The Joy and Unfulfillable Longing of 90s Gaming

Can playing classic computer games as an adult ever come close to capturing the magic of playing them as a young kid?

2 years ago

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Christmas always makes me think of computer games because in my final years of believing in Santa Claus, they were the marquee presents to ask for. Those were simpler times when a $50 piece of software could make or break my happiness. It may hard to believe for kids today, but back then, computer games weren’t these ephemeral things you downloaded off of Steam. Instead, they came in large and weighty boxes that were filled not only with the CD-ROM but also manuals, mail-in subscription cards, pieces of artwork, and more.

You could go to a store and hold these boxes in your hands. Whenever I was out on a family shopping trip, I always had to stop by a Future Shop (a Canadian version of Best Buy) and just wistfully look at these magnificent packages, each containing an experience that I knew I would likely never know. Because my parents only let us get a couple, maybe three games a year. That made asking for the “right” game for Christmas a monumentally important task, like making a high lottery pick in the NBA draft.

I don’t want to be the Abe Simpson of gaming, always hollering about how things were so much better in the days of old. Despite the budget-bloated and formulaic franchises of today, there are still many exciting titles. Also, the rise of indie gaming has birthed genres and innovations that were unthinkable during the 1990s. Seeing the trailer for a game like Gris blows my mind.

Yet there was indeed something different, if not always better, back then. And it’s not just nostalgia that a child of the 1970s would have for something like Pong. There was indeed something special about the 90s and many experts hold 1998 to be the single greatest year of gaming. That was the year of Half-Life, StarCraft, Baldur’s Gate, Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, Grim Fandango, Thief: The Dark Project, Metal Gear Solid, and so much more. That middle-porridge era when technology was not detrimentally advanced, diverse genres flourished, and the scourge of the online(from trolls to DLC) hadn’t emerged.

Image of Compaq Presario 5510
The Compaq Presario 5510 was my most definitive family computer

But I’m not just talking about the games’ quality and influence. The way we gamed was different too. Laptops were still for fancy businesspeople, so most families had big clunky desktop computers that everybody was forced to share. Unlike with today’s phone games that let you play at a moment’s notice whenever you’re bored, gaming back then was a destination you had to go to. You sat down in the same chair at the same desk, with the computer before you acting as a gateway to another world.

And that world seemed to be built just for you. There was nobody else there because the standard 56k modem back then was usually too slow for online play and the internet certainly wasn’t the all-encompassing entity it is now. My idea of multiplayer was going to a friend’s house and us taking turns watching the other play. Most games were self-contained single-player experiences. Yes, you knew that events were scripted and everybody more or less had the same experience. But when you were immersed, it was just you.

So that first time in Baldur’s Gate when you stepped out of your hometown of Candlekeep and walked through the seemingly endless forests of Faerûn? That was pure freedom. Never mind that the graphics were rather blocky, or that the computer screen was dull and curved like an old-fashioned TV, or that your siblings were pacing conspicuously behind you as they awaited their turn. Nothing took you away from suburban suffocation quite like a 90s game.

A mage casting magic missile in “Baldur’s Gate”

My GOG account tells me I have 81 games available to play at any time. My Steam account has 29 more as well. Imagine having 100+ game boxes. Or just imagine having 100+ jewel cases and manual booklets. While I’m sure there were some hardcore game hoarders back then, the physicality of gaming created a sense of practical limitation. Kind of like music before the advent of MP3s, there was a tacit acknowledgment that despite all the wonderfulness out there, you were meant to only be able to taste a mere fraction of it.

For me, nothing exemplified this unobtainable quality more than the N64. My parents were of the mindset that they’d already benevolently allowed for computer games in their house (not to mention the antique-like SNES and VTech Socrates). There was absolutely no way another gaming platform was going to be welcomed. So the funky-looking N64 remained an impossible dream. Maybe I’d get lucky and an Electronics Boutique would have a public station for playing, but you were always under pressure to step aside after a few minutes. Or maybe a high-EQ friend with an N64 would somehow be able to sense my crushing need to play this GoldenEye thing that everyone was raving about and invite me over. But the experience would never be within my possession. At over $200, the N64 might as well have been over 2 gajillion dollars and even if I somehow managed to get ahold of that cash, the even more impossible task would be to sneak it into the house and play it without the authorities noticing.

