Some days I feel like, if my apartment was burning to the ground and I could only rescue one material possession, I’d go straight for my USB-fitted retro NES gamepad. I love the simplicity of its modest, rectangular design. Elderly people wax poetic about the good ole days when life was so much simpler, but everyone knows things were just as thorny and confusing back in the ’40s or ’50s or whenever—teen pregnancy, murder, lawlessness. Nostalgia conveniently edits out the unsavory bits and leaves people with the comfort of that perfect, glimmering delusion. The NES controller, however, hides no such complexity: one directional pad, two circular red buttons, select and start. Same as it ever was.
Nintendo doesn’t seem to fully appreciate the nostalgic gaming impulse. If they did, they wouldn’t have bothered trotting out their soulless Classic Controller for the Wii. Instead of a one-size fits all controller for playing Virtual Console games, they should be selling a whole range of retro gamepads—NES, SNES and N64 gamepad replicas—that recreate the precise look and feel of the original controllers. The only difference being the cord, which would plug directly into the Wiimote. I have a feeling many retro gamers would gladly shell out extra money for the familiarity of those classic gamepads. It’s impossible to overstate how large a part of the retro gaming experience is simply holding the exact sort of controller you held when you originally played the game.
The past couple weeks, while the game blogosphere has been chattering about Bayonetta and Mass Effect 2, I’ve been methodically working my way through Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, again. Hyrule is just the same as I left it. Every uniformly square tile of forest and mountain and meadow is in exactly the spot I remember. You can still drop by any village and visit The Woman in the Red Dress who invites Link inside her house to restore his life meter (as a kid, I never stopped to wonder what might be transpiring behind that closed door). The ocean is just as calm. Nobody’s aged one day, except me.
It’s no wonder retro gaming offers players such a feeling of comfort. For anyone who’s visited their childhood home and didn’t recognize it because somewhere along the line a subsequent owner repainted the exterior purple and converted the garage into a third bedroom, our childhood videogames invite us to enter a world where the ache of recognition washes over like a warm bath. You’re never lost. You know exactly which patch of forest you can clear with your magical hammer to reveal the hidden village of Kasuto. It’s always in the same place, always. Your expectations are never thwarted.
The real world offers no such certainties. One day I will pick up the phone to call my parents. But, instead of punching in their number, I will merely swallow hard and return the handset to its charging cradle. Every time I finish Zelda II, the princess rouses from Gannon’s vile enchantment. She never goes on sleeping.
Jason Killingsworth is Paste’s games editor. He is based in Dublin, Ireland, and writes about music, film, tech and games for a variety of outlets. You can reach him online at jason [at] pastemagazine.com.