Note: This is an amended and expanded version of an article I wrote for the first issue of print magazine, Pixel Bison.
There was a time back in the 90s when retrogaming was considered incredibly niche – the preserve of oddballs who either couldn’t keep up with the march of progress or simply couldn’t accept it. These days, the idea of playing and collecting games from previous console generations isn’t frowned upon or seen as odd – it’s hugely popular and complementary to more modern gaming experiences. I recall in the late 90s, working for the mail order department of CEX, that they had a small, entirely separate store (based in one of their older shop premises) named – aptly – CEX Retro, which was filled with retro goodies but felt like a weird step back in time. These days, it’d feel like an absolute treasure trove.
Though nostalgia undoubtedly plays a part – and is an astonishingly powerful drug – there are games in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras that still hold up as remarkable experiences, even from a visual point of view. There’s an old movie saying: that ‘black and white wasn’t possible until colour was invented’; the point being that black and white wasn’t an artistic choice until the option of colour was also there – I’ve long thought that this applies to games too, with the craftsmanship apparent in 2D pixel art only becoming more appealing and obvious as time goes by. Indie games, for example, widely use audiovisual styles and gameplay mechanics that are distinctly 16-bit in appearance, feel and design.
Gameplay was king back in those days, even though of course at the time we were wowed by the advances in tech when jumping from Atari to NES and Master System, then to SNES/Mega Drive; all the while seeing arcades always a step ahead and amazing us with startling graphics and sound, not to mention proprietary hardware that just couldn’t be matched at home. Developers, unable to rely on cinematic cut scenes or celebrity voice acting to carry the experience, had to ensure a certain level of playability and appeal in design that often became lost as games moved into the CD era, especially with the initially impressive but ultimately empty FMV-led titles.
The resurgence of music styles such as chiptune, which utilise hardware such as the sound chips found in Nintendo’s beloved original Game Boy console, shows that even the audio in old games has become an artform that’s lived on and become appreciated far beyond the confines of original hardware and software.
The passage of time may not be kind to certain video game eras. but there seems to have been a sweet spot in the 8 and 16-bit years where graphics, sound and gameplay seem to have converged to create the purest and most appealing designs. Many milestones were reached across a variety of genres and in some cases, the pinnacle of these still feel unmatched – platformers such as Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario World, beat ’em ups such as the Streets of Rage games, 2D action adventures such as the Castlevania and Contra games or action RPGs such as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past are still quite rightly heralded as the apex of their respective genres. Castlevania – following Symphony of the Night – and Metroid (following Super Metroid) have even spawned their own 2D action/platform/RPG-esque hybrid genre with the Metroidvania style of game.
Much as the music genre synthwave cribs from the past to create something that feels both nostalgic and futuristic, so too do indie games do the same in a lot of cases. Much like the continued availability of past music, however, the increasing accessibility of retro games via various means (many of which now opening up are entirely legal, unlike the situation in the last few decades) means that we can go back and experience the source material for ourselves – either once more, or for the first time entirely.
Backwards compatibility baked into both PCs and more modern consoles means that we’re unlikely to see vast swathes of prior generations become unavailable for extended periods too, so we’re likely to see games from yesteryear continue to be played, enjoyed and appreciated for many years to come. No longer is it an oddball niche; playing older games is now just part of the gaming landscape for everyone.
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