In Praise of Old Games

Old video games are awesome. That is no longer a subjective statement. The NES Classic (pretty much a rerelease of the original Nintendo from 1985) sold over two million units in five months. The system comes preloaded with an impressive list of built-in games, but is otherwise almost identical to a gaming machine that came out over thirty years ago. And it’s not just the nostalgia factor that has consumers picking these up; an entire generation of kids are playing old games for the first time and loving them.

So what’s the deal? Isn’t the video game industry supposed to be all about the latest and greatest in technology? After all, we now live in a world with virtual reality in your pocket and drones delivering orders to your doorstep. At first blush, it seems counterintuitive that young people would be interested in games that have limited graphical abilities.

Isn’t there something downright appealing about this? Like climbing into a painting.

There is one very good reason kids to be drawn into these old, pixelated adventures: they honestly do not make games like they used to. Much like the rest of the electronics and appliance market, we’ve gone from a general sense that things should have a long lifespan to a culture of disposability. Televisions used to be something to repair and maintain. Refrigerators used to last for decades. Video games were the same way—designed for longevity and endlessly replayable. Not that this isn’t the case for some products today, but it’s no longer the industry norm.

We might consider a game like Chrono Trigger, a roleplaying journey in about friendship, time travel, and alternate dimensions. It featured no less than thirteen (!) different endings depending on choices made during your quest. We’re talking about an immersive, complex story on par with any in classical literature. To see the full range of tales unfold, one has to commit upward of eighty hours. That’s about eight times what the average reader invests in a novel.

In 1993, this was a spaceship. Nope, no imagination required here.

And like a good novel, games with more basic, pixel graphics are often superior to their high-definition counterparts in terms of storytelling. This is precisely because of what is left out. Some developers continue to make games in this flat format for precisely that reason. It’s all about imagination and abstraction. Like a film that leaves the most interesting parts off-screen, skillful storytelling requires that we avoid revealing too much. When a child (or adult, for that matter) picks up one of these older games, the lack of intricate detail forces them to fill in the gaps. Flexing that imaginative muscle translates to other skills, as well, and helps kids develop stronger communicative and problem-solving minds.

One final consideration I’d like to offer: older games had more emphasis on challenge. This is a bit more “inside baseball” than I typically go for here as it pertains to those who are already avid gamers. It is a common complaint among those of us who grew up immersed in video games that they have become easier over time. It’s not just a case of “the longer it’s been, the better we were,” either. Games of the past were computationally more difficult than those produced today. I contend that this was because more production value was placed on quality of content than on graphics. When kids are required to perform, they perform. They know this intuitively, which is why they seek out challenges until taught to do otherwise.

The takeaway from all this is that we should dust off old games. Like classic literature and art, some things just don’t go out of style. Including Mario.