Nostalgia is one of my favorite topics to talk about, especially when it comes to video games. Video games have a great way of capturing a time and a place and embedding it forever in our conscious or subconscious. We all remember the first times we booted up classics like Super Mario Brothers or DOOM. We all remember those first moments of completely new exploration and discovery. We also remember the times we shared those memories with close friends and family.
Nostalgia is a powerful feeling. I’ve written about it several different times now. I’ve reminisced over old MMORPGs, and I’ve talked about selling away my gaming past for a less definite future. Video games go beyond simple nostalgia for me, though. Video games and the memories they have produced over the course of my lifetime capture key ways I remember those I’ve loved and those I’ve lost.
The holidays aren’t easy after having a lot of deaths in your family. From the age of 13 until I was 20, I managed to lose two grandparents, two aunts, a first cousin, and my only brother. Psychological and spiritual implications aside, there is an obvious and definite change in holiday dynamics when you cut out a fourth of the people who were there celebrating along with you every year before. Joyous gift-giving and great food take on a muted, somber note that I don’t think a person ever really shakes off.
I am eight years younger than my older brother. We couldn’t have been more different, though that’s more or less the case for me with everyone in my family. Growing up in south Alabama, there is an expectation that you’ll be a good Christian hunter who loves football and doesn’t mind spending every hour of sunlight outside playing sports. I, on the other hand, wanted most of all the peace and quiet to read, play video games, and write some very bad short stories.
When we were both still young though, my brother had a Nintendo all of his own. He hoarded it away in his room, which only made me more and more curious to play it and tempted even more to sneak in while he was away. I fondly remember my brother and some of my cousins playing all of the classics – games like Dragon Warrior, Zelda, Metroid, and Mega Man – but I was too young to play any of them seriously.
As my brother and my oldest cousins grew older, video games became less and less important. Instead, they were replaced with bad rap music and illegal drug use. I doubled down though. I had seen those classic games in my youth and had snuck in playing a few of them on my own. The next youngest member of my family, a cousin four years my senior, and I spent a great deal of time exploring the corridors of Wolfenstein 3D. When I had finally saved up enough money, she and I moved onto the SNES and games like Yoshi’s Island and Killer Instinct. Given the age difference, our days of co-oping through some of gaming’s greatest were always numbered. But by the time I had moved on to playing a Playstation, I was completely hooked on gaming for life.
My brother and I weren’t close until much later in his life, but for at least one year, the Playstation brought us much closer together. When he was younger, my brother had been a big Castlevania fan. One day he showed up in my room randomly with a copy of Symphony of the Night he wanted to play in MY Playstation. After fighting and yelling and me yelling for our mother in the other room, I finally relented to letting him play.
It was absolutely amazing. Symphony of the Night stands as one of my favorite games of all time for many obvious reasons. First of all, the fact that it is actually really good. But you also can’t forget the great art, music, level design, and boss battles. My brother and I traded it back and forth, even going so far as to trade stories about our individual play sessions. For that reason alone, I will never forget the game. It perfectly captured a place and a time where my brother wasn’t cursed quite so horribly with addiction and depression and where I seemed like a fun, normal little brother to him. We started on Final Fantasy VII together, but he found other things to do. We drifted back apart as I lost myself in the affairs of Cloud, Aerith, and Sephiroth.
While my brother was close to my older male cousins, I was only ever really close to the one younger, female one. That began to change when my first cousin, nicknamed Hambone, noticed I was playing a copy of Dragon Warrior on my Gameboy Color. Hambone was a beloved character by everyone in our family. He just had a certain hopeful spirit that could only ever make you smile.
Still, like my brother, he and I weren’t very close. He was six years older than me and very much a typical male of the Alabama wilderness. While I shot ducks on duck hunt, he hunted deer for sport. As I spent my time reading Greek mythology and Dragonlance novels, he practiced for the football team or the basketball team. However, seeing me play Dragon Warrior brought him back to playing it himself on his Nintendo when he was younger. Never having anything to really talk about with him, I suddenly could ask him for tips and advice on beating the game. He didn’t remember all that well, but he didn’t mind talking to me about it.
That was the first and only time we ever really bonded. Hambone passed away tragically in his sleep from an un-diagnosed medical condition at the age of 20. His warmth has been missed at every holiday since.
Hambone’s death came less than a year before the sudden passing of a close Aunt of mine. While she and I never bonded over video games, she was always up for a game of tennis or some softball. She was also one of the nerdier members of our family who always took a personal stake in each and everyone’s personal life, even if that meant getting a phone call when you least wanted it. I remember her fondly, though I was still pretty young.
I’ve mentioned it before, but baseball is honestly a serious thing in my life. It was one of the major things my Aunt I ever talked about, but also the way I talked to my grandfather. He had never been close to my dad due to some serious alcoholism, but later in life he cleaned up. We moved in 1999 right next door to him, and he and I became a lot closer. Similar to how I am with my dad now or my Aunt before, my grandfather and I talked about our beloved Atlanta Braves.
All types of games have a strange way of bringing people with entirely different life stories together under one roof. These stories are just a few of my own examples. They don’t even cover the intense rivalries I had with my friend in WWE Smackdown games or the epic Halo birthday parties my friends and I took turns throwing. Nor did I get to talk about that brief moment in time with my mother and I were both hopelessly addicting to SEGA Swirl.
But it’s that nostalgia and those memories that make life special and interesting and worth continuing. When my brother died in 2008 after a couple of really bad years where I tried my best to get close enough to him to help him change his path, I was devastated. The joy of the holiday season had already been depleted to record lows, but knowing that I would never have him wake me up on a Christmas Day again to come see the gifts under the tree defeated the reason for even having a Christmas Day in the first place. Still, you move on, heavier heart and all.
You keep going so that you can carry on old memories and make new ones. You don’t stop celebrating the holidays, because there are still loved ones left to celebrate them with. True gamers don’t quit – they always press continue.
So whether you have a happy or sad holiday season, just remember those great moments of togetherness you have had in your life bonding over some game. Remember the first time someone showed you how to get the whistle and skip worlds in Super Mario Brother 3. Remember that time you and someone else sat up all night trying to finish a Donkey Kong game. Remember all of your great ‘war’ stories from GoldenEye or Mario Kart or Street Fighter.
Most of all, remember the people you played those games with and how much you loved them. Life is better with good games, and good games are better with great people.