The never-ending 80s

Sat May 23, 2020

Self-isolation week 11.

We are entering “Phase 2” - a gradual reopening of services and return to societal norms. It will, however, take a long time for everything to return to the way it was. After so many weeks, we are now habituated to physical distancing and it will be hard to just stop.

This is the new reality: Zoom is now worth more than the world’s seven biggest airlines - combined. If you were reading this six months ago, you’d ask what the heck Zoom is.

All too often, it feels like we’ve travelled down the wrong timeline - as if we weren’t supposed to wonder into this mildly dystopian future. I’ll admit that this perspective has been tainted by the book I’m currently reading - Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch.

The time-travel concept in this novel is brilliant: the past cannot be altered, and the present (called “terra firma” ) is the only true reality. You can travel into the future, but will be flung randomly into an infinite number of possible future timelines.

So, you can’t return to the present and win the lottery - the numbers will be different in every IFT (inadmissible future trajectory). “Inadmissible” because you can’t arrest somebody Minority-Report style for a crime they haven’t committed yet. Anyway, definitely read the book if you love the time-travel genre as much as I do - it’s great.

For me, this feeling of dissonance with the current reality has kindled a nostalgia for the past. I don’t want to live in the past - I would miss things like document auto-save and a little thing called “the internet”. But I understand why people often say that the past seems like a simpler time…

Let’s be honest, any time before COVID-19 seems like “a simpler time”. Having said that, there is one particular decade that everybody has a thing for. And a nostalgia trip to this decade is just the distraction we all need in these troubled times.

I’m talking, of course, about the 1980s. The reasons for 80s nostalgia varies, but you can’t deny the exuberance, the colour, and the brashness of this decade - in short, the 80s was just plain fun (Cold War aside).

From Haim to Stranger Things to denim jackets, the 80s has been re-appropriated countless times in the 21st century. Yet, as much as I loved binge-watching Chernobyl and enjoy playing the odd 8-bit indie game, you just can’t beat the real thing.

Maybe I’m just a biased old man (even though I try to keep an open mind). I was just a kid in the 80s, so naturally my childhood memories evoke a certain wistfulness. The many cultural touchstones of that time that I still carry today are so much more poignant than the imitations, no matter how sincere the tribute. I’d like to share some of them with you.

There are plenty of great movies that have come out in the past twenty to thirty years, but…the best movies are 80s movies. I’m talking Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aliens, Return of the Jedi, Rambo, Beetlejuice, The Goonies - the list goes on and on.

If you’re new around here - as in new to Planet Earth - you may not have hands-on experience with pure 80s cheese. Perhaps you’re looking for that one obscure 80s movie that epitomizes the time. Look no further than the hilarious and heart-warming Summer School. Here’s a clip for you.

If that was a bit too authentic for you, maybe just wait for Wonder Woman 1984 - yet another throwback to the 80s, coming this August. Also one of the only blockbusters coming out this year.

I grew up on classic 80s TV shows such as Knight Rider, MacGyver, Airwolf, The A-Team, and Magnum, P.I. Although these shows have excellent nostalgic value, I’m under no illusion that they’re any good. Re-watching any of these shows today kind of ruins the memory - they haven’t aged well.

TV back then was a far more insidious affair. Scheduled broadcast times often coincided with dinnertime (giving rise to the awful TV dinner). Also, you couldn’t skip the ads. Ads like this one. I don’t know how many commercials I watched as a child, but I’m sure it is a shockingly-high number.

It’s clear that the state of “television” entertainment is so much better today.

But I still see KITT at suburban car shows, Mr. T is still a pop-culture icon, and Tom Selleck will always look good in a Ferrari. TV shows may have been bad in the 80s, but the characters, who live on in our collective consciousness, still make us smile.

The music, oh that sweet 80s music - I am so sick of it. 80s hits have been played to death - to death - on the radio. Non-offensive background noise for every mall everywhere. Which is why I’m so glad we’ve moved into the streaming era. And the online commerce era. We never have to listen to 80s music again. Video did not kill the radio star, Spotify did.

Except… now that it isn’t being forced down our throats, I can gingerly return to those glory days on my terms - without the nausea. If you’re looking for a really good time, pick a favourite year from the 80s and watch the YouTube remix. You’ll find a new appreciation for the sheer, unstoppable, hit-after-hit, fashion-making power of the 80s music industry.

PC gaming in the 80s started off right. Before the industry became saturated with violent first-person shooters, adventure games reigned supreme. I still find it depressing that the goal shifted from puzzle solving to killing people. From humour to warfare. But in the 80s, the best games were Sierra games. I spent hours playing through fun, narrative-driven adventures such as King’s Quest and Leisure Suit Larry.

If I had to pick one though, my favourite Sierra game of all time is Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon. When I first played it, the meta ending blew my mind - you had to rescue the two actual programmers of the game from an evil CEO who was forcing them to design terrible games under the crack of a whip. You then deliver the poor souls to Ken Williams, the president of Sierra games on Earth - a happy ending of improved working conditions. It was amazing.

Take a moment to appreciate the latest advances in game engines. Watch the Unreal Engine 5 demo to see the impressive virtualized geometry and real-time lighting effects coming to next-gen consoles. Then take a step back and appreciate how Sierra created one of the first game engines - the Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI). We’ve come a long way, but AGI allowed artists and writers to focus on the story to create timeless adventure games over thirty years ago.

These days you can play Sierra games directly in your browser. But when I was a kid, you had to make schoolyard deals to trade floppy disks. If you were a good source, you’d join an exclusive insider group of young pirates. I had to build up quite the trading network back in the day - it wasn’t easy. Unless you had rich parents who could actually afford to buy the games of course.

If you got stuck, you would have to call up friends who had finished the game or, if you were in good standing, consult the trading network. If you had no other recourse, you could buy an extremely overpriced hint book.

Having emerged from the primordial ooze of the 80s as a kid, I lived my teenage years in the 90s - which is a whole other blog post I might write about sometime.

But for now, shun all the substandard 80s remakes. There is nothing more intoxicating than the original - no matter how raw. Stick your A-ha cassette into your boom box, put on your Ferris-Bueller Ray Bans and close your eyes. Escape from this dark timeline and drift into a neon-coloured fever dream, into a pleasant purgatory where the 80s never ends.

  « Previous: Next: »