Why Every Gamer Should Be A Retro Gamer

I love what can be done with today's cutting edge consoles and PCs. I really do. Still, every gamer should be a gamer who loves Retro games. Here's why.

I hate labels. I honestly don't care much if you call yourself a "gamer" because you've ploughed millions of hours into World Of Warcraft, or simply because you play a little Farmville on the side during your lunch break. Arguments about what makes a "real" gamer can head somewhere else, if it's all the same to you.

Retro gaming is another one of those labels, with more than a few folk who label themselves exclusively as "Retro" gamers and sneer at anything modern while intermittently bickering about what the definition of "Retro" gaming should be. I may be guilty of honking on about retro gaming more than most, but I'd like to think I'm not in that crew, either. I'm a gamer, period.

Warning: This is rather lengthy, because it's something I'm rather passionate about. Grab a frosty beverage and settle in for the ride. There is no tl;dr version.

Retro gaming brings with it images of monochrome monitors, single button joysticks and those weird flickery patterns that tape loaders used to make, in the same way that any time anyone wants to talk about "retro" Hollywood, you can bet that a black and white filter will be used at some point. The comparison between Hollywood's retro and gaming's retro is one that's well worth pursuing.

Read any mainstream article about gaming and the money that is made, and almost inevitably the comparison with Hollywood revenues will come forth, usually pointing out how valuable the games industry is by way of comparison. There's a factor that's usually ignored in those comparisons, though, and it's this: Hollywood, and the film industry in general is a very mature market indeed.

Yes, there are technical innovations in today's film world, from the increasing use of computer imagery through to high frame rate 3D. Still, the essential movie-going experience from the consumer's point of view — that is, what you do when you go to entertain yourself with a movie — hasn't changed all that markedly since, in one sense, the advent of talking pictures. To give a frame of reference, here's a quick clip from 1927's The Jazz Singer, the first Hollywood "Talkie":

Why a clip of an 85-year old movie? Because Hollywood has had 85 years of development since then, whereas video gaming is an entertainment form that's still relatively immature by comparison. Indeed, the more I think about it, in a Hollywood context, we're very much in the 1930s version of Hollywood in terms of video games; there's been a fair amount of development, including going more widely into the community, but actual production of the big hits is in the hands of just a few studios with only a few "superstar" names, even though many hands go into the making of a work. Ratings boards loom large, and the distribution mechanisms are in the hands of a relatively small group of quite massive business operations.

Looking at it from a pure historian's perspective, Hollywood's history of not only recognising but celebrating its older works is quite shameful. Sure, it's easy to find copies of Casablanca, Gone With The Wind or The Wizard Of Oz if you want them these days, but if you're after something more obscure, your choices quickly dry up. In the same way, I suspect you'll always be able to get hold of a copy of Pac-Man (for a price), but what about slightly more esoteric fare?

Who owns the rights to, say Exciting Hour, for example? How would you go about getting even a digital release for an existing property based off an IP where those rights have switched to another holder, as has happened numerous times with, say, Star Wars games, or James Bond games? Nintendo is quite good at rehashing its back catalogue, but only for those titles where they hold the full IP; there's no chance of a re-release of, say, Snoopy Tennis. Equally, one of my all-time favourite games is AKI/THQ's WWF No Mercy for N64; given the likenesses and the very likely possibility of THQ going down in the near future, it's a title that's rather solidly locked into its cartridge form. I'm terrified that when my carefully kept cartridge dies I won't be able to find a replacement for it.

On a broader mote, right now, it's feasible to get hold of just about any bit of gaming hardware from gaming's early history, along with titles to go with it to experience where we've come from, but with each passing year the available pool of real devices dies off a little. The more gamers are interested in retro gaming, the more retro gaming equipment can be preserved; while it might be tempting to say "but there are millions of Atari 2600 consoles left", I'm pretty sure the same thing was thought about the many prints of classic films that were lying around Hollywood warehouses through the first half of the 20th century. Planning for the future means that the history of games has a future.

