The 90s, an age of weird drinks and 16-bit video games

This article about the 90s first appeared on the old in August, 2016. Crystal Pepsi was actually available in stores. Regrettably, Pepsi discontinued the beverage a second time, so posting this is basically a nostalgia trip about a nostalgia trip.

Crystal Pepsi is back and so are the 90s! Or, they were, for a moment in my apartment, about which I have prepared this special report.

A brief history of Crystal Pepsi

While I want to keep this focused on media analysis, I must admit Crystal Pepsi tastes better than I expected. The beverage is more refreshing and less harsh than Pepsi. My only complaint is it leaves an abnormal aftertaste in your mouth.

People think of this drink rather cynically, as though it was never anything more than a cheap gimmick. The logic is that it was entirely a ploy to get some free press for the company as a whole, making consumers think “wow that PepsiCo sure is wild, but I’ll stick with my [currently available favourite beverage produced by the company].” In fact, that’s not (entirely) the case.

Essentially, North America has been on a health-food kick for 30+ years. Back in the early 90s the big thing was clear foods. “Clear has a positive connotation,” said George Rosenbaum, CEO of a marketing firm, in a 1992 New York Times article about the beverage by Eben Shapiro. Crystal Pepsi was an attempt by PepsiCo to capitalize on a consumer desire to eat healthier.

The article reports that Pepsi said the beverage is “less sweet, contains 100 percent natural flavors … has no preservatives … [is] caffeine free and low in sodium,” in a clear appeal to the health-food market. Of course, the same article pokes a hole in this logic by pointing out the calorie count of the beverage is only slightly lower than regular Pepsi – 130 rather than 154.

It also, quite conveniently for me, sets up the context of the pop’s release. Pepsi had at the time “16.7 percent of the cola market – down from 18.6 percent in 1986”. It had recently lost a contract to supply soda to Burger King, which switched to Coke. It also reports that the entire soft-drink market’s growth had slowed, except for “sparkling waters flavored with fruit juices and other so-called new-age beverages.”

In light of all this, there’s no doubt what Pepsi’s motives were.

The 90s were rough

But there’s more context. PepsiCo was a combatant in what was known as the Cola War, fighting a righteous battle for market dominance against the Coca-Cola Company. The latter was a bit of a trickster and debuted a clear soda of its own – Tab Clear – which billed itself in a number of ways to make the idea of clear soda less exciting. If you take the history section of Crystal Pepsi’s Wikipedia article at face value, Tab Clear was a self-destructing Crystal-Pepsi-Killer. I think a more likely summation is encapsulated in the headline of an Associated Press article from March 1993: “Onslaught of Clear Products Seen as a Short-Term Fad.”

Anyway, it’s back because a popular competitive eating Youtuber, The L.A. Beast, started a movement to bring it back. Yada yada yada PepsiCo saw dollar signs yada yada yada it’s here now and here I am drinking it. Well, a different version of it, with caffeine this time around.

What’s in a decade?

I was alive for about 85 percent of the 90s and I’d say I remember about 60 percent of them. Unfortunately, the part I remember does not coincide with the time Crystal Pepsi was commercially available. I’m sure my parents didn’t feed me any before I was four, but I haven’t asked. The Super Nintendo (SNES), however, was available back then and I did play it at the time. I played a Sega Genesis too, but Sega is the Coke to Nintendo’s Pepsi. There was a vicious Console War being waged in the 90s as well; it was a difficult time for everyone.

I’ve come to learn that decades need not necessarily begin and end where you would expect them to. For instance, there are many communes in which the 1960s are still occurring, in a sort of way. Most classic-rock dads often have 1970s moments. The 1980s never actually happened. The 1990s started in like 1987, though they seem to have ended on time, by all accounts (I will explore these contentious claims in-depth in another article, someday).

All measurements of time are arbitrary. Time itself is a metaphysical concept and its existence cannot be proven. Decades are much more defined by aesthetics, feelings, experiences and media than by numbers on a calendar. There is no reason past time cannot be simulated in the present – Renaissance Faires, Colonial villages, classic-rock dads’ basements, Civil War re-enactments and even 90s-nights at clubs prove this clearly. A decade can be reborn again, however briefly, however sickly, under the right conditions.

