Ming Wong is an art director at The Globe and Mail.
I was at my parents’ house over the holidays, digging through childhood artifacts, when the binder caught my eye. Its pages contained a collection of computer games, each disc carefully inserted into a protective sleeve. Even though I spent countless hours absorbed by these games as a child, I could not recall what playing them felt like. Too many years have passed since I had a PlayStation 1 or computer old enough to play these CD-ROMs.
Still, with the internet’s help, I’ve found a way to temporarily re-experience these memories.
YouTube has always been a way to relive old media; if you search it, somebody has likely uploaded it. For me, it’s become a time machine where I can watch walkthrough videos of old 1990s video games I used to play, now that I no longer have the means to run and play them any more. It’s akin to solving a mystery: that thrill of finding what you thought only existed in your head being actualized in HD. What was once a fuzzy childhood experience is now a click away.
“While you can’t go back to recess with your fourth-grade buddies, you can pop in an old game cartridge and return to a virtual place from your past,” writes Alyse Knorr in Kotaku.
I’ll type in “theme hospital gameplay” or “parappa the rapper” and if I’m lucky, a snippet of the game has been uploaded. Some corroboration from Google may be needed to fill in the gaps (Search query: “spelling game old man.” Internet search result: Spelling Jungle, PC Game, 1994.) For more well-known titles, I might get an hours-long walkthrough of the full game, executed perfectly, ready to be watched like a movie.
I remember the feeling when I clicked on one of the search hits for “storybook weaver cd-rom,” an educational game where you write and illustrate your own narrative. Hearing the jaunty, naive midi theme music, I was transported back to being downstairs in our family’s computer room, selecting which 64-bit backdrop I should use for my story. I clocked endless hours into the game during that shapeless stretch of time after school ended and before dinnertime.
“There it finally is. The music that has been stuck in my head for the past 20+ years,” someone wrote in the comments. On another video: “So this wasn’t a dream, this was something I loved from 1-2nd grade.”
Aubrey Anable, associate professor of film studies at Carleton University and author of Playing With Feelings: Video Games and Affect, says seeing comments like these can affirm your nostalgia, especially since many of these 1990s and early 2000s games predate social media and therefore represent to some people “a more ‘innocent’ kind of internet culture.”
Nostalgia Realm (116,000 subscribers) and World of Longplays (1.2 million subscribers and calling itself a “video game museum”) are some of the channels dedicated to retro walkthroughs. On Reddit, r/tipofmyjoystick is a subsection where people post their half-baked recollections and others help to do some detective work to figure out what game they’re talking about.
On YouTube, I found closure on a game I was never able to finish: Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage, an adventure jump-and-run game released in 1999 in which you play as Spyro the dragon to collect jewels, fight baddies and save the world(s). My cousin gifted me a bootleg copy so, unsurprisingly, my version of Spyro would glitch and freeze, rendering it unplayable. It nagged at me not knowing the ending, so one day I finally I looked it up. It was like going back in time and living an alternate reality, one where I finished the game, albeit through the eyes of a much more competent player. So I watched Spyro defeat the final boss. Spyro got to go on vacation. I scratched an itch. Mystery solved.
Still, watching the credits was a bit anticlimactic. I’d probably have felt more satisfied if I played it myself – those tech-savvy and determined enough can play these old games using emulators, which mimic the original consoles. A remastered version of Spyro is even available for sale on Steam, an online gaming platform. Internet Archive’s Console Living Room has a treasure trove of older games that let you play within your browser.
But as someone whose torrenting days are long gone (er, I mean, never existed) and who is, to be honest, quite lazy, YouTube still reigns as the path of least resistance.
It’s worth being critical of YouTube being relied on as a stable archive, when thinking of video games as a whole. Dr. Anable says though some museums preserve games, the gaming industry still has some catching up to do. An open-access, easy-to-use emulator for all? That’s something consumers and fans have to press for, she says. Imagine something like the Criterion Collection, but for games.
One can hope, because research has shown playing games from your past can contribute to psychological well-being. A 2018 paper by Tim Wulf and Nick Bowman cites the benefits of nostalgia (“a self-continuity that in turn restores self-esteem”) that can be applied to video games. “It’s almost like a digital smoke break. Return to this past life, play through it, and reconnect with yourself, literally,” Mr. Bowman told The Guardian.
That reconnection with my past self is ultimately what I’m seeking. Seeing ads for That ‘90s Show (a spin-off of a beloved sitcom that was nostalgic for an entirely different decade) and seeing music from my formative years deemed as “oldies” reminds me of the distance between my past and present selves. For the first time in my life, I feel old.
There are many more childhood memories I’d love to watch again – buying my first CD at MusicWorld, locking eyes on a first crush – but those remain lost files of the mind. Visiting the same virtual spaces I played in when I was a kid? That’s something I can thankfully access once again. I’m giving these games a second life, and they’re giving my younger self one, too.