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.

War Console Games All The Time

Since man first learned how to fashion undergarments from fig leaves, humanity has scarcely lasted five minutes without starting a war. Whether it’s for land, for religion, or to take down a rotten egg like Hitler and his cronies, we as a people are prone to letting our fists do the talking a little too often. Commonly, resources are the reason that we go to war, whether those in power care to admit it or not. President Bush might like to tell you that he invaded the Middle East for the good of the people, but it just so happens there’s also a hell of a lot of oil over there. When there’s not enough to go around, everyone wants to make sure they get their share. As Tears For Fears once sang, ‘Everybody Wants To The Rule The World’.

The video game industry isn’t quite as dangerous as the Normandy landings, but with a finite number of potential buyers wielding a finite amount of money to spend, console manufacturers will do what they need to do to sell their product to the masses. When Pong was first released in a home version it had to duke it out with a slew of knock offs for market supremacy. Later came the Atari 2600 which dominated sales against largely forgotten systems like ColecoVision. After the North American video game crash of ’83 it looked like console gaming was done for in the States, but Nintendo and SEGA were about to enter the fray, and console gaming would be changed forever.

Nintendo were a card game company that had seen the interest in board games and card games decline since the arrival of arcades, and like any good company that sees the market they’re in shift, they adapted. Moving into arcade gaming and toys, Nintendo found some measure of success with their new ventures, and the next logical step was to move in on the home video game market. Atari were the big name in gaming but the crash of ’83 had decimated the company, leaving the industry wide open for a new challenger to take over. In 1983 Nintendo released the Family Computer in Japan, and after a successful run in their home country, made plans to go international. In ’85, the Famicom (as it had become known) was rebranded as the Nintendo Entertainment System and launched globally.

Meanwhile, SEGA were primarily known for making coin operated arcade machines, but they made an attempt at cashing in on the home console market too. Their SG-1000 console actually launched at the same time as the NES, but due in part to the aforementioned industry crash in North America, the lack of games available for the system, and the fact that their machine was underpowered in comparison to the Nintendo console, the SG-1000 never really found any footing. These days, the SG-1000 is largely forgotten about, remaining little but a footnote in the pages of video game history.

While the SG-1000 failed to make much of a splash, the success of the NES proved that console gaming could be a viable way to make money, and SEGA still wanted a piece of that pie. The SEGA Master System was launched in 1987 to directly compete with the NES for market share. Technically, the machine was more powerful than the Nintendo console, but with the NES having already been on the market for a few years, the Master System struggled. Gamers already had the NES, and trying to convince them to switch to a new system would be hard work; a problem made even harder because third party publishers were largely afraid to take a risk by releasing games on the system for fear of repercussions from Nintendo, and so the number of games available was limited in comparison to the NES.

The Master System didn’t come close to overtaking the NES as the number one gaming console, and so SEGA, still wanting to control the video game industry, decided to change their strategy. How do you convince people to switch to your console when they already have one that’s basically the same? You don’t. You make a better console, and then there’s no debate. And so that’s what SEGA did. In 1989 SEGA released the Mega Drive (named Genesis in the United States), a 16-bit home video game console that was so far ahead of the NES in terms of hardware power that it amounted to the next generation of gaming. In order to capitalise on the generational leap that their new console had made, SEGA decided to take the fight to Nintendo in marketing too, with the now infamous slogan, “Genesis does what Nintendon’t”. And with that, the first great console war had truly begun.

SEGA’s aggressive marketing of the Genesis was something that rubbed off on gamers. Kids would pick up the latest magazines, see the marketing mocking the NES and championing the Genesis as the future, and adopt it for themselves. Unlike any of the previous skirmishes between console manufacturers, the battle between SEGA and Nintendo drew gamers in and effectively put them on the front lines. Being at school in the late eighties meant that you were either a SEGA kid or a Nintendo kid, and you fought for your console regardless of whether you were in the right or in the wrong.

Thinking about it now, it never really made any sense, although you can still see that mentality today if you spend five minutes trawling gaming forums on the Internet and looking at some of the ridiculous things that PlayStation and Xbox fans say to each other. Anybody with their head screwed on properly can see that these companies are all essentially the same; they want your money. And while some might go about it in better ways than others, that fact never really changes. A lot of people talk about Nintendo like their HQ is a sort of gaming Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory; happy minions spending hours crafting games and the only payment they’ll ever need is a child’s smile. Life simply isn’t like that, and like most wars there’s rarely a clear cut “good guy”.

That being said, SEGA’s marketing strategy did seem overly sassy, even at the time. And I was originally a SEGA kid. While the insults might look tame today, at the time it was quite shocking to see a company not only address their competition by name, but publicly call them out. To their credit, it worked, and sales of the SEGA Genesis started very strongly, particularly in Western Europe where the Mega Drive, as it was called there, was a bona fide smash hit.

