I’ve always felt a little left out when it comes to old school videogame nostalgia.
In my line of work, it’s rare to come across a writer or critic who doesn’t consider themselves a “lifelong fan” of videogames. It’s written into all the pitches and resumes I read as an editor every day. It’s a way, in this hobbyist profession, to establish your passion as the basis of expertise. Rarely do you see an admission of “I didn’t get into games until I was an adult,” or “I appreciate the medium but it doesn’t primarily consume my time.” The videogames community is competitive, but especially when it comes to proving loyalty. How else to assert your “right” to be here?
As such, it’s not often I admit how culturally sheltered I was growing up. My parents were fundamentalist Christian separatists, and from about the age of seven, we were isolated from much of the outside world. There were few things that my parents did not see as a threat to our spiritual well being. Anything “secular”—from Disney movies to my dad’s Pink Floyd albums—was thrown away or burned in elaborate purging ceremonies when our family converted, replaced by a library of entertainment my parents perceived as wholesome or harmless.
As many folks do, my parents held the belief (erroneous or not) that the entertainment of the past was “safe,” that decency standards of the preceding decades could be trusted. So our leisure time was limited to old musicals, Christian rock music, and vintage cartoons. My sisters and I had stacks of VHS tapes with hours of Disney, Warner Bros., Tom & Jerry, even Tex Avery cartoons, hours upon hours of mindless footage we could get lost in day after day. The “occultism” of modern Disney movies was forbidden, mind you, but the ancient antics of Mickey and Friends were considered okay. And so, over time, the sense of routine that children associate with stability became, for me, centered around the bright, cheery worlds of my favorite cartoon heroes. It was a double whammy of “safe”: they weren’t just the only things I was “allowed” to watch. They were also the only place to hide. My parents were neglectful, emotionally unavailable and abusive. Some of the only times I ever felt happy were when I was immersed in a fantasy. Whether staying up until 4 AM reading books or keeping Quack Attack on at all hours of the day like some kind of mental health night light, it was the only way to keep the bad things at bay. If I could keep my mind occupied, I had a shot at surviving my reality. If only for a little while.
Generally we were too poor and too religious to directly participate in videogames culture, but growing up in the ‘90s made it almost impossible to not absorb at least some knowledge. And my parents did eventually buy me and my sisters a Sega Genesis, seeing no issue, for whatever reason, with blue hedgehogs and rubbery red echidnas that were clearly on speed. But my choice in console didn’t make my social life in elementary school all that much easier, and my access to other games remained limited. When the indie revolution of the past several years happened, I almost had to watch from the sidelines. Sure, I liked the art style and I felt some pangs for the fleeting memories I had of Mario and Link and company. But in general, it was like the decades of music, TV, film, and literature I’d missed: yet another reminder of a world I’d yet to catch up on.
I’ve spent the past ten years since I left fundamentalism absorbing as much as I can, filling in the gaps and finally experiencing, in context, the inspiration and origin of various catch phrases and references I’d never quite understood. It wasn’t until I fired up my review copy of Cuphead that I finally felt included in the greater diaspora of American entertainment. My knowledge of pop culture revolves around Perry Como, Ziegfeld Follies and Fleischer Studios. The animation and music of the 1930s isn’t just something I can understand and enjoy as a charming, faded relic of a simpler, more comforting time. For me, it was the only happy place I ever knew. I never thought I’d get to revisit that feeling again.
In games journalism you can’t swing your arm without hitting an article about the healing power of videogames. And I probably wrote at least half of them. To extol the healing and therapeutic nature of virtual entertainment feels so redundant and repetitive. But there’s always merit in transferring our social value for human life to the fictional worlds we increasingly spend our lives in. Cuphead weirdly gives me what no amount of therapy has yet achieved: a happy memory about my childhood.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.