Do you ever feel like video games were better when you were young? It's easy to look back on the wondrous joys offered by classics like Super Metroid, Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64, and come to the regrettable conclusion that gaming simply isn't as good as it once was.
Of course, this sentiment is heavily inflected by a powerful dose of rose-tinted nostalgia. In reality, after being spoilt by the photo-realistic graphics and razor sharp controls of modern games, you'll quickly find out that it's actually rather hard to go back to your beloved childhood favorites.
I once gave my 10 year-old cousin my treasured copy of Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64, thinking I'd bestowed upon him the single greatest gift known to man. He chucked it back in my lap the very next day, murmuring something about getting bored after the first level and going back to play Call of Duty. I was crushed.
The duanting realization that video games had moved on - as had the players along with them - was sickening to me. Was it impossible for a young gamer - who's grown up playing nothing but Gears of War and Uncharted all their life - to experience the charm of something like Doom when removed from its historical context?
The Game Changer
Determined to prove to my cousin how wrong he was about Goldeneye, I pressed him further. He told me part of the problem was that he couldn't figure out where to go, and found it too difficult to control. I was amazed. I started to explain the joys of incomprehensible map screens and 'M' shaped controllers that demanded you contort your hand into a cramp-inducing claw just to aim, shoot and strafe simultaneously. He just didn't understand, I told him.
But how could he? This wasn't gaming as he understood it. The antiquated 'rules' of older games hadn't been explained to him. Or rather, he hadn't learnt their eccentricities by being forced to play them.
After failing to convince my cousin, I realized that my love of Goldeneye was inextricably tied to my first experience playing it. So how do you restore that naivety to someone who expects all the trappings of a 2014 shooter? The answer is, you can't.
If that's the case, then a whole goldmine of retro classics will be forever lost on the youth of the future; the games I dodged bedtimes to stay up and play lost in the whirlwind of history.
A Father's Experiment
But, just imagine if you could re-live your first time playing Ocarina of Time all over again, untainted by your exposure to modern video games? This is an experience one particularly dedicated father decided to give to his son.
Avid gamer Andy Baio wanted to conduct an ambitious experiment, using his son Eliot as the test subject. The experiment aimed to answer just one question:
"What happens when a 21st-century kid plays through video game history in chronological order?"
Baio aimed to give Eliot a crash course in video game history, compressing 25 years of gaming into just 4, and it was to begin on Eliot's fourth birthday. This is what was on the syllabus:
Start with the arcade classics and Atari 2600, from Asteroids to Zaxxon. After a year, move on to the 8-bit era with the NES and Sega classics. The next year, the SNES, Game Boy, and classic PC adventure games. Then the PlayStation and N64, Xbox and GBA, and so on until we’re caught up with the modern era of gaming.
Eliot began, appropriately enough, with the first major arcade phenomenon, Pac Man, and it wasn't long before he was hooked.
Baio recalls how Eliot would usually play sitting on his lap, the gaming prodigy handing the controller over to his dad during particularly difficult sections. But as he grew up, Eliot started finishing games all by himself.
In 2011, the duo made the jump to 3D, moving on to the Nintendo 64 to beat Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. When he was just 7 years-old, Eliot had collected all 120 stars in Super Mario 64; a feat I haven't achieved to this day.
Only at this point did Eliot start playing games released in his own lifetime, completing ICO and Shadow of the Colossus on the PlayStation 2.
The Apprentice Becomes the Master
Then, something extraordinary started to happen. The life-long video game training regime Eliot had undergone began to pay off - in a big way.
As a inadvertent result of his father's experiment, Eliot had become an exceptionally skilled gamer. After all, he'd cut his baby teeth on some of the most demanding 8-bit titles ever released. He wasn't used to the hand-holding tutorials of modern games, or linear corridor shooters like Call of Duty, which practically played themselves. He'd learnt the hard way, and no game seemed to put up a challenge anymore.
Incredibly, a month after he turned 8, Eliot beat one of the hardest games of all time: Spelunky. Not even his dad could beat it - the apprentice had become the master.
Going Through Hell and Back
Not content with his achievement, Eliot set his sights on beating the exponentially harder Hell mode. Game designer Tom Francis says it's
the hardest thing I’ve ever managed in a video game… It only took 41 minutes, but it took me hundreds of hours of play — and about 3,000 deaths — to learn how to do those 41 minutes.
A few months ago, Eliot did the impossible, completing Spelunky's mercilessly difficult Hell mode at just 8 years old. Derek Yu, the game's creator, thinks he might be the youngest person to have ever done it.
Ignorance is Bliss
Andy Baio's rather unorthodox parenting resulted in his son gaining a life-long appreciation of all games, enabling him to appreciate the historic breadth of the industry. That, I believe, is a pretty special gift. And at the heart of it all, is a father and son simply sharing their common passion:
At this point, you’re probably either thinking I’m a monster or a pretty awesome dad. Maybe a little of both. That’s okay with me. My son is amazing, he loves video games, and more than anything, he loves playing them with me.
It may be impossible to convince kids of these days to go back to the games of your childhood, but it's not if you make them the games of their childhood too.
You can read Baio's full report here.