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.
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.
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
Editor's note: This story originally ran in January 2013, which is why it references PS3/Xbox 360, both of which are retro in their own right now.