If you were a kid in the 90s, you probably look back on gaming with nothing but nostalgia in your heart. The 90s were a golden age, producing games such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Half-Life, Doom, Super Mario 64, Resident Evil 2, System Shock 2, and Silent Hill, amongst many, many others.
However, gaming has changed a lot since the 90s, and nostalgia often puts a rose-coloured filter over the wide range of difficulties that the fairly new advent of gaming technology was prone to. Whether you hung out in arcades, played games on a PC, or indulged in consoles produced by Sega, Nintendo, or Playstation, there were things about those experiences that no gamer from the modern era has ever had to deal with. Dial-up, for instance - the sound of a connection booting can never be accurately described. Or having your Playstation console as the only CD player in the house. Here are 10 common problems that only plagued gamers in the 90s.
Losing Your Game Genie Booklet
Remember kids, there really was a time where the internet wasn’t the omniscient source of infinite information that it is today, and that time is the 90s. The World Wide Web - the prototype version of the internet we know and love - wasn’t invented until 1989, and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that it really started developing into what we know it to be.
In the absence of web forums where game cheats and walkthroughs could be shared, we needed a more grassroots way to spread game cheat codes and patches. Thus, a company called Codemasters developed the Game Genie - a device that comes with a cartridge that essentially holds the data for the cheats of a particular game. Before you could use the cheats, you’d have to enter a cheat code - each Game Genie cartridge came with a corresponding booklet that contained all of the codes that you could use.
These cheat codes could do anything from making your character invincible to providing infinite ammunition for your weapons - in essence, making games way easier, hence "cheat codes". But some codes were more interesting, altering games to make them more difficult or even unlocking content that developers had originally scrapped, but that remained on the game cartridge.
I know what you’re thinking - “how is this a problem?” Well, Game Genie booklets were pretty small, and far too easy to misplace. Most gamers in the 90s were children - would Yyou manage to keep track of a pamphlet, even a really important one, when you were 10? I didn’t think so. The Game Genie was useless without the booklet, so unless you were able to shell out for Galoob Toys’ quarterly subscription for updated codebooks, you could render the device unusable and have to battle your way through your favourite games with absolutely no help. Bummer, dude.
Needing a Memory Card
Nowadays, there are a million different ways to ensure that you never lose your saved game - you can save it to your console or PC’s hard drive, an external drive, and the cloud if you so choose. It hasn’t always been this way. Storage was a precious commodity in 90s gaming - cartridges were almost incapable of storing anything other than a game’s code on them, and consoles rarely, if ever, came with storage built-in.
The solution to this was to buy an external memory card or memory cartridge. But this technology was also in its infancy in the 90s - the first commercial memory cards only hit the market in 1987, so the ones that would have been available to gamers in the 90s were primitive and expensive. And we just can’t imagine that kind of annoyance - you’ve already bought the console and the game, and now you also have to buy something to store your saved game on? Thank goodness for cloud storage and SSDs.
Fraying Controller Cords
While the age of the wireless controller has been running for ages now, there was a time when all controllers needed to be physically connected to the console. And kids, well… sometimes kids aren’t as careful with their electronics as they should be.
If you were a kid in the 90s and you got a little rough while arguing with your best friend about who should have won that minigame in Mario Party, there was a good chance that you could yank your controller just a little bit too hard and loosen the rubber cover on the cord, exposing bare wires underneath. While this wasn’t really dangerous - you were more likely to be hurt by someone throwing a controller at your head than by being electrocuted by your frayed controller wires - it wasn’t a good look if you wanted to impress your gamer friends.
Forgetting Your Password
This might seem like a fairly modern problem - we forget the passwords for our online accounts all the time. But the concept of a password means something different to gamers of the 90s.
In the early days of video games, storage was either limited or nonexistent, particularly on ROM cartridges. Storing a saved game would be impossible without integrating an additional memory card into the cartridge, jacking up manufacturing costs. The solution was to use a password; the saved game was contained within the password itself so that no extra code needed to be written in the cartridge.
In practice, it worked like this: after you beat a level or you run out of continues, the game asks for a password that you can use to restart from the last level or return the game to the state it was in when the password was set. If you were clever, you could even use passwords as a form of cheat code.
That is, if you could remember them. We can only imagine how much frustration would have come out of forgetting the password that held your entire save game. Imagine having to go back to the beginning and do it all over again, just because you can’t remember a sequence of numbers. Only 90s kids will remember that kind of trauma.
