Can retro games and consoles charm the touchscreen generation?
GeekPlanetOnline’s Publisher, Matt Dillon, is a man of many passions - although most of them involve a joystick. In this semi-regular column he shares his thoughts on life, love and the pursuit of video games. Mostly video games…
I feel old. This has nothing to do with my hairy nostrils or my freshly-developed (and ever-so worrying) habit of grunting whenever I sit down or stand up but my ever-prevalent gaming habit - and in particular my hobby of collecting retro hardware.
Recently I was made a present of the one system I hadn't managed to retain from childhood - a Nintendo Entertainment System - by GeekPlanetOnline's resident cartoonist, Mr. Martin Thompson. That kind gift represented something of a minor triumph for me: I still have vivid and slightly bitter memories of my Dad trading my original machine in at Crawley's first (and incredibly short-lived) independent gaming shop. I was delighted to find that it booted up perfectly first time and had a thoroughly entertaining time *cough* testing the Super Mario Bros. cartridge that had come with it. And then I picked up this month's issue of Retro Gamer magazine and read their celebration of the NES' 30th birthday.
Yes, the Famicom was first released in Japan in July 1983. I am less than three years older than Nintendo’s first home games console. Admittedly we didn't get it in the UK until September 1986 but nonetheless it's a strangely sobering thought. I was playing a Mario game on this hardware a year before my cousin Emma - who is now 26 and holds a degree in Fine Art and Printmaking - was born. Six years before my cousin Tom - who is now 21 and going for his Masters in Drama - was born. And whilst my girlfriend - who is 29 and enough of a gaming nut to contemplate getting an N7 tattoo - was still toddling around her parents' living room in a onesie. Damn it, I'm only 33 and a games console, that I can remember playing when it was brand new like it was yesterday, has left me feeling like I should apply for a bus pass.
I could probably let this one go, of course. We all have moments where our age, usually a nebulous figure which we couldn't care less about, suddenly gets brought into sharp focus. Realising that Jurassic Park is 20 years old, for example. That Buffy the Vampire Slayer is as old as the title character was when the show débuted. Our minds boggle for a moment, we laugh about it with our friends and move on. The problem is... well, the problem is my enthusiasm, to be honest.
I don't just collect and retain past-gen gaming hardware because I enjoy the hobby. I also have a ridiculously romantic notion that when I have children of my own I'll be able to introduce them to the games that I played when I was their age, much as my parents introduced me to the movies and books of their own youth. Not on some Virtual Console-like download service or PC emulator, as many of my friends would do, but on the original hardware with its beautiful and challenging limitations and its original controllers. No quick-saves or state-saves, no online play, no friends lists and achievements or trophies. No optical discs, wireless technology or motion-sensing (unless it's the Power Glove, which isn't anywhere as cool as The Wizard made out and should be consigned to the rubbish skip of history). Just angled plastic, wires and cartridges. Old-fashioned fun.
Yesterday I had a disturbing flash of insight into what this might actually be like. At time of writing I'm visiting my good friends and fellow podcasters the Orgs and, knowing that their kids (henceforth referred to as SprOrgs) enjoy playing Wii games with guests, I thought it might be fun to bring some GameCube discs and controllers with me so that they could try something different. The Nintendo GameCube, by the way, was released twelve years ago. That's two years before the oldest SprOrg was born. To me it was the blinking of an eye. So little time ago that I don’t even consider it “retro” (however the hell that’s defined). And yet the SprOrgs were utterly mystified.
The discs caused some initial amusement. For those that don’t remember they’re about half the size of DVDs (or the same size as mini-DVDs); the SprOrgs thought this was hilarious. But the giggling quickly gave way to confusion when I loaded up Super Mario Sunshine and they were presented with the GameCube’s controller. It was wired. There was, like, an actual cable connected to the console, like in the Dark Ages. And they didn’t do anything when they were waved about; you had to push buttons. More than one button at once sometimes! And the thing that confused them the most was aiming. To aim Mario’s water-cannon you have to hold down the right shoulder-button and direct the resulting water-jet with the controller’s analogue stick. It blew their minds.
I thought back to my own childhood. From that gorgeous, iconic red-and-black Atari 2600 joystick through to the NES controller (the world’s first d-pad, and my own) and all that evolved from it, every game I grew up playing was largely controlled in the same way. I’m used to joypads and generally assume that anybody can use one. The SprOrgs, on the other hand, have never used one before. The instinct and muscle memory that I take for granted hasn’t developed. They’re used to motion-sensing, pointing, clicking and touch screens – things that didn’t exist when I was their age. And of course games are supposed to be fun, so when they found it too difficult they started getting bored and irritable. There were calls for help, petulant insistence that the game was impossible. And so Super Mario Sunshine, emulated so expertly on the Wii’s hardware, was ejected from the disc slot, a more modern game was put in for them to play instead and I began to dejectedly reconsider my plans to introduce any future Matt-spawn to the relics of my past.
That was, of course, until later that evening, when a little voice piped up and asked if she might have another try.