Oldies but Goldies: why retro gaming matters

I realise that this blog might make me sound like a bit of an old fuddy duddy at times; the kind of dull relative who bores you at family get togethers with endless tales of how much better things were in my day.

I promise that’s not my intention and I’m not totally unrealistic. I fully accept that time has lent the 80s and 90s a certain rosy glow. These days we tend to look back fondly on the classic games that have stood the test of time, forgetting that there was an awful lot of dross released too (film and TV licences, I’m looking at you!) Equally, I fully accept that today’s games with their incredible graphics and soundtracks are way beyond anything we imagined back then, when the animation of the main sprite in Impossible Mission or the pseudo 3D graphics of The Last Ninja were talking points in their own right.

At the same time, though, there was a magic to gaming back then; a certain mystique which is missing today. Back then, everything felt new and fresh. Technical limitations meant that games couldn’t rely on impressive graphics, so focussed on gameplay instead. Particularly in the early 80s it felt that every new game established a new genre, whilst later in the decade – as developers learned how to get the most from the hardware – titles really started to push the humble machines to their limits. It was a time of imagination and innovation, a time when programmers dared to try something different and produce games that were like nothing we’d ever seen before. That’s how games like Paperboy or Wizball came about – because people dared to try something new.

These days that imagination has gone out of the industry. Just go along to the shelves of your local games shop (if you can still find one) and try and buy a game that doesn’t have a number in the title or isn’t just the latest update to a sporting franchise. Almost impossible, isn’t it? Even if you do find something that’s not a sequel, the chances are that it will just be another addition to an already overcrowded genre: another FPS or sports sim. Massive development budgets and spiralling costs means that developers are now totally risk averse and rarely release anything that dares to be different or does not have a ready made market built in.

And you know who’s to blame for this? Us. The gamers. Every time we shell out another £40 for the latest FIFA update or Call of Duty game, we say to the industry that we don’t care about imagination or innovation; that we are happy to keep paying more to play essentially the same game with only minimal changes its predecessor. Sure, the advent of digital downloads and indie developers has improved the situation a little, but these titles still only sell a fraction of the the AAA games and their releases certainly don’t attract the attention of the mainstream media in the same way that (say) the release of FIFA 15 does.

And that’s a real shame because it’s innovation and imagination that made the industry what it is today. That’s why retro gaming is important and more than just the ramblings of people who think everything was better in the olden days: it helps to keep the past alive and remind us all of where we came from.

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3 thoughts on “Oldies but Goldies: why retro gaming matters

  1. “Every time we shell out another £40 for the latest FIFA update or Call of Duty game, we say to the industry that we don’t care about imagination or innovation; that we are happy to keep paying more to play essentially the same game with only minimal changes its predecessor.”

    Exactly. And they know that, so they won’t change a thing, of course. Now one can argue that it’s quite difficult to develop something innovative nowadays, unlike 20 or 30 years ago, when everything was relatively new, depending on the genre.

    But the time of innovative AAA games are long gone, and today it’s just about making more and more money. The easiest way to achieve that is to release sequel after sequel after sequel etc. Speaking of sequel, I stopped caring about FIFA after 12 came out.

    And their development costs are getting completely out of control. Seriously, I’m just waiting for the first game that breaks the £500 million mark. Just have a look at Destiny, £310 million, that’s just insane.

    Iirc, the last time I spent 40 quid on a game and was truly satisfied, was the day I got Skyrim, and even that one is, technically speaking, a sequel.

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  2. I’m a long-time gamer as well, and agree wholeheartedly that the 80’s were a golden time. New genres and game styles appeared constantly, and there was a real sense of adventure for everyone involved. That said, I don’t believe that innovation and creativity stopped then, and in fact, think that games are better than they ever have been.

    Yes, if you just look at the shelves of EB Games and Best Buy, you’ll see a lot of titles with numbers in them, or continuations of already established franchises. But these are just the AAA games – the ones that publishers have spent tens, if not hundreds of millions on, and I completely understand their desire to make something as mainstream as possible. There is innovation occurring within AAA titles, but they tend to be as incremental improvements rather than genre defining shifts.

    But I don’t think the indy movement should be discredited quite as quickly. Games like Sword & Sworcery, Fez, Braid, Octodad, Banner Saga, Limbo, and countless others don’t sell at the same levels, but they are imaginative, fresh, and shaping the industry.

    What’s interesting is that in a lot of ways, the environment has actually gone back to the wild west of the early days. Big businesses squashed out independent developers in the 90’s & early 2000’s. But we’re now back in a place where a single programmer can convert their whacky idea into a game and get it to paying players via Steam, the ID@XBox program, etc.

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  3. Pingback: Retro Wars Evolved? | RetroReactiv8

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