Tricky, Tricky Nostalgia
The desire to revisit the media and culture of our youth often becomes a way to relive what made us happy as youngsters. If you remember something fondly, it was inherently good (or at least continues to provide value) and will remain good in perpetuity, even when held to modern standards. Through this lens, Wild Wild West will always be an entertaining film, Dunkaroos will always be the height of culinary arts, and Marvel adaptations could never exceed the quality of Fox’s mid-’90s Spider-Man cartoon. If I truly loved something back then, why shouldn’t I still love it now?
But what about when we become nostalgic for things we didn’t fully appreciate at the time?
When Chester Bennington died in 2017, I realized then and only then how much I enjoyed the first two Linkin Park albums, even though I probably didn’t talk about them that way in 2004. When A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood released in theaters a few years ago, I found myself choking back tears at Tom Hanks’s tremendous depiction of beloved television icon Fred Rogers, only for my parents to remind me that I never really watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, instead spending my TV time with superhero shows or Animaniacs. Revisiting these works triggered a heavy emotional response in me that I didn’t even know I could have about them, and inadvertently caused me to create a revisionist history of my own life.
Apparently, the same is true for my time with the Game Boy generation.
Whole Worlds in our Hands
Earlier this month, Nintendo announced that a collection of Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance titles would be added to its Nintendo Switch Online subscription service, with the GBA games only available to subscribers of NSO’s higher-priced Expansion Pack. In a Nintendo Direct presentation punctuated by a new trailer for The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, a release date for Pikmin 4, and a shadow-dropped remake of Metroid Prime, nothing stoked my excitement quite like the ability to replay some of the Big N’s best handheld titles.
The initial selection of playable games (which curiously lacked anything with Pokémon in the name) contains a handful of timeless classics, including Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, WarioWare, Inc.: Mega MicroGames, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX, and one of my personal favorites: The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap. Nintendo’s approach toward legacy content curation on the Switch is suspect to say the least, but there are some legitimately excellent Game Boy and GBA games playable on modern hardware right now, and even the “bad” ones are still worth a shot.
It didn’t take long for these old titles to put a smile on my face. Memories of yesteryear rushed through my brain as I played my way through Kirby’s Dream Land and Mario Kart: Super Circuit, and I felt in these moments like I was a kid again, gleefully running through magical lands filled with endless possibilities, with everything right in the palms of my hands. Even as these titles have clearly shown their age in more ways than I can count, the childlike wonder resurfaced immediately as I gripped my Switch joy-cons, as though it had never gone away.
Where Did This Come From?
In truth, however, my actual experience playing these classic handhelds was a little different. Besides Pokémon and Tetris, I didn’t play that many classic Game Boy titles when they came out. Sure, I’d see the games my friends were playing, such as Donkey Kong ‘94 and the first Super Mario Land, but I mostly stuck to home console games, as I felt (and still largely feel) they were better. During the Game Boy Advance generation, I largely spent my time playing enhanced ports of Super Nintendo games I already owned, such as Super Mario Advance 2: Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past + Four Swords.
I ended up trying a lot of Game Boy- and GBA-exclusive titles later in life (including a few on the 3DS), but besides Pokémon Silver, Minish Cap, and maybe Pokémon Pinball, I somehow avoided much of what people admired about these ’90s handheld toys. Occasionally, I’d rent something from Blockbuster, but even then I could only enjoy a fraction of the experience given the limited rental window.
To be clear, I played the HELL out of the Game Boy-era games that I did own. I can find all the secrets of Super Mario World in my sleep. I started a new save of Pokémon Silver at least once a year until I was maybe 14 years old. Minish Cap remains an all-time great Zelda game to me, and there’s nothing you can say that will convince me otherwise. I think I put more hours into Tetris 2 (yes, you read that right) than I could ever admit to my parents. That said, if I had to rank every Nintendo console by how nostalgic I feel about them, neither the Game Boy nor Game Boy Advance would crack the top five.
Still, I’m finding a sense of joy in playing these delightful handheld goodies on Switch, more so than when Nintendo 64 games came to NSO (and I hold that system’s library in fairly high regard). It’s not just that I’m having fun; I can’t stop thinking about completing Minish Cap again, working to unlock the classic courses in Super Circuit, and even trying out that random Alone in the Dark Game Boy Color title. Metroid II might be the worst game in the series, but I’ll give it another shot. I haven’t played one minute of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, yet I’m more excited to play it than basically any new AAA release on the horizon (besides Tears of the Kingdom, obviously).
With every second I spend playing these older games, I realize that, in a sense, I experienced this generation completely wrong. I had the opportunity to play more of these games when they were fresh and new, and I largely missed out in favor of largely forgettable console experiences (and, if we’re being honest, tons of crappy flash games on sketchy websites). Somehow, the joy I could have felt back then has exploded within me now, and I don’t see that joy going away anytime soon.
The Past Is Gone
Typically, when we yearn for elements of the past, we don’t actually want to relive or revisit specific things; we just miss being younger and more carefree. I would never drink a Four Loko and spend hours at a random dubstep concert at Webster Hall at this point in my life, but I kind of miss being physically and mentally capable of such a thing, the way I was in my early 20s. I wouldn’t say I miss high school in any meaningful sense, but I do miss spending most of my days with friends, especially as the realities of adulthood have naturally created more distance between us.
Playing (and replaying) all these old games unlocked a level of excitement in me I didn’t anticipate, but not because I wish every new title felt like them. What they make me yearn for, rather, is a time when handheld gaming felt largely distinct from its home console counterparts. With the Switch, Steam Deck, and cloud streaming on phones, gaming on the go has become largely indistinguishable from gaming at home. Sure, there are plenty of dedicated mobile titles to play, but most of them feel half-baked, unimaginative, and disposable. You might get something like the Playdate, but for the most part the industry has moved past the need for dedicated handheld game development.
With each iteration of the Game Boy, however, people could play games built around the handheld experience, with short levels, easy save features, and tons of replay value. Additionally, so many of these smaller titles presented an opportunity for developers (particularly Nintendo) to try wonky ideas that would likely have been less well-received on consoles (e.g. Link’s Awakening’s narrative twists, Mario Land 2’s more open-ended level selection, basically everything about Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble). I’m not saying I want every new Nintendo game to look and play like Metroid II, but I do kind of miss that separation of Church and State, so to speak.
I’ve accepted that gaming today can never be the way it was when I was a kid, and that’s totally fine. But I realize now that I miss the days when something like The Minish Cap could even exist, let alone become a hidden gem in a massively popular franchise. If only I’d appreciated that era when I had the chance.
What Game Boy and Game Boy Advance games are you looking forward to playing on Switch? Let us know in the comments!