Wait long enough, and everything comes back in style. It’s true in fashion. It’s true in videogames. So, why shouldn’t it be true in videogame-based fashion?
Gamers everywhere are appreciating the games of yesteryear through compilation discs, legal and illegal emulator downloads, and even upright cabinets at the local mega-arcade/drinking establishment. The trend has been echoed in an explosion of apparel, mainly T-shirts, featuring designs inspired by or ripped straight from the most popular games of years past.
Now, for the first time since elementary school, you can proudly wear Mario on your shirt again. Except this time, Mario is offering “mustache rides.” Or offering to clean your pipes. Or offering not so subtle drug references on your boxers.
Back then, Mario was your digital best friend. Today, Mario is your homeboy.
“It’s a quick punch line versus an elite club of recognition,” says Michael McWhertor, author of the Geek on Stun blog, about why he doesn’t like shirts, like those mentioned above, that use familiar videogame images as a jumping off point for some ironic gag slogans. “Why does it have to be a joke? I’m semi-comfortable admitting in public and in front of peers that, yeah, I’m a gamer. But if Kuribo’s Shoe is a good design or aesthetically pleasing, why can’t we start there?”
McWhertor is reluctant to call himself an expert on videogame T-shirts, but he is the only person I know who compiled a list of the best videogame shirts of 2005. His choices for the awards reflect a preference for shirt designs that “incorporate a part of that [videogame’s] aesthetic and manage to make it smarter.” In other words, shirts that are inspired by games rather than dependent on games. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with nostalgia, but it doesn’t have to hit you over the head with a sledgehammer.”
“People act like shirts have to be funny or they’re pointless,” says Nathan Smart, author of satirical videogame news site The Game Rag. Smart says shirts that try too hard to be funny end up having the opposite effect. “Usually, a funny shirt falls flat, or a million people have it … so, no one thinks it’s funny anymore. I don’t want a dick joke on my shirt. Why can’t a shirt just be cool? Why can’t I just have a shirt with Luigi on it?”
You aren’t likely to find the kind of shirts McWhertor and Smart are talking about at your local Hot Topic, but many amateur and professional designers are using the internet to sell their own shirts that evoke the memory of long lost games without eviscerating them.
“[The] big great daddy of the pitfalls [in designing gaming shirts] is trying too hard to be arch or trendy or ‘down with the kidz,'” says Richard Hammond of Way of the Rodent, an online videogame magazine that also happens to sell shirts. “Our very best-seller, for example, is a very simple ICO tribute. It’s that emotional connection that’s important: Shirts that prick the part of a gamer’s brain marked ‘Happy Memories’ always work.”
“Some people use their shirts to make a connection with others. Smart says a simple red Shigeru Miyamoto shirt from GameSkins can be a great icebreaker.”
“Whenever people ask me about the Miyamoto shirt, I always tell them it’s the guy that invented Mario, Donkey Kong and Zelda, and they really love it.” For Smart, the more esoteric the image, the better the shirt.
But Smart says he often runs into a different kind of gaming shirt fan. “[When I see someone else wearing a gaming shirt,] I think I should say, ‘Hey, I like Nintendo, too.’ But, I’m always wrong in my assumptions of the person – they just wanted a cool ‘retro’ shirt. People [who wear gaming shirts] don’t even have to like videogames anymore,” he says.
SplitReason‘s Arciszewski thinks gaming companies are passing up a big opportunity to market to people like Smart who are looking for smarter, more esoteric licensed shirts. While companies like Nintendo are flooding the market with licensed merchandise (and inspiring plenty of bootleg knock-offs in the process), Arciszewski says other developers and publishers “are not in tune with the tremendous merchandising opportunities facing them … Imagine a company like EA or Blizzard offering a free official World of Warcraft or Battlefield 2 or whatever t-shirt to everyone that buys one of their games. Would that help combat piracy? Absolutely … “
For the gaming T-shirt business to grow, Arciszewski says game companies are going to have to work more closely with the companies that peddle videogame apparel. Geek on Stun‘s McWhertor agrees, and hopes companies will start to work with smart designers to push an untapped market of serious game fans. “I think it’s a missed opportunity for publishers to not do this kind of thing.”
So, is the trend in gaming T-shirts just another retro fad, or something that will become a more permanent part of low fashion? That depends. McWhertor says the market needs to grow with the audience, offering shirts that appeal to fashion as well as nostalgia. “At some point, the T-shirt wearing crowd will age beyond the point of people who wax nostalgic for Mario,” he says.
Hammond from Way of the Rodent feels that there will always be a market for apparel that brings about memories of old games. “Gaming is mainstream, has a history and a strong future. Just as people like to reference other mainstream cultural icons – film, music, TV, books even – they will continue to enjoy referencing videogames.”
But The Game Rag‘s Smart is less optimistic. “I think once the ‘thrift store’ look goes out … once the ’80s revival dies down … the big chains will drop those shirts. Retro doesn’t get old, it’s already old.”
Kyle Orland is a video game freelancer. He writes about the world of video game journalism on his weblog, Video Game Media Watch.