For me, it meant no internet, no cellphone (I couldn’t get my hands on a Zach Morris, sorry), a bottle of Crystal Pepsi and an afternoon with the SNES. I am waiting for the film photos I took to develop, but when they do I will include them here. In the mean time, enjoy these photos taken moments before the 90s, in 2016, with a digital camera.

a Super Nintendo
The Super Nintendo is a classic gaming system, and one I play even when not time travelling for Content.

Now you’re playing with power

I won’t get into the Console War here, but suffice to say it’s much more historically accurate for me to choose one system over the others (there were minor players beyond the big two). I chose the SNES because I already owned one, and Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past because I had never played it before.

Unlike most people in the 90s, I had fresh memories of what it was like to play a video game in 2016, so I was well prepared to compare the two experiences. It surprised me what was similar and what was different about them.

Relatively little has changed about the act of playing video games while drinking a soda since the 90s. Graphically, there’s a world of difference, but on a more basic level, the motions you go through are essentially the same.

Here are some key differences though:

  • In the 90s, the first three hours of a game are not an extended tutorial – you’re expected to figure things out on your own (back in 1993, you couldn’t turn to Internet if you were stuck, though guidebooks and gaming magazines fulfilled the same role).
  • Given that consoles couldn’t connect to the Internet (without adapters, anyway) until Sega’s Dreamcast in 1999, multiplayer has to be done in person.
  • No games prevent you from playing them unless you connect to the Internet.
  • When you start the console, it goes straight to the game. There isn’t a home menu or anything like that.
  • Because of the way cartridges work, there are no noticeable load times.
  • Achievements don’t exist. The achievement is beating the game, finding hidden stuff or setting high scores.

So, essentially, the experience is much less annoying and more immersive. This is something I wasn’t expecting. After all, I am looking at something that is obviously artifice. My character never speaks. Few things about Hyrule correlate with reality as I experience it. Yet I feel very much in the game. We should go back to this.

Perhaps one day we will be so lucky. The Legend of Zelda series does like to play with form and go back into its own history for ideas. For example, this game, the third in the series, uses an overhead gameplay style similar to the first game, but different from the side-scrolling gameplay of the second game. Still later games in the series involved three-dimensional exploration. But there were releases in this overhead 2D style until well after the 90s.

Through it all though, the Legend of Zelda series has never strayed too far from its classic formula. It’s wild how similar A Link to the Past feels to later games in the series, even the 3D ones. The formula is, essentially, you explore more and more of the world while acquiring more and more items to use to help you explore (and kill things impeding your exploratory progress). It’s somewhat unbelievable how much you can do and how early you can do it in this game. I wonder why Nintendo removed that aspect from later games. [A note from the future: Just wait till you play Breath of the Wild.]

‘The dream of the 1990s is alive in [my apartment]’

The 90s came and went again without causing much of a fuss.

Perhaps I should have opted for a further removed decade, or one that isn’t as in vogue as this one (especially not the early 90s). It all felt very normal to me. Lazing on the couch, drinking a Pepsi, playing a video game … that’s the position I grew up in. This experience was no colonial village where after five minutes of butter churning I was ready to go home; this felt like home the whole time.

In general, I think our notions of how different it was Back Then are overblown. It’s easy to read an old book and find things you have in common with the characters, fictional as they are, whose experience is grounded in an earlier time. There are rhetorical reasons it makes sense to talk about the 90s as being so distant, but I’m unconvinced.

But I don’t mean to play down the role media have in all of this. Admittedly, I only used one medium in this experiment, but it was sufficient to bring me back to an earlier time. Right now, all kinds of vintage culture is resurgent (old games, vinyl records, film cameras), and it makes it incredibly accessible to relive the past. In a thoroughly postmodern way, time has evaporated and it’s possible to, from your own home, with little effort, have the same experiences others had years before. Part of why now feels so similar to then is because there is much effort to preserve elements of then.

I guess what I learned through it all is that, if you want to, you can go back in time in a sort of way. Also, Crystal Pepsi is pretty good. Better if you have something to eat at the same time so the aftertaste doesn’t stick around. Old stuff is really cool, and not all that different, really.


It turns out I’m not the only person capable of time travel. YouTuber Brian David Gilbert did something similar for Polygon in appreciation of Crash Bandicoot. I enjoyed his take on the back-to-the-90s genre and if you liked what I did, you’ll probably like his too. I notice he also has done a critical analysis of Waluigi, which I have been planning to do since my radio-show days. We are clearly on a similar wavelength.

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