I had recently begun collecting comics, and while flipping through an issue of The Incredible Hulk from early in the decade, which I had gotten from a friend along with a stack of others, I ran across an advertisement for a book of puzzles and games featuring characters from classic video games (Pac-Man, Q*Bert, et al). You might recall how they merchandized the crap out of these characters during the so-called Golden Age of Arcade Games. I remember stuffed animals, PVC figurines, t-shirts, candy, and jewelry, amongst tons of other junk.
I had, of course, been a video-game enthusiast since 1980, when I played Pac-Man in the local Kroger for the first time (I had no idea what I was doing, but I was hooked). I spent a lot of time in arcades, which in those days were everywhere. I grew up in a pretty small town, and we had at least five or six of them. I didn’t get an Atari 2600 until the price went down to twenty-five bucks (despite numerous attempts, I could never get my dad to shell out the bread for one before this development, even though he bought a Commodore Vic-20, which I really only used as a video-game console), but my cousin had one, and we spent an insane amount of time playing it. My uncle even subscribed to some sort of “cartridge of the month” club that mailed new games to you every few weeks. We were, perhaps not surprisingly, completely oblivious to the fact that the market crashed in 1983; all we knew was that you could suddenly get Atari games for pennies on the dollar.
Since then, I had graduated to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which I still consider the greatest console ever made. Even though it had only been seven or eight years since the Atari heyday, video games, both home and arcade versions, had changed immensely in that time. Even though we played a lot of Atari, we often complained about the poor quality of the graphics and gameplay. The home ports didn’t come anywhere close to stacking up to their arcade counterparts (the worst example of this was, of course, the Atari port of Pac-Man, which was infamously thrown together quickly so it could reach stores by the Christmas season and was a major contributor to the aforementioned crash). We always hoped for something better. When the NES hit, it felt like we had entered a completely different world.
I had fallen in love with Super Mario Bros. and played it in the Wal-Mart game room several days a week (I must admit that I once wet my pants in front of the machine because I refused to leave the game to go to the bathroom, which is pathetic behavior usually reserved for Las Vegas slot-machine jockeys). When I learned that the NES version was virtually identical (it turns out that there were actually some pretty significant differences, coupled with the fact that the game had originally been released on the Famicon in Japan before the arcade version, but I was blissfully unaware of any of this), I couldn’t believe it. The idea of a home system that was the equal of an arcade machine was a revolutionary idea. Even though my dad had been hesitant to buy an Atari at full price, he was willing to put an NES under the Christmas tree in 1987. (I was, ahem, relieved to find that the home version had a pause feature, thus obviating all future urine-related mishaps).
As I sat looking at the advertisement in that comic book, I began to feel peculiar. A warmth overcame me (thankfully, this time it wasn't pee), and I was filled with a profound sense of contentment. I had no idea what I was experiencing at the time, but I soon came to realize that it was nostalgia. While seven years feels like nothing to me now, in 1989 it was half of my life. As images of the hours spent playing Atari at my cousin’s apartment ran through my mind, I began to long for those bygone days. It was a simpler time, a time before the drama of junior high and high school, a time when no one really cared where your shoes came from or whether or not you were privy to the latest fads. I remembered days when I had to stay out of school due to illness, and my mom would take me to the Harbin Clinic and then to Revco so my prescription could be filled. I reminisced about Saturday afternoons with her at Madden’s Cheese Ltd. at the corner of Gala Shopping Center, where I’d get a sandwich and watch the ABC Weekend Special on the television on top of the drink cooler. I thought of seemingly insignificant trips I’d take with my dad to stores around town, where I’d get candy dispensers shaped like Star Wars characters or cheap toys that would invariably become part of some collection or other within the microcosm of my bedroom closet.
More than anything, though, I thought about what it was like being a kid. Were things actually better back then? Probably not, but my memory had romanticized those times, made them seem preferable to what my life had become in the ensuing years. I had grown to associate my life with my hobbies and pastimes. They had practically become my identity, and, thus, much of my nostalgia was inextricably linked to them. As I closed the cover of that comic, I found myself wanting more. It became something of an addiction. I began seeking out old (or old to me, anyway) books and magazines, ones that just about anyone else would find uninteresting. I once found a stack of yellowed video-game strategy guides at a used bookstore for about a quarter apiece. These days, those kinds of books are highly sought after by collectors, but back then no one else cared. I was ahead of the curve. Nostalgia for me is not just about video games, though; they were just the key that unlocked the vault and remain the best sources of it. Anything that reminds me of the 1980s is usually worth a look, especially if it’s related to one of the speculative genres.
I continue to take frequent trips down memory lane. The creation of MAME (Multi-Arcade Machine Emulator), which I can play on my laptop, provides doses of arcade nostalgia whenever I desire them, and the proliferation of plug-and-play consoles featuring both arcade and home games has made access to the past easier than ever (I’ll refrain from expressing my anger concerning the NES Classic Edition debacle at this juncture). Moreover, YouTube is a treasure trove of 1980s cartoons and commercials, as well as videos of people playing video games on every system imaginable.
Interestingly enough, I have found that there are two kinds of nostalgia: actual nostalgia and what I like to call “pseudo-nostalgia.” The latter is a peculiar thing indeed, but I in all ways embrace it. It allows me to look at something that I’m not familiar with from a particular era and get a feeling of nostalgia from it even though it was something outside my sphere of experience. I never played the Bally Astrocade, for example, but when I see an ad for it or read an article in an issue of Electronic Games, I can experience nostalgia because it is from the same time period that I was playing Burgertime and Tempest in the arcade. I also have a collection of old role-playing game (RPG) books and magazines (some of which I’ve found online in PDF format for free) from which I derive a great deal of joy, even though I didn’t discover those kinds of games until around the time that I got into comics. I love looking through them and imagining how exciting it must have been for those early players, when RPGs were just beginning to ramp up and everything was so new.
Do I credit myself as the creator of 1980s nostalgia, you ask?
Yes, I do.