There is no such thing as retrogaming
Nowadays, we are powerlessly witnessing a relentless war. The great war over performance is waged between all the main contributors of the video game world: console manufacturers, publishers, suppliers, and development studios.
Will this age-long fight ever settle on who has the most powerful machine, the biggest franchise or the most pixels? They race towards “always more” and make us feel like quantity is more important to them than quality or the experience.
In the midst of this turmoil, the emergence of retrogaming represents a neutral zone. A place where internal battles have lost their significance with the years, and left room for something else. Something that is able to disprove the established order, like a grain of sand in the gears of the gaming industry. A phenomenal against nature which intrigues as much as it bewilders.
We can wonder about what the nature of this happy irregularity is. Or, as the Talking Heads would put it: retrogaming, qu’est-ce que c’est?
Debating the Timeline
Retrogaming can easily be understood as the act of playing old games whatever the platform: arcade, console, or computer. The concept itself is difficult to grasp since people disagree on the specific point of age.
For some, the shift happens between 2D and 3D games. Others would rather see the turn of the millennium and the popularisation of online gaming as the demarcation. And some others chose to base their opinion on the shift to HDMI standard, associated with the passage from the 4:3 standard to 16:9. Therefore, the last platforms labelled as “retro” would be from the sixth generation (PS2, XBOX, GameCube, Dreamcast).
The discipline appears at the end of the 90s when the increased access to the Internet is coupled with the emergence of first emulators.
Between archaeologists and hackers, a community of hybrid gamers starts to look for and gather as many titles as possible to make them accessible to all, for free, online. Indeed, the owners of these games can no longer claim any fee for their works because they aren’t commercialised any more. Consequently, it is completely legal to use a backdoor to provide these games. In the end, every device that disappeared will get its emulator.
Little by little, the retro world will evolve quietly but steadily as emulation catalogues grow and expand. Its evolution seems to have reached a peak in the last few years.
A Relevant Past
The increase of the prices of second-hand consoles is proof of a growing demand. Last August, for instance, a blister-packaged Super Mario Bros NES cartridge was auctioned for as little as 2 million dollars. Prior to this, a copy of Mario 64 went for 1,56 million dollars. Such an expensive magic mushroom! 🍄
In the mid 2000s, the return of the 80s aesthetic took over every layer of pop culture. In video games, Pixel Art was born. The independent scene took hold of this trend and turned it into a true artistic movement. The aesthetic is simple by nature and allows programmers to create low-budget games while maintaining their own distinctive style. Few means also enables them to retain their independence and, therefore, their creative freedom. That’s how they are able to provide uncompromising games with remarkable gameplay.
Thanks to this movement, more and more independent productions see the light of day and bring about new trends inspired by the spirit of retrogaming, such as neo-retrogaming or the art of creating new oldies.
This designates the way today’s developers have decided to create games for the platforms of the past. Among them, some will even produce physical devices that we can happily plug into our favourite systems, such as Xeno Crisis, Paprium, or, this year, Demons of Asteborg that can all be played on Megadrive. These outdated machines can suddenly be brought back to our time and age!
Obviously, the platform manufacturers didn’t wait to take advantage of this opening. Nowadays, they remake and sell the old machines that made their success in pocket-size format. This is how fanboys and fangirls all over the world fight to get their own mini Super NES, mini Mega Drive, or mini Neo Geo.
Even video game arcade cabinets have regained popularity despite their cumbersomeness. Indeed, for the past fifteen years or so, passionate people have started to give a new life to these old machines by offering pricey custom designs.
In the end, when we add to the previous list the extensive porting of old games on next-gen consoles, whether they are official games or homebrews, we must concede that the market of the old has never been so young. That’s one glitch in the Matrix that goes beyond a simple déja vu.
Most of the time, this phenomenon is explained by a simple nostalgia; yet, a closer look reveals another origin to the practice of retrogaming.
It may be true that today’s developers are yesterday’s players — the average age of players in 2020 was 39 years old — and that they naturally carry their influences and memories, but nostalgia alone cannot account for the tremendous success of retrogaming.
First of all, because this hypothesis would disregard an entire portion of players who indulge in the practice without realising it.
Retro vs Classic
As we’ve seen, retrogaming is tightly linked with savings in resources which makes its presence self-evident every time there are technical limitations which constrain to the use of an aesthetic created with few assets. This explains why a large part of the audience for mobile games indirectly practices retrogaming: through the gameplay, or graphics, these kinds of games are compatible with their smartphone capacities. Candy Crush is among the most successful mobile games. With its airs of Puzzle Bubble, isn’t it derived from the ever-popular Tetris?
Secondly, these retro games, “neo” or not, often share a common trait: they are clearly accessible without ever being simplistic. Most perfectly illustrate Bushnell’s Law according to which the best games are easy to grasp but hard to master. By refusing to take part in the technological race, they manage to focus on the originality of their construction.
Retrogaming also enables continuous access to genres that have mostly disappeared today. Adventure games such as point and click, beat them all, run and gun or shoot’em up are still available despite the industry’s artificial ban under the pretext of obsolescence.
The same applies to local multiplayer. It is incredibly hard nowadays to find a 4-player game on so-called modern consoles which can be played from a cosy couch. Nevertheless, there has never been more effective and congenial games than Bomberman, Worms or Mario Kart 64. Series of games that are released again on a regular basis, adapted or rethought for each new platform.
In light of this, shouldn’t we decide to speak of classic gaming? Or even, more simply, of gaming, without the qualifier?
After all, when you watch an old black-and-white film, you aren’t retrowatching, are you? Reading a book by Mark Twain or Dostoevsky isn’t retroreading, is it? And you don’t indulge in retrolistening when you enjoy an album by the Beatles or a symphony by Mozart, do you?
Video games are now considered as the tenth art, and yet remain the only discipline to suffer this sort of technological and temporal stigmatisation. They constitute the only art form whose past is burdened by an aura of disuse and obsolescence.
Has the video game industry managed to impose to us, through insistent repetition, the idea that we must distinguish between the new as a good product and the old as a bad one?
Alive and kicking
If we believe this, we have to conclude that retrogaming never really existed. It is a groundless bias enforced by lowly material considerations that have nothing to do with the pleasure one can find in playing a game. Retrogaming could certainly be used to describe a style but not an entire genre.
Playing an old game thus becomes an act of rebellion warning the video game industry to question its own evolution and chosen path.
Gamers transform themselves into resistance fighters whose role is to keep the great classics of the past alive while discovering and playing timeless masterpieces.
In this context, Piepacker’s commitment is justified as its approach isn’t limited to acknowledging “old” games. Above all, it aims at keeping these games alive, or more precisely, proving that their relevance is immutable. By offering both classics of the genre and new original games, Piepacker goes beyond simple nostalgia and deconstructs the prejudices that weigh on this form of gaming. Placing the social aspect of gaming at the forefront brings us back to the simple foundations of gaming such as intellectual stimulation offering challenges entailing social emulation and therefore experiences that can be shared.
Retrogaming is, and will remain, above all, a form of gaming. An activity that has never existed because of debasing technical performances, but thanks to a set of strong and unmoving principles. Principles that Piepacker strives to keep alive on its platform.