Nintendo were astonishingly slow to reply. They didn’t even announce their Super Nintendo Entertainment System until 1989, and it wasn’t released until the end of 1990 in Japan. It was released a year later in the States, and a further year later in Europe. This meant that SEGA had a relatively long time to get their claws into the market, and they also had time to prepare for the arrival of a new Nintendo console.

SEGA decided that they needed a mascot to rival that of Mario for Nintendo. They’d tried to make Alex Kidd a thing and bundling Alex Kidd In Miracle World in with the Master System was a clever move, but Mr. Kidd had never really taken off like Mario had. Now, with a brand new Nintendo console hitting the streets, SEGA needed their own mascot. What they came up with was Sonic the Hedgehog. He was bright, colourful, fast, cool and he had attitude to spare. In many ways, his creation summed up what SEGA were about at the time. The Genesis was seen as the cool, exciting new console while the NES was seen as a toy for children. The Genesis was taking games to the next level. Except when the SNES was released, the Genesis was instantly outdated. And that was a massive problem for SEGA.

The Genesis continued to sell well even after the launch of the SNES, but with the Super Nintendo being noticeably more powerful than the Genesis, they’d lost their ultimate bargaining chip. The Genesis was no longer the future. It was no longer the exciting console that laughed in the face of the competition. It was outgunned. And handsomely so.

To their credit, SEGA were at least quick to react in that they changed their marketing slogan to “Welcome to the next level” almost immediately after the SNES arrived, as though not wanting to leave themselves open to attack when people realised that “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” only works when the Nintendo console is weak. But it wasn’t power that was SEGA’s biggest problem. It was games.

Every Nintendo console, whatever you think of it, has had great games. The Wii U is a colossal failure for the company right now, but Mario Kart 8, the latest Smash Bros. and Super Mario 3D World are all stellar games. What is true now was true back then, only tenfold. The SNES has one of the greatest libraries of games ever amassed, and while the Genesis was quick out of the blocks and it made an impact, it simply couldn’t compete in terms of the quality of games.

The Super Nintendo had the likes of Mario RPG and Mario Kart. It had stacks of quality Japanese role playing games, with the likes of Final Fantasy VI still being talked about today as one of the best of all time. There was Zelda and Donkey Kong and Starfox. Even the likes of Street Fighter II, which could also be played on Genesis, was considered to be at home on the SNES thanks to the vastly superior controller on the Nintendo console. But nothing highlights why Nintendo are still in the game and why SEGA are now out of hardware more readily than the comparison between their flagship games.

Sonic The Hedgehog was created as a cooler alternative to Mario, but for all the attitude and all the speed, the games simply didn’t resonate with people in the same way that titles starring Mario did. Even today one can play Super Mario World and appreciate the impeccable game design that still holds up in 2016. Playing Sonic The Hedgehog today, unless you have the benefit of nostalgia, is not remotely as pleasant an experience.

As more and more quality games released for the SNES, sales grew, and Nintendo were gaining on SEGA. By the time the console generation wound up, the SNES had caught and overtaken the Genesis, with the Nintendo console sitting at around 49 million units sold, and the SEGA system being on just under 31 million.

SEGA made Nintendo sweat, but ultimately, they were bested by a stronger system with a better library of games. If SEGA could have capitalised on the strides they made in this generation and improved with their next console then perhaps they’d still be a major player today. Unfortunately, a series of catastrophic errors of judgement meant that their next two consoles failed. The SEGA Saturn was given a surprise release that caught everybody off guard meaning there were no games for the system at launch. After the failure of the Dreamcast, SEGA couldn’t stomach the financial hits any longer and decided to concentrate on software only. Today they’re mostly known for releasing increasingly terrible Sonic the Hedgehog games. And most of them are on Nintendo consoles.

As for Nintendo, their triumph was short lived. After going back on a deal with Sony to make a CD compatible version of the SNES at the last minute, an annoyed Sony used what they’d researched to develop their own console and enter the war in the mid-nineties. The Sony PlayStation laid waste to the Nintendo 64 in sales, and the PlayStation 2 went on to be the best selling home console of all time. Today, the PlayStation 4 battles the Microsoft Xbox One in the current console war while Nintendo are largely considered a quaint relic of a bygone era, outclassed and outsold by more forward thinking competitors.

As the industry moves on and changes, new players come and go, and companies rise and fall. Perhaps Nintendo will announce a new console that will allow them to reclaim market share. Perhaps we’ll reach a day when SEGA return to the hardware fold to have another go at taking the crown. Until then, the battles between Nintendo and SEGA will remain an essential and interesting piece of gaming history; the first great console war.