The Top 5 Reasons We Love Retro Gaming

#5. Games Were Simpler Back In The Day

Video games have unquestionably become more ambitious and impressive in recent years. When you look at the likes of The Last Of Us, it’s impossible to overstate just how far video games have come since people were playing Pong forty-odd years ago. But for all the innovations within the medium, and for all the new fangled ideas and increasingly elaborate control schemes, there’s something to be said for how much more straight forward things were in the games we played as kids.

Gaming today can be difficult for people without the muscle memory that comes from years of dedicated gaming. Give your mum or dad a PS4 controller and if they’re anything like mine they’ll spend half the time playing the game looking down, attempting in vain to remember where all the buttons are. Use the left analog stick to walk, hold X to jog, or tap X to sprint. L2 is aim and R2 is shoot, but R1 becomes shoot if you’re driving because in a car R2 is the accelerator. R3 (that’s when you click in the right analog stick) let’s you look behind you, and to open the menu you need to hold down the touch pad. And that’s just part of the control scheme for Grand Theft Auto 5, one of the best selling games of all time.

Even for seasoned veterans the increasing complexity of games can become a turn off. Super Mario World is still as intuitive as it was back in 1990 because the inherently simple design and pick up and play nature of the game made it timeless. You can give a kid who’s never played a Mario game the controller and within seconds they’ll have worked out how to play. This simplicity is an attractive concept, which is almost certainly part of the reason that retro games like Shovel Knight and Axiom Verge are so popular today. The simpler a game is to play, the more inclusive and immediate the fun. Retro gaming has that in spades, and that’s the reason I’m still playing Super Mario World twenty-six years after release.

#4. Retro Games Have Better Music

As gaming production values have increased over the years, we’ve seen the medium change in many ways. We made the jump to 3D, we now have voice acting, and elaborate cut-scenes tell complicated stories that rival those seen in television or on the big screen. Games today feature fully orchestrated scores or soundtracks featuring popular music that are every bit as impressive as what we’d see in other mediums, but it feels like we’ve lost something along the way, too.

I can still hum the theme music to Treasure Island Dizzy on the Commodore 64. I was playing that game nearly thirty years ago and I haven’t played it since then (and I’ve still never beaten it, damn it) but I can still remember the theme music that plays in the background in its entirety. I played games last week and I couldn’t even tell you if they had music at all.

Because of the simplicity of early games, and without voice acting to tell a story, the music had to be good. Other than a few crummy sound effects, the music of the game was the only aural stimulation that the games provided. There are still great game soundtracks today, but they seem few and far between when compared to the games of my youth. Mega Man, Castlevania, the early Final Fantasy games, and iconic titles like Zelda, Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog – these all featured highly memorable tunes that stick with us long after the last time we played them. I still remember how the music for Commodore 64 classic Prince Clumsy changes when you save the princess at the end of the game like I was playing it yesterday. We can’t really say that about Shadow of Mordor, can we?

#3. Games Used to Work Right Out of the Box

One thing that games from yesteryear unquestionably did better than the games of today is that they, well, worked. You’d think that it should be a pretty fundamental aspect of any product released to the market, but it’s truly staggering how many games in 2016 ship broken, requiring either days or weeks of server tweaks to get the multiplayer working, or enormous day one patches to fix all of the bugs that made it onto the disc. Today, if you don’t have a decent Internet connection in your home, some games are genuinely unplayable, and many others severely hampered.

Street Fighter V released earlier this year, with Capcom promising that the single player Arcade Mode, a staple of the series, would be available to download in July. What if you don’t have an Internet connection? Well, then you’ve got half a game. That’s not a problem we faced when Street Fighter II released on the SNES in 1991. Back then, we had no Internet acting as a safety net for developers. Games had to work right out of the box.

Going back and playing Global Gladiators today is as simple as popping the cartridge into your Genesis and turning on the power. It works now as it did then; exactly as it should, and without any fuss. This is one of the many great things about retro gaming; if you’ve got the game and the hardware you’re pretty much good to go. You don’t need to download drivers, or updates, or patches. You put in the game, and then you play. Just like you should.

#2. Games Used to Be More of a Challenge

Today, anybody who keeps up to date with the latest trends in gaming will likely know of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and the reputation these games have for punishing difficulty. Gamers flocked to the Souls series in droves, excited to play a title that challenged them and refused to hold their hands. There’s no extended tutorial sections. There’s little in the way of help. You can’t pause. And every enemy can make mincemeat out of you unless you learn their attack patterns and act accordingly. It’s exciting for a game to provide us with an uphill struggle like this, but then, I’m old enough to remember a time when every game was like this. And worse.

