Things About Retrogaming

Whether or not a game or system qualifies as retrogaming is a tough thing to quantify and something that different people will often think very differently about. The ‘retro’ in the word ‘retrogaming’ is in itself a bit of a little bit misleading. Retro, by definition, is a style that intentionally evokes memories of an older style that has since gone out of fashion. So movies from the ’30s aren’t retro, but The Artist, a recent movie made in the style of an old silent movie, is retro. If we apply the same logic to video games then something like Mega Man isn’t retro, but a game like Shovel Knight is because it pays homage to the NES games of old. Gamers have appropriated the word ‘retro’ into the new word ‘retrogaming’, but unlike the traditional definition, ‘retrogaming’ refers to playing old games rather than games that play like old games.

The origins of the word ‘retrogaming’ are, as we’ve established, pretty murky to begin with, but the definition isn’t any clearer. With the speed at which technology develops, games released at the start of a console generation look noticeably worse than those released at the end of the generation. And that’s just the lifetime of a single console. Games visibly age quite quickly, but in terms of the actual number of years since release they might not be so old. It also doesn’t help that the contemporary indie development scene has a fascination with making games that look and play deliberately like games of yesteryear. It’s all so confusing. At what point does a game qualify as old enough to be considered retrogaming?

Well, depending on who you talk to you’ll likely get a different answer. Someone like me who has been playing video games for over twenty years and started my gaming life with a Commodore 64 is going to have an entirely different perspective on whether a game is old or not to a kid whose first console is the PlayStation 4. But that doesn’t necessarily make either of us right, it’s just a matter of perception. I might look at a game like Prince Clumsy for the Commodore 64 as a fairly primitive side-scrolling platformer, but to my father who grew up with Pong the game was like nothing he’d ever seen.

The PS2 isn’t a system that instantly springs to mind when I think of retrogaming; I think sprites, MIDI music, and two dimensions. But that’s the eyes of a thirty two year old gamer looking at this, and not a ten year old. The likes of Devil May Cry, Ico and Twisted Metal: Black are games I remember picking up and being blown away by, but for a child used only to PS4 the games might look positively archaic.

Since we all, depending on our age and experiences, have different ideas about how old something has to be to be old, there has to be some sort of objective rule. For my money, once a system has been discontinued by the manufacturer then we can safely call it old enough for playing it to be considered retrogaming. By that definition, the most recent console to fall under the umbrella of retrogaming would be the PlayStation 2, and while some of you might balk and scoff at that consider this; the PlayStation 2 was released sixteen years ago. Every few years another new console joins the ranks of retrogaming, and while they might not adhere to what our personal ideas of retrogaming are they still fit the criteria.

Age is just the beginning, though. All we’ve determined is what length of time needs to pass for us to safely refer to something as retrogaming. If we accept that retrogaming is playing video games or consoles that have since been discontinued, then how one goes about playing these discontinued games is the next step in understanding exactly what retrogaming is.

The first and easiest way that we can play old games is to pick up a remaster or a port. These are becoming more and more common in recent years, with the PS4 in particular receiving port after port of popular (and not so) PS3 games since there’s no true backwards compatibility available for the system. But the PS4 has also seen some older games see release, too. Final Fantasy VII and X have both been ported to the latest PlayStation console, and going even further back than that, Grim Fandango has been re-released with some graphical and control overhauls.

As technology evolves there are also more options available to players who only have the current generation of consoles. With a service like PlayStation Now, people don’t even need to buy the old games that they want to play, with Sony offering a Netflix-like subscription program to gain access to a glut of older titles. It’s backwards compatibility, near-retrogaming for a monthly fee. If you’ve got the money and a stable Internet connection then this might be a preferable alternative to dusting off your old consoles and fighting to get them to work with your high-end television.

Another way that we can play older games via improving technology is through emulation. This falls into two categories; first, there’s the emulation we see on the likes of the PlayStation Store or Nintendo’s Virtual Console. Here games are emulated by making your modern console act like an old one. Recently the PS4 introduced PS2 games to the PlayStation Store and they’re run through emulation, just like Nintendo do on the Wii U.

Of course, there’s also illegal emulation. Often there’s no way to play an old game at all without illegal emulation. Grim Fandango has recently been re-released on PS4, but before that happened there was actually no way to play the game legally unless you just happened to have a very old PC and a copy of the game. While it’s technically illegal and basically piracy, there should be a better system in place to make sure that legacy games and platforms are preserved for future generations. A game like Grim Fandangoshouldn’t run the risk of being lost to time, and so while illegal emulation isn’t necessarily something I’d condone outright, in certain circumstances it can be understandable or even necessary.

The last way that we can play old games is the old fashioned way. That means picking up the console it was released on and a copy of the game itself and playing the thing as God intended. No downloading, no emulating, no tips or tricks or cheats. Just you and an old console and a dusty old cartridge and a wired controller. And there’s something incredibly satisfying about that.

