Games in the Rear View: The Retro Obsession

It is not the 90s, and there is no time for Klax.

At some point over the last decade, I stopped looking forward to games and started looking backwards. I don’t know when it happened, but the shift is real — I’ve been writing a column about educational and freeware titles for the past few months, and I was doing a streaming series of forgotten games called Retro Landfill before that. My friend Barroo and I produced Forgotten Worlds, a video series about games and internet culture in the Y2K era. I still play new stuff, but I don’t remember the last new release I was genuinely excited for.

Again and again, I find myself coming back to the 2000s, the 90s, the 80s. It sneaks up on you, this kind of obsession. Maybe it’s natural, when you start to get older, to look back fondly at the things you were doing in your youth. I was playing a lot of games, so it makes sense that I’d go back to them. You pick up a portable emulator device, playing old Game Boy titles you used to strain to see in the midday sun at your grandparents’ place. You scour eBay listings for shitty old mass market paperback game guides you borrowed from the library down the street as a kid. You dig into the unloved games that lined the shelves at the local video rental place every Friday night 25 years ago.

But while some people can revel in retro celebration — can make whole careers out of it, in fact — it doesn’t always sit right with me. Certainly there’s something to be said for serious historical preservation and even simple appreciation of older works, especially in the world of video games, which has been built around an endless chase of what’s newer and thus better. Still, it feels weird to realize that at some point in your life you stopped thrilling over the next big thing and started poring over the works of long-defunct developers or extolling the virtues of a game you wouldn’t have given a second glance when it was originally released.

You start to wonder what it’s all for, all this digging and cataloguing through retro refuse. Who fucking cares that Beast Wrestler for the Mega Drive has some cool art despite playing like hot trash? What does it matter that edutainment title Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon is actually kind of ok? And who gives a damn about forgotten, failed mascot characters like Awesome Possum, Radical Rex, or High Seas Havoc, each of which was more or less designed to cash in on the popularity of Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog? So much of it is shit, looked upon fondly only to the degree that it’s distant from today. In ten years, will YouTubers talk about Steam asset flips in the measured tones they now use for retro console titles?

The pursuit of old shit doesn’t end with games. You can see it in the quests for “lost media” that abound online, searches for not just half-remembered childhood books but flubbed live broadcasts, regional airings of TV series, rare dubs of animated movies. I respect the work that goes into this digital archaeology, but beyond a personal satisfaction in digging up cherished memories, I wonder about the value of finding all this stuff. What’s the endgame here? Do we need a complete archive of every retro toy commercial that ever aired in the 1980s? The 90s? The 2000s?

Why do I keep coming back to these decades? The simple explanation is that I’m getting older and predictably nostalgic for the media of my youth. I don’t deny that that’s part of it. But there’s something else too, I think — a reaching back towards the last era of truly mass culture that you couldn’t really opt out of. Before streaming and social media made it possible to tune into your thing and tune out pretty much everything else, your options were basically to participate in mass media or not to.

Yeah, there were always subcultures and no, it wasn’t perfect or even necessarily better than what we have now. In many ways, it was worse. But it was different and maybe felt more comprehensible, and I think that feeling is both what I’m looking back to and why things like “The Friends Experience” here in New York appeal to people who weren’t even around when the show first aired. It seems so quaint, now, the watercooler conversations about weekly appointment TV, sharing codes found in Nintendo Power, chatting about inescapable stars like Britney or the Backstreet Boys on the playground.

There I go again, looking back. It wasn’t always like this. I think the pandemic permanently rewired my brain — late nights trapped inside listening to city pop and vaping totally skewed my sense of what year it was. Running emulators to Plastic Love, not sure if it was 2020, 2000, or 1980. You can’t go home again.

Maybe home never even existed in the first place, it’s just something your mind cooked up to give yourself a sense of stability and history, something to turn back in on yourself in pursuit of. Maybe there’s something to be said for recognizing the work of developers and artists who labored in obscurity to crank out forgotten titles. Maybe it’s not that deep. Maybe I’m just depressed.

If this has seemed aimless or meandering, I apologize. It’s hard to get my thoughts around this stuff out in a cohesive way. I don’t mean to imply that there’s anything wrong with enjoying the classics, or even trying to dig up “hidden gems,” as fruitless as that can be. After all, even in a medium as young as video games, there’s decades of human creative output to sort through, and it’s unlikely that most of the newest and hottest releases will end up forming an enduring part of the canon. In a sense, then, it’s perfectly rational to go back and see what came before.

But for me personally, there’s a point where it stops being reasonable and starts feeling compulsive, circular, navel-gazey, a symptom of a broader inability to imagine a future. That’s a personal issue, sure, but it’s also a public problem — and I can’t help but wonder if part of our cultural obsession with the recent decades past is because we feel so incapable of facing the ones ahead of us.