I recently picked up an Xbox One S along with The Master Chief Collection. The Halo franchise is sixteen years old but aside from a few random multiplayer matches at friends’ houses through the years, I’ve never played a Halo game. When The Master Chief Collection was first announced, I watched as Halo fans reveled in its promise to allow them to revisit the world they had come to love. I found myself with the sudden capability to enter into that world for the first time.
Years have passed since the release and I tossed around the idea of picking up an Xbox One, along with the hope that the collection would make it to PC and the realization that adding another platform into my life didn’t make a whole lot of sense. With no PC port in sight and some pretty stellar Black Friday deals, I’m now halfway through Halo: Combat Evolved.
As I’ve journeyed through Halo, I’ve felt this surge of nostalgia for years of my life that I never lived. I remained attached to the PlayStation 2 from its launch through the first half of the last decade. It was strange for me, as I’d always grown up with multiple consoles in the house. Perhaps they were from varying generations, like my NES and Genesis, but they were enjoyed simultaneously. When we reached the sixth generation of video game consoles, I only experienced the Xbox through magazine coverage and toy stores.
I remember reading a magazine that featured a huge spread on the Xbox. It showed off the launch lineup and held promise of something different. I saw the images in the magazine and got a look into a weird world where I wasn’t sure that I’d fit. There were familiar faces, but they looked different. I saw Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, but it was a weird version of what I played on PlayStation and not at all the new Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 that I just spent my weekend eating Corn Nuts over during a promotional tour for the game at a local skatepark. I saw a new Oddworld game, but it had a giant can of Mountain Dew on the cover and I didn’t understand what it was trying to offer me (this was a weird conclusion for me to draw, I know that now). There was a racing game with “Gotham” in the title but I couldn’t find Batman anywhere. Still, looking at the hardware kept me baited on the other side of the pages.
In the middle of the magazine was a two-page breakdown of the console. It did that great thing that magazines did where small lines are drawn to arbitrary sections of a console and inscriptions are made on the page about what lies beneath the plastic. I remember pining over every detail and seeing how it stacked against my beloved PlayStation 2. What was written mostly escapes me today, but one point still remains etched in my memory: “Remove the center logo for a spot to place your drink.” It seemed like such a bizarre thing to have built into a console, but this was a new era. Everywhere I looked there were ads for Surge and new ways to take my life to the extreme. The early 2000s were wrought with ways to kick things up a notch and a one-note joke in the center of a magazine made me eager to try it out when I visited a friend’s house to see the new box for the first time.
“How do you unscrew the center of it? Does it come off, or to you just place your drink on top of it?”
It was after I was made to feel a little embarrassed but still convinced I was right somehow that I first played the Xbox. The green glow of its logo on a stark, black background perfectly played into the era. It felt like an energy drink that became a computer and plugged into your TV, and like one of the kids who was cool but in a way that I never wanted to be cool. It was more than the “Play it Loud” campaign from Nintendo’s attempts to out-Sega Sega; Xbox was a guy doing backflips on his BMX bike while I was still trying to master the ollie.
Never feeling quite up to the expectation of where I felt Microsoft wanted me to be, I continued to experience its first console through the occasional few minutes looking upward at a hanging TV in the aisle of a Target while attempting to grasp onto this controller and figure out what the black and white buttons were for. I’d look at the games that were coming to Xbox and only occasionally feel a hint of jealousy and curiosity before returning to my PS2.
There was something about the ecosystem and the world built by Xbox that I felt alien being any part of. I’d later have a closer tie to Xbox when my brother got the Xbox 360 for his birthday. It gave me a taste of what I had watched from afar and eventually led me to the purchase of my own Xbox 360 shortly thereafter.
By then, Xbox had become a brand bigger than we’d imagined almost a decade before. Sony’s hubris after the PS2 in combination with Microsoft’s rush to get 360 on the market led to an early division in the consumer base and a domination of Xbox 360 over PlayStation 3. Taking a cue from Apple, the Xbox 360 presented itself in a very clean and elegant marketing campaign. Its logos and branding becoming very thin and elegant, placed atop a white background. It contrasted what Microsoft had done just four years earlier with the Xbox. By the time I had entered the party, the console had fallen into a level of acceptance across a wide demographic that it seemed to lose its identity to me.
Now, another decade passed, I’m entering the world yet again but feeling all of those feelings that I never allowed some sixteen years ago. The sound of Halo’s overture humming through my TV as I navigate through the menus is haunting in the same way that seeing old home movies of new friends takes you into a life you were never a part of. The team at Xbox has introduced and embraced backwards compatibility as a way to preserve an era and keep those games relevant today. Along with efforts like The Master Chief Collection, the libraries for both Xbox and Xbox 360 backwards compatibility are allowing me to do more than relive my own childhood, but taking me to an alternate timeline where I boarded a different ship.
Nostalgia is a very fleeting feeling. Just when you smell the right smell and reach out to grab it- it vanishes within your grasp. It’s rare that we can relive a moment, even if it’s something we recall so vividly. The details are often jagged along the edges and some piece of the memory doesn’t quite fit. It’s an entirely different and surreal feeling to now be living through someone else’s nostalgia and recreating it in an era where it can’t exist. To find a way to create the pieces and the places where they fit best.