Video Game Nostalgia: A Good, Yet Painful Emotion

When Tribute Games and Dotemu announced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge a child’s voice deep inside of me screamed aloud in joy and merriment. This was a voice I haven’t heard in a long time, and I was confused initially as to what this voice was trying to say, and why. Thinking back, and due to my childhood history surrounding the Turtles, I was immensely excited for this game to come out more so than most video games before, and that feeling I was having was of course “nostalgia.”

What is nostalgia?

I dove deep within myself to the thoughts and feelings of nostalgia; what it is, and is it a good thing to have and feel? Video games have reached a pivotal point in their lifespan that people who have played for a significant amount of years can “fondly remember” what games used to be like, and how they experienced them growing up. Being over 40 years old, I can fondly remember gathering friends and family playing video games with (and against) each other, and creating social environments and experiences in person. More often than not, we’ve curated great nostalgic memories of video games around these social environments, according to Dr. Fillipo Cordaro, a professor at the University of Cologne. It can explain why when we think back to playing Mario Kart 64 we smile, and our moods become elevated.

Mario Kart 64…where friendships ended.

“On a basic level, recalling these positive memories simply puts us in a more positive mood. On a more complex level, recalling these experiences makes us feel a stronger sense of social connectedness with others. We’ve done some research looking at what people usually describe as a ‘typical nostalgic experience’ and find that people typically think about positive experiences in which the self is the protagonist, but they are surrounded and interacting with close others,” Dr. Cordaro commented.

So it’s not the retro video games themselves giving us this sense of “nostalgia”, it’s the experiences surrounding them; getting together with friends, family around the games themselves. Video games themselves are one of the only entertainment mediums that can elicit such a unique nostalgic reaction when playing them, similar to revisiting family vacation spots and old stomping grounds and locations, or even spending time with people you haven’t seen in many years. It seems to explain why I enjoy Shredder’s Revenge so much, especially when playing with friends. It brings me back to playing the arcade game with friends by my side.

The dark sides of nostalgia

A darker side to nostalgic feelings is its use on dealing with stress, depression and anxiety. It’s not shocking to know that if you’re in a bad or depressed mood, an instant wave of remembering how things used to be, or feelings of good times in the past can instantly lift up your spirits. It brings a sense of euphoria rushing over you. Contributor to the Boss Rush Network LaMont Reed spoke this feeling the best, referencing his experience playing TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge. 

It’s shocking to think a video game experience has such power over our feelings and emotions, especially one that evoke such a heavy, euphoric feeling. We can see the benefits that nostalgia brings to us every time we see or play a retro video game, or a modern “retro styled” video game. I know I do every time I go back and play games like The Legend of Zelda A Link To The Past, or any retro Mega Man title. 

Every time I pop in Mega Man 2, the nostalgia waves hit me

However there can be a dark side to these nostalgic feelings, as they can represent a longing of the past, and a fear of moving on or looking forward to new experiences. As we age and seeing the many advancements in video games in the way of graphics, gameplay, size and experiences, a small piece of us yearns for the “old days,” when seemingly games were simpler and more fun. These feelings can stunt our ability to enjoy new experiences and emotions in new or upcoming games.

“For some people, nostalgia and unprocessed losses are a significant factor in feeding depression. There is a constant feeling that the best parts of their lives are passed, trapped somewhere in the memory of bygone days,” says Nathan Feiles from PsychCentral. I thought about how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video game franchise advanced over time, and modernized with the technology, and the series’ successes seemed to have stunted right when video games made the jump to 3D graphics. It seemed at the time that the best days of the Turtles were gone, and never to return until developers Tribute Games and Dotemu “saved the day” with Shredder’s Revenge harkening back to the retro style of the “old days.” This may also explain the appeal of “retro-styled” video games in our current modern era, marketing themselves to an audience that years for the past era.

These feelings of nostalgia can subconsciously paralyze you and your ability to enjoy new experiences, because you’re constantly chasing what gave you joy previously, and climbing the fence to where the grass you wish could be greener. In a sense, you’re chasing after something that is impossible to attain, and can potentially lead to feelings of disappointment, depression, and loss on top of it. Loss in that one can think to themselves by saying “I’ll never have that experience again,” or “It’s not like it used to be—it sucks now.”

Remembering our experiences fondly

As I’ve thought about the feelings of nostalgia more and more, the more I’ve become conflicted over its benefit, if there is one. On the one hand, it’s euphoric and uplifting to think about, or re-experience video games that we played years past, and the experiences we had around them. Bear in mind, these “nostalgic” feelings only apply to the good feelings and experiences we had, (of course forgetting this every time one of us pops in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and gets to the water temple). It can lift our spirits and bring us out of dark, depressive states for a time, but we all know that to be short lived. Our longings for days gone, and feelings of loss that we may never experience those fresh feelings again can spiral us into a deeper void that can be hard to climb out of. It can stunt our ability to enjoy new experiences, and make new memories. There is still so much life ahead of us, and while it’s uplifting to look behind us once in a while and remember the “good old days,” we have to bear in mind that we don’t want to miss what’s in front of us if we keep looking backwards. 

What do you think? Are nostalgic feelings good to have, or do you think they can be a detriment? Sound off in the comments, or head on over to the Boss Rush Network Discord group to discuss at the link here, or use the OR code at the bottom of the page.

References: The Atlantic, PsychCentral, Psychology of Games

Image References: The Verge, Game Informer, Mxdwn Games

Stoy Jovic is head of the EXPCast: A Video Game Podcast with friends Pat, Dan, and Josh, part of the Boss Rush Network. He is also on the Cross Roads Podcast with Leron Dawkins, and a writer on the Boss Rush Network. You’ll get annoyed every time he gushes about Mass Effect, Silent Hill, and racing games.

4 thoughts on “Video Game Nostalgia: A Good, Yet Painful Emotion

  1. I think nostalgia is largely based on familiarity, too. There is comfort in picking up something that we recognize from our past and being able to dive in with ease.

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