Welcome to Backtracking

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Before actually producing content for this brand-new blog of mine, I figured I’d preface everything with a bit of a mission statement — explain why I created it. My intent is to explore and rediscover the best video games of the past — to boldly go where many gamers have gone before! To elaborate, allow me to go back in time (we’ll be doing a lot of that here).

One of my earliest memories of gaming comes from when I was about five years old. My older brother, fresh out of the Army, had given me his Nintendo Entertainment System, as he’d moved on to the flashy new Super NES. The first game I remember playing was Super Mario Bros. And I played it relentlessly — to the point I actually got blisters on my thumbs. At first, I wasn’t very good, but I really didn’t care. I was having a blast, regardless of my lack of skill.

Later that year, my parents took me to Toys “R” Us to get my very first Game Boy. Not only that, but it came with The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening packed in. To this point, I’d never heard of Zelda. Little did I know, as a mere kindergartner, this game would be the catalyst for a lifelong hobby and my introduction to what would become my favorite video game series.

Moving ahead to the present day, nearly 20 years later, and I’ve come to the realization that I don’t game like I used to. That’s normal, though. With age comes more responsibility and less time to enjoy hobbies and interests. I graduated from college two years ago and have been working ever since. But that’s not really why I lost interest in gaming. I didn’t lose my love for it, but I had lost the motivation.

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Honestly, I’d forgotten how to lose myself in a video game. And I hadn’t really played a game in awhile, either. Sure, I’d still keep up with a lot of gaming news, and I’d even still buy a few games here and there, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t invest myself in them. I’d find myself distracted by something on television, or caught up in some insignificant nothing on Facebook. Reddit is a real time waster, too.

So I decided I needed to make a change, because I thoroughly wanted to continue enjoying games. Instead of wasting time watching the same King of Queens rerun for the 30th time, or scanning up and down my Facebook feed for some inane post to “like,” I decided it was time to invest myself into truly experiencing games once again.

I’d long since burnt out on a lot of the big, gaudy, triple-A games. And I seriously doubt I’ll ever buy another Call of Duty. I wanted to play games that weren’t just beefed-up, yet watered-down regurgitations of the same ones released six months before. I longed for games that were crafted with love and care. And while there are still plenty of good games being made today, I find myself genuinely caring about very few of them. So I decided to look back at all the great games I’d missed out on in the past.

The retro gaming community on YouTube had a lot to do with my “retro revival.” The biggest influences came from the various channels on RetrowareTVThe Game Chasers, The Gaming Historian and Clan of the Gray Wolf, specifically. This group of passionate, capable and articulate retro gamers gave me the inspiration and confidence to chronicle my thoughts as I dive back into the games of the past.

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I’ve always been somewhat of a collector, but I decided to assess my current collection of games and find out which classics I was missing. I spent a lot of time (and money) on eBay, but I’ve now amassed many critically acclaimed treasures that were previously absent from my collection.

It’s an odd feeling, poring over the many classics I’d missed out on. I’m nostalgic for games I never played.

However, retro video games are still incredibly popular, which is evident by the countless number of online communities dedicated to celebrating these treasured relics from a not-so-distant past. Other people have focused on many varying aspects and facets of retro gaming, but I seek to understand why so many people love older games and often prefer them to newer ones. Is nostalgia purely to blame, or is there something more to it?

I have this idea that video games can be split into two categories: SD (Standard Definition) and HD (High Definition). Everything that came before the proliferation of high definition televisions falls into the SD category, and this is my primary focus. There’s a certain joy and a very particular type of magic that was created in these lower resolutions.

The rise of online gaming and social networking doesn’t line up perfectly with the transition from SD to HD, but it’s pretty close. My point is that video games are now a shared experience, even when you’re playing a single player game by yourself. Your friends know you’re online, they can see what you’re playing, what section of the game you’re in, the tasks you’ve completed and even bother you with invitations to play something else. But it wasn’t always like that. It used to be that if your friends knew what you were playing, they were probably sitting right next to you on the couch. If you were playing a single player game, there was true solitude, except for the characters in the world you were exploring.

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Don’t misunderstand me, there are still plenty of contemporary games that I enjoy. It just seems that many modern games are attempting to add more flash than substance. Newer, big budget, AAA games tend to be bloated. Many developers try to cram a lot of underdeveloped ideas together, many of which seem pointless, all for the sake of giving the game the illusion of having some added sense of length or value. And the games suffer because of it. I imagine a lot of this is due to the fact that developers are constantly under pressure to churn out and cash in on the next blockbuster hit.

I mean, I’m far from an industry insider. And I’m certainly no expert on the production or development of games, so I may have no idea what I’m talking about, but it seems to me that developers should spend more time trimming the fat and polishing well-developed gameplay.

Many of today’s indie titles are more akin to the mega hits of the SD era. Just as developers “back in the day” were forced to make the best games they could within the restraints of limited hardware, indie developers are tasked with making the best games possible with limited funding and resources. Some of the best games to come out in recent years have been from indie developers — Super Meat Boy, Limbo, To The Moon, Minecraft, Journey (even though it had the backing of Sony), etc.

I don’t like to speak in absolutes, but I get the impression that the best games are often made when developers are faced with reasonable limitations. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of terrible games throughout each and every console generation, but it seems that the best and most original games actually borrow elements from the better games of the past. There’s a reason Xbox Live Arcade and Nintendo’s Virtual Console have flourished — people still love old games. And now I’m on a mission to figure out why.

So now that I’ve inundated you with all of that, I’ll stop and let it all sink in. With that said, I hope you’ll stick around and join me in my journey to backtrack through the annals of gaming’s past — as I revisit the games I’ve played, and dive into the ones I haven’t — in an attempt to better understand the elements that make retro games so great.

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