Nostalgia For Sale -
For anyone who is in their mid-twenties there seems to be a longing to return to the carefree days of one’s childhood. As far as I can tell this has been true for most generations, and will eventually morph into a hatred for anything new and a love for anything old (AKA being a crotchety old person). With that in mind, as I enter my twenty-fourth year as a human being I’m beginning to realize the strangle-hold that nostalgia can have on my media decisions.
I would rather watch a movie from my childhood that I’ve seen a hundred times than a new blockbuster that’s sweeping the country. Of course, at this point many readers will likely be thinking: “Well duh, Ghostbusters is a million times better than any movie that has come out in the last ten years!”
Is it really? Or is it just that you prefer it because it makes you feel like a kid again. Now, obviously, this is the intent behind a lot of marketing. Nintendo, for example, knows how to play to that sense of nostalgia. They dish out just enough fan service to satiate the frothing fans, but they hold on to the best stuff. Things like Earthbound, which fans clamor for, are held just out of reach until Nintendo decides that the demand is high enough. Other companies like Square-Enix withhold a Final Fantasy VII remake, citing many developmental reasons, until they know they can make enough money off of it to be satisfied.
The joke has been made that Nintendo keeps repackaging our childhoods and selling them back to us; a rather apt description if you ask me. In this digital age companies are able to hold on to assets and products with more ease than before; the simple fact that many of our childhoods can be broken down into raw data is paramount in their business models.
Before this digital age began unfolding children played with physical toys, or became attached to locations from their childhood (parks, houses, lakes). These types of things are harder to monetize. How do you sell someone the lake they used to visit as a child, or the park their parents used to take them to? The simple answer is that you can’t, at least not in any meaningful or easy to monetize way.
Now, for clarity’s sake, I’m not saying that I don’t associate certain locations or physical items with my childhood, of course I do. The point I’m trying to make is that these are in the minority compared to video games and movies. When I sit down and play The Guardian Legend I’m immediately brought back to a Thanksgiving trip I had when I was a kid, playing it all week during a snow storm. I can tell you what game I was playing during important events throughout my life, but not what year it was. I remember the summer I spent playing Buck Rumble and 1080° Snowboarding as the same summer I made a new childhood friend, but I couldn’t tell you what year that was without some research on Wikipedia.
We’ve established the re-selling of our childhoods to us, and we’ve established why this is an effective new technique. But is it a problem? Honestly, I’m not sure myself. I love the fact that my childhood is literally at my fingertips, but I’m very frustrated at the fact that these companies are tight-lipped and stingy with releases. I’ve used emulators, you’ve used them, everyone has used them, but the fact remains that the use of them is illegal unless you own an ancient piece of plastic that the company printed. Jim Sterling pointed out on a recent episode of the Jimquisition  how Ubisoft is holding Beyond Good and Evil 2 for ransom until they make enough money on their current releases. Practices similar to this are not uncommon for major developers.
So what’s the point that I’m driving at? Video games are a part of our culture, our everyday lives, and our childhoods. Companies are able to hold them for ransom, and sue any individual that decides to fire up a Super Nintendo game on an emulator. It’s idealistic, but I feel that certain games should be freely available to the public. Nintendo has made truly enormous amounts of money off of Super Mario Bros. 3, a game which according to Wikipedia has grossed “$1.7 billion, inflation adjusted”.
Many other games have made incredible amounts of money, and continue to sell for unreasonable amounts. The original Pokémon Red can be found on Amazon used for $20 USD, a game which according to a paper published by Columbia Business School  had sold a total of 16.8 million copies in the US and Japan. Keep in mind, this was just four years after the game’s original 1996 release date and doesn’t account for the remakes on the Game Boy Advance.
Now obviously it would be ludicrous for me to want these games in the public domain. These companies have a right to the product they have created, and things like the source code of the game are understandably protected. But, that being said, is it too much to ask that I be able to play these games without having to track down a cartridge from the late 80s or early 90s? Again, the idealist in me wishes they be released on existing platforms as free downloads and the ability to be played on a current console. I could argue that free copies of Pokémon Red and Tetris on the 3DS would massively increase sales, but I’m sure there would be some businessman standing behind me telling me why I’m wrong.
One could again draw a comparison with movies, and I would agree with that to a certain extent. Movies are a huge part of popular culture, but they have the benefit of not being tied to a specific piece of hardware. Movies are constantly released on new and different mediums (I personally own the original Star Wars trilogy multiple times on multiple types of media), and I can watch a movie on any brand of television. I don’t need a Sony television to watch something that Sony Pictures produced, but if I want to play a first party Sony game I better have a console that bears their logo. I could outline differences that also exist with books, action figures, and many other things, but I think the point is clear.
A skeptical business man would wonder where we draw the line in this ideal world of free classic games. Which games get released and how old do they need to be? My answer is one of personal opinion, and I don’t think it is a very hard riddle to solve. I think any game that is over twenty years old should be playable and available for free. Again, this is my opinion, and one that will vary from person to person.
The problem here is that companies will not give away what they can monetize, but many of these properties are not being monetized. For someone like Nintendo to release a game on the Virtual Console that is the exact same ROM as the one they sold me twenty years ago is absurd. I have already purchased this product, and they have done nothing but repackage it and call it new.
Of course these opinions come from a place of nostalgia, and any business would tell me that my sentimentality over these old piles of bits should have no bearing on their business practices. After all, they’re here to make money, not pander to my reminiscing. That is, they could tell me that, but I would tell them that I have a right to these games. I’ve spent more time with Mario than I have any movie, and I’ve marveled at the landmarks on planet Zebes more than many. These games were my childhood, and I take a deeply religious offense to how they are kept from me. I own the cartridges now, but how long until the chips in them crumble, and how long until a piece of legislature finally takes down the emulation scene? How many times do I have to buy Super Mario Bros.?