Modern games have a tendency to spell things out to the player, often to an almost insulting degree. Popping a disc into a PS4 in 2016 means waiting for the install, then the day one patch, and then when you finally get a controller in your hand you spend the next two hours being walked through the early stages of the game like a kid on his first day of school. Everybody likes a bit of help now and again, but there’s something to be said for just being thrown in at the deep end and being told to sink or swim.

#1. Nostalgia

Nostalgia might seem like a cop out answer; after all, looking back on the past with rose tinted spectacles is often what fans of anything retro are criticized with. It’s easy to dismiss nostalgia as a way of justifying the opinion that everything was just much better in your day, but the truth is that nostalgia is an immensely powerful agent and it shouldn’t be ignored.

Today, we watch rubbish movies and bemoan the use of obvious CGI, but we’ll happily sit through Raiders of the Lost Ark and not bother mentioning that the melting Nazi at the end looks like he’s made out of plasticine. We listen to the appalling pop music of our youths with a reflective smile on our faces while turning our noses up at Justin Bieber’s latest video. And we’ll talk about Final Fantasy VII as though it were second coming of Christ, completely ignoring all of the flaws in the game that we’d hang a modern game out to dry for. Nostalgia is a strong enough influence to make us believe that Sonic the Hedgehog was actually ever good. Now, that’s serious.

The reason a lot of us like playing old games is simply because of the feeling we get playing them. I’ve played hundreds, if not thousands of games in my time as a gamer. And I’m smart enough to know that in that time video games have improved in almost every way. But that doesn’t change the fact that if I load up Street Fighter II I remember the days of playing it during the school summer holidays with all my friends. I remember the day I completed Toejam and Earl with my brother every time I hear the first few bars of its ridiculously funky theme music. And I remember the giddy thrills we got when we first got the fatalities working on Mortal Kombat II.

Playing old games, just as with watching old movies or listening to old albums, transports us to a time in the past that we like to remember. Whether it’s memories of old friends, loved ones, people we may see every day or might have lost touch with, every old game we load up is a window to the past and that’s special. The latest Call of Duty is never going to compete with that.

Collectors V Resellers, Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Tens of thousands of years ago the very first humans survived as hunters and gatherers. Our ancestors went out into the wild with basic tools and weapons to hunt for meat, and they scoured the forest for fruits, vegetables and berries. At the end of a hard day at the office these simple people would sit around their camp fire dividing up the spoils of the hunt. One of the cavemen always took a little bit more food than he could eat because he figured he could then use it to trade with later. If he didn’t want to tidy up after himself he’d just bribe someone else with a little meat. Didn’t fancy going out and hunting a mammoth? Why, he’d just offer up a handful of berries for any man who’d go in his place. Once the other cavemen noticed what he was doing, some of them kicked off about it, and a never ending argument began.

Okay, now my understanding of the dawn of our civilization might not be one hundred per cent accurate, but the point is that if we fast forward to 2016 then essentially the same thing is going on today. No matter how far we’ve come as a species, there’s always conflict, and there’s always somebody who seems out to get ahead at the expense of somebody else. But who is in the right and who is the wrong? Is somebody doing you ill or is that just your perception of the situation because you’re not getting your own way? These are important questions, and when it comes to the subject of collectors and resellers in the retro gaming community, there’s no easy answer.

The idea of retro game collection is a simple one. The collector wants old games. Perhaps they want to preserve video gaming history for future generations. Perhaps they just really like playing old games that remind them of yesteryear. Maybe they just think that retro games look cool on their shelves. Whatever the reasons behind it, the collector just wants to collect.

There’s something about collecting that most of us can relate to. When you’re at school there’s usually something that’s popular that all the kids are into. When I was in primary school all those years ago it was Garbage Gang trading cards. Man, we loved garbage Gang. We were crazy for them. Practically everyone in our class, boys and girls, collected Garbage Gang, traded Garbage Gang, and played with Garbage Gang on our lunch break. That mentality sticks with many of us as we grow, only most of us don’t carry on collecting Garbage Gang into our adulthood (I sold my complete set in 2010 and put that to rest). As adults our houses become filled with movies, music, books and a lifetime of photos and memories. We have shelves filled with books. Maybe it’s photographs or paintings or furniture. I have a thing for my travel photography and hang them everywhere, but I will always have a gaming collection as well. There’s just something satisfying about having a collection of things you like.

