games are the exception to the rule, yet because people grew up with those games they designate them as the rule. Stories are inherently easier to tell to children because their imaginations are open enough to let disbelief turn into something extraordinary. There isn't any cynical scoffing or criticisms; every element, no matter how silly, is turned into something fun and amazing. It's how I took the story modes for several Pac-Man games and Dance Dance Revolution games so seriously; I filled in the blanks with my own material and somehow made it all cohere in my mind. Children are willing to suspend disbelief because the world is such a new concept to them, and because of that, the scope of video games is near-infinite to them. I thought the maps in Call of Duty 4 went on forever, and when I discovered they didn't stretch far beyond my eyesight, it actually crushed me. Something as trivial as that. Perhaps it was less because of the isolated incident and more because of the implications that brings: The world, much like these maps, is finite.

As kids, things just seem better because of the circumstances surrounding that time of our lives. Our imaginations ran wild with fervor and subconsciously made up for the shortcomings we saw in games. Our brains weren't academically developed enough to understand those blanks and so we took those gaps and made them into something fun. It's not the games themselves that we miss, it's that sense of infinite imagination and innocence that lets nostalgia be such a potent feeling. Kids can find fun in almost anything, and when people complain that games are on a slippery slope they just don't seem to see that games aren't changing. Someone will make great memories with Advanced Warfare like I made great memories with Modern Warfare 2. It's a cyclical trend, and it's not one you should criticize. I feel it should be embraced, because we all were there at one point in our lives.

In short, I wouldn't repeat high school all over again, but I can look back and see that the circumstances surrounding my high school experiences were what made it great, and not high school itself.
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