The Emulation Argument

You may well be sitting there thinking "Ah, yes, but I can run all this stuff via emulators". That's true, if not always an entirely legal avenue, and I won't be a hypocrite and say I haven't run emulators myself. But the experience simply isn't the same; you're not playing the game the way it was intended to be played, and while that can lead to some interesting takes on classic games — whether it's through visual filters or the use of save states — emulation is usually seen as an all-you-can-eat buffet. You know what happens in that case? You get overwhelmed with choice, and end up skipping through things at a stupid pace, missing the joy of the experience entirely.

As a personal example, a couple of years back I was in Tokyo for a product launch (well-worn disclaimer: I was in Tokyo as a guest of Sony for this launch). I had some time to myself. So I did what any self-respecting retro games nut would do, and headed to Akihabara, and more specifically Super Potato. Yes, it's not the most niche, and a bit expensive, but it's also nicely comprehensive. Here's my sped-up journey through the store

I enjoyed going through the store — that video represents an easy couple of hours browsing condensed down, for what it's worth — but at the same time the experience of being hit in the face with so many slices of gaming's history at once was undeniably overwhelming. I did pick up a few bits and bobs for my collection, but only a fragment of what I could have, simply because being presented with that much choice made it very difficult to choose. There's all sorts of fancy research into the phenomenon of the paradox of choice being crippling, and emulation always strikes me that way; you get plenty but appreciate nearly nothing.

So, we're (roughly) at the 1930s stage of development with gaming, to keep my Hollywood example going. The next 85 years of video games development could well take us in directions that seem inconceivable to us now, just as the concept that I might be able to embed part of a film onto a worldwide computer network via a kind of electronical keyboard doohickey that sits in my home office would be so much magical gibberish to a filmgoer of 1929.

Even now, the technology behind gaming has changed very quickly in a very short period of time. While the current Xbox 360/PS3 generation of consoles has lasted a little longer in market than some games developers might like, things still change very quickly in the games world, with the strong suggestion that gamers should update their games systems (or update their PC) every few years. As a result, we've seen many genres evolve very quickly in a short space of time. To borrow a rather classic example, I constantly hit the argument that while Rare's GoldenEye is rightly considered a "classic", its technical limitations in terms of frame rate mean that it's "unplayable", because gamers have moved onto Call Of Duty and its ilk. I don't entirely agree with that, but still I think there's a good case for playing games like GoldenEye even today, especially if you've never played it previously. Yes, it's not Call Of Duty: Black Ops 2, but it's a product of its time (and a rather visionary one, at that). Is it a viable thing to say that we shouldn't watch TV or movies from prior to the turn of the century because there's nothing to learn from them? No; it isn't — and retro games should be exactly the same.

Retro Creativity

What if you've got ambitions yourself in games development right now? There's another reason why it's well worth your time investigating the very wide world of retro gaming, and that's for the creative aspect that it unveils. There are aspects of game development that are deeply uncreative in one sense, because it's still ultimately a business about making money, and that's meant chasing trends.

Right now, producing a military FPS is seen as a licence to print money. It isn't necessarily so, but that doesn't stop lots of gung-ho shooters being developed. Thirty years ago, the money was in Space Invaders clones of all types. While they were derivative of that base model, there's still plenty of creativity at play there; Galaga isn't quite Space Invaders, and neither are games that follow such as Raiden or Radiant Silvergun, even though they're building on the foundations that Space Invaders laid down. To quote from Pablo Picasso: "Good artists copy, great artists steal".

It might be the foundations of a genre, as with Space Invaders, or something absolutely minute, from the way menus work in Match Day II to the input feedback from the pumpkin in Cauldron II as it bounces around. Clever ideas can breed further clever ideas, but if you only limit yourself to today's fare, all you'll know about are the same military shooters that everyone else makes, which means you're competing for the same limited pool of money as everyone else.

(As a total aside, Cauldron II is one of the very few games where I cede superiority to Lifehacker's Angus Kidman; he's even gone as far as mapping the whole thing out.)

From a gamer's perspective, I like to think that a wide retro perspective allows you to enjoy every game more. I'm not saying you should go totally retro and ignore everything there is to enjoy about today's gaming landscape. But it's certainly worthwhile to further inform your gaming experiences of today. Not everything retro is gold — there were as many dud titles through the 8, 16 and 32-bit gaming eras as there are today — but all of it helps to refine your own tastes.

