What makes a game retro?

Anyone born before the PlayStation knows what gaming used to be like. Anyone born before the crash of the gaming industry (and the boom) in the 80s will have seen how rapidly games changed. While we are content with our PlayStation 3 consoles, Halo games and motion-controlled tennis, it’s easy to look back at the bygone ‘golden’ eras with a hint of jealousy, some regret and a lot of nostalgia.

Many nostalgic objects that were considered unfashionable at some point can suddenly become popular and the masses surge to buy them. Think lava lamps, classic Mini’s or 60s designer chairs. None of these were an instant hit but have become popular in latter years. The same can and has happened to games. What may have been, at the time, quite good and enjoyable becomes super cool and ‘retro’ simply because it has aged or is distinct. This concept got me thinking. What makes a game retro? Is it just the age of a product? Does it need a unique design feature or furthermore does it need to be rare? The idea of retro is quite subjective, so I’ll give it my best shot at delving into what it is.

Is it down to age and design?

If you ask people to name a retro game the likely answers would be: Pong, Space Invaders, Mario, Sonic and Street Fighter among others. A key factor linking these games is age. Although there have been newer renditions, the original iterations of these games/franchises are at least 15 years old. But why is it that something old and out of date would be so cool nowadays? A big part of it is down to the generation game. Not the iconic game show presented by the legend Bruce Forsyth, but the idea of the passion for gaming continuing into adulthood. For example, children can’t earn money for themselves. Partly because they’re lazy but partly to do with slavery laws etc. As a result they rely on their parents to buy games for them leaving some kiddies deprived. (I can’t actually prove that). But as these children grow older and move on with the industry, they end up having their own disposable income and as a result can purchase their own games. Think of all of the little ones who grew up in the 70s and 80s, now with cash in hand. As retro games are readily available in so many formats, (Xbox LIVE Arcade and the Wii’s Virtual Console) it’s no wonder there has been a boom in sales as dads, uncles, brothers and sisters everywhere try to spark the nostalgic flame once again.

Retro status also depends on design. For instance, products and games often become retro because they have a particular style or are from a specific decade. Many things from the 60s and 70s are now considered retro yet at the time they would have been ‘normal’, futuristic or even unfashionable. Think back to the funky chair designs that were around. Swirly chairs and odd-shaped plastic products is all you can get now at IKEA it seems. Perhaps a game cannot be retro on its own but it has to be associated with a unique and interesting era. Again, this links with time and just a general feeling of nostalgia. You see, I grew up in the 90s thinking there was not much unique or new going on, when looking back there was. The Internet really started to take off, everyone wore Nike or Adidas labels and the music stands out compared to today.

So is it not the case with every era of gaming; that after a decade or so things become nostalgic or retro?

Speaking with the founders of Retro GT, Gary and Lawrence, makers of t-shirts with retro games designs, I discovered the whole area of retro gaming is a hot topic and one that is quite personal.

Lawrence, who grew up in the 70s, has his own view on the debate: “Some think retro stops at 16-bit. Some believe the move to 3D (or textured 3D) is no longer retro. I personally go by how many generations have past, anything two generations or older is considered retro to me. That makes the PlayStation retro – many people will disagree but a lot of games that age do have a certain old-school kick to them. The PlayStation has its fair share of 2D games and crappy 3D does feel nostalgic. I don’t think games have to be ancient to be retro though.”

Going by that theory this generation of games won’t be considered retro for at least 10 years, if not more. A fair point well made though. It’s difficult to call something current and cutting-edge retro. It certainly fits with the definition of retro deriving from the Latin prefix ‘retro’ meaning backwards or in past-times. This is where we get the words retrospective, retrograde and now retrogaming.

Does commercial failure actually help?

The idea of retro also conjures up the concept of vintage. Something that is vintage is often regarded as priceless, unique and ,most importantly, rare. Some of the most awful products and games ever conceived are seen as retro or vintage simply because there are so few to find. These are often the forgotten games or consoles that didn’t perform so well – Atari Jaguar, 3DO, Game Gear etc. Consoles or games that don’t perform well become notorious for that fact alone. Consider the Atari Jaguar; to this date it has sold 500,000 units…it released fully in 1994. Yet, as bad as it is, there can be a retro element attached to this machine because it was so bad.

There have been other consoles that didn’t perform but live on almost entirely because they could not compete in the market. Examples would be the SEGA 32X, Saturn and Dreamcast. (it failed eventually). Poor SEGA!

Does commercial success ensure that a console does not become retro? If we consider that retro and vintage usually connotes a degree of rarity then consoles such as the PlayStation 2 are not retro and won’t ever be. The Dreamcast will live on forever in history because it was always seen as the underdog. It started off well but eventually crumpled under the might of the PS2. However, there are some iconic games for that system such as Dead or Alive, Shenmue, Phantasy Star Online and more. The console itself may not be retro but if it had been successful commercially then would those games be as well remembered? There’s something attractive about games developed for a console that was a sitting duck. The guys at retro GT agreed:

“It does seem to be the case that the less successful a console or computer system was in the good old days, the more it’s worth on eBay and the more ‘Uber Retro’ you become for owning one.”

However, using a theory of ‘commercial success = no retro’; that then counts out the SNES, Mega Drive and the PlayStation. Most people would agree the SNES and Mega Drive have retro games and elements. The PlayStation also has its fair share of iconic games. We cannot forget classic games such as Mario Bros., Sonic or Crash Bandicoot. These were hugely popular games for successful consoles. On the flip side, Superman 64 was a truly awful game; one of the worst but it isn’t really considered retro…is it? And what about the N64 – that certainly had a very distinct feel to the games? Titles such as Lylat Wars and Goldeneye. Quite ugly games, even at the time, but the jagged polygon effects somehow look and feel great. The irritating voice of Slippy will never be forgotten. Unfortunately!

And then, take the Wii. The console is selling by the bucket load and they still don’t have enough supply to meet demand. Because it isn’t seen as a ‘hardcore’ gaming machine, does that mean it won’t ever be retro? The console is stylish, different and it tries something new. It has possible retro features but I think the sheer volume of sales removes any uniqueness it once had. Yo Yo’s were cool when they became popular again and you were the first to own one in school. Then everyone else in the playground has one and suddenly it’s not so great. It doesn’t mean it’s a poor console, I just don’t think it will become retro.

Is it simply subjective?

“It’s in this generation that the lines start to blur. The ‘64 came at the end of 16 and 32-bit generation but the 3DO and Atari Jaguar which came earlier would likely be considered retro.” says Gary. “I guess it’s all a matter of taste and how much nostalgic value we place on certain machines.”

It’s a valid point and that is where the difficulty lies. As stated before. Retro is very subjective – hence the article. What one person may regard as junk another sees as something to treasure. Illustrating my point exactly, Gary comments:

“I’d perceive the original GTA to be retro nowadays, as well as the original Worms, Duke Nukem 3D, even to an extent, Quake…”

It’s all a matter of perspective and one reason why this debate will continue to go on as each generation of consoles pass. But whatever it is, there is a marked difference between the games classed as ‘retro’ and those not, regardless of when they were made. Through the years some games, products and consoles have achieved this status. Some achieved it through superior or addictive gameplay, such as the original Donkey Kong or Mario Bros. Others achieved it through failure, think of the 3DO or Dreamcast. Some even gained retro status through causing pain and suffering to gamers, due to nausea and headaches; Nintendo’s Virtual Boy.

I think I have sussed one thing out. Retro games, for the most part, have tried something new and, depending on whether it succeeded or failed, have become either famous or infamous.

Here’s to the next 20 years of debate!

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