Thursday, October 16, 2014

On Nostalgia and Crash Bandicoot

When I first discovered that I could purchase Crash Bandicoot on the Playstation Store, my inner 8 year old went nuts. When the game finally finished installing on the virtual Playstation “memory cartridge” that the PS3 provides, I started the game anew with ramped up anticipation and excitement. Unfortunately, it was not as I remembered.

The first few title sequences looked grainy, jagged and just generally inferior to the graphics that I have come to know from modern games. In my mind’s eye it all looked so much better. The starting zone, N. Sanity Island, looked simplistic and low-tech, with its bright blinking red lights to signify how many areas had been beaten, and its crumbily architected palm trees and shadows. The whole thing was underwhelming until I started the first level.

Crash Bandicoot has always garnered a sense of pride in me—the ability to find all the boxes, beat the levels quicker than others— I remember spending hours in front of the television, trading off the controller between my uncle and cousin seeing which one of us could do best. It seemed that even after over a decade and a half, it still merited the same response. I watched my friend play through the first level and tried to explain to him the mechanics of the game. “The wumpa fruit—those apple things—they are meant to be used to get you extra lives. Once you build up 100 of them, you can get a life to make up for the one you just lost by not spinning the skunk away.” For those that have not played, the mechanics of the game are misleadingly simple: break the boxes to get wumpa fruit and items such as extra lives, witch doctor’s masks which serve as immunity, and tokens in the form of three of the main NPCs. The tokens are particularly useful, we learned, because they enable you to both save your progress in the game (something that isn’t possible otherwise) and collect a butt-ton of extra wumpa fruit and useful items. Crash can spin to break the boxes or hop on them—some boxes have special detrimental behaviors and can explode on contact with Crash and kill him.

Despite the fact that you can only take two different actions (jumping and spinning), we ended up burning through something like 70 lives and having to go back to the first level between five and ten times. Endless bummer, population: me. The games graphics are so jittery than it can be really difficult to determine whether where you are about to jump is actually going to be solid or if you’re heading straight into a bug that is going to shuttle you into the next gaping maw in front of you. After shutting down the console and thinking about it, though, this is what Crash Bandicoot was always like.

What keeps us coming back to these games? Are their annoying idiosyncracies (like only being able to save if you get a certain number of special tokens, and then make it through the bonus round) something that we wear as a badge of honor and pride. I see it as similar to the “when I was your age” hardship stories. “What I was your age, I had to play on a console that couldn’t even render shadows properly.” We laugh, the kids shake their heads in disbelief, others who played along with us nod and chuckle indulgently. Crash Bandicoot is not the first game like this though—I can name multiple—but still all of them are up there on my list of favorite games. I would probably still engage in an excited, albiet totally nostalgia-driven, conversation about how awesome it is.

Perhaps this is because rather than see the games as they truly are, we instead remember how we were when we played them: innocent, no 9-5 job, no real responsibilities except for homework and getting enough sleep. The numerous replays of a single level didn’t seem quite so painful because we didn’t have any other things that we needed to be dedicating time to—it didn’t seem like such a precious commodity. It wasn’t that we were any better at the games, but instead that we were more able to enjoy them, rather than needing to measure their value against something else.

As I’ve grown older, my judgement for what is “fun” isn’t just a game that is playable, but instead something that is so mind-blowingly awesome that I won’t feel guilty playing it when there are other things like work, relationships and, well, other games to be played. So, it isn’t that Crash Bandicoot has really changed, but instead that I have. The graphics haven’t gotten shittier over time, it’s just that the eyes that I am seeing them with now deem them to be.

Crash Bandicoot is still on my list of favorites because it has the ability to bring me back to a time when things were simpler, and remind me that once I could spend five hours on trying to beat a level and not worry about what I’d gotten out of that time.

What about you? Do you have any games that, while going back and playing them may leave you feeling a bit lackluster, you’re still in love with?

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