Photo of Nintendo 64
“I would do terrible, disgusting things…”

With old computer games now available for download for pennies on the dollar, I’ve tried to experience what was once forbidden, kind of like the protagonist of Cinema Paradiso who, as an adult, goes back to his hometown and watches the reel of all the kisses that the local priest cut out from movies. That accounts for my huge backlog of games that will probably take me years and years to finish. There are classics like Total Annihilation, which I had to sacrifice because my RTS quota had already been filled by Age of Empires and StarCraft. Tip for parents: if you want your kids to be rabid students of history, get them to play Age of Empires and they’ll forever be able to expound on what made the Hittites such a great world civilization (it was because their siege engines had +50% hit points).

There is also Battlezone and TIE Fighter, both exemplars of the now-defunct genre of letting you pilot kickass vehicles like space tanks and space fighters. I even bought a joystick to play TIE Fighter. Sadly, one of the crown jewels of this genre, MechWarrior 2, has not been made compatible with modern machines.

A lot of genres have been lost, though indie gaming has been making admirable attempts to revive these lost forms. The Secret of Monkey Island was one of the first games I ever remember playing and its sequel remains safely stashed in my GOG account. I’m just afraid to start because of the inevitable graphic-adventure game problem of getting stuck and gnashing your teeth over whether you should peek at a walkthrough. My proudest gaming accomplishment was being able to play through the almost all of Grim Fandango, the greatest graphic adventure game of all time and my all-time favorite game, without consulting a guide book. That game was something special. There were no magic mushroom or rocket launchers. Instead, you smoked cigarettes, ran your own bar and casino, chased after a woman you loved, albeit all within a Land of the Dead setting. It was the closest you could get to playing Casablanca. In other words, it was the closest you could get to playing grown-up.

Screenshot of "Grim Fandango"
Manny Calavera, the hero of “Grim Fandango”

At least back in those days, you had to either shell out $30 for a game guide or find some sketchy Angelfire website for precious secrets. Nowadays, it takes 3 seconds on your phone. I remember being stuck in Zelda: A Link to the Past for years because I didn’t know how to get the hammer in the Dark World. It required the miracle of a wise friend to break me out of that purgatory.

Another beloved gem of mine from that era was Duke Nukem 3D, the crudishly violent and sexual FPS of the Build Engine era. But years ago, when I played its long-awaited sequel, Duke Forever, the sleazy strip-club ethos and visuals of the game felt incredibly gross, especially since the game was now much closer to Uncanny Valley territory. It was a fitting expression of how the seemingly harmless things from our younger years actually turn out to be disgusting when you examine them more closely with wiser eyes.

I could talk for ages about all the games I played to death back then. I could probably talk even more about all ones I had to put off playing until now. But as fun as it is to finally buy and play the legendary Quake II for 99 cents, it does remind you that you missed out on experiencing it at the age when it probably would’ve resonated with you the most. The sight of Sephiroth murdering Aerith right in front of you will probably never impact you more than when you’re a young kid.

Image of "Final Fantasy VII"
Cloud laying Aerith to her final rest in “Final Fantasy VII”

And while it’s nice to be able to stock up on a 100+ game library, it does also make you feel the diminished power of your parents. Once, many years ago, they had an almighty power in controlling your access to everything. Now, they live thousands of miles away and I can get all these things I want with my own credit card and a click of a button.

Don’t get me wrong. I can’t wait to play Heroes of Might and Magic III, The Longest Journey, Populous III, MDK, Tomb Raider, Alpha Centauri, Arcanum, and hell, even Daikatana. And I love the fact that I finally got to play Unreal, Planescape: Torment, Blood, and Giants: Citizen Kabuto. But the same objective experiences often have greatly different subjective meanings depending on when you have them. So no matter how many of these I play, the 12-year old kid in me will always be yearning for that special game to take me beyond the borders of a Korean Canadian immigrant upbringing.


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Chris Jesu Lee

Published 2 years ago