Video game nostalgia is bigger than ever, with print magazines; blogs; emulators, and remakes for modern platforms all catering for those who want to relive the games of their youth.
The problem is that it’s incredibly time-consuming to actually play Jet Set Willy; Chuckie Egg; Super Mario World; Pilotwings; James Pond 2: Robocod; Alex Kidd in Miracle World; The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past; Final Fantasy VII, or whatever game floats your nostalgic boat. What’s more, when you actually play those games from your past, they often feel slow, clunky and nowhere near as exciting as they did when you first sat down with them.
This year, I discovered that iTunes offers a range of Final Fantasy soundtracks, and as the 16-bit and 32-bit games in that series were some of the most important games of my youth and young adulthood, I bought them. On playing classic pieces like VII’s One Winged Angel and Aerith’s Theme, I was taken back to university, with vivid memories and emotions from that time instantly filling my head in a way that the pop music of that time simply doesn’t quite manage. Meanwhile, music from IV and VI transported me to my teenage bedroom, where my brother and I would spend many hours huddled over Nintendo, Sega and Commodore hardware controlling everything from a super-speed hedgehog and crudely realised 3D vehicles and spaceships.
Why would a game soundtrack from 1997 make me feel a way that an album from that same year like Radiohead’s OK Computer couldn’t manage? To me it’s the attention you put into a video game – the emotional investment of seeing your avatar through to the end of its journey. It never quite leaves you. Even if it gets buried by fresher memories over time, all it takes is a well-composed tune you first heard played through an 8-bit or 16-bit console’s basic audio processor to make the feelings come racing back.
The practical element here is important, too. Actually playing Final Fantasy VI all the way through again would take far too long out of my busy adult life, but just listening to its soundtrack is enough to make me feel like I’m playing it for the first time. After all, isn’t that why we get nostalgic – a sense of something we’ve lost and can never recapture?
The only problem is that there aren’t quite enough full soundtrack albums available for the games I’d love to relive this way. Dear Konami, I’d pay good money for an orchestral recording of the Super Castlevania IV soundtrack, and Nintendo would do brisk trade by simply putting the music from its classic SNES Mario and Zelda games online for paid download.
A final tip – if you ever get the chance to see a top orchestra playing music from one of your favourite games, don’t pass it up. I saw the London Symphony Orchestra play music from Final Fantasy IV, VI and X at the Barbican in London this year, and it will stand as one of the highlights of 2013 for me. I’ll be at LSO St Luke’s in London this coming February to see composer Nobuo Uematsu playing the classics himself.