The phrase “only 90s kids remember” has become a joke to many who grew up during the 1990s, however there’s no denying people carry a certain admiration for that time when they were young. Media and popular culture produced during the decade has been described as containing prevalent aesthetic markers that, in retrospect, has become a visual and visceral guide for people to describe something as “90s.”
In addition to being a guide for identification, the aesthetic of the 90s appeals to many people who experienced it both in the context of the decade and today, through the reproduction of 90s aesthetic markers. This allure is why Nickelodeon is making a new Hey Arnold! movie or why Anastasia Beverly Hills made a “90s Makeup Vibes” makeup tutorial.
The popularity of these reproductions suggests that “remember” may not be the correct word to describe the continued interest in 90s things. 90s kids aren’t simply remembering, they’re drawn to what feels familiar and sentimental to them. For many, aesthetics associated with the 1990s are enough to fill them with nostalgia.
Many people may not know who Osamu Sato is but they may know of his game LSD: Dream Emulator, a bizarre video game from 1998 where players explore surrealist landscapes supposedly inspired by the dream journal of Asmik Ace Entertainment artist Hiroko Nishikawa. The game has no story, no real goals, and no clues as to what players should do besides explore the dreams. As they do they will either wander their way into a new dream or “wake up,” returning to the main menu.
Though there are dozens of Let’s Plays out there remarking LSD as a creepy, confusing mess, it has nothing on Sato’s 1994 release Eastern Minds: The Lost Souls of Tong-Nou. Hardcore Gaming 101 has an excellent overview of Tong-Nou and its sequel Chu-Teng (once thought to be lost forever).
Today, Sato’s works appeal to people’s curiosity and their nostalgia. Groups online have formed both in search of his lost works and in appreciation for the bizarre worlds that have a distinctly 1990s aesthetic in their presentation. Eastern Minds has been described as a “Myst-like” point and click adventure game that were prevalent in the mid- to late-90s, with shiny and strange looking geometric 3D models to boot.
In contrast, LSD’s grainy textures and paper thin polygonal shapes are a reminder of early 3D games on home consoles. Though it’s doubtful that anybody outside of Japan knew about Sato’s games when they were first released, the number of fan communities that have sprung up around them in the past five years indicate there’s something of substance in those obscure games.
Since the stories of the Eastern Mind games have no coherent plot and LSD has barely anything resembling a plot at all maybe it’s the visuals and the gameplay, so inseparable from the time they were developed in, that draw the crowds. After all Sato is first and foremost an artist, and in the case of his video games was limited to designing in line with hardware constraints of the era.
But it’s exactly these constraints that make his games so distinctly from the 1990s and what elicit both fascination and nostalgia.