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The Past Wasn’t Better. Choose the Present Instead

β€œThe past always seems better when you look back on it than it did at the time. And the present never looks as good as it will in the future.” -Peter Benchley

Back in the days when I still had hobbies, a few friends used to come over to the house for weekly gaming sessions. When my brother was in town, he’d join in too.

One week we ordered an emulator, which allowed us to play many of the games of youth on the modern gaming console of the time. Most discs or cartridges contained only a single game, but this special emulator contained hundreds. Hundreds of games! We were enthralled with the idea, and fired up many of our old favorites.

The gaming session lasted a couple hours, and by the time we took a pizza break, we were ready to abandon the project. Those old games … well, they weren’t as fun as we remembered.

First of all, they were hard. Gaming had definitely been dumbed down from childhood to young adulthood, we all agreed. Something about dying over and over with little hope of making it to the next level was no longer appealing.

Second, those games just weren’t that great. Most of them were simplistic, without much depth or story. The elements of gameplay got old quick. It was fun to remember the way things used to be, but the way things used to be just wasn’t interesting anymore.

After the pizza, we went back to the new games we usually played. Better graphics! Better gameplay! Better story! All around … better.

When the gaming session ended, we weren’t sure what to think about those old games. Maybe, we decided, they should live on in our memories instead of being dusted off fifteen years later.

***

It’s easy to look back with fondness on the days of old, but our memories can blur as time passes. Sometimes we look back on things that never existed.

The old games were brilliant in their own way. The best ones captured the ritual of play and quest, challenging the player to rise again and again after defeat. You learned perseverance and reward as you stuck with them for challenge after challenge.

But like everything else, gaming evolved. Innovation allowed developers to create a more immersive experience, and competition forced them to continue producing better work.

There are a lot of things in life like old video games. Don’t lie to yourself and pretend the past was better than the present. We have it good now!

Even if the past was great, it’s still the past. You can’t play those old games any more. You can’t live in that fantasy worldβ€”or at least, you shouldn’t. There’s a new and beautiful world waiting for you now.

Let go of the glory days. Live in the present and build for the future.

Question: Did you play video games when you were a kid? What was your favorite game?

Comments here.

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69 Comments

  • Wyn says:

    I haven’t had this experience with videogames, but I have with books and TV. Some books and shows are best not re-read or re-watched. Sometimes I’m delighted to re-read or re-watch something and discover that it is as good, or even better than I remember, now that I can appreciate the drama better and understand many more of the jokes. And others are still good, and I love them dearly, but I can see their problematic aspects more clearly now.

  • I used to play Space Invaders. I tried again a few years ago, and like you I found it boring. It’s the same with TV programs. I’ve watched a few that loved, expecting them to still be as great as i remembered them, but they were really bad years later. What we remember are the emotions. Space Invaders was great at the time and I have many happy memories of playing it.But what I’m remembering are the happy emotions. The game is just link to that emotion in my brain.

  • JJ says:

    Favorite game: the Dragon Warrior series for NES.. Your quote pretty much sums up the games in this series:

    “The best ones captured the ritual of play and quest, challenging the player to rise again and again after defeat. You learned perseverance and reward as you stuck with them for challenge after challenge. ”

    I still play video games now but not as much as in the past (mostly online RPGs on my phone.)

  • Bill Nagel says:

    Legends of the Ancients, back when floppy disks were really floppy, one of the few computer games I completly finished. Still hum the little jingle when I think about it.

  • Chris, this post could not have come at a better time. Earlier this year, I left my very cool–but very stressful–job to start designing a life on my own terms. Yet as unhappy as I was, I’ve been suffering from severe FOMO this past week, during which a major conference took place and all of my old colleagues/friends/connections got to run around New York together. I found myself wishing I was still there with them, still playing that game.

    But you’re right. The game wasn’t that great, and the rewards weren’t worth the draining amount of work required day in and day out.

    Thanks for the reality check. Cheers to enjoying the games we get to play right now.

  • Mark says:

    Just got done replaying Zelda: Link to the Past and have to say, it was good – but not as great as I remember. Most of the appeal was the nostalgia of getting the power glove and finally being able to pick up the heavy stones, or pulling the master sword out of the forest. The beauty of new game mechanics really came to light after playing through though – especially checkpointing and quick saves.