The idea of reselling is, again, a simple one. Like our caveman friend from earlier, somebody will always notice that there’s a gap in the market. Value is, essentially, whatever someone is willing to pay for something. You might not think that a handful of berries are enough compensation for going out and facing a woolly mammoth in battle, but if someone is willing to fight that mammoth for you then that’s what the berries are worth. The principle hasn’t really changed over the years. If somebody is willing to pay top dollar for something, then that’s what it’s worth.

But at what point does selling something on become morally questionable? Well, what if our caveman friend with the berries knows his friend just really loves berries and knows he’ll work for them? Is that fair? What if his friend is starving to death and he’s putting him into a dangerous position because he knows he needs the food so badly? Then it’s a little more questionable, surely, and you can understand why some might find that tactic to be aggravating.

Collecting versus reselling is an argument that has arisen within the retro game collecting community in recent years precisely because of this moral grey area. Collectors want to collect because that’s what they like to do. Whether they’re doing it to play the games or to look at them or to preserve them, they’re doing it because of a love for collecting and not for their own personal monetary gain. Resellers have noticed that old games are highly sought after by these collectors, and so they seek to acquire games, particularly rarer titles, to then sell them on to the collectors for profit.

It’s easy to see why the collectors might find reselling so contemptible. Reselling effectively drives up the market value of games, which makes it more difficult for collectors to do what they love to do. A reseller might go to a garage sale and spot some old games that they know are worth serious money to the right people, but to the people selling them, they’re just junk that they’re selling for pennies. Have you ever seen Toy Story 2? It’s essentially what the chicken man does when he spies Woody in the garage sale. He knows that the cowboy toy is worth big money and so he wants to try and trick Andy’s mother into selling him for next to nothing so he can maximise his profit. The chicken man might be a comedy animated villain (voiced by Wayne Knight, no less) but there’s people out there doing that every weekend to try and make money from video game collectors, and so isn’t that something we should be annoyed about?

There’s something that seems inherently shady about buying games that you know are worth a lot of money from someone who doesn’t have that knowledge and is selling them cheaply, and then exploiting that situation for your own benefit. But is the reseller really to blame?

For many thousands of years gold has been a valuable commodity here on Earth. The reason that it’s so valuable is that it’s so rare. As I learned in a documentary starring Professor Brian Cox a couple of weeks ago, gold is formed when massive stars explode, and those are such rare occurrences, that if you were to collect all the gold the human race had ever found it would still only fill three Olympic sized swimming pools. Today, we attribute value to things other than shiny, rare metals we dig out of the ground.

Games and gold aren’t so different. Resellers are, essentially, modern day prospectors, heading out and looking for the precious items that they’ll then be able to sell on to the highest bidder (quite literally in many cases, since these games widely end up on eBay). Resellers are searching for a rare or valuable commodity and then they’re selling it on to make money. Collectors find it distasteful because they think it drives up the cost of the games they want to collect, and because the resellers in question aren’t buying the games for the love of collecting, but for the love of profit.

But should collectors really begrudge resellers a money making opportunity? We all make money in our lives. And we all do different things to make our money. Is making money from selling old games any worse than, say, selling your old clothes? Presumably, somewhere out there, there’s somebody that loves collecting old clothes. Are they currently on an Internet forum somewhere, moaning about people who don’t care about collecting clothes going to charity shops and snatching up all the bargains?

More importantly, do the actions of resellers actually negatively impact the ability of collectors to collect? Value is what somebody is willing to pay for something, but if they can get it cheaper elsewhere then they’ll likely do that. A reseller can’t charge too much for the game he picked up at a garage sale because, unless there’s only one copy in existence, somebody else will be selling it at a much more reasonable price and the collector could just buy it from them. That’s how the free market works. Buys and sellers, together, determine the market value of an item. And so if collectors aren’t paying ridiculous prices for the games that resellers are offering, then those resellers will need to lower their prices. It seems short sighted to believe that there are evil resellers out there buying up all of the stock of old games and making all of the poor collectors remortgage their houses just so they can afford a copy of Stadium Events on the NES or Power Strike II on the Sega Master System.

