Past Perfect: Gaming, Music, and Flawed Memory

Ever play a new game and get that “wow, this is just like that game I played as a kid” feeling? Odds are it ain’t; at least if you’re like me. But why is that?

Take Metroid Fusion. On first play, I got those same goosebumps I had when I played the original Metroid. Visually, the characters slotted right into the cookie cut-outs the old characters left behind 20 years before. And the feel was just the same. Or was it? Going back and playing original, it seemed foreign, unforgiving. Lacking all the color and diversity I remembered. Metroid Fusion, then, doesn’t live up to reality, it lives up to an idealized memory. And to build a game that channels that beautifully flawed memory is a special kind of skill.

We’ve seen similar in music. Take, for example, the way LCD Soundsystem’s fantastic Sound of Silver pulls on 80’s memories — but only the good ones. How does that work? Like the Eye of the Tiger riff that hits 3/4 of the way through the first track. It sounds totally lifted from the Survivor song until you go back and listen to the real thing. That Survivor shit is awful! And that’s the magic. You remember it but you don’t.

While playing some games will forever be linked to 80’s styled music in my head, an even more direct linkage is made on the chiptune scene, where folks make music with old school videogame gear. That stuff lives in the nostalgic buzz of childhood gaming memories. You feel it in your bones.

It’s enough to make you want to go back and re-live all those early experiences. Almost. An LCD Soundsystem lyric puts it best:

Sounds of silver talk to me
makes you want to feel like a teenager
until you remember the feelings of
a real live emotional teenager
then you think again

It takes a special kind of looking back to fully appreciate how far we’ve come. The games and music of our childhoods weren’t perfect, but our memories can be. And new games and music that trigger the past can help us reflect on all that’s happened in-between.

What’s the formula for triggering good (and not gross) in our collective childhood media recollection? Who knows. But I’m always in awe when games and music give me euphoric flashbacks to those early days. So I’m happy if the trick stays a mystery. That way, I can put on some Out Hud, throw in Super Paper Mario, and travel back to a perfect past that only exists inside my head. Well, and maybe yours, too.

For more edited memories, see Radio Lab.

4 Responses to “Past Perfect: Gaming, Music, and Flawed Memory”


  1. 1 Aparna Pappu

    funny the only games i played were in the 80s and that too on a beat up old commodore. my favourite game was zwark so after reading your post i googled it to find a few pics of what it looked like here http://pirates.emucamp.com/a/z/zwark/c64/main.html
    what a hoot to think pixelated alient creatures coming down the screen and being shot at by an oddly phallic looking gun like thing amused us for HOURS on end. for me memories are linked by food and music. so when i remember swark i remember ice cream soda floats and aimless summers and watching kickboxer and its seemingly infinite sequels. (they were the only video cassettes we had.) (why the only movies in a house of two girls were of senseless violent kickboxing and jean claude van dam is beyond me). the sound track to all this madness – wham of course!

  2. 2 Jason

    haha. Zwark! I consider myself pretty well versed in C64 games but I’ve never heard of that one. Looks pretty classic. :-) Oh, and those Kickboxer marathons sound hysterical. The only video we had was Beetlejuice (long story) and I’ve seen that movie more times than I’d like to remember. I’m not sure which of the two is more disturbing.

    Whenever I want to take a trip back to those classic games, I whip out Activision Anthology, which features nearly every Atari 2600 game made by the best publisher of the time. What seals the deal, though, are the handfull of licensed tracks that play alongside the games and add to the “ambiance.” Classic stuff from Soft Cell, A-Ha, Twisted Sister, and more. It’s genius. No Wham, though. :-(

  3. 3 lotuslee

    The first game which got me hooked is Lode Runner.

    In the early days of RPG (e.g. Ultima and The Bard’s Tale), there were no in-game mapping system. i always had to prepare a pile of grid paper to draw dungeons and world maps by hand. it is also necessary to record all the conversations with NPCs so that i did not miss hints and clues to finish the game.

    Thanks to technologies, nowadays games are full of fancy graphics and convenient user interfaces. Once stuck in a game, instead of spending days to figure out a way, it’s difficult to resist the temptation to go to the internet and find answers in 5 minutes. Sadly, without this feelings of “hard work”, gaming is not a fun thing to me anymore.

  4. 4 Jason

    Oh, yeah. Lode Runner is fantastic. I remember working hard to design my own levels for that and laughing as they gave my friends fits. Some of them weren’t solvable at all. :-)

    I used to make my own maps, too. Particularly for adventure games (I was a huge Infocom fan). Many of those games came with actual physical props in the box that were essential to solving the game. But you certainly had to remember hints from characters, too. Fun stuff.

    It’s too bad that FAQs have ruined RPGs for you. I’ve found the temptation difficult, too. But I also find that games I where I have to refer to the FAQ all the time usually have puzzle design that’s poor enough that they would have driven me crazy otherwise. :-) So, the FAQ sometimes serves as a way to keep myself sane. On a related note, Edge 169 had a great feature on game FAQs as cooparative play.

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