As an example, the very first time I played the original Tomb Raider, I was blown away by the visuals (as was the style at the time), but equally, I could identify how much of a debt it owed to Jordan Mechner's excellent Prince Of Persia. If you loved Batman: Arkham City, a trawl through the history of Batman games reveals a lot of interesting takes on the dark knight; I'm rather fond of the classic isometric Batman for what that's worth.

There's no gold standard for fun

Yesterday, I asked the question regarding the games genres that Kotaku readers really didn't click with. If there was one thing that came out of that, it's that nobody can (or indeed, should) agree on what they find to be "fun", and here again is, I think, a really strong argument in retro gaming's favour.

Today's games development environment is shifting a little towards mobile development, where there is some space for innovation, but it's still dominated by the AAA title scene — and there's a lot of uniformity there. EA will release a Madden game every year from now until the heat death of the universe — but there was a time when different NFL games with different ideas were developed. There's an awesome array of "fun" experiences — allowing for the fact that everyone's definition of "fun" will naturally differ a little — out there in retro gaming, and mostly for a fraction of the price of a "new" title.

I can't see how anyone couldn't be excited by that. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to get back to my game of Athlete Kings...

Image: Digital Game Museum


Comments

    This was a great read, and perfect timing as I'd just sat down with my lunch.

    " I’m terrified that when my carefully kept cartridge dies I won’t be able to find a replacement for it."

    You might need to speak with someone about this.

    “Ah, yes, but I can run all this stuff via emulators”. That’s true, if not always an entirely legal avenue, and I won’t be a hypocrite and say I haven’t run emulators myself. But the experience simply isn’t the same; you’re not playing the game the way it was intended to be played".

    Let's be realistic. The games were intended to be played by an excited (mostly young) gamer at, or close to, the point of release for the game. We all accept, including developers, that games DO lose their potency over time. Much of their potency is in their novel and impressive use of technology, which over time naturally becomes less novel and less impressive - and thereby less exciting.

    I've played games for around 30 years. I used to be in awe of Commando (arcade) and also Jail Break (aracade). I played both of those games via Mame and got bored (and frustrated) within 2 minutes.

    If there was a PSN release of Chuckie Egg or Kick Off 2 I'd buy them in a heartbeat. I bought Sega Rally as soon as it was released on PSN, but quickly realised that compared to todays racers it is severely lacking.

    Retro gaming is fine and all but it's just nostalgia, and for most nostalgia will quickly wear thin. The fact is that games DO continue to improve and as such a modern game will always be better than a significantly older game. That might change in future generations and especially if the lack of innovation within gaming genres continues to lessen.

      In a lot of cases, yeah, it's nostalgia. But not every case, and not every game is just a matter of the technical-wowy-innovation-of-the-day. There are still gems in the Retro cabinet, and nobody has played every game.

        No one needs to play every game.

          But it would be really nice if they did.

            No. It would be a tragic loss of life if they did.

            Last edited 11/01/13 1:52 pm

              Okay, everybody should play every good game.

              And a few bad ones for perspective.

      While this is true with some games, its far from a rule of thumb. Games like Mega Man X, Super Castlevania IX, SMB, Chrono Trigger, LoZ, a lot of fighting games and more are nearly peerless in modern games. I'd say it is only certain genres, of which are mostly simulators in one way or another, that do not age well, such as FPS, racing, etc. but to say that the only reason people value retro gaming for the nostalgia is a gross generalisation.

      Last edited 11/01/13 1:47 pm

        Mega Man could be re-made with superior aspects thrown in in a heart beat. Probably. I've never played it, but just guessing.

        Chuckie Egg is one of the best games of its genre but that definitely could be over-hauled effortlessly and modernised and the game would undoubtedly be superior.

        I think Kick Off 2, and Speedball 2, are good examples. Especially Kick Off. They're both great games, could easily be enhanced with (at the very least) superior graphics, but why have they been left to linger so long? Why has over-head football games been abandoned, They were great. Why have 90s' side scrolling football games been abandoned. They were great. Why has the FIFA approach dominated so much?

