Reading the descriptions of anime on Netflix made me wonder why I’d ever cared about it.
It wasn’t as if I really needed to; I had just finished watching through Star Trek Voyager and needed something new to watch, so I was browsing through shows. I was glancing at anime because, hell, it’s been years since I’ve seen an anime that I genuinely enjoyed, despite the fact that anime was central to such important parts of my life like “meeting my future wife” and “starting me on my current career path.” So I was flipping through, looking at some of the shows that had gotten critical praise, and…
Crap on a stick. Was anime always just a parade of teenage breasts and shitty premises?
I still think there are loads of wonderful stories that anime has given us over the years, and I’m reluctant to say that it’s somehow modern anime that’s the problem; there have always been terrible shows designed to serve as high-velocity fanservice dispensers. The problem, in part, is me. Novelty made these things appealing enough to overlook when I was younger, but once the novelty light gets yanked away I start to see what was always there.
There’s nothing noble or commendable about claiming that music or anime or games or anything else was better when you were younger. I remain resolute about that; looking back on the things of my youth with a critical eye, about 90% of them were, in fact, shit. Sure, I picked some winners here and there, but I did voluntarily watch Thundercats, and if you are going to tell me to my face that it was a great show I am going to call you either a liar or a maniac. With time, your tastes improve and you get a better picture of what’s good or what isn’t.
Novelty is always unfamiliar, and it’s a constant struggle to be aware of what’s new and interesting while avoiding the cult of novelty, of understanding the past without becoming blinded by nostalgia. The past is a different country; they do things differently there. You can claim that Final Fantasy VI was a great game and it didn’t feature any DLC or mobile app tie-ins, but that was because it was produced when neither of those things exist. Cowboy Bebop is still a damn good show, sure, but who’s to say it wouldn’t be marketed to hell and back in the modern environment and milked for every ounce it’s worth? If it had been a runaway smash, can you honestly tell me we wouldn’t be looking at more spin-offs and sequels?
Yes, Final Fantasy VI is still a pretty good game, Cowboy Bebop is still a good show, but that isn’t because of when it was made. All that ultimately determined is how old I was when I was first exposed to them.
When we’re talking about nostalgia, especially with games, what we’re really talking about is relative novelty. The first game you ever play establishes the very idea of what a video game can be, a novel experience that you hadn’t even conceived of. Subsequent games work within that framework of what a game can actually be, some of them expanding it, some of them narrowing it. Play Super Mario World and you know that video games are platform adventures with power-ups and a long series of levels. Play Final Fantasy V next and you see that they can be different in structure… but still long and involved. A browser game might put the lie to that, though.
The novelty fades over time, of course. As you play games, you start to have ideas about what they could be, based on the novelty that initially drew you in. What games actually do become might or might not be what you dreamed about. Sometimes your dreams are outright impossible from a technical standpoint, even, which isn’t exactly heartening but is still the reality.
But while that framework has yet to be calcified, you can wind up with all sorts of things being novel to you that are old hat to others. If the first movie you watch is Star Wars and the second is The Hidden Fortress, you’re likely to see the latter as strongly influenced by the former, despite the fact that it’s the other way around. It’s easy to think of Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s character creation as novel if you’re accustomed to the Final Fantasy games, but it’s hardly the first game to allow you freedom in making your own character.
More pointedly, you’re willing to wade through a lot more shit to get to gold. I paid money for Legend of Dragoon, and I was willing to get a fair bit through the game before I decided that it was bullshit. I got to the point where I was speedrunning Crusader of Centy despite the fact that it is not actually a very good game. I watched an entire season of Love Hina. I paid money for a copy of Enter the Matrix and Oni and Summoner. Hell, I’m pretty sure I actually bought a ticket for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
None of this stuff was good. But I had less experienced standards at the time. The novelty, the uniqueness, the stuff I hadn’t yet seen didn’t shape my way of seeing things.
We have to realize that the things we saw a decade ago have the benefit of fewer points of comparison. The first anime I ever watched was the original butchered English version of Nausicaa, which was definitely not good, but it still held a high place in my memory until I got to college. There have been more games released after Final Fantasy VI than before, so simple math would dictate that the odds are low it remains the apex of the franchise. You grow out, you have a wider frame of reference, and even the things you once regarded as divine may chiefly be of use as gateways into better stuff.
Or you could just keep watching a parade of teenage breasts into your 30s, I suppose. I opted out.