I've attempted to introduce a few real-life friends to Retromags, both through visits to the site in general and trips to my blog in particular. Several of them were quite excited by the prospect of leafing through old Nintendo Powers, especially those who are, like me, now in their early to mid thirties and remember trading cheats out of the Classified Information column on the playground or trying to figure out a way to beat Warmech in Final Fantasy. Others, though, scoffed at the idea of a site dedicated to preserving magazines that have been out of date for at least a decade. "Why would I care about that?" I sometimes hear. "Read magazines from 1990? I barely have enough time to try and keep up with stuff being released today. Who would give a crap about stuff that happened twenty years ago? Do you go back and read old issues of Newsweek and Time too? Why do you even care?"
And the answer I always give is, "Because it's something that interests me." But at the heart of it, that's really not a reason at all. Lots of things interest me besides video games. I enjoy horror films, but I'm not obsessed with collecting back issues of Fangoria or Rue Morgue magazine. I enjoy Star Trek, but I've never subscribed to any of the official magazines or unofficial fanzines that have been around since the 1960s. Star Wars is good too, but I don't jump to read every new novel that comes out. Yet when it comes to old gaming magazines, there's something inside me that says, "This is important. This is worth preserving." When someone else asks me why, though, I can never formulate an answer that satisfies both the person who asks and myself as well. That is the purpose of tonight's blog posting: can I answer this question for myself, and thus prepare for the next time I am asked, "Why?"
Sitting here and thinking about it, the first answer I can come up with is that unlike many other fields or hobbies I have an interest in, video games and computers have been in my life from a very early age. I didn't get into Dungeons & Dragons until I was about ten years old. My interest in horror films, anime and music didn't develop until I was in high school. I didn't start to perform on stage and sing until I was in college. But I was three years old when my dad brought home our first computer, a TRS-80 Color Computer, plugged in the joystick, and inserted the "Space Assault" cartridge. Voila: a video game. In later years, I would come to experience pinball and arcade machines. It's safe to say I grew up in the arcade era, that period of the 1980s where "arcade" was almost a dirty word, synonymous with "places where older teens hung out, smoking cigarettes and wasting money" in the eyes of the media. Being a child, I never saw it that way though. I just thought it was great that I could put a coin in the slot and drive a car around a race track, or navigate a maze, or shoot at aliens.
Still, why magazines? If all my memories are about playing video games, then why not just use an emulator such as MAME to play the old games instead of just reading about them? Why not go downstairs and play Super Mario World on my 50" TV with my Super NES controller in hand instead of looking at screenshots of it in the pages of Nintendo Power? Simple: reading takes me beyond the game. In my mind, reading an old gaming magazine takes me into the "Special Features" disc of a DVD, where you learn all the things that you don't get from just watching the feature film. It's a director's (well, developer's) commentary track, behind-the-scenes footage, "Making of" montage, and evolutionary track all rolled into a few pages. Nobody looks at film buffs cross-eyed when they mention that they watched the little bonus featurette on Orson Welles after viewing "Citizen Kane" again, so why should someone think me crazy for wanting to read up a bit on a classic (or even a not-so-classic) title?
Perhaps more important than that, though, is the desire to preserve a historical legacy that is getting increasingly difficult to preserve. Yes, you can find all the general data you want on virtually any video game these days with a quick trip to a site like MobyGames or IGN. Even GameFAQs has a database of information on their titles that includes release dates, developer credits, and other bits of ephemera. When it comes to concrete facts, we are in little danger of losing that information. What could be lost, however, is the story behind the story. MobyGames can tell us that Tomb Raider was originally released for the PC and the Playstation in the US on October 31st, 1996, but their database is ill-equipped to inform us as to why it was heralded as such an amazing title upon release. Today, Lara Croft is one of the most recognizable gaming icons in the world with millions of fans, games spanning three full generations of consoles, and one transfer from Core Design to Crystal Dynamics. Thirteen years ago, nobody had heard of her and she had yet to impact our culture the way she has. To capture the full effect of what it was like to live in a world just introduced to the freshly-minted up-and-coming First Lady of gaming, we have to turn to the publications of the day. And this means the gaming press.