        Yes there are great games in the retro cabinet that could be re-done and improved, but haven't been. And there are some games that never will be re-done and improved, and whose gameplay style and mechanics have all but been forgotten. But in the main I would say that the vast majority of retro games have since been trumped.

        Last edited 11/01/13 1:59 pm

          They did remake Mega Man X, Mega Man Maverick Hunter X. Was recreated in full 3D assets, was almost 1:1 in game play and is an excellent game, I own both and I will still play Mega Man X on the snes just because it has something more than its stark remake.

    My main problem is that I don't have much money so I'm confined to emulators. Still a shitload of fun nonetheless.

    i still spent atleast 10 hours on wonderboy 3 in the last 6 months, thats not TOO bad for me.

    Emulators is the only way to play any old or retro game it is just far to expensive, and I do agree with the above statement that these old games just lose their potency after time especially if you are not from that generation.

    Modern games have ruined retro games for me.

    Automatic saving, hand holding and tutorials have all softened me. When you play a retro game and you lose all 3 lives you have to start again FROM THE BEGINNING in some cases! 1990's me didn't have an issue with that, but when I'm used a the game respawning me back to the top of the cliff that I just fell from, it's a little harder to take the lack of game progress security available in older games!

    Still I'm apparently a retro collector, but all I did was buy things when they came out and never get rid of them.

      this is where emus come into play. If you own the game you can play a rom of it legally and most good emulator software provides these modern features with soft saving and such

        This is an incredibly common misconception, but as I understand it, you're actually not. The Australian format shifting provisions cover a lot of different styles of entertainment products, but games are rather specifically excluded; http://www.flinders.edu.au/library/copyright/personal_use.cfm has a nice readable-for-non-lawyers-type explanation. I'm not aware of anyone being busted for it per se, but that doesn't mean you've got that particular legal safe harbour.

          It still sounds like it would be applicable to these laws, just the precident has not been set for games specifically, we all know how Australian law has kept up with the times. If you were ever pulled in for it the laws here provide a pretty good base to get a judgement on it.

          I missed "The work being copied must be a legal (i.e. non-pirate) copy." bit, but then its a matter of prove I didn't make the rom myself.

          Last edited 11/01/13 2:12 pm

            That's not the point I was making; there's a specific exception for games software that would be all they'd need in the (unlikely) case it reached prosecution.

              Sorry, you are correct, it does specify computer games directly. Though given the nature of the content being out of print, the hardware no longer in production and the matter never being tested, you'd have to assume that decent legal representation would secure a win on the matter.

              I believe it already happened in the US (maybe), there was a case around some hardware (possibly the SNES) and reproduction being allowed simply because the original could no longer be obtained. I do not remember the specifics.

              Last edited 11/01/13 2:22 pm

    As someone interested in game development and as a gamer i have played through quite a few older games, i grew up in a house where even with a ps2 the snes was the most played console.

    A lot of people say they prefer older games for the simplicity they have compared to more modern games, i don't necessarily agree with that opinion. Older games can be far harder and more complex than more modern games, and the idea of simplicity comes more from the fact that the game is more focused on who you are, what you need to do, and how to do it, than on telling a larger overarching story (yes several games did manage large storylines but many were shallower experiences that you could understand within a few tries of the game).

    The current rise in casual games has seen a resurgence in simpler games that anyone can pick up and understand how to play within their first couple of tries, games for mobile are generally far more focused in their design and gameplay than some AAA titles Farcry 3 stands out to me as an example of an unfocused game, there is too much of a disconnect between the storyline and what you experience within it, and the open world it takes place in for it to really feel consistent. I love the game to death but one minute i'm tripping balls in the jungle somewhere in a mission the next i'm clear headed and travelling to yet another stronghold to clear out the pirates if the insanity had carried over into the normal gameplay it would have felt far more coherent, still its one of my favorite games of 2012 regardless.

    I got sick of the "retro" games 20+ years ago, and have no need to go back to them now.

    Is there actually such a thing as abandonware or is it a completely bogus idea?

