As somewhat of a connoisseur of old games, I find myself carting box after box of cartridges every time I move. When I was younger it was a thorn in my mother’s side when my teenage self would come home from my job having spent my paycheck on NES games, and even now it’s an ongoing compromise with my girlfriend. If I had my way there would be an NES hooked up to every television in the house, and Mario posters would hang over the mantle. As it is, I’m finding myself confined to an office, with the remainder of the house being dedicated to a more modern decor.
I’ve struggled with selling off my collection many times before, and after the addition of a full upright arcade machine I find myself considering this even more often. I love my collection, but these days you can play the same games from Steam, Wii Shop, PSN, and XBLA for rather cheap. In addition to that, if you’re of the less noble ilk, you can download and play nearly any classic game on an emulator with a USB controller. Better still, most smart phones can run these emulators almost flawlessly.
So what’s the point in hoarding cartridges and manuals when they’re all available in a much more convenient format? The best comparison I can give is when audiophiles insist on listening to an old record on vinyl. In the end it’s much more of a hassle to play a record that just fire up an mp3, but if you know what you’re listening for there’s a distinct difference. Games are no different. When I have an emulator running on my PC I’m not only distracted by constantly alt-tabbing to a web browser and doing other things, but I’m able to rewind, fast forward, and use save states to make the game significantly easier. The graphics are clean, and there’s never any slowdown. All in all it’s a very technically capable way to check out old titles, but even with all these perks it’s still not the best way.
Gaming in my house growing up was a very atmospheric endeavor. I would click the power button on my tiny television, turn the knob to channel three, spend several minutes fighting with my cartridge to make it work, and then I would spend the rest of the night sitting in the floor gripping the hard corners of my controller. I suspect gamers the world over, regardless of preferred console, remember engaging in similar rituals. Now when I’m gaming I have my laptop open next to me, and my phone buzzing in my lap with text messages. Even when I’m in a game I get messages, friend notifications, and trophies popping up all over my screen. There’s something special about sitting quietly in front of a game without any other distractions. Just you and whatever devious tricks and traps the programmers could come up with. The games were punishingly difficult, and in most cases you would find yourself playing the same segment many times over. It was almost a kind of meditation.
Philosophical musings aside, playing games through emulators leads to another problem: attention span. When you have hundreds of games at your disposal, and able to be swapped out with the click of a button, there isn’t much incentive to invest any real amount of time into them. I’m guilty of this myself; I’ve spent hours flipping through game after game on my PC, switching them out as soon as I died or hit a frustrating part. Through this practice emulator gaming is essentially a perpetual easy mode. What’s the point in pushing through a difficult game when, in less than five seconds, you could just be playing something else?
So, while I may one day thin out my collection a bit, there is a handful of games that I’ll always hang on to. There’s nothing quite like the original experience, and I doubt that it will ever be properly replicated. Most of us probably don’t have a large lump sum of cash lying around to drop on eBay ordering all the old games that look interesting, but for a pretty reasonable price you can land an NES and a few games off Craigslist. Gaming, much like the early days of movies, hasn’t had much luck in the area of preservation. Many games are lost or impossible to find, and as time goes on they’re all becoming increasingly rare. We have a responsibility to the medium to try our best to remember not only the games themselves, but also the entire experience of classic gaming.