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A retro genre....

Posted by ZX KNIGHT on Jun 9, 2011 21:52 (Jun 9, 2011 21:52)

Over the past few years we've seen a growing number of games consciously ape the styles and genres of yesteryear. Are we seeing the emergence of 'retro' as a genre as well as an era?

With the advent of 3D gaming in the mid 1990s the 2D platforms seemed increasingly stale and past it. Sega had bet the house on 2D gaming as a major force in the way they made the Sega Saturn (or as my friend insisted on calling it, the Sega 'Sadturn') but ended up getting thrashed by Sony, whose Playstation (which my friend insisted on calling the 'Sony Greystation' – he was a Nintendo fan if you hadn't guessed) was built for 3D gaming and ease of programming.

Even Nintendo leapt ahead and converted the most iconic 2D platformer of all time in Mario into 3D with the revolutionary Mario 64. Meanwhile Sega’s attempts to convert Sonic into 3D were patchy at best.

However, in the past few years 2D has started to come back into fashion. The rise of retro re-releases, the unstoppable rise of mobile gaming and the expansion of handheld and downloadable games has seen a surge in retro gaming, however not just as an era but increasingly as a genre in itself.

Developers from the 1980s and 1990s now find their work in demand on the mobile platform as we return to the days when someone could produce a number one hit and sell a million copies on their own. Jon Hare of Sensible Software fame now runs Vivid Games, which specialises in mobile gaming and notable examples of indie successes include Harbour Master on mobile platforms, which was made by just two people and I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES IN 1T!!!1, which made the one-man team behind it over $250,000 on Xbox Live Arcade. A new version is now being ported to Windows Phone 7 by the same guy.

Old titles are also finding a new life on hand-held consoles, becoming both retro and new at the same time. This is a logical step for games companies who have been sitting on licenses to classic games with little way of making money from them beyond often poorly produced compilation packages (which I have discussed before). Suddenly old licenses are being revived for a new market, returning an IP with recognisable brand value to a generation of gamers who are now grown up and armed with a larger disposable income than their pocket money and children who are also gaming.

Thus Rare release a brand new Sabre Wulf on the Gameboy Advance and Eidos planned to release a new version of Gauntlet, telling previewed as ‘retro’, exclusively for the Nintendo DS.

This is not to say that all such re-iterations are successful or even done for the right reasons. Just as film fans hold their collective breath when a classic film franchise is resurrected from the dead, gamers also feel the same mix of anticipation and trepidation when a classic series is announced for a comeback. Games done for the right reasons will be greeted with open arms but games produced for the quick buck, as Martin Hollis, the producer of Goldeneye on the N64 feared when it was announced a new version would be produced for the Wii, will often find the gaming audience just as unforgiving as a film audience.

Alongside this trend another has been developing in recent years. More and more games have introduced ‘mini-games’, either in-game elements such as unlocking chests or containers on Oblivion and Mass Effect or packaged as a secret unlockable as with the zombie game on Call of Duty. The packaged mini-games are often clones of a classic arcade format meaning that millions of people are spending hours playing clones of retro games they don't even know exist. A friend showed me the zombie mini-game on Call of Duty after having a hunch that I'd enjoy playing it. He was spot on, I enjoyed it just as much as when I played the original version of it called Smash TV, which he'd never heard of (bless 'im).

So when did this trend begin and why? My first memory of a retro game within a game was when I discovered Maniac Mansion while playing its sequel Day of the Tentacle, but the link was more about the two games being part of a series than anything else and occurred several years before retro gaming really came to anyone's attention as a serious section of the gaming world.

My first experience of that came after playing The Warriors on the PS2. Upon completion you unlock a side-scrolling mini-game beat 'em up based on Double Dragon. It's a great nod to a previous era and particularly a game that is often ignored over the admittedly superior Streets of Rage and Final Fight.

It's likely that as a new generation of developers emerged they wanted some way to tip their hat to the games that influenced them when they were growing up, much as musicians will cover a song as a tribute to their musical heroes. Meanwhile gamers who also grew up on those games get a kick out of seeing them re-imagined and re-vamped in new games.

