Recently, a friend of mine sent me a video in which kids of this new generation react to a Game Boy, and I suddenly realized how dated that system is. Technological advancements aside, even the name Game Boy isn’t really around anymore – granted, if I can remove my nostalgia blinders for a second to be realistic I can understand that the name is sexist and discouraging women from playing (and let’s face it, the Game Girl was poorly executed and very much the gaming equivalent of two drinking fountains in the 60s). But all this aside, the Game Boy produced some solid games that I have yet to truly cover, and Tumblepop is something that has more or less become a cult classic without me ever learning its name until just a week ago.

Originally, I had planned this to be for my other column, Late To The Game, but I found that the more interesting discussion was retrospective on how the game was built rather than just calling the game good or bad and describing the experience of playing. Everything about the experience just reminded me of joys – and frustrations – of games that don’t really exist anymore.

It’s a sign of the times that this game makes virtually no sense without the accompanying backstory that originated in the instruction manual, a trope that doesn’t exist these days because nobody ever reads the manual anymore. Not even the title gave me a clue what was going on; before looking it up, all I could tell was that this game was about taking plants, animals, and balls of fire and sucking them into a vacuum. I would later learn that the game revolves around a team of ghost-busters, and that the player was traveling to places such as Moscow, Egypt, Paris, New York City, Antarctica, and space. Granted, this was extremely apparent in the arcade version.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the instruction manual backstory filled in gaps where limited hardware could not – and while advancements in technology have made this largely obsolete, there’s a certain imagination factor that was cost with the characters developing on their own. Sure, the player interprets the scenes as he or she desires, but it is a lot more inherent and author-driven in terms of what we should think of a given character. Of course, this would also come at the cost of not getting much character development as the game progressed, which is an inherently valuable part of creating a plot that can move the player.

Side by side comparison of the Game Boy and arcade versions.

Side by side comparison of the Game Boy and arcade versions.

Another big part of culture that is sort of lost on new generations, which you can almost see in the Game Boy Tumblepop, is the inevitable comparison to the arcade. The same way many people will watch movies and whisper to their friends, “The book was better,” gamers of the late 80s and early 90s would frequently compare how a video game translated from the arcade to a home port, be it console or handheld. In those days, one of the highest compliments you could give a game was that it was just like the arcade version.

Of course, given the arcade genre was still more active and trying to incentivize players to return and spend money rather than play indefinitely and frugally at home, and given that hardware of the same caliber as an arcade machine wasn’t cheap and reasonable for a home purchase, part of what made this compliment so special was because it was seldom true. If you compare the Game Boy version of Tumblepop to its Arcade version predecessor, you can notice drastic changes. Immersive music is replaced with midis slightly above the catchiness and interval complexity of an ice cream truck jingle, and the colorful backgrounds are replaced with just white screen.

The Game Boy version also varies from the arcade version by utilizing a password system for saving – something that modern gamers are really missing out on. Early 90s kids, before the age of the internet and everyone having cell phones, would predominantly chat through word of mouth, and there were few rushes that truly matched the thrill of running down the street to your friend’s house with a notebook in which you’ve written down a password to a level he or she hadn’t seen yet.

Aside from the nostalgia factor, games that used passwords to save had a certain logistical advantage that games don’t have today. Let’s say, hypothetically, your console breaks or is stolen before a game is finished, and you purchase it again to see it through. Rather than starting from scratch, you could simply pick up your old password and keep going with minimal loss. Modern gamers also experience the occasional frustration of patches rendering saves unusable, along with the occasional frustration of limited data; you typically only get a few saves per game, unless you transfer data via some sort of memory card.

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Of course, the common practice of save files no doubt has its own advantages that led to the increase in usage. For example, our favorite RPGs and story based games wouldn’t work as well on password systems due to the limited number of variables that could be associated with a given progress. Arcade-era console gaming also gave children the headache that modern gamers won’t fully grasp: the spirit-crushing moment where a 20 character password was off by one letter, making the entire transcribing process useless and forcing the player to get back to that point again. Contributing to this issue was the fact that earlier password-based games would have misleading letter combinations, such as a string of Os and 0s together (luckily, in Tumblepop, the letter O is removed from the password entry screen entirely to prevent this issue). Nostalgia occasionally makes me miss password systems, but I think we’ve traded up overall.

Between the save features, the constantly comparing to the arcade version, and the instruction manual backstory, Tumblepop very accurately encompasses a lot of game culture that is a relic of the past – the very essence of retro gaming. Old games don’t just provide us with prequels to our current favorites; they also show us the progression we have made as players, and the varying techniques that have led to where we are now. Each game, whether it was highly acclaimed or a total flop, or a cult classic not appreciated in its time, tells not just its own story but the story of what’s working, what’s not working, and how developers have fine tuned games overtime in response. I never played Tumblepop in the past, and still find it honestly a little unremarkable now, but I can without a doubt see the role it played on the long timeline of games that led to the here and now.

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