Retro Games vs. Indie Games with Retro Graphics

In a recent article, I discuss different kinds of retro games being made today—those with a major contemporary twist and those that expand and deepen what the old games did.  Our case study will be 2011’s To the Moon.

To the Moon is a good game. but is not a retro game. Really, To the Moon is almost not a game at all, as it hovers close to the border with visual novels—though it pulls this off much better than, say Hatoful Boyfriend. The experience is all about story—To the Moon deals with issues of love, mental illness, death, the value of painful memories, and the ethics of balancing truth and happiness. The gameplay is practically incidental, though the exploration and progression does increase investment and the player’s feeling of To The Moonimplication in events and character relationships in a non-trivial way. Built atop the RPG Maker (XP) engine, To the Moon’s game elements are as follows: the gameplay core is based on graphic adventure elements, though they are less puzzle than seek-and-finds for the most part. At the end of each level, you do a quick tile reorganization puzzle. And in the final act, there’s a jarring and unnecessary action scene where you fight and avoid zombie-like enemies, but this brief gameplay-heavy section, while certainly retro in its mechanics, is dull and intrusive and the game would be better off without it.

So on the one hand, the gameplay is all retro in that all of it would have been possible and familiar in the early 90s. On the other hand, though, I can’t see To the Moon getting made (in the West, anyway) in the early 90s because of how light on that gameplay it is—the visual novel wasn’t really much of a thing here, then, as far as I know. So there’s little nostalgia factor in playing it today, because it’s not an experience I remember fondly (or at all) from that time.

An interview with creator Kan Gao also suggests that nostalgic retro gaming wasn’t a developmental focus. When asked about influences, Gao starts talking about films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Up, and Memento before games even come up (when asked, he says he likes old-school RPGs for the stories).

Why the retro graphics, then? If I had to guess, because a 16-bit style was a lot easier for Gao to put together mainly on his own—it’s an indie thing, not a retro thing. To the Moon isn’t a game that needs flashy graphics. So Gao chose a recognizable, indie-achievable graphical style that let him tell the story he wanted to tell and that wasn’t incompatible with the light gameplay he had in mind.

We can identify three useful categories here: 1) games with retro graphics and gameplay, 2) games with retro gameplay and modern graphics, and 3) games (often indie) with modern gameplay and retro graphics. Category 1 is covered in my previous article linked at top, which brings us to category 2: Retro-style games can have fantastic state-of-the-art graphics—2009’s Shadow Complex and 2010’s Limbo are excellent examples of an action-platformer and a puzzle-platformer whose gameplay would have been right at home in 1995 but whose graphics and polish are undeniably 21st century.

As for category 3: modern games like To the Moon, TowerFall: Ascension, or Thomas Was Alone can use retro-style graphics for other reasons besides evoking a nostalgic gameplay experience. These are not much like 1990s games—they just look like them on the surface, whether for aesthetic (an iconic gaming look) or practical (budget and workforce) reasons or, often, a bit of both.

So what do you think? Do most of your favorite games fall in one or two of these categories, or do all three have a place in your game library? Do you think my categorizations oversimplify or leave anything important out? Have I miscategorized any of these games? Which kind(s) of games would you like to see more of? Which games and categories do think are likely to be biggest in 2015 and beyond?

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