Mechanical PC Mice
While a mouse might seem a run-of-the-mill part of today’s computers, they were a big deal in gaming in the 90s. Using a mouse made PC gaming easier and more accessible, allowing more fine motor control and more elaborate controls.
However, mice weren’t always as helpful as we needed them to be. In the 90s, mice weren’t controlled by an optical sensor; instead, they had a trackball in the bottom. Trackballs were great for giving tactile indications of movement to players, but they were also the best at picking up every molecule of dust and lint in the room while you used them.
A dirty trackball would severely affect the mouse’s performance, and there was nothing you could do about it except taking the cover off and manually cleaning it. Which might not have been ideal in the middle of a LAN party or a game that couldn’t be paused.
Wildly Differing Game Versions
We’re all familiar with the console wars and their endless exclusives, but this era’s passive-aggressive arguments about which next-gen console looks more like a mini-fridge pale in comparison of the all-out fights that could be spawned over which 90s consoles had the best versions of popular games.
Here’s the thing - during the golden age of gaming, consoles often had wildly differing hardware. Porting games was a lot more complicated back then because of these hardware differences, so a game that was released for the SNES, the N64, and the Genesis might be completely different depending on what console you owned. And there was nothing more annoying than discovering that the best version of the game did not come out on the console that you owned.
While this was common in the early 90s era of Sega and Nintendo, it really got complicated when the PlayStation came onto the scene. Even popular games like Tomb Raider and Resident Evil would differ completely in sound and graphics between consoles. If you wanted the best version, you would have to turn to the infant World Wide Web to look at the message boards and see what other people were saying.
Drug PSAs in Arcades
While the arcade was on its way out in the 90s, quickly being replaced by in-home video games, they held on for a little bit longer. For kids who didn’t have consoles at home or maybe just wanted some variety in the games they were playing, the arcade was still cool after school hangout.
In 1989, the FBI decided that it would start using arcades as a vehicle for anti-drug public service announcements as part of President Nixon’s war on drugs. The slogan that they eventually settled on was “Winners Don’t Use Drugs”, and it played in between the little trailers that ran during an arcade cabinet’s attract sequence. This campaign ran for a whopping 11 years, only ending in 2000. So if you were a kid hanging out in arcades in the 90s, you probably saw this advert thousands of times. I’m sure there are some that can still see it when they close their eyes.
A lot of people have probably heard about dial-up internet as a concept, but only gamers in the 90s will really understand how it worked or how annoying it was. The short version is this: dial-up internet used the public phone network to connect you to an Internet service provider by dialling a number on a phone line.
This was all well and good, except it meant that you had to dominate the family phone line in order to play even the worst quality online games - something that few parents would put up with very often. And that noise it made when it started up is something that still haunts some of our nightmares.
Renting Games Instead of Buying Them
Some things never change - one of those things is that video games are expensive. Even back in the 90s, a game could cost anywhere from $40 to $90 - which is a dear price to a kid who makes all their pocket money mowing lawns or babysitting.
The solution? Blockbuster and other video rental stores quickly caught on that they could also rent out video games, and even consoles. For the low price of $7.99, gamers could enjoy a title for a week. This was a blessing, but it was also a curse - after all, you only had a week to finish the game, or you had to pay an extra dollar for every extra day you needed to get to the end of Ocarina of Time.
Games With Multiple Discs
If you buy physical copies of modern games, you might argue with me on this one. After all, Red Dead Redemption 2 came with two discs, and that game only came out in 2018. But hold on a minute, friends. The game code for Red Dead Redemption 2 is still contained on a single disc - the other disc in the case is an installer. Not so for games in the 90s.
As we’ve talked about over and over again in this article, storage was the biggest obstacle in the 90s gaming. Games were slowly getting better throughout the decade, and that brought on a new trend - full motion video cutscenes. But storage technology hadn’t quite caught up to developers’ aspirations just yet, so it was necessary to store some games on multiple discs. Players would reach a certain point, only to have to insert the next disc to keep going. Some games like Final Fantasy VIII came with a whopping 4 discs. That’s a lot of cutscenes!
And there you have it! We hope we unlocked some nostalgia for you or at least showed you how good gamers have it now. Maybe dig out an old N64 and get into some old titles, just to see what it might have felt like.