Sixty dollars for a single game. That’s how much I could afford at my yearly pilgrimage to a gaming store back when the Xbox 360 and PS3 reigned supreme. Random bargain bin burrowing aside, the games on my shelf were sparse but my friends had it worse. Pocket money concerns meant that a game could cost them a meal when we were hanging out. Deciding on who bought which game was a recurring pastime in high school. Game swaps were our only hope. It helped us fill those annual Assassin’s Creed and Modern Warfare-sized holes in our game libraries without costing us our lunches. Game Boy cartridges and used game discs were the bloodlines of an avid gaming community of kids whose toughest challenge was getting the handheld gaming device in the first place. It might sound like a cause for pity, but it wasn’t. Far from it.
We were the generation that dealt in dusty cartridges and scratched discs.
The giddy joy on the ride back home after a game purchase is a fond memory that I can only cherish now. My mind would tunnel vision into one single thought: “We’re almost home.” I didn’t have to worry about day-one patches or 100GB-plus downloads. Dial-up connections would have killed our escapist dreams well before game prices could. Reload your Game Boy with a snazzy cartridge and you were good to go. All that stood between you and a portal from reality was a loading screen.
And sure, the new PS5 and Xbox Series X|S consoles eliminate loading screens. But all they did was replace them with lengthy downloads. Preloading titles takes some of the hurt away but if you’re strapped for cash, you aren’t going to preorder $60 AAA games. And don’t get me started on season passes. Some physical copies now come with game codes, rendering second-hand discs obsolete. And services like EA Play and Xbox Game Pass mean that you might not even own the games you’ve sacrificed your pocket money for. I won’t deny that they’re lighter on the wallet. But these advances have come at a cost: the value of the games themselves.
Modern values through the looking glass
When one buys a game for $60, the decision comes with a fair bit of reflection. And while the worth of a title is certainly a subjective topic, it is still something an individual can compare on a per-game basis. I remember picking Halo: Reach because it had everything a home of two kids needed: a grim co-op narrative alongside some solid multiplayer options. While being on a limited budget did prove to be a barrier to my unquenchable gaming thirst, it made me value what I had. I left no virtual stone unturned in getting the most out of the games I had. Yes, even bargain bin games that critics threw under the bus. I even grew to love titles that barely command respect amidst blockbuster AAA titles.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve replayed the campaigns of the games I own, reinforcing memories that remain imprinted in the recesses of my conscience. On my Game Boy, obscure game bundles were a chance to get more out of a bargain bin purchase. Sure, some of them would be bizarre and/or buggy takes on established franchises but they all kindled a sense of discovery in me. I miss experimenting solely because it isn’t the leap of faith it used to be. Bargain bin deals take on a whole new meaning when games drop to sub-dollar prices on Steam. It’s no surprise since they cut costs from distribution and retailer margins. And while indie games live or die by digital sales, spending $4 on creating a physical disc isn’t that bad of a deal.
Most Steam users now have a library that they can’t possibly complete over the course of their lifetimes. But that doesn’t stop them from hunting for more. Few game enthusiasts actually attempt to finish all the games they purchase. And fewer still lose any sleep over it.
Truth be told, gaming has become affordable thanks to digital sales and subscriptions. Things might have been different if the good ol’ gamers had access to these purchase options (and decent internet). The then-spendthrift friends of mine would have certainly laid their hands on some fine titles and then some, minus the skipped lunches. But I wonder whether I could have appreciated the games as much as those that formed my childhood. Going to a store and diving headlong into the bargain bin were adventures in themselves. And dropping by a friend’s place to swap games is a pit stop I wouldn’t want to miss.
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