    Also finding that I’m also let down by new releases, so it’s both an issue with letting my interpretation of what the past was interfere with my expectations of the future – even though the past wasn’t quite as awesome as I think it is.

  • Angie says:

    Ms. PacMan and Pong.

  • Ha! I played Pac Man (of course), Centipede (my friends and I loved that!) and Tron (gosh, remember that? 4 different games? hard!). But I wouldn’t go back to playing them, either. Videos games in general don’t interest me anymore.

    and I agree about the past… although many of us would love to have the energy, vitality, and free time of our youth, I wouldn’t trade it for what I have today. For being in the present. Each day and each moment, who I am evolving to be more of what I envision my True Self to be. That’s a lot more exciting than the loves of the past, my past adventures, or having no responsibilities.

    This moment holds more inspiration and promise than any of those past moments (which don’t exist anymore, anyway).

  • Paul says:

    Jumpman on the Commodore 64. πŸ™‚

  • Dan says:

    I was really into Monkey Island and Indiana Jones. AWESOME games that kept me guessing for many many hours. And back little cheats weren’t available as easy as today.

  • Jehangir says:

    I loved playing Star Trek on the university mainframe, when computer screens were green and the Enterprise looked like this:

    0-=

    Like many others, I sometimes pine for the ol’ full-time job and the snugly feeling of a regular wage, but then all I have to do is spend an evening with ex-work colleagues and quickly remember how miserable that life made me feel.

    I guess it’s all about being mindful of the here and now, and having faith that when tomorrow becomes today, I’ll handle it!

  • Ruth Mason says:

    I’ve loved reading these comments and saw a few of my old favorite games mentioned — the Dragon Warrior series and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past were high on my list. My absolute favorite was a game for the SNES and the Sega Genesis called Zombies Ate My Neighbors. I loved that game so much that I did play it years later on an emulator, and I still found it addictive, because it was just so darn funny. I do see your point, though. I saw it really well when I finally tracked down a TV Christmas special I had watched in my youth and found out why it took so long to come to video. It was awful!! I still have fond memories of watching it as a child, but I don’t need to watch it again.

  • Marcy says:

    I loved pitfall! I’m sure if I played it now I wouldn’t be impressed! Everything gets better and better…can’t imagine wanting to return to middle school or braces!

  • Nick H says:

    Mario Cart for N64. This game still holds up and my friends and I still fire up the old 64 at parties sometimes. There still nothing better than having to blow on the game cartridge to get it to work. As I look back it wasn’t about the games, it was about playing with friends and this is why we still get a kick about being side by side tethered to the system racing Mario and DK with broken joysticks until our eyes bleed.

  • Mary H says:

    Great Story! Great insight! Thanks for the enlightenment!

  • Vicki says:

    Yes! My favorite then and now is Galaga. Centipede is a close second.

  • Christina says:

    I used to love video games, especially at the arcade! PacMan and Ms. PacMan were my favorites, and I still enjoy playing old arcade games when I come across them. For me I didn’t continue to follow the development of gaming, so the old games live on in glory! πŸ˜‰ However, someone mentioned TV shows…wow! When I see some of the shows I used to think were good, it quite shocking how bad they are by today’s standard. This post is a good reminder for me not to cling to the past, which I have had a tendency to do–thanks!

  • Betsey says:

    Duck Hunt!! πŸ™‚

    It is amazing how different things are then what we actually remember – it’s almost like we only remember the amazingly awesome times and forget the bad ones.

  • Rob says:

    video games didn’t exist when I was a kid. Can’t say times were better then, but fairly sure they weren’t worse. No.They were better because we were young and naive.

  • Jamie M says:

    Tecmo SuperBowl for the NES

    Civilization for the Computer

    and the Ultima series – III/IV/V/VI

    Yes, we’re talking late 80s/early 90s.

  • Lynne F says:

    Nostalgia is always a trap–the good old days were never that good. “Gee, I would love to return to a simpler time when 1 in 4 women died in childbirth and doctors didn’t wash their hands…”

  • aamir says:

    Yes most of my time was spend on playing games, most it was mortal combat, fifa and warcraft. I still play fifa and warcraft sometimes, they make me feel like a child again

  • Rhea says:

    Pitfall on the Atari.

