Nostalgia: the Heart of Gaming

When I was in elementary school, maybe 2nd grade, I had a black bicycle.

I think it was a Huffy, but I’m not sure. It was a single-speed bike. It was heavy, the tires were bald, and the handlebars had some sort of gaudy faux-gold plating. The grips were worn down from my sweaty child-hands grasping them tightly as I careened through the neighborhood, my too-large Bell helmet awkwardly strapped to my head. I rode this bike around my neighborhood every day after school, sometimes with friendly neighbor kids, sometimes alone.

One day, while riding home, I saw a colorful bird perched in a dogwood tree. I was still looking at it when I rode into a mailbox. I don’t think I was injured. I don’t remember receiving any lasting bumps or scrapes, and I don’t remember any blood. I’m pretty sure my chain didn’t even jump off the gears. I do remember that one of my teeth was loose, but it was loose before.

I picked up my bike and rode home.

After laying my bike on its side, on the front porch, I opened the front door and smelled dinner–smoked sausage and macaroni and cheese. I think my mom said something to me, but I can’t remember what.

I walked downstairs to the basement, which was unfinished, but dry, and there was a desk and an oversized wooden chair sitting on a rug in the corner. Next to the desk was a filing cabinet and some shelves, littered with physical copies of various pieces of software, in their rectangular boxes.

There was my dad, setting up a brand new computer he had purchased that day.

It had a Pentium processor–top of the line, at the time. The computer case itself was light-beige, the same color as our answering machine, to paint a picture of the times.

In a non-commercial setting, a “computer desk” was still relatively rare, I think. My dad was an early adopter of computing technology, and, in this time, he could maybe have been considered a hobbyist, as his interaction with computers and computing technology was contemporarily unusual for someone whose job didn’t require it.

He doesn’t play video games currently, but as they were part and parcel of a growing set of technologies, he dipped his toes in the water with early DOS games. He and I would make trips to Babbage’s, or maybe even Office Depot, where you could find CDs packed with many mediocre DOS games for a few dollars. Anyone else remember “shareware?” To me, a young, fledgling video game enthusiast, with no discerning taste to speak of, these CD compilations were treasure troves, unlimited fonts of potential adventure.

I remember each night, after dinner, my dad and I would sit at the computer desk, he in an oversized wooden chair, and me, standing or sitting in front of him, while we played different games together, taking turns, and talking about our favorite games: Commander Keen, Monuments of Mars, Terminal Velocity, Jazz Jackrabbit, Secret Agent, Hocus Pocus, Jetpack, countless others.

I remember working on my handwriting by taking notes while we played Myst, as he solved puzzles my young mind could not unravel. But I marveled at the beautiful, pre-rendered backgrounds. We were in this together.

When it was finally time for bed, I would tell my mom about whatever adventure we had, what we had achieved, or what puzzles we had solved. She wasn’t tech savvy, but I know that she loved my vivid recountings. Even well into my twenties, she would continue to ask, whenever she saw my playing a video game: “Are you winning?”

I always was.

I think, if I were to pick up any of these games now, having never played them before, my enjoyment would not be so great. I’m sure many of them do not stand the test of time.

However, aside from the fact that they can, even still, be appreciated as the progenitors of many modern gaming tropes and mechanics, my enjoyment of them is authored primarily by the happy memories I associate them with, the unique and wonderful circumstances in which I first played them.

Nostalgia, especially as it pertains to media, is a powerful force.

I don’t love Commander Keen: Marooned on Mars for its advanced (for the time) graphics, or it’s smart (for the time) platforming mechanics. I didn’t love it for those things at the time, either. I loved it then as I love it now: because playing those first video games, to me, was a wonderful, comforting experience involving a happy little family, a new computer, and a sense of shared adventure.


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