Yesterday, I birthed a triplet of reviews on games that intentionally took a step back in terms of their aesthetic, otherwise known as “retro games” as the kids call them. I’m defining retro games as having the following:
- Recently released
- 8 to 16 bit graphics and music
- Emulating classic gameplay mechanics/design, such as 2-D/2.5D platforming
- Having these elements as a deliberate design choice
When I was writing these reviews, I started musing on why smaller development studios often choose this style and why gamers have flocked to it. It seems counterintuitive at first, considering gamers also tend to flock to better graphics, more orangey explosions, and grimier white guys with guns. Why the sudden pixellated resurgence? I admit, they’re not the most popular games, they almost never dominate the sales charts, but there’s enough of them out there in critical mass that I started wondering.
Why does retro gaming matter so much? Why has it achieved such surprising popularity?
You can always bank on nostalgia.
Ask Nintendo about this business strategy, they’ve built a billion dollar company from our childhoods. They even put out Mega Man 9, an intentionally primitive game released 11 years after its predecessor. I grew up with the popularization and mainstreaming of console gaming with the NES, the Sega Genesis, and the SNES and onwards. I’ve owned almost every single 8 or 16-bit console released in the US, or at least played them for a whole gaming session. There’s a certain warm fuzziness from remembering when you played Kirby’s Adventure or Sonic 2 for the first time on Christmas break from school. The way the cartridge felt in your hand, that haptic feel of clicking the power button, and the light plastic feel of that boxy grey controller. It’s like smelling your mom’s homemade lasagna, it just brings you right back to that moment.
The “charm” factor comes from how we associate the act of playing a game that reminds us of something in our youth, like how we revisit our childhood homes or take our spouses to Disneyworld. It’s powerful and undeniably attractive. We know for a fact those moments are past, but we enjoy the sensation of the familiar, especially from an uncynical and unjaded part of our lives. That was a time when every game was just the pure enjoyment of playing, rather than analyzing if it met a politically acceptable purity test or fulfilled our overhyped expectations on launch day. It was just fun. You didn’t really care if it sucked or not. Games that call back to those less emotionally messy times, even if they’re not the genuine article, still provide a satisfactory simulacrum. Indie developers now are the approximate age where their skills meet their childhood aspirations: they can make that platformer they’ve always wanted to play. It’s as much for them as it is for us.
The aesthetic is easier to pull off.
Team Meat, the developers behind the mega-hit Super Meat Boy, were quite literally 2 guys in someone’s living room banking their entire game development future on one small Xbox Live Arcade title. They had no money, no time, and ambition out the ass. Edmund McMillen, the bearded, more talkative of the pair, had some minor success with 2004′s Gish, winning a 2005 IGF Grand Prize (like the Independent Spirit Awards for games). Yet apart from that, they only had a handful of Flash games and some minor coding work. Personal illnesses, a nervous breakdown, a tornado of positive reviews, a documentary, and 1 million copies sold later, Super Meat Boy announced to the world that retro gaming was cool, and more importantly, back in a big, big way.
Since they were just two guys on a couch, sweating bullets and coding like madmen, with no publisher or resources to speak of. There is no way a small game duo, or even a moderately sized development studio can compete with a blockbuster publisher with a near-bottomless checkbook and top-notch technology. The average triple-A game costs $20 million with almost 100 people on the roster. The up-and-comers don’t have anything even remotely close to duplicating the visual pow of Frostbite 3 or the RAGE Engine. But everyone can create pixel art and code. It makes a lot more sense to use what’s around you, than try and forge a path into the technology wilderness, where you will be eaten by licensing bears and publishing wolves.
I’m not trying to play off that’s it somehow a cakewalk. Listen to Tommy Refenes talk about panicky flopsweats from opening the Super Meat Boy source code tells me otherwise. But if they had tried to match the tech powers of the gods, they would find themselves destitute and cold, just as stressed, but most importantly, game-less. The retro aesthetic is a recognizable palette, a set of design tools that are easily accessible, and available to nearly everyone out of the box.
They draw on a generation of gaming.
Much like how developers use the aesthetic as a shortcut to visual design, they often use the gameplay mechanics and chiptune to add their entries to a larger pantheon of gaming. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel in terms of gameplay mechanics because they have an entire generation’s worth of experiments behind them. For example, Mutant Mudds Deluxe, a delightful game, is a simple jump-and-shooter with a clever perspective changing mechanic where you jump inbetween the foreground and background. There’s been a million jump-and-shooters before it, many with the same plot and goals, and even controls. Except for that one thing.
It’s that one twist, that one new addition that makes a stagnating genre seem fresh. Let’s look at a classic game, one of the greats: Chrono Trigger. It’s one of the most accomplished, epic, mind-blowing RPG’s ever crafted by humankind. And it’s not explicitly due to the plot or the characters, even though those are enough to rank it amongst the greats, but when you get down to it, the clear shining example are the time travel mechanics. It’s a riff on a familiar formula, informed wholly by the games that came before it, and still adds its own new interpretation.
Retro gaming is doing this with an entire generation of games, not just a genre. Bit.Trip Runner is the chiptune rhythm game, Terraria is the sidescrolling RPG, Minecraft is Sim-everything; each with their own histories behind their facades, each with their own new, exciting offerings. These games draw on a vast archive, a wealth of successes and failures, crafted this time by the gamers who grew up with these games themselves.
The more cynical adult in me sees retro gaming similar to Woodstock ’94, a cheap and tawdry way for aging hipsters to regain the glory days of their youth, or at least the illusion of such. We all want to be 7 years old again with the enormous knowledge and benefit of experience we have now, at least then we would know to cherish it. But the optimist in me, the person I like being, sees retro gaming overall as a paintbrush, an old way to see new ideas for interactive entertainment, and a gateway drug for new developers to trip on for the first time. Retro is a thing of the past, but it’s here to stay.