They say you should never meet your heroes, perhaps we should say the same about revisiting our old video games?
I’ve been a big gamer since the 1970s and like most gamers, my fondest memories are of the games I played as a kid. I even have sequences of actions and button presses from those games ingrained into my muscle memory.
So, why wouldn’t I jump at a chance of replaying those brilliant childhood memories?
Thanks to my studies, I had a Raspberry Pi 4 and a spare USB drive lying around my office – an ideal setup to install RetroPie on. For those of you that don’t know, RetroPie is a collection of 8 and 16-bit console emulators wrapped up in a nice user interface.
To complete my setup, I ordered a couple of SNES gamepad controllers from Amazon. When they arrived, it only took about 30 minutes to set everything up. Finding ROMs (downloadable copies of games) only took a few minutes more, and they were soon installed on my Raspberry Pi.
It is worth noting it is illegal to download and use ROMs of games you don’t already own. Even when you own the original games, having a downloaded ROM for it is still a bit of a grey legal area.
My heartbeat got faster as I turned on my Raspberry Pi and got ready to warp back to my childhood.
How I Remember My Favorite Games
Having been a gamer for 40 years, I have some really fond memories of the games I have played over the years. When I think back over them, my memory tells me they all had great graphics, sound, and responsive controls.
But deep down, a voice in my head was shouting, no they were terrible games you fool (compared to today’s games). But this voice was drowned out by my “rose-tinted” memories.
When I think of playing the original Tomb Raider, my memories are full of a curvaceous Lara Croft (I was a lustful teenager at the time). She battled through highly detailed tombs, tackling complicated puzzles and fighting truly terrifying animals (especially the T-Rex!).
My memories of playing on the older consoles (Sega Master System, Sega MegaDrive / Genesis, Nintendo NES, Nintendo SNES) are full of massive explosions, thumping soundtracks, and massive challenges. To me, they were a real video game arcade in my bedroom.
Every game played like it was a movie that I was the star of. Everything was in full HD, and gaming was at its best.
What My Favorite Games Are Really Like
The first game I booted up was Tomb Raider. You can imagine how disappointed I was to find Lara Croft was nowhere near as sexy or curvaceous as my teenage brain had led me to believe. Her curves were just massive triangles and there wasn’t a curve to be seen. How did my memory get it so wrong?
The rest of my console games didn’t fare much better either. On checking, I found the MegaDrive only had a resolution of 320 x 224 (a HD console can display 30 times as many pixels) and just 64 colors compared to today’s standard of 16 million colors. And these stats showed through in every game I played.
When I fired up Street Fighter on a SNES emulator my grandson sarcastically quipped “How do you play a game with just 2 pixels?”. I instantly felt my age.
Each character in Street Fighter had been reduced to a tiny blocky version of my memory. It was like I was playing in Lego-vision. No matter what games I played, Sonic, StarFox, Mario, and many others, the results were the same. Big blocky pixels were everywhere.
But the most disappointing aspect was the sound and the controls. Most of the games had a sound that could be best described as little more than screeching in a bucket! Yet my memory clearly remembers great tunes and sound effects.
I’m not knocking these games; these games were all the best of the best in their day. As a programmer, I know the programmers worked miracles with the limited hardware they had. Don’t forget a lot of those games took up less memory than an empty Word document takes today.
Why Is There Such a Difference Between the Games and Our Memories?
So, why is there such a vast chasm between what I remember and what the games actually are? Two theories spring to mind.
First, when I originally played those games, I was playing the role of the hero or heroine. It was me jumping from platform to platform to rescue a princess. It was me that was taking on the might of the German military. I was Gordon Freeman battling the alien invaders!
For a game to work it needs to suck us in like this. We need to fully buy into the experience on the screen. This is where we start to lie and exaggerate to ourselves, and this corrupts our memory of what actually happened on the screen.
In my personal experience, this effect only took hours to take hold. I can vividly remember playing a game and bragging about my in-game heroics to my school friends the next day.
Second, I think the performance of modern games corrupts our memory of older games. Our brains end up reconstructing our memories based on modern gaming standards.
We all know that games improve daily and we have gone from games like Pong to games that play like a movie in full 8K glory. The games we play regularly today are the newest and latest modern games available, and we rarely play the older games. So, our newer standards for games occupy our minds constantly and we start to see/remember games through a distorting prism of modern-day graphics.
I have experienced a similar thing with cars. My first car, back in the late 80s, was a Mark 1 Ford Escort. It was a complete rust bucket that I spent more time fixing than driving, but it was my car and I absolutely loved it. I thought it drove like a dream and it could do no wrong.
Since then I have gone through many cars, with each one being more modern than the last one. So what I expect from a car has gone up a lot.
Two years ago, I got a drive in a car similar to my old Mark 1 Escort, and it was a disappointing nightmare to drive. It hadn’t changed, but my expectations of it had been totally corrupted. I was now used to driving cars with modern brakes, ABS, air conditioning, power steering, and all the other features we treat as standard today.
True Retro Gaming vs Remastered Games
To play most retro games, you have to either play them on the original console or system, or on an emulator. That way, you get to play the games you played all those years ago, exactly as they were back then. No fancier graphics or updates, just the original game from your childhood.
Some games have now been remastered using modern graphics and software. A splendid example of this is the recently released remastered Command and Conquer. The game mechanics are the same as they were back in the mid-90s, but everything has had a lick of paint to freshen it up.
The only things that have changed are the graphics, sound, and user interface. The remake has a button to allow you to switch the game to the 90s graphics while you are playing it. The difference between the two levels of graphics is jarring when you can compare them side by side this way.
The problem for me is, the modern remastered version of Command and Conquer is far closer to my memory of the game than the 90s original version is. This has happened to me a few times with remakes of games like Street Fighter, Final Fantasy VII, and the several Halo remasters.
So, which is your preference? Playing the game exactly as it was and risk the disappointment when it cannot match your rose-tinted memories? Or the remastered version that is a closer match to your memories?
They say you should never meet your heroes as they are likely to disappoint you in some way. To me, and I suspect many others, our first games are heroes, and we should think of them in the same way.
Fortunately, we have a few options when we want to get our retro gaming fixes.
- Option 1 – Replay the original game in its full 8 or 16-bit glory.
- Option 2 – Play remakes of games loosely based on the original games.
- Option 3 – Play remastered games where the original game has been given a modern lick of paint with up-to-date graphics.
Everyone has different tastes and expectations from retro games, so the above choices should be considered carefully. Pick the wrong one and you could end up disappointed with your childhood memories ruined.
My preference is now for well-made remasters of games. They are a happy comprise between the original game and ensuring my rose-tinted memories remain unbroken. I will let my gaming heroes rest in peace and enjoy my happy memories as they are.