Where’s the love for the 8-bit era?
Posted by ZX KNIGHT on Sep 22, 2011 21:24
Retrofusion - http://www.retrofusion.org.uk

As more and more compilations and re-releases of 16-bit console era (and onwards) flood the market I can’t help but look on enviously as the era I started out in - the 8-bit cassette era - gets ignored. It’s as if there is a tacit accusation levelled against gaming the 8-bit cassette era of the Spectrum and C64 that it wasn’t good enough to appeal beyond a nerdy section of young men and this is utterly bogus and needs challenging.

Much of this focus may come from the fact that the 8-bit cassette scene was so huge in the UK with the competing C64 and Spectrum whereas in the US cartridges were much more ubiquitous from the start.

As much of the culture of gaming today comes from the US and Japan perhaps it’s therefore inevitable that when there is a reference to 8-bit gaming you tend to see graphics clearly mimicking a NES or Master System rather than a Spectrum or C64.

If you look at what the market has produced, there is a definite gap in the compilation market when it comes to the cassette based home computers. You can find compilations on the early Atari classics, a huge back catalogue of Intellivision games, several from Taito, Capcom and Midway on their arcade releases, but nothing for the Spectrum, C64 or Amstrad CPC.

Partly this may be because software giants like Nintendo and Sega gained ubiquity with the NES and SMS and therefore their own focus naturally returns to their own systems, although even the poor old SMS gets ignored compared to the mighty Megadrive despite an array of quality titles. It’s really only the NES from the home systems available in the 1980s that retains a prominent position in the retro market through the sustained backing of Nintendo, who use their position as a hardware developer to support their older systems.

Meanwhile the software houses of the cassette era have nearly all closed down or been bought out. This no doubt creates extra hassle if an enterprising publisher wanted to do an 8-bit compilation for the mass market, as the ownership and copyright of many games may be unclear and rival software houses may not be willing to co-operate to release a single, worthwhile compilation.

Perhaps more depressing is the idea that the new owners frankly don’t even care. Mastertronic are now owned by SEGA and US Gold went through a joint venture until being bought out by Eidos, both software companies with a strong market presence today and neither has bothered to do anything with the back catalogues they own, this is despite the fact SEGA recently produced a Dreamcast compilation when the C64 sold several million more machines than the Dreamcast. Gremlin Graphics ended up under Infogrames, who were bought out by Atari, who choose to focus on endless arcade compilations and re-releases while ignoring a back catalogue that includes the Monty Mole series and Jack The Nipper.

Perhaps Codemasters and Ultimate Play The Game are the only ones that retain some sort of historical link with their past, in Ultimate’s case via Rare, but even so a Spectrum compilation of games for modern systems has not been forthcoming, although honourable mentions should go to Jetpac Refuelled on the Xbox 360 and the Sabrewulf reimagining on the Game Boy Advance.

Codemasters and Ultimate even go so far as to ban their games from the World of Spectrum archive, an utterly pointless gesture to fans who simply want to play the games of their childhood, especially considering the games remain unavailable outside of the second hand market.

The 1980s gaming era is rapidly being seen through a lens that recognises the consoles of the very early 1980s and the later 1980s and the arcade hits through the decade, while barely pausing for breath as we skip out a generation of home computers such as the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and Tandy Dragon. Even the 16-bit home computers such as the Atari ST and Amiga rarely receive as much attention outside of retro gaming enthusiasts as the NES or arcade systems. The work of Retro Fusion in highlighting Amiga ports onto the ipad at least strives to correct this and of course Retro Gamer magazine continues to be the best source for retro news we have.

As time passes and each generation grows up believing that the games of their childhood classify as ‘retro’, we’re in danger of burying the history of cassette gaming and skipping from the Atari 2600 straight to the NES and onwards through the march of the consoles.

This would be a real shame. It’s impossible to deny that the graphics of the cassette era have aged more than those of the NES-console era, simply because the NES graphics look like an obvious precursor to the more advanced 16-bit graphics, whereas the graphics on a Spectrum or CPC look distinct, unique and clearly of their time rather than as part of a continuation towards today’s graphics.
Likewise the sound effects and music of the 8-bit systems are distinctive and original. They stand out today when so many games use mock-orchestral scores or generic dance music to accompany their games.

Games today don’t look like successors to isometric classics like Head Over Heels or Underworlde and they rarely sound like successors to games with music scores written by Rob Hubbard or numerous other C64 composers.

This distinctiveness is something to be celebrated rather than ignored. When so many games are being released on mobiles now that, due to the size and format of the system, imitate knowingly or otherwise games from this bygone era it’s a shame not to have a greater awareness of the games produced in that time.
Perhaps market forces dictate what systems and games get reborn but I’ve just downloaded a train game on my Windows Phone 7 that is nearly identical to The Train Game I played on the Spectrum 20 years ago. How many titles could we choose from this era that would find similar cousins in today’s market?

The age of the cassette game feels in danger of being forgotten, this would be a great injustice to a fine era in home gaming.

ZX KNIGHT also blogs at www.zombiesatemyxbox.com