  • Molly says:

    I was completely hooked on FROSTBITE on the Atari. Just played for hours.
    Eskimo had to escape from the grizzly polar bear and not get frozen.
    Great fun

  • Rebecca says:

    My favorite game was Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man or even Baby Pac-Man. I even asked for as a holiday gift a miniature arcade that you could play either pluged in or with batteries. It was really fun and kinda slow then when I actually palyed Pac-Man the stand up version in the arcades it was a lot faster and harder for me but, still fun.

  • Ragnar says:

    My favorite video games as a kid were probably Zelda: A Link to the Past. And Ninja Turtles on Super Nintendo. We didn’t have a console but one of my friends did and we would be over at his place and it would seem the games were so long and challenging.

    We played Ninja Turtles again earlier this year… and we beat it in like 1 hour… haha. Sometimes the memory becomes overly fond because of the nostalgia.

  • Peg Cheng says:

    Great article, Chris! The present is the best gift, if we only take the time to realize it. My favorite video games growing up were Ms. PacMan, Dig Dug, Frogger, and one with a boxing Kangaroo.

  • This cracked me up! When I got my driver’s license in 1982, the first thing I did was head to the drugstore a couple of miles away with a handful of quarters. I had myself a grand old time with Ms. Pacman.

    Amazing how we look back and realize we’ve grown. Of course many haven’t grown, or haven’t grown enough in the places we say are our priorities. But I think playing some of those older games might give us a swift kick in the gear. That’s for a great note, Chirs. πŸ™‚

  • Joe says:

    Oh, I grew up with the Atari 2600. I remember cobbling together my First Communion checks and springing for it and a bunch of games. I kept that system for years. Not too long ago, I jury-rigged the system back up and tried some of the games. I was bored with it in minutes. Like you said, the memories were better than the reality of it. I promptly sold the whole thing for a rather princely sum on eBay. Got rid of the clutter, kept the memories, and opened up a small space in my present.

  • No place like the present:) Thank you for your perspective.

  • Grant says:

    NES
    The Legend of Zelda
    Mike Tyson’s Punch Out

    SNES
    Street Fighter II

  • Lucy Chen says:

    I don’t even have the games I used to play as a little kid in English, because I was in China and I know them by Chinese names. One favorite is the Mario Brothers, and one where the blocks of different shapes fall down and you have to fill a row to have it disappear before it reach the top and you lose the game. πŸ™‚

  • Prahlad says:

    I never liked to played games, every feeble attempt to play games on my PC discouraged me to dislike it more. Not sure if I missed something? Could playing video games would have helped me in anyway?Not sure.

  • Wes says:

    Glad there are some Zelda series fans out there. Also loved Metroid. πŸ™‚ I bought a GameCube for this exact reason. Nostalgia, not actually wanting of the current incarnation of the system.

    And I can relate to Claire. I just recently left a job I had been at for over a decade for something less stressful and less consuming of every once if energy. But when I talk about my old job, and think about it, I tend to remember the good and miss it. Of course my partner is very quick to point out that I am forgetting all the bad. So it helps to have someone who can counter these moments of weakness. Lucky I have it.

  • Jenny says:

    Super NES – Kirby’s Avalanche

    Gameboy – Tetris

  • Bobby says:

    I refuse to believe that Final Fantasy 6 (3 on the SNES) has lost any of its luster!!

  • Sarah says:

    I liked this post, Chris, and thought it touched on something important about living in the past. I think you’re absolutely right about how our memories tend to focus on bright moments, and what I see (and have experienced) a lot is people trying or longing to recreate the physical circumstances that helped bring them to those bright moments. This, of course, never works because we can’t (nor do we really want to) recreate who we were in those circumstances. But I do think it’s valuable to think about how we felt and why we felt the way we did at the time of the bright moment. Often when I think back on my best times, I find that wound up in all of it was this feeling of being so alive because I was doing and experiencing NEW things. So it’s simply not possible to recreate that feeling doing something that’s been done already. However, I can find value in exploring what about me made that feeling possible in the first place: I was open to discovery, I was among people who were also excited about the things I was interested in, I was growing toward a dream. These are all things I can still do; this, for me, is the key to finding the new bright moments.

  • I used to play Crystal Quest constantly on my dad’s Apple desktop. Recently, my sister downloaded the Crystal Quest app for iPhone. It was fun for a minute, but definitely not the same as my memories of it. I love the point of your article, which is “live in the now”. Right now–this moment–is as good as it’s going to get, so we shouldn’t dwell in the past thinking the best days are behind us. Great post, Chris!