Mini-games also serve a wider purpose for games, as developers try to find ways to keep gamers playing their products long after the main campaign has been finished. In such a competitive market it's important for developers to find new ways to encourage fans to stay loyal to a series.

It's an irony that as newer consoles and 3D gaming initially consigned 'retro' genres to the dustbin, their resurgence on other platforms has also infiltrated the online marketplaces across all consoles and the PC. The same arguments in favour of retro re-releases or re-imaginings across mobile and handheld platforms exists for download only games – fewer overheads resulting from smaller, less complex games.

Many people would baulk at paying a full retail price for a game like Peggle or Castle Crashers but having an online marketplace allows them to be sold at much more reasonable prices. There is an amusing cycle going on too that sees modern arcade games ported to 8-bit computers by dedicated retro gamers. Check out the number of 'match 3' Bejeweled style games released in recent years on the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 to see what I mean.

Finally there has been a general resurgence in 1980s pop culture after the decade suffered years of criticism. The clothes and music of the decade have comfortably slipped back into mainstream popular culture today and influenced a new generation of fashion and musicians and it's interesting to see elements of the gaming industry follow the same cycle in looking back to the decade for inspiration today.

All of this has led to an increasing number of games produced in the genres of yesteryear that 3D gaming initially looked to have killed off for good. As these genres have become so associated with the era of gaming now called 'retro' the genres themselves have become retro, and garner reviews in the genre press magazines such as Retro Gamer. There is now even a game on the iOS platform called Retro.

In my opinion all of this is a good thing, despite my misgivings about the motives behind many retro re-releases the influx of old titles into the gaming market along with new twists on old genres – helped along by advances in gaming technology – means a greater diversity in gaming. Greater diversity means more competition, which means more innovation as developers work hard to create high quality games that can succeed in an ever more crowded marketplace.

Perhaps the best example is a game that is a modern variation on old standards like Tank Trax, a game sold for a couple of quid by Mastertronic on the ZX Spectrum in the 1980s, where you fire at your opponents taking into account the angle, wind speed and velocity.

Released on the iPhone and Android platforms for less than a dollar, it has sold millions of copies worldwide and become a brand in itself, releasing a range of plush toys and tee shirts and spawning dozens of imitations.

The success of Angry Birds has proved that being retro is very much the in-thing today.

ZX KNIGHT also blogs about games at
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#4 Jun 30, 2011 00:54:08 ( Jun 29, 2011 23:54 )

 Back in the day I loved all the 3d stuff.  However nowadays, I have went back to playing the 2d stuff and enjoy it so much more.  On another note, I went to France 5 years ago. There the games and systems have never been retro as they have always sold "old" stuff in the shops there and never went through periods where people would stop playing 1 thing only to re start playing it years later.
#3 Jun 13, 2011 22:08:30 ( Jun 13, 2011 21:08 )

 Thanks for the comments!

I agree retro means different things to different people, though I think it's still covers the general pre-3D era pretty well. Kinda like Geometry Wars etc - definitively a descendent of Asteroids but totally 'new' too. I think it's a very broad term admittedly!  You know, I was going to mention mobile versions of Snake!! I felt Angry Birds was a better fit!
#2 Jun 12, 2011 20:23:41 ( Jun 12, 2011 19:23 )

 Great article.
#1 Jun 10, 2011 00:49:22 ( Jun 9, 2011 23:49 )

Rather not a genre, because the video game evolution was fluent. Starting from monochrome or a few colour productions in the late 70s, then adding more colours, better sound, the computer games reached the today's photorealism. "Retro games" for one person are for Atari 2600 or ZX81, for a different person they are Amiga and DOS productions. I can only agree that the era of "retro games" ended with Windows and DirectX - the major labels stopped producing 2D games, but they are still made by indepentent programmers (mainly in flash and ghost bless they are freeware). We also must remember, that about the year 2000 many of us addictively played a 2D monochrome game with 1 channel sound on Nokia 3210/3310 - Snake!
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