In the early 1800s nostalgia got a bad rap, considered a pyschological malady, and a form of melancholia. Basically, there was a time when, if you dared to get a bit wistful about the past, you risked being locked up in Bedlam.
That’s all changed now, of course. Nostalgia is big business. You can barely move on the BBC iPlayer for ancient episodes of Top of The Pops (well, the ones they can still show…). Yet there’s still a school of wisdom which sees nostalgia as a dangerous thing. An indulgence. Something that’s inherently unhealthy, akin to smoking or sticking sporks in your eyes.
But is it?
Pick up a self-help book, and they tell us not to look back. To live in the moment. Don’t worry too much about tomorrow. It’s all about The Power of Now, apparently. But you can’t underestimate The Power of Now-stalgia either. Geddit?
A 2008 study by the University of Southampton (of course) concluded that – rather than the sentimental indulgence that nostalgia is often dismissed as – it could be a vital part of our mental health, a resource of positive emotions that we can choose to access to boost our mood, or increase social connectiveness with those around us.
That’s probably over-intellectualising, and stripping away a bit too much of the romance, but it makes a certain kind of sense; that nostalgia is evolutionary, vital, and very human. We’ve all sat in pubs talking about old kids TV shows, remembering when Starburst were called Opal Fruits, and Cif was Jif, and how Snickers should still be called Marathon, and - hey - whatever happened to white dog poo?
Nostalgia seems to be something that is part of our make-up, and when it comes to games it’s a sub-industry all of its own - from the retro titles available on the Nintendo eShop, to Retro Gamer and the back pages of Games TM. There’s a hunger for the past, for a time when the industry wasn’t quite the depressingly corporate hellscape we’re now forced to endure.
At the risk of getting overly sentimental, those early days of gaming at least look like a more innocent time.
Before all the money got involved, bedroom auteurs had free reign to work on their singular, quirky, visions. There was no brand strategy. No deliberate franchising. They were making it up as they went along. Quite literally.
But more importantly, we – all of us of a certain age - were more innocent back them, before life handed us our baggage. Everything seemed new, because it was new. It was an adventure of discovery that we were on together - those who played games and those who made them. We all built this industry, as a community, whether we knew it or not.
As I've gotten older, I've realised how much of life is about change and loss. Whether it's the indescribably brutal pain of watching my kids growing up and slowly slipping out of my hand, losing people I love because they died or just drifted out of my life, moving home, getting divorced, going grey, getting pains in my toes...
Life might stay one way for a while, but the tectonic plates underpinning it are constantly moving. Sooner or later those plates shift abruptly, and the landscape can change in a heartbeat. Life is a constant cycle of mourning and adaptation to change, and we can't avoid it. It's when we try to run from change, when we don't face it, that problems arise.
Yet, if you're trapped on shaky ground - as we all are, to one extent or another - it's instinctive to reach for something solid and immutable to hang on to.
And that's nostalgia. That's why retro gaming is so important to so many of us.
The one constant we have in life is the past, and - unless we learn something that casts the past in a different light (see the Top of the Pops reference above, sadly...) - that ain't gonna change. Jet Set Willy will always be Jet Set Willy. You can always return to that mansion, and it won't have changed a bit. No moss will have grown. There'll be no subsidence, or cracked masonry. Maria will still be there flicking her finger at you, denying you a bed.
From the stuttering screech of a Spectrum loading screen, to the tick-tick-tick of Eric’s footsteps in Skool Daze, the pick-pock-pick-pock that soundtracked your progress in Atic Atac, to the hideous, dysfunctional rasp of Manic Miner’s wonky interpretation of The Hall of the Mountain King... any one of them can teleport me back to a time and a place that's safe. Somewhere I can rely on, and lose myself in. A bubble that the judgements, stress, and bruises of the outside world can't get through.
And the strength of that feeling - that sensory time travel - can be profound.
However big I might be on the outside, however thick the external scar tissue... as with all of us, the kid version of me is still inside, still scared of the world, still floundering for stability, still wanting the world to take care of him. That kid still needs somewhere, from time to time, to retreat. He still needs that bubble, the safe place that is going to be there no matter what else might happen.
For me, it has always been old games, and it'll always be old games. I'll still be watching videos of Knight Lore, or trying to finish Jack the Nipper, when I'm a bib-dribbling pensioner.
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