The trend can’t be denied: retro video games and the new popularity in gaming. Rabid collectors scour the globe for old Atari 2600 cartridges, and folks young and old can be found with old dusty consoles sitting alongside their PS4s and Xbox Ones. So how is it that eight bits can compete with billions of polygons per second for a spot in the inveterate gamer’s heart? Here are some simple reasons many modern folks self-identify as retro gamers, and why thattrend isn’t likely to abate anytime soon.
This is the first and principal reason retro gaming enjoys such a huge following. Today’s titles deliver an immersive experience replete with kinetic action that all but knocks you out of your gaming chair, but there’s something about a platformer or side-scrolling adventure that offers a one-way ticket straight back to childhood. This isn’t just for adults either—kids are getting into the mix. It’s not unusual to see the millennials of today enjoying a game of Pokémon on an old-school Gameboy, or tearing through Goldeneye’s God Mode on the N64.
Today’s generation of gamers may scoff at the bulky consoles of yesteryear and their blocky cartridges. To these whippersnappers, it’s the difference between a lightning-fast online payment processor and those 1980s credit-card imprinters that made a chunk-chunk sound when they physically swiped the card. But, as your surly grandfather used to say, “they were built to last back then.” Growing up in the 1980s this writer saw the evolution first hand. It began with Atari, then the NES, then Super Nintento and Genesis—and all of them worked always. Try buying a used Xbox 360 today and just see if you don’t get the Red Ring of Death within four minutes of firing it up. On the other hand, order an old NES off eBay and dollars to donuts it runs like a dream for the next millennium. There’s something deeply reassuring about that, which means these older machines will always have a place in a retro gamer’s entertainment cabinet.
Some might credit free-market capitalism with creating the conditions necessary for robust competition between the video-game companies of the ‘80s and ‘90s. A more noble-minded way to look at it would be that these companies forced one another to raise their creative game, thus delivering groundbreaking titles to the masses. Say what you will, but the ruthless dog-eat-dog, king-of-the-hill console wars of the ‘80s do not exist today (even Coke and Pepsi go after each other harder than today’s consoles). Now all games are released for all systems, so innovation only comes from the studios. There’s nothing wrong with this, but without that level of propriety, it means there will likely be fewer iconic characters that one console can use to bludgeon another console for market share. And speaking of characters…
No one can predict the future. But if the past is any indicator it’s doubtful so many current titles will be rebooted across future generations of consoles. Smash hit franchises like “Halo,” “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto” may always be around, but even these titans don’t have what the old guard did. Classic games and their unique characters first appeared in the arcades in the 1970s with such hits as Pac-Man. But it was the home consoles and their stars, like Mario and Zelda, which captured the imaginations of a generation of kids.
That’s because the developers translated a Japanese gaming sensibility to American audiences. It involved technical precision, sophisticated design and boundless creativity where it concerned character creation. That’s why so many iconic video-game characters have evolved from one console generation to the next. Mario is now an international icon, and people will buy “Zelda” games forever. Even the fighting games of yesteryear had that little extra something. Sure, any modern video-game studio can put out a bone-crunching fighter heavy on the ultra-violence, but how many designers are creating King Hippo, Sub-Zero, Blanca or Yoshimitsu?
These are just a few reasons retro gaming is ascending in popularity. Many gamers also credit the difficulty of the games in years past. Three lives, no tutorials, and you’re on your own. Yes, it was a simpler time, one defined by blocky cartoon characters more real than today’s movie heroes, and with hex-code music providing the soundtrack to a generation.