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November 11, 2019

BONO | I Miss the Golden Era of Media Cash-Ins

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It might be the wrong decision to start this column with a discussion of Ducktales, the show whose original run came too early and whose rebooted run came too late for the weird fringe generation of ’97-’00 kids who currently make up a large portion of the student body. Millennials and Zoomers alike can bond over the 1987 and 2017 incarnations, but we’re square in the middle. Luckily, our little stuck-in-the-gutter micro-generation is used to poaching things from our generational neighbors, whether it’s watching the Snorks on Boomerang as kids, swiping older siblings’ original Game Boys or guiltily watching episodes of Amphibia on the Disney Now app.

The latter is what I found myself doing, catching up on cartoons in the precious few minutes of free time I had one Saturday morning. It’s a ritual from my childhood I couldn’t quite let go of. I, admittedly, spend a fair amount of time on kids’ streaming apps like Cartoon Network and Disney. However, I usually stick to the video sections of these apps, maybe sneaking in a DCOM here and there. Recently, I experienced the Disney app in a whole new way when I stumbled across the games section, specifically one game called Disney All-Star Racers. It’s basically what it says on the tin — a Mario Kart-clone racing game featuring a crossover cast of popular characters. Ducktales and Descendants characters do battle with Mickey Mouse and his friends, racing through stages from each of their IPs.

I know that I can get a similar, and probably better, experience with Mario Kart. But there’s something low-key magical about watching Webby Vanderquack chuck one of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse’s hot dogs at Jafar’s son Jay while the Ducktales Moon Theme (a track from the 1989 video game that was reimagined in a 2019 episode) plays in the background. Throwing a bunch of video game characters into a different video game is one thing, but there’s something about throwing licensed TV characters into a game that feels different, makes you want to play a game regardless of how derivative or busted the controls are.

If you’re a part of that young-Millennial/old-Zoomer generation I mentioned earlier, this sentiment is probably familiar to you. We didn’t grow up with the App Store in the way that traditional members of Gen Z did, but we did have something that sets our pre-iPhone childhood apart. Weird, in-browser Flash games.

I see nostalgia about this a lot on Twitter — people “unlocking forbidden memories” of playing American Dragon: All Star Skate Park and Lilo & Stitch 625 Sandwich Stacker on their parents’ bulky desktop computers. I too share these fond memories, of raising a digi-pet with Pippa the Cyber Fairy on Barbie’s tie-in EverythingGirl.com and of breeding fish in that one Flash game that was somehow connected to the Bratz brand. We didn’t have on-demand streaming, but we could still hang out with our favorite characters online while waiting for new episodes and movies. Sadly, though, all of these games have gone the way of Club Penguin and Pixie Hollow, lost forever to the ether of corporate restructuring as companies (although mostly Disney and Mattel) decided to axe their interactive web divisions and focus on mobile games and YouTube series. Flash itself is a dead medium, so why would companies continue to host Flash-based games? You can’t even play them on the go on iPads and iPhones, so what would be the point?

I would argue, though, that maybe the lucrative Flash game market of the ’00s isn’t quite dead, despite what technological advancements might suggest. I lied a minute ago: These games aren’t truly lost to time, but pirated and re-uploaded across a sea of somewhat-sketchy, nostalgia-bait sites. There was actually some drama a little while back between warring factions of fans re-uploading “rewritten” servers of Club Penguin, fully functional game clones without the paywalls of the original. People are taking it upon themselves to host copies of these games because they know there’s Zillennials out there looking for the classics from their childhood. And when one generation starts to get too nostalgic, that trickles down to the kids. Take today’s high schoolers, for instance. A lot of their interests come from ’80s and ’90s nostalgia (if I’m interpreting the scrunchie and puka shell clad VSCO Girl phenomenon correctly) and it’s only a matter of time before they’ll be sucked into ’00s nostalgia, if they haven’t already. What happens when “I was born in the wrong generation” comes to entail a yearning for the days of clunky desktops and browser games?

Media tie-ins aren’t exclusive to our childhood, of course, as evidenced by the NES Ducktales game and Disney Now’s All-Star Racers. But there was something about that golden age of cheap games, when you didn’t have to download anything or block in-app purchases but instead surf a catalogue of shiny but simple Disney Channel and Mattel games after school. By the amount of nostalgia I see online, I guarantee there’s a market for a comeback in the way 80s nostalgia has driven Nintendo to re-releasing NES games — and I’m definitely not just saying this because I can’t find a reuploaded server of Pixie Hollow.

 

Olivia Bono is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at obono@cornellsun.com. On the Level runs alternating Tuesdays this semester.