      There were several abandonware sites, especially in the late 90s and early 00s, but it was never legally recognised in the way freeware or shareware was.
      It became less common as Windows XP took over and older games were almost impossible to play due to the lack of Windows 98 backwards compatibility and the necessity of DosBox, which was difficult to use.
      It lives on in spirit with GOG, which hunts down the copyright holders' blessing.

        GOG are awesome! Only recently got onto that site and have already bought a stack of my old fave games.

    "There’s all sorts of fancy research into the phenomenon of the paradox of choice being crippling, and emulation always strikes me that way; you get plenty but appreciate nearly nothing."

    So true. Did you ever check out Insert Coins at all, while it was running last year? I think there were only about six of them held before they disappeared, but I went to all of them. The first one was really great! Everyone was all friendly and talking and playing with each other, a very social gaming atmosphere. And most of the machines that were there were set to play only the one game, so you'd move around and watch people playing something and eventually have your turn, etc. But then on subsequent ones, a lot of the fixed machines were swapped out for MAME cabinets, housing thousands of games. All of a sudden it just became less fun. People would sit there for ages scrolling through page after page of game they'd never heard of, myself included. Eventually it would just be either a random choice (which usually turned out bad) or a familiar old title like Donkey Kong or something, and the whole thing just wasn't as compelling any more.

    I find a similar kind of thing with games at home. I tried setting up MAME so I had something to play around with the arcade stick I got (though it took a while to figure out how it all works and what games were actually there or whatever), but the sudden list of so many games... I just didn't really feel like doing anything. Whereas whenever I have an old game arrive in the mail from eBay or whatever, it goes straight into its relevant console and gets a good playing through, even if only for that day. They seem far more enjoyable that way.

    This is weird......

    1. Retro City Rampage is on sale today (Steam).
    2. I've just been to the doctors and all they had to read, apart from Woman's Day, was an old PC mag. In it had articles written by Alex Kidman.

    Turning out to be a retro day today.

    Last edited 11/01/13 3:43 pm

    I'm so sad that newer generation of gamers all have blank looks on their faces when I talk about Ultima, the NES Super Kunio-kun series or Space/King's/Police Quest.

    "Retro" gaming is making a comeback, your comparison to the movie industry is correct in the sense that also like movies, people will go back to 'older' games just to check them out or see what the fuss was about.

    It's like how people watch any movie prior to their generation, it's a form of entertainment (I was born in '83, but ofcourse I've seen the "classics" films from the 60's, and 70's).

    The only difference is that firing up a movie from the 70's as a Bluray/DVD is much easier than say getting an old NES cart or C64 tape and firing that up, because you need the console as well. The only thing helping this situation is things like PS Store selling 'classics' and developers/publishers re-releasing their classic collection for newer consoles.

    Personally though I'm actually going back now and buying up the old consoles I had and sold when I was younger (C64, Master System, SNES) and also some I never owned but wish I did as a kid (Mega Drive, N64). Sure I'll only fire them up here and there but I prefer the actual old hardware and love having them to 'collect' for the nostalgia too.

      I'm not sure if I completely buy into the games are like movies from the 30s analogy.

      As you've mentioned, movies from the 70s can be great. They're not too different to movies from today. Maybe there is a significant difference between movies from the 30s and today, I cant say I've watched any.

      But fundamentally a movie consists of actors, a director, a story, a location and some props. And that's the same today as it was 50 years ago and likely 50 years from now. Although of course now you can have CGI.

      A game is not dependent on actors, nor a story, nor a location, nor props. It's fundamentally different.

      I think the development line of gaming is likely to change radically over the decades - I think it already has, multiple times. Whereas the development of movies has been somewhat linear.

        That's true, ultimately they are different forms of media and entertainment, but I think some people might be curious and explore old games for the same reason they check out an old 'classic' flick, so the human nature behind the 'choice' to revisit something can still be similar despite the medium being different.

        Agree with you on the development of gaming being likely to change, it already has in pretty varied ways (social, mobile, online, pro/competitive), who knows what's next.

          We can all be curious about anything, It's a natural human trait.

