Emulating the past. Or, nostaligia isn't what it used to be

For a young man, I seem to have an odd preoccupation with nostalgia. Like lots of other people who are thinking about the PS3 and the Nintendo Wii and what its all about, I’ve been wondering about videogames and what type of fun they are, and thinking about the fun I used to have playing them in the relatively untroubled days of my youth.

The games I enjoyed more than any other I’ve ever played in my life were the early 1990s LucasArts adventure games. You walked around and talked to characters and solved little puzzles. They were clever and funny and bags of fun. They’ve stopped making them now though. And in an odd inverse-obsolescence kind of way, you can’t run these old games on your computer any more because their programmers had to allocate memory slots manually in order to improve performance, whereas modern machines manage memory dynamically. Here comes the nostalgia, but I think there’s a certain romanticism in that; each little byte hand-delivered to the computer. Animations drawn pixel by pixel, not rendered by an engine. Today’s processors are too powerful to even support this old way, and instead do their work by brute force.

You can run old games using an emulator, though, tricking the game into thinking its on an old 386. ScummVM lets you run the LucasArts adventure games on your shiny new laptop. I installed it a couple of nights ago and have been having lots of fun since. Here’s Monkey Island 2 running on my Macbook Pro:

Monkey Island 2 screenshot

(As an aside, I also came across ScummVM for Nintendo DS. It seems to me that this is what the DS was made for. I would gleefully pay the price of a new game to legitimately and easily play Day of the Tentacle on a Nintendo DS, if they were to re-release it on a cartridge. Please make it so, rights-owning people.)

Back to the Wii. Of course, it’s going to be pretty lo-fi in comparison to Microsoft and Sony’s offernings. It’s also going to have an online store that allows you to download and play old Nintendo console games for a few euro, which is a fantastic and crazy selling point, when you think about it. You pay the price of a coffee for a decades-old game that you then play on your expensive, brand new next-gen console. There’s got to be an -ism to describe that. But if the thought of it appeals to you or someone else (it does to me), maybe it represents something.

Granted, that something could be kind of pathetic, namely that our personal culture and memories and emotional triggers are based on dumb, corporate entertainment, packaged experiences. But I don’t think it’s that big a deal.

In a way, it shows a certain sense of maturity in videogames, an ability to move beyond the bigger, faster, stronger approach. I’m not sure what progress is, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t linear. These very same things happen at different stages in fashion and in literature, and in film and software and music and art and architecture and living and pretty much any other form of culture I can think of. I think it means that the medium is breathing.

— 01 Dec 2006