Playing an old game on a new system feels inherently different to playing it at the time, and playing it howyou played it at the time. I still remember playing Final Fantasy VI when I was a young boy, and working my way through one of the finest JRPGs of all time on my trusty SNES. I’m playing the game again currently on my PlayStation Vita and the game is every bit as good as it ever was. The new technology powering the handheld means the game runs smoothly, it controls well, and it looks as charming as it ever did. But playing it now on a handheld just feels different to playing it as it was released on a control pad tethered to a Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

There are many reasons to play an old game. It could be that you want to experience historically important moments in the evolution of the medium, or perhaps a shorter, arcade title fits your schedule better than the latest, huge, blockbuster game. But maybe you just prefer playing old games. Nostalgia can be a powerful agent, and if it’s nostalgia that you’re after then there are few better ways of recapturing a moment in gaming than by playing it on the original hardware.

I’ve been interested in retrogaming for a long time, and it’s not for historical or academic reasons, and it’s not anything to do with how much free time I have. I enjoy retrogaming because playing an old game, like watching an old movie, or listening to an old song, conjures up memories within me of a time long ago. If I watch Back to the Future I remember renting the video tape from a local store and watching it on a Sunday afternoon with my parents. When I hear Time Warp it reminds me not of Rocky Horror, but of old school discos where the song was regularly played.

Similarly, when I hear the opening chords of the Final Fantasy VI theme I don’t think about playing it on my PlayStation Vita, but of being in the spare room at my friend’s house where we’d spend an entire day taking turns on the controller trying to reach the end of the story. Playing the game on a SNES feels entirely different to playing it on the Vita because of the memories that come flooding back while holding the controller. There’s something about holding the old controller, blowing on the cartridge to get rid of the dust, and firing up a system from a time long since passed. It’s not about experiencing history, but about remembering a time when these things weren’t history.

Retrogaming can be considered to be anything up to and including the PS2 generation, and those games can be played through emulation or by picking up a port or a remaster. But to me, retrogaming means playing the old games the way we played them back then. Playing a Commodore 64 game on PC through emulation is all well and good, but actually sitting and waiting while the tape loads is an entirely different beast. Having NES classics on your Wii U Virtual Console is a great way to quickly experience Mega Man orThe Legend of Zelda again, but there’s something altogether more satisfying about popping the cartridge in the slot and sitting cross legged in front of the TV because the controller cable isn’t long enough to reach the couch.

If you’re a gamer, chances are you probably have a different interpretation of what retrogaming is to the next gamer in line. The kid who thinks Crash Bandicoot is ancient. The thirty-something that grew up with games that came on tapes. The grandfather that played Pong in arcades. We all have different ideas about what qualifies as an old game. But what retrogaming is to me, what it essentially is, is recapturing the past and reliving fond memories from years gone by. That’s why there’s still a Super Nintendo Entertainment System in my house and why a few times a year I’ll take it out of the cupboard under the stairs and it’ll spend a weekend under the television. My friends will come round and we’ll play Street Fighter II together like we did over twenty years ago. And there’s something incredibly special about that.

What do you think qualifies as retrogaming? Do you like to pick up classics to play on PC through emulation? How about waiting for them to get a port to the current generation console you already own? Or maybe you’re like me and you think there’s no better way to experience a game than as it was experienced upon release? Whether it’s through piracy, for academic reasons, or to relive memories, retrogaming is something that gamers of all ages can enjoy.

All About Retro Game

#5. Games Were Simpler Back In The Day

Video games have unquestionably become more ambitious and impressive in recent years. When you look at the likes of The Last Of Us, it’s impossible to overstate just how far video games have come since people were playing Pong forty-odd years ago. But for all the innovations within the medium, and for all the new fangled ideas and increasingly elaborate control schemes, there’s something to be said for how much more straight forward things were in the games we played as kids.

Gaming today can be difficult for people without the muscle memory that comes from years of dedicated gaming. Give your mum or dad a PS4 controller and if they’re anything like mine they’ll spend half the time playing the game looking down, attempting in vain to remember where all the buttons are. Use the left analog stick to walk, hold X to jog, or tap X to sprint. L2 is aim and R2 is shoot, but R1 becomes shoot if you’re driving because in a car R2 is the accelerator. R3 (that’s when you click in the right analog stick) let’s you look behind you, and to open the menu you need to hold down the touch pad. And that’s just part of the control scheme for Grand Theft Auto 5, one of the best selling games of all time.

Even for seasoned veterans the increasing complexity of games can become a turn off. Super Mario World is still as intuitive as it was back in 1990 because the inherently simple design and pick up and play nature of the game made it timeless. You can give a kid who’s never played a Mario game the controller and within seconds they’ll have worked out how to play. This simplicity is an attractive concept, which is almost certainly part of the reason that retro games like Shovel Knight and Axiom Verge are so popular today. The simpler a game is to play, the more inclusive and immediate the fun. Retro gaming has that in spades, and that’s the reason I’m still playing Super Mario World twenty-six years after release.