The truth, as is generally the case in this sort of conflict, is somewhere in the middle. Resellers are, essentially, buying something and then selling it on for a higher price. That’s exactly the same as what shops all across the world do, including the shops that collectors will often go to on the hunt for classic games to pick up. Collectors often pick up a handful of games off the forums or a Facebook gaming page, knowing they’ve already got most of the those games and are only buying the bundle for the one title, they then sell on those duplicate copies of the games they own, unwittingly becoming resellers themselves. I’ve done it myself. We all have…

There’s no real black and white answer here. It’s easy to understand why some collectors might hate the idea of resellers getting in there before them and finding a classic game for a bargain. But there’s nothing, fundamentally, wrong with somebody selling items to make some money. It’s no different to how any shop works. Buy low, sell high; it’s the general principle that any business across the world operates under.

Maybe it’s high time that collectors and resellers put down arms and just did their best to get along. A good friend of mine who is a proper, die-hard collector has befriended one of the said resellers and now gets offered first dibs on the minty fresh stock the guys finds each week. That seems like a great solution to me! There are more than enough classic video games out there for everybody, and if occasionally you have to pay more money than you’d like to pay for something then that’s just the nature of collecting something. If you want something that badly then you should be prepared to pay for it, and if you’re not then are you really that committed to collecting, or are you just hoarding?

Hobbies cost money. My bank balance can attest to that. Over the years I’ve spent a fortune on things that I enjoy, and I wouldn’t even dare to guess at how much money I’ve spent on video games. Do I resent it? No. Gaming is my hobby, and I’ve been collecting games for over twenty years because of that. As we talked about earlier, value is determined by how much someone is willing to pay for something. That counts for collectors too. How much will you pay for something you enjoy doing?

Should Games Skip Cutscenes Altogether?

Videogames as a medium for storytelling have often taken cues from movies, and the clearest example of this is the use of cutscenes. Pac-Man is quite often said to be the first game that used cutscenes rather than transitioning directly from level to level with no intermission. After the player beats each stage, it would play a short vignette depicting simple scenes of Pac-Man and ghosts chasing each other.

Whilst these little scenes are quite obviously a long way from how modern cutscenes are used in games, the core concept is the same.

The game takes away control of the character from the player for a sequence to introduce some sort of new information. The duration of these sequences can vary widely – Konami’s Metal Gear Solid series is infamous for having lengthy cutscenes, with Metal Gear Solid 4 clocking it at more than eight hours of cutscenes – and can be used for a wide variety of purposes.

They are used to introduce characters, develop established ones, provide backstory, atmosphere, dialogue and more.

However, despite their ubiquity in modern big budget games, cutscenes are not necessarily the best way to tell a story in a game. There have been many highly acclaimed games that used few cutscenes, instead preferring to allow the player to control the character throughout the whole game.

Half-Life 2 by Valve Software is currently the all time highest scoring game for PC on review aggregation site Metacritic, and it only has one cutscene at each end. Control is rarely taken away from the player for more than a few moments – excepting an on rails sequence towards the end – and much of the background information that would be shown in a cutscene elsewhere is instead shown through scripted events or background details in the environment.

But are Half-Life 2’s unskippable, scripted sequences that different from cutscenes? After all, the player often cannot progress until other characters finish their assigned actions and dialogue – so why not just use traditional cutscenes and be done with it? To get truly unique experiences, we mustfirst look at what makes video gaming unique as a medium for storytelling. Unlike film, where the viewer has no control over the action, or traditional tabletop games, where players actions have very little in the way of visual outcomes, video games provide an unique opportunity to merge interactivity and storytelling. Games like Gone Home, Dear Esther and other games in the so called ‘walking simulator’ genre have been lauded as great examples of the sort of storytelling that can be unique to games.

However, to some gamers, these games are presenting an entirely different problem – although they rarely take control away from the player, they also offer very little in the way of gameplay themselves. Indeed, Dear Esther has no way the player can affect the world around them – the only action that can be taken is to walk along a predetermined path to the end of the game. There is no way to ‘lose,’ no interaction with the environment, just what amounts to a scenic tour with some overlaid narration. So, despite the lack of cutscenes in the game, the almost complete lack of player control and interaction in the first place means that there is little to differentiate it from an admittedly quite protracted cutscene.

As video games are currently exist, there seems to exist a sort of dichotomy between traditional storytelling and gameplay. For a game to tell a story to a player, there must be some degree of limitation in what the player can do – either a temporary one in the form of a cutscene or scripted sequence, or by limiting the players actions for the course of the game. Perhaps future games will be able to integrate a great deal of player interaction with compelling storytelling. But that won’t be accomplished by taking the players control away and forcing them to watch a short movie instead of letting them play the game.