  • Robert says:

    Commander Keen was for sure a favorite. Still get a chuckle out of its simple play and squeaky sneakers sounds. Today’s games are more often than not a serious time suck, pulling people away from more useful / important projects and only enriching the game development companies.

    Got to go now, my World of Warcraft monk only has another 500 experience points to go before I can get a flying mount, bye.

  • Jeff Goins says:

    I agree.

    There’s something tempting about looking backward and something powerful about focusing on where we are right now. Powerful, but sometimes hard to do.

  • Akinsola says:

    I played then frequently but more in my university days, how those games have really evolved though am not really the game freak but I manage at sometimes to lay my hands on them. It is wisest decision to live in the present,the past is gone.thumbs up for this post Chris.

  • I’d love to play the first Mario on Nintendo if the character can’t die. I remember coming home from school, turning on my Nintendo and always starting from that same stupid stage.

  • Linda says:

    I used to like text-based adventure games, like Castle of Riddles (AcornSoft on the BBC Micro). I was also really, really good at Snapper, the AcornSoft version of PacMan. And not too bad at Elite, which was a classic.

  • Perhaps the games of your past were not better, but the my past games of my own are much better than today. Take final fantasy for example, everything up until Final Fantasy 12 (released in 2006) was great. Since then they’ve simply been lacklustre. At least that’s my opinion on games. On life, you should reflect and move forward. Building the future and keeping the past alive are one and the same thing, as Hideo Kojima once put. Now his videogames did get better with time, I’ll give you that. Final Fantasy VII was my favorite game as a child and it remains so to this day. Favorite games of today include Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Now perhaps they are better examples of what is better. Interesting post. Thanks!

  • I have been trying to keep the “living in the now” mindset, so this was a timely subject for me. I know that you closed your post with a gaming question, but I still find it interesting that the majority of the comments are about gaming (and especially, old games) rather than your point. πŸ™‚

  • Kyu says:

    Nowadays mobile phone games get popular and polular..I am surprised people are still busy to jump and eat heart or gold in playing game..

  • Mindy R says:

    I used to LOVE The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros. (all of them!), Dig Dug, Tetris, everything!!!!

  • Jessica says:

    Crash Bandicoot πŸ˜› Great post, couldn’t have come at a better time =)

  • Bob says:

    Wow another Frostbite fan! I grew up on the 2600, Intellivision and Genesis. Favorites were the aforementioned Frostbite, Sea Battle and Herzog Zwei and Ghouls N’ Ghosts.

    My 16 y/o and I still haven’t been able to get through GnG!

  • Khaled says:

    Interesting post since I just finished The Time Paradox and have been thinking about which time perspective I predominantly use. What you’re talking about is an excessive past positive perspective.

  • jay says:

    Zelda/Mario never get old, for the most part these series hold up. I just replayed FF3 on snes a couple of years ago, it was still fun. The age of the game doesn’t matter- many new games are quite formulaic and use the same game engines, just have different themes slapped on top. There are still many “retro” games being created, 2D platformers, top down hackers, etc. I can have fun playing Perfect Dark today, its a classic still. Tough to beat good design with graghical gimmicks and zombie stories.

  • Powerful stuff right here. The past has nothing to do with your future, so you might as well just focus on what you do NOW:)

  • Graham says:

    Yes, the grass often looks greener on the other side of the fence. Even when we’ve just jumped over it to get where we are now because the grass wasn’t green enough back there.

    As for games, I used to enjoy Space Invaders played for free on the original arcade machines (a friend’s dad used to fix them, and had a shed full of repaired machines needing “testing”).

    I have a cloned version playable on Windows which I still enjoy almost as much. But I don’t play games much and am easily satisfied.

  • Michael Ten says:

    I liked playing Worms and Worms 2 when I was young. Counter-Strike and Ultima Online were also enjoyable.

  • Cat says:

    I had a ZX Spectrum as a kid – Manic Miner, Sabre Wulf & Jumping Jack were my favourites. πŸ™‚

    I played them again on an emulator a few years ago, and had a similar experience to you. I try not to think too much about the past in general. Even happy memories have a bittersweet quality that’s a bit unpleasant, compared to fully being in the present

  • Chessy Pottage says:

    I know this isn’t the topic of your post but I noticed you said, “back when I had hobbies”. You don’t have hobbies now? What do you do for fun?

