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Let’s do a little free association exercise: When you read the words “retro gaming,” what pops into your head? Chances are, you pictured something from the mid-1980s at the absolute oldest. There aren’t too many of us who jump all the way back to Pong and Space Invaders when we reminisce about the classic games and gaming memories that we hold most dear. This isn’t a knock on the games of the “golden era,” which is a stretch of time loosely defined as beginning when video games became mainstream in the mid-70s and ending somewhere around the “crash” of 1983–an era also referred to as the second generation of video games. Those years were populated by the early years of arcades and home platforms such as Atari 2600 and 5200, Intellivision, ColecoVision, and others. Nothing that will be said in this piece should be interpreted as a criticism of the games of that era or of those that still carry the torch for gaming’s golden age. But the fact of the matter is that for the vast majority of gamers (and the casual gaming mainstream as well), the video games that are the most discussed, remembered, and revisited begin with the ones from the NES, Commodore 64, Sega Master System, et al and their respective arcade peers.
Much of this is simply a matter of the small window with which the golden age existed in the grand scheme of gaming. More specifically, the relatively small number of people who came of age at the right time to have gotten the most out of the golden age but weren’t still young enough and eager enough to roll right into the “third generation” and embrace it with open arms. Not that there weren’t any young’uns of the 1970s who were the Disco Era version of hipsters and weren’t at all interested in these newfangled NES and C64 games. That particular demographic, if it exists, is far too small to have any real bearing on the topic at hand. What are more relevant are those who were teenagers in the 1970s and then adults in the 1980s who simply “grew out of” video games, and have gone/went most of their life only ever playing games in and/or of the golden age. That group is surely the most common among the living of those who would still carry a torch for that era.
The problem is that those gamers are now into their 50s. Certainly that isn’t too old to still be “around” in terms of discussing and celebrating the golden age. However, many people in their 50s also have children who are already well into adulthood, and it’s no big secret that the “voice” of the 20-40 crowd is a lot louder and more prominent than the over-50 crowd in most situations, but especially in terms of pop culture of any kind. Moreover, even if those golden age gamers introduced their children to the games of that era, they were competing with their kids’ own personal generation, which was the 8- and 16-bit era. Most gamers who are currently in that age range may have some passing fondness for golden age games, but the bulk of their nostalgia is going to rest on games released between 1985 and 1995. That’s their “golden age.” What typically defines something as a golden age is that it was the beginning of something’s importance, and the first time something made its mark. History’s golden age of something isn’t always going to feel like an individual’s golden age of that same thing, and one’s own personal golden age will always be more important to them than whatever a book or Wiki tells them is the actual, true golden age. And the people for which the golden age is their golden age are soon going to be aged out of being able to keep the memory of that era alive.
So by following this logic, shouldn’t the NES and its peers be doomed to suffer the same fate in another generation or so, as 80s kids get older and the 90s kids become the next taste-makers who decide when relevant gaming history began? It’s not quite as simple as the passage of time, and much of that is due to Nintendo. Nintendo has traded on its rich video game history for much of its existence as a game company, both in continuing to produce sequels for the games it introduced in the 80s but also in re-selling them over and over again. The SNES had a compilation of remakes of the three NES Mario titles, meaning that even just a few years and a single generation later they were already making sure that those games stayed at the forefront of the public conscience. They did it again when they released each of those games for a second time on the Game Boy Advance (but not before putting out the original version of Super Mario Bros. on the Game Boy Color). And of course, once digital marketplaces became a thing, Nintendo has given us countless opportunities in the ensuing years to re-buy the games of our 80s youth, which people do in droves–for a long time, Super Mario Bros. was the top-selling game on the Wii’s Virtual Console. It was over 20 years old at that point.
Golden age games also did their part to stay active, both in sequels and on retro compilations, but they seemed to make way for the retro compilations of newer games as soon as technology allowed it. Whereas the ability to download Ms. Pac-Man was an exciting proposition when the original incarnation of Xbox Live launched, the novelty of being able to buy games digitally quickly lost its luster, and soon gamers clamored for more recent hits. Since then, new digital storefronts haven’t exactly made a point to have games like Pitfall!, Defender, Adventure, or Frogger be the marquee titles to launch with, if they even bother putting them on there at all. Even the respective retro or classics sections of digital storefront typically splash “newer” games like Street Fighter II, Out Run, Super Metroid, or Contra and the like. If golden age games are even available, they are tucked away in some corner of the store and almost never promoted on the banner at the top of the page.
For all intents and purposes, the golden age has been relegated to niche status, that curious little period of time that spawned a few of those fun games that we like to play from time to time in a Namco Museum or at an actual arcade. Again, that isn’t to be taken as an assault on that era or the quality of its games. Gaming wouldn’t be where it is today–and wouldn’t have even been where it was in the late 80s–if it wasn’t for those years of groundbreaking, pioneering games. People are still talking about those games. And hopefully people will continue to do so even after those who were actually around for that era are long gone. No part of gaming history should be treated with any less reverence or historical importance than any other part. It’s just going to take a little more work for that part of gaming history to continue to be actively discussed and written about, and it’s worrisome that there’s a chance that future generations aren’t going to bother going through the trouble to learn about it. It’s already happened with the earliest generations of movies and television–once the people who lived it died off, only a very small number of people in younger generations bothered to go back and dig into any of it. Here’s hoping that doesn’t happen with the golden age of video games.
Those who are already fighting the good fight, keep it up. If there is at least enough writing on it and videos about it, maybe the lazy younger generations will at least be willing to keep learning about it even if they aren’t willing to play the games themselves. With great strides in recent years in video game preservation, from dedicated video game museums to magazines and websites devoted to archiving gaming history, the golden age won’t be literally forgotten. But what is troubling is whether or not people will eventually stop caring about it.