#4. Retro Games Have Better Music

As gaming production values have increased over the years, we’ve seen the medium change in many ways. We made the jump to 3D, we now have voice acting, and elaborate cut-scenes tell complicated stories that rival those seen in television or on the big screen. Games today feature fully orchestrated scores or soundtracks featuring popular music that are every bit as impressive as what we’d see in other mediums, but it feels like we’ve lost something along the way, too.

I can still hum the theme music to Treasure Island Dizzy on the Commodore 64. I was playing that game nearly thirty years ago and I haven’t played it since then (and I’ve still never beaten it, damn it) but I can still remember the theme music that plays in the background in its entirety. I played games last week and I couldn’t even tell you if they had music at all.

Because of the simplicity of early games, and without voice acting to tell a story, the music had to be good. Other than a few crummy sound effects, the music of the game was the only aural stimulation that the games provided. There are still great game soundtracks today, but they seem few and far between when compared to the games of my youth. Mega Man, Castlevania, the early Final Fantasy games, and iconic titles like Zelda, Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog – these all featured highly memorable tunes that stick with us long after the last time we played them. I still remember how the music for Commodore 64 classic Prince Clumsy changes when you save the princess at the end of the game like I was playing it yesterday. We can’t really say that about Shadow of Mordor, can we?

#3. Games Used to Work Right Out of the Box

One thing that games from yesteryear unquestionably did better than the games of today is that they, well, worked. You’d think that it should be a pretty fundamental aspect of any product released to the market, but it’s truly staggering how many games in 2016 ship broken, requiring either days or weeks of server tweaks to get the multiplayer working, or enormous day one patches to fix all of the bugs that made it onto the disc. Today, if you don’t have a decent Internet connection in your home, some games are genuinely unplayable, and many others severely hampered.

Street Fighter V released earlier this year, with Capcom promising that the single player Arcade Mode, a staple of the series, would be available to download in July. What if you don’t have an Internet connection? Well, then you’ve got half a game. That’s not a problem we faced when Street Fighter II released on the SNES in 1991. Back then, we had no Internet acting as a safety net for developers. Games had to work right out of the box.

Going back and playing Global Gladiators today is as simple as popping the cartridge into your Genesis and turning on the power. It works now as it did then; exactly as it should, and without any fuss. This is one of the many great things about retro gaming; if you’ve got the game and the hardware you’re pretty much good to go. You don’t need to download drivers, or updates, or patches. You put in the game, and then you play. Just like you should.

#2. Games Used to Be More of a Challenge

Today, anybody who keeps up to date with the latest trends in gaming will likely know of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and the reputation these games have for punishing difficulty. Gamers flocked to the Souls series in droves, excited to play a title that challenged them and refused to hold their hands. There’s no extended tutorial sections. There’s little in the way of help. You can’t pause. And every enemy can make mincemeat out of you unless you learn their attack patterns and act accordingly. It’s exciting for a game to provide us with an uphill struggle like this, but then, I’m old enough to remember a time when every game was like this. And worse.

Modern games have a tendency to spell things out to the player, often to an almost insulting degree. Popping a disc into a PS4 in 2016 means waiting for the install, then the day one patch, and then when you finally get a controller in your hand you spend the next two hours being walked through the early stages of the game like a kid on his first day of school. Everybody likes a bit of help now and again, but there’s something to be said for just being thrown in at the deep end and being told to sink or swim.

#1. Nostalgia

Nostalgia might seem like a cop out answer; after all, looking back on the past with rose tinted spectacles is often what fans of anything retro are criticized with. It’s easy to dismiss nostalgia as a way of justifying the opinion that everything was just much better in your day, but the truth is that nostalgia is an immensely powerful agent and it shouldn’t be ignored.

Today, we watch rubbish movies and bemoan the use of obvious CGI, but we’ll happily sit through Raiders of the Lost Ark and not bother mentioning that the melting Nazi at the end looks like he’s made out of plasticine. We listen to the appalling pop music of our youths with a reflective smile on our faces while turning our noses up at Justin Bieber’s latest video. And we’ll talk about Final Fantasy VII as though it were second coming of Christ, completely ignoring all of the flaws in the game that we’d hang a modern game out to dry for. Nostalgia is a strong enough influence to make us believe that Sonic the Hedgehog was actually ever good. Now, that’s serious.

The reason a lot of us like playing old games is simply because of the feeling we get playing them. I’ve played hundreds, if not thousands of games in my time as a gamer. And I’m smart enough to know that in that time video games have improved in almost every way. But that doesn’t change the fact that if I load up Street Fighter II I remember the days of playing it during the school summer holidays with all my friends. I remember the day I completed Toejam and Earl with my brother every time I hear the first few bars of its ridiculously funky theme music. And I remember the giddy thrills we got when we first got the fatalities working on Mortal Kombat II.

Playing old games, just as with watching old movies or listening to old albums, transports us to a time in the past that we like to remember. Whether it’s memories of old friends, loved ones, people we may see every day or might have lost touch with, every old game we load up is a window to the past and that’s special. The latest Call of Duty is never going to compete with that.