Misspent Youth: Video Games All Summer in the 90s

The 90s weren't all they were cracked up to be, but they had their moments.

I feel ancient lately. It’s ridiculous, really — I’m only in my mid-30s. But I feel the years piling up, the recollections heaped atop recollections, filtered through retrospectives and reimaginings. Maybe it’s inevitable, given the resurgence of 90s and 2000s aesthetics over the last few years. To paraphrase James Murphy, I was there. I was there when Nintendo announced the Ultra 64. I was there when Sega got out of the console business. And now I feel like I’m losing my edge to the young-gun retro kids in metallic jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered noughties.

Again, it’s absurd. But I can see myself, back in the summer of 1998, ripping the Pokemon comics out of the library copies of Nintendo Power to glean every little bit of information I could about the upcoming series. Packing my SNES to bring up to my family’s ramshackle little cottage, messing around with the little forks on the back of my grandparents’ ancient TV set to play Super Mario World in black and white. Late-night basement Goldeneye sessions at a sleepover, trying not to wake the parents upstairs.

Goldeneye
I don’t remember where I found this image, but this was pretty much the vibe.

Summer for me is inextricably linked to childhood. While autumn is a contemplative season that always hits me with teenage vibes and winter somehow feels very adult, summer is when I feel the strongest connection to the kid I was. Probably that’s because it was the one time of year when I had no obligations, not being in school in all. But it’s also because up until my late teen years, being in school was pretty unpleasant for me. Without getting too deep into the details, let’s just say I faked sick a lot to get out of having to be there.

So the summer, with its endless stretches of time at home, was a much-needed reprieve. And as a both physically and socially awkward child, I spent a lot of that time inside playing video games. I’d sit in my room or in our family room on the floor in front of the TV — it was much easier to do that in the days when wall-to-wall carpeting was in vogue — and play games with the sound turned down and a CD on the stereo. To this day, I still associate a dance music compilation featuring Whigfield’s “Saturday Night” with Killer Instinct Gold.

One thing that gets missed in a lot of the modern media depictions of the 90s and in public recollections by people who were there was how dull it could be to be a child at the time. Access to media and entertainment was much more limited, with your options typically being whatever VHS tapes and games your family owned, weekend rentals, and the occasional trip to the movie theatre. On the one hand, I’m kind of glad I didn’t grow up carrying around access to the internet in my pocket. On the other, everything just moved a lot more slowly. I’m not sure I’ve ever really been capital-B bored as an adult in the same way that I often was as a child. (But then, maybe saying “I’m bored” was just the best way I had to express my incipient depression.)

We're Back
We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story, one of the many terrible games I was stuck with in the 90s.

Everything felt a lot slower generally. Take renting games from the local video store — people tend to forget that the hottest releases would get snatched up as soon as they came in, leaving you to pick from the dregs. Don’t believe me? I once waited weeks to rent Mission Impossible on the Nintendo 64. Yeah, that one. All I had to go on when it came to new games was peer chatter and Nintendo Power, and the latter, as an advertising wing of its parent company, rarely said anything negative about even the worst titles.

Things weren’t simpler in the 90s, nor were they uniformly better — not even when it came to games. It’s easy to look back and selectively take in the hits of the era, but there was a ton of trash being put out too. And sure, we didn’t have gambling, predatory pricing structures, or the problems associated with live games, but the 90s had their own issues. The lack of information and choice meant that you’d sometimes discover a hidden gem, but for the most part it meant a lot of wasted weekends with broken games rigged to be overly difficult to prevent them from being completed during the couple days a rental lasted. And buying a game? Forget about Steam refunds, huge discounts, or detailed reviews. One of the first games I ever owned was The Rocketeer for the SNES, because I thought the cover looked cool. I never got past the first stage.

What’s the upshot of all this? I suppose I’m disappointed in myself for being so dully predictable. Maybe, because of how unpleasant my childhood was at times, I thought I would be above nostalgia. Evidently that isn’t the case. I found little stretches of solitude and adventure with games in the 90s, and never more so than in the summer. And while I would never want to be a kid again, I can’t help but miss those quiet nights playing Ocarina of Time, crickets chirping just outside the window. I guess this is growing up.