Video games have evolved considerably over the decades. We’ve gone from hanging out with friends at the coin arcade to playing online with strangers on the best custom PC assembled with a website builder.
The industry has undergone corresponding changes, taking advantage of cutting-edge hardware and spurring further development, while titles are developed to push these machines to their limits and sometimes beyond.
Despite these developments, many people still go back to playing old games, known as ‘retrogaming.’
By definition, retrogaming is rooted in nostalgia. Today’s average gamer is a Gen Xer or older millennial who likely spent a chunk of their childhood playing titles released in the last century. The psychology of nostalgia, in turn, shows that it promotes feelings of well-being and helps offset loneliness.
As the gamers of the 20th century grow older, experiencing burnout or personal loss, retro games offer a comforting link to the past. That’s valuable, but it’s not the only factor driving their appeal.
Commercialization and design
Today’s games are developed within a more mature industry. For the new generation of gamers who never played a retro game, or for older players who’ve steadily kept pace with the gaming scene, that’s easy to miss.
The video game industry has found several ways to increase revenue. The console model still thrives, but the days when you’d buy installation CDs are long gone. DLCs, in-game storefronts, loot boxes, subscription-based content, and online passes are commonplace now. But they didn’t exist back then.
Commercialization impacts the design of video games because it strongly affects the development process. Four or five decades ago, costs were minimal, the technology simple, audiences limited, and there was little need to test compatibility or performance across devices or platforms.
Thus, retro games are invariably an all-in-one package. They may not be bug-free, but they were playable straight from the box, without patches.
These games were made under a model that worked off upfront payments. They’re free from add-ons and the pestering reminders to purchase new content, offering a well-developed experience. Too many modern games feel like rushed, incomplete efforts that almost count on audiences to pay more for a better version.
A different context
The evolution of the video game industry has changed how they are designed, but it’s not the only factor that differentiates retro games from modern ones.
The entire context in which video games exist is different now. In those nascent stages, games had a true cult following. The stereotype of the game-obsessed geek exists for a reason. Nowadays, thanks to ubiquitous mobile devices and high-speed internet, everybody is a gamer.
Paradoxically, that mainstream acceptance of video games may have harmed their creativity and variety.
With market research playing into the considerations of publishers and developers alike, more focus is given to genres with proven sales records, like first-person shooters. Elements of gameplay are either featured or excluded in anticipation of audience response. Games are designed to be as accessible as possible to a broad audience.
The gaming experience has become social. Most people want to play what their buddies are playing or which games are popular right now. That was already true back in the day, but the difference is we now get instant feedback, much like we do on social media. FOMO drives groupthink, and more people end up playing the same games with similar attributes.
In contrast to modern sameness, retro games were far more experimental. They could afford to be avant-garde. There was no meta-awareness. Games didn’t try to cater to every player type or demographic. They could be insanely difficult while also offering a remarkably smooth learning curve without any dumbed-down tutorials. The context of those times allowed them to be designed that way.
A distinct medium
These characteristics of retro games mark them as a completely different medium of experience from what modern games have become.
Overall, today’s video games aim for popularity, which means not displeasing a lot of people. They improve on tech specs and visuals without addressing the core experience.
Final Fantasy XIII beats the classic Final Fantasy VII hands down in graphics, but there’s no question the latter is a far better game, which is why it got remade. Dark Souls is difficult, but in retro games like Ninja Gaiden, you’d die plenty and often without blinking.
The modern gaming experience tends to be moderately enjoyable but forgettable. Yesteryear’s games offer variety by daring to fail. More than the distinctive 8- or 16-bit graphics, it’s what makes them a completely different medium.
It’s something that new players could learn to appreciate as they grow saturated with what have rapidly become established industry norms. And for indie developers seeking to recapture that magic, it’s vital to not just package modern sensibilities in a low-tech format. The best retro games are novel experiences that also evoke nostalgia.