  • adhie says:

    Back in my home 24 years a go I used to play Super Mario Bross. My parents couldnt afford for the console, so i used to played at the rent house. It was one of the best years in my life, yet sometimes, mind deceive us that those moment was better than now..Thnaks Chris for reminding us to be more grateful with the present moment,

  • Miguel Marfori says:

    My favorite video game in the past as a kid? A lot XD Well, I was a PlayStation gamer (until I added PC and Nintendo into the mix a few years ago), so I played a lot of cool games like Crash Bandicoot, Resident Evil, Final Fantasy, and GTA (specifically 3, Vice City and San Andreas) when they were still exclusive to Sony’s game systems.

    You know, thinking about your post today, I think it depends on the game really. Even to this day, some games in the past are still good. I admit, some aren’t as stellar as I knew them before but you know, it’s good to play a classic amidst the present. Not saying it’s better but it’s nice to take a little trip from the present and try out the classic. πŸ™‚ When I got my Nintendo 3DS, I tried out some the DS games (the predecessor to 3DS, when there was no 3D), and my golly, many of the DS games still rock! Just like the Ace Attorney games and the Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass.

    The past games still got a nice thing to them. It may not be better but it’s good to take a little break from the now and just enjoy the time when the past games still rocked!

  • Miguel Marfori says:

    But yes, going back into the topic at hand, it’s great to be in the very present we are now. The past is the past; now we can create something for our future right? And when you’re in the moment, it feels nice. So that’s why I do my best to just enjoy the “now”.

  • Inge says:

    When we had our first home computer, I used to play Willie the Worm (a DOS game). No idea how my dad got it – it was before the internet of course. Reading back on wikipedia it says the game only had 8 levels and no way to save scores, but I do remember playing it endlessly. Well, it seemed endless anyway, but really couldn’t have been.

  • Christine says:

    I wasn’t allowed to play or have any video games at all, I hid my friends old game boy color in my closet for a while and played a Tarzan game and then once I became a teenager I would play Mario Carts over at my neighbors house.
    In hindsight I’m actually glad that I was never allowed to be hooked on video games- the internet is addicting enough.

  • Josiah Reutter says:

    I whole heartedly agree. I have recently experienced this with a job change I just had. For the longest time in my previous job I would think, “if I were just in a different place and a different field I would finally be able to be at peace.” As it turns out I am in that different job and different place, making more money, and I catch myself at night while i am trying to find sleep thinking, “my old job wasn’t that bad. It would be kinda nice to go back to that lifestyle.” Live in today and enjoy what you do. And if you don’t enjoy it, more power to you to learn something in your spare time that you will enjoy more. No magic potions exist. If you can’t be happy and content now, you will not find it later.

    Oh and I am still a fan of Pokemon Red, Blue, and Yellow πŸ™‚

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  • sihao Cao says:

    I used to play the Madden series of football games when I owned game systems. I particularly enjoyed the franchise mode where I got to pick, develop, and compete in games.
    Now that is in the past and it is time to move forward. Still fond memories nonetheless. A very good post.

  • Andrew says:

    πŸ˜€ Couldn’t agree more with your thoughts, especially about ‘pretending the past was better than the present.’ Loved playing an old game on my Commodore 64 called M.U.L.E. One of the first real trading sims if I remember correctly!

  • TheHonestRealTruthWhyManyOfUsGoodMenAreStillSingleToday says:

    Well for a Good man like me that really wanted to get married and have a family since it definitely would have been so much Easier for me when the Good old fashioned women were around which made it very Easy for our family members that are still together today as i speak. And today the women are Nothing at all like the women in the past were since so many women today have their Careers which Most of them i would say are so very high maintenance, independent, selfish, spoiled, greedy, picky, and so very money hungry too which really speaks for itself why many of us Good men are still Single today which the women of today are very much to Blame since it really does take two too tangle. And there is No Reason at all to Blame ourselves at all since the women of today have certainly Changed since years ago. My other friends of mine certainly Agree with me since they Never Expected to be Single at all either which many of us would have certainly thought by now that we really Should have been all Settled Down by now with our own Good Wife And Family that many of us still Don’t have today Unfortunately. Now that so many women these days want the Best which they will Never Ever settle for Less which is the real Reason why many of us will Never get married.

  • Nikloson says:

    You made it easy to understand. Paidpaper

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