          Admiring Pong is in someways similar to admiring Cave Art. It's gaming at it's most primitive and we respect and admire it for being representative of it's time. But if I were to draw a stick man today it's not going to find it's way into any art museum or gallery. And I'm good at drawing stick men.

          An interesting part of the retro topic is the success of retro like games. Meat boy and whatever else. I think those games are quite often primarily liked due to style over substance. It's like the 80s fashion that was predominant over the last few years. People were wearing Trilbys, indoors. It was absurd, but millions the world over were doing it. And wearing skinny jeans, some still do. They don't wear Trilbys for any reason other than they think it's cool. They're clearly incredibly shallow people.

          The likes of Retro City Rampage (which I've not played) strikes me as similar as bands like Jet - they imitate the sound of a previous era - and yes they can produce some good hooks, and clearly have talent - but at the end of the day fail to evoke the true spirit of the era that they're attempting to replicate - and as such don't feel authentic. Having said that The Strokes had some tunes.

          VRs next - Occulus Rift style.

          From what we know, which certainly isn't all the facts, the PS4 and 720 will be an improvement over the current consoles. Ouya is a development on Smart phone games, Project Shield is a convenience.

          Occulus Rift offers something genuinely different. I don't see that anything else does, unless the big players finally get something out of motion controls - which hopefully they will. I personally believe that exercise games should revolutionise the exercise industry. I think the potential is there but hasn't been effectively acted on as yet. They'll get it soon enough. If Kinect 2 does effectively offer an exercise solution and has software to back it up I think loads of gamers and non gamers will jump on board, They need to incorporate exercise rewards into normal non exercise games.

          Have I gone off topic?

          Last edited 12/01/13 3:36 pm

    This article could've been a lot shorter if you'd just said "Speedball 2".

    You are right to a degree. Most games just don't "age" well. But some, the Mario's, bubble bobble, space invaders, donkey kong, castlevania for me at least retain their fun even now.

    There is though a "black hole" if you like where the early 3d games are just unplayable now because as you say they lack features or the graphics are so poor it's impossible to get reimersed in the game.

      I totally agree with you James! Even when the PSX + N64 were new I found it so difficult to actually enjoy many of the games for the simple fact that so many of the games looked so bland and empty at the cost of 3D. I understand it had to be done for evolutions sake. That being said there were still some pretty awesome games. They may have looked unappealing to me but the gameplay was still top notch.

      So many people talk about only playing old classics due to nostalgia but there are many titles from the 8bit era which I still love to play not only due to nostalgia but for pure enjoyment. Titles like the megaman series, kenseiden, bubble bobble (with the music off :P) fantasyzone, cloud master, golden axe, wonderboy rpgs, castelvania 1+3, zeldas, battletoads, metroid, life force I dunno I think i could go on for a long time these are just off the top of my head. I always end up going back and playing them which I don't do so much with newer releases.

    I still have all my old consoles. Every day I get tempted to sell them all and re-acquie the classics digitally, but I find it hard to let go.

    Including LE consoles, I have around 50-55 gamign consoles. There's an Atari Jaguar in there, a Panasonic 3DO, 2600, Game Gear, Master System, Megadrive, SNES, NES, 64 etc etc. Pretty much everything bar a NEO GEO ( :( ).

    It's funny, when I go back and play some of the older games, it's amazing how many of them simply don't hold up. But then, it's all we knew back then, and we were kids. Kids are generally dumb, and don't know any better. Today's kids will look back at this era findly with memories of linear corridoor shooters like CoD. But who knows what will be 'in' in 20-30 years. Maybe today's stuff will hold up better. I suspect it will, but you can never be 100% sure.

    All I know is, the current generation is the best one I've experienced so far and I'm a 32 year old gamer, who grew up as a hardcore Sega fanboy. If you released a game like Mark of The Ninja back 15-20 years ago, it would have been hailed as the greatest game of all time. Yet today, it's a $15 downloadable title that SOMETIMES gets mentioned as a POSSIBLE GOTY contender. That's how good this generation is.

    MUST GO PLAY SONIC AND KNUCKLES NOW!

    This article has ruined my day, ahh well no assignments are being done now!

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