The problem with the gaming industry is that it is only now discovering that people are actually interested in its history. Nintendo's Wii with its ability to download and play classic titles showed the other modern-day consoles that despite being "dead" for twenty years, old games could still be worth some serious money. It didn't take Microsoft and Sony long to begin to follow suit, and that's why you find the likes of Resident Evil and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night available on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. This interest has always been there, and some companies were quicker than others to jump on the bandwagon - witness Midway with their "Treasures" lineup, Capcom with their "Classics" discs, and Taito's "Legends" offerings of older arcade games. Backwards compatibility was an enormous selling point for the PS2, and Nintendo has offered it with successive versions of their Game Boy hardware starting with the GB Color. What they are failing to offer, though, is a reason for gamers who aren't nostalgic about the titles to want to spend money on downloading something with comparably inferior graphics. Put a screenshot of "A Link to the Past" side by side with one from "Twilight Princess" and ask your average teenaged gamer which one he or she would prefer to play; I guarantee that "Twilight Princess" will blow "Link to the Past" out of the water each and every time. Screenshots alone cannot showcase the importance of "Link to the Past" in the video game timeline, but the magazine writers of the day can put things in perspective for modern-day readers. I was not alive the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, so a simple recitation of the facts concerning his death will do little to move me. But listen to the newscasters of the day as they struggle to inform the American people as best they can as scant information, rumours, and half-truths continue to swarm into the newsroom in the hours following the shooting and you will understand much better what it meant to be alive on the day a president was killed. Read a memorial article in Life magazine or Time, and you will see what was important to the culture of the day. There's a power in that immediacy, and as history rolls on, it slowly will get condensed into soundbytes, news snippets, and a few paragraphs destined to fill a textbook prior to the information that Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President in the aftermath.
Are video games as important as the death of a true historical figure? Probably not. But does that doom them to remain forever a victim of an increasingly faster-moving world that cares only for reporting on the next big graphical advancement, the next epic storyline, the next big technological leap, and bestows the greatest accolades on a title only to laugh at those achievements in two years' time when the sequel is released? More importantly, should video games be reduced to this and nothing else? I, and the many people who contribute to sites dedicated to preserving these snippets of our past have answered with a firm "No!" Others may not understand or share our thirst for knowledge, our desire to preserve, or our interest in how this entertainment medium evolved, just as some people buy a DVD and only watch the feature film while ignoring all the extra goodies available to them. But just because others don't share our passion does not mean it is not valid.
It seems a shame it is only now, some three decades since video games entered world culture and created an entirely new medium for entertainment, that there has been any serious interest in preserving these important pieces of our own history. For many people, obviously, it is no concern to them how characters like Mario, Sonic and Lara Croft have developed over the years into the icons they are today; they will play the game, enjoy it, and then wait for the next entry. But for a sizable number of us, the history of video games is a slice of our own history. We can look back on an issue of EGM and remember where we were the first time we heard about Street Fighter II, we can page through an old issue of Nintendo Power and remember the frustration of renting games that did not come with instruction manuals, we can read GamePro and recall the days when cheat codes came from magazines and there was no such thing as gaming websites to fulfill our desires to get the most out of our games. Gaming magazines are our own pieces of history, written by people who were watching the changes coming and commenting on what was yet to be. They hold information that is sometimes inaccurate, sometimes wildly off-key, filled with crazy speculations and bizarre observations about the current state of the industry. Sometimes they serve a much-needed notice that not every video game journalist belonged in the field and occasionally jog our memories to remind us about games that were supposed to be and yet never were or wound up as something else.
Equally as important for history is the fact that digital archiving allows people from various parts of the world to experience games from a different cultural viewpoint than the one that he or she grew up with. As a US gamer, there is plenty to enjoy when reading (or flipping through in the case of non-english publications that I cannot read proficiently) the archives from other countries to see what was hot, what was exciting, what was controversial, and what got censored from region to region.
We are a segment that begs desperately for our own professional historians to dissect the field, unearth new information, and tell us more and more about our hobby. This is no different from amateur Civil War buffs, armchair quarterbacks, or gun enthusiasts who all avidly devour the histories of the Union and Confederacy, the histories of their favorite football teams, or the histories of their favorite firearm manufacturers. In order to remind us of forgotten events, to put together pieces of puzzles that have remained incomplete, and continue to entertain and enlighten, these historians must have a record to pull from: treasures of correspondence are unearthed in attics, old newspaper archives are scoured in libraries, and ancient documents are collected and collated by museums waiting to be discovered anew by researchers. Without these resources being available, though, so much of what we know about our history would be lost to time. And while it is unlikely that the video game press will ever leave behind a document as significant as Anne Frank's diary, it is equally as unlikely that no one would ever be excited to read the words of Miyamoto, Wright, Kojima, or other significant figures in the evolution of video games when they are no longer with us.
Why care about old issues of game magazines? Because they are a part of my history, my passion, my life. They allow me to travel in time and remember what it was like to witness the birth of the CD-ROM as a gaming medium, the growth of the personal computer, the days when a great adventure game read just like a well-written fantasy novel. You don't need to agree with my reasons; you may have reasons of your own for caring about them, or you might think I'm an idiot for not devoting my time and energy to something more "important". But this is my culture, a desired area of study in the ever-evolving school that is my life. I cannot change that any more than I can change the fact that I am not the person I was ten years ago. "You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door." Reading that simple sentence still sends a shiver of joy up my spine. Why wouldn't I want to do my best to preserve that feeling for future generations?