What does that word mean when it comes to games? Everyone has their own ideas of what is retro depending on age and they are all different. Even the grubby teen can now look back and call some PS3 games 'retro' as indeed they are to him/her. For some though, retro really just means pre-3D where games were almost exclusively 2D pixel art and custom sound chip all written in mind bending assembly code so hence this will be the temporary definition of 'retro' for this article alone.
So what indeed is the attraction?
The pull of retro games are twofold – 1. they are fun to play and 2. people of all ages are waking up to the fact that video gaming didn't just start in the 70's and continue on until this very minute. Oh no, there does exists an invisible border where retro gaming ends and modern gaming begins and therefore the worlds of retro and modern games don't simply exist as just 'older' and 'newer' games but are completely separate genres in their own right but where did it all start and end?
Looking at the proverbial history books, it was around 1995 that games started to take a noticeable change. PC CD-ROM had become increasingly popular with it's comparatively huge memory capacity and speedier chips and these tasty hardware treats were offering players advanced Doom clones, adventure games and shooters that soon were actual 3D rather than 2D perspective trickery. The big turn though, came with the release of the Sony Playstation, a remarkable machine which sadly was also the start of the end for the much loved gaming arcades as they were then. With a Playstation you could really have a true arcade experience in your own home with ports like Tekken to back up that claim to the hilt. The shift towards 3D had taken a monumental landslide and from then on started the birth and of modern gaming although it wasn't a completely clean cut line as 'old -skool' held on for dear life for a good few years but the changes were happening and the climb has been gradual but steady these past 20 years.
An easy medium to judge these changes aside from the gameplay switch is the graphics. Retro games can be easily distinguished by their use of semi-low res pixel art, the parent of such terms as bitplane and raster or pixar or planar. These graphics were basically made up of tiny little squares put together to form pictures (rather a sweeping statement as it could be argued that all game art is made up of pixels of some kind but the retro and modern are different) The retro games of the late 80's/early90's usually ran at around the resolution of the 300 x 200 mark (give or take a few hundred here or there between systems) and graphics artists were limited by these dimensions. Whereas today’s game graphics can really just be playable cartoons the retro artists came up with a wondrous style that wasn't cartoon and wasn't trying to be real either, it was some cross bred beast that produced some of the most beautiful pixel art ever and it was merged into a living breathing game.
Look at the character design of Street Fighter II: The World Warrior and compare it to the anime/cartoon like Alpha series and you will see a good example of the start of the changes in style. The World Warrior undoubtedly has a much more aggressive use of shading and a harder, lusher look all round whereas Alpha uses a very light almost classic animation look with much higher resolution less layers of shades and a divisive palette of seemingly simpler combinations of colour and exaggerated character proportions.
If that isn't as different a set of experiences as eating ice-cream to eating pants I don't know what is?
With the border well and truly drawn we must, as gamers fundamentally recognise that the games of yesteryear aren't worse or primative but simply different. Backwards comparisons are the scourge of the uninformed brat who will tear down a video of Double Dragon with cries of “tHiS sUx lol haha” when comparing it to Call of Duty of Arkham Knight not even realising the utmost stupidity of comparisons between two technologically different eras and hardly a thought passed to the gameplay.
Gaming isn't like the technology it is made on where distinct improvements are apparent and regular throughout the ages. The new systems offer programmers a world of opportunities where almost every whim of the imagination can be put on to the screen with glorious or horrifying detail but the retro developers had to think, to toil to overcome the limitations of their primitive systems and the result was imagination pushed outside the box, especially from Japan. Having the world at your fingertips has produced some of the most imaginative games ever made for these modern times but as always creativity is the product of necessity and how do you develop a fun and long lasting world within limitations.....
Rather well it would seem, so why do we still think of retro games having been surpassed when in reality they actually peaked for their time then something new came along that wasn't better but simply and fundamentally different!
Striding forth from his lair at Castle Stareskull on morning, Prototron decided to not reign down terror on the villagers, but instead go back inside, crack open a beer and load up Streets Of Rage 2. One hundred years later, he's still there. A avid music maker (of TERROR!) and retro gamer, he can be found whooping any and all heroes at all manner of SNK-based challenges.