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February 20th, 2010 by

Collecting, playing and discussing retro video games is a wonderful thing. In an industry obsessed by the next big tech advancement or the latest in new IPs, it provides gamers and industry types across the globe a chance to sit back, relax and reflect on the history of the medium they love. But all is not well in this often rose-tinted world, here’s why…

Games are art, but art that still has restrictions on what it can present the player. Whether this be graphically, aurally or structurally; technological limitations are the biggest factor in how our interactive entertainment is presented. These confines have weakened with each year passed, but when you delve into the archives, you see drastic changes in technical design. Visuals are perhaps the most recognisable and instantaneously affecting of these factors, yet still retro games criticism as a whole is happy to shrug off these retroactive flaws of the medium with one simple sentence; ‘the graphics were good for their time’. This isn’t necessarily a false statement, but it doesn’t excuse a title either, especially considering those technological advancements we’re all obsessed with when it comes to current games. Goldeneye for example, was a graphical tour de force when it was released in 1997, but now? Not so much. Yet it gets a free pass, because of how fondly it is remembered and because the visuals were ‘good for their time’. Which brings me neatly to point two.

There are a lot of post-play pre-conceptions of video games, the memory of how a game used to play is quite often not the reality. This is what I like to call ‘The Golden Years Of Gaming Effect’ and it’s that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you think back to days gone by of long summers spent in seaside arcades, or visiting friends houses to play for hours upon hours with their fancy new ‘Super’ Nintendo! Unfortunately, the truth is that the vast majority of games produced in our past were simply of a lower quality, and with the benefit of review aggregate sites such as Metacritic, you’ll notice that year on year the quality of games has been steadily growing.

Q. Which of these aren't fun to play any more? A. All of them!

Many games that we may take for granted as being ‘good’, simply aren’t any more, yet our memories can jade how we feel towards a game so much, that we are willing to defend a title to any extreme. It can leave a bitter taste in the mouth of those interested in exploring a back catalogue of games, as ‘fond memories’ are not universal and a player going in cold to an experience some years after release, without the warm glow of these subconscious thoughts of ‘days gone by’ will find it difficult to find the charm of certain games quirks and idiosyncrasies.

Finally, because of this ‘Golden Years Syndrome’, a lot of criticism in publications is simply misguided, relying as it does on popular opinion and consensus. When you’re reading an article on the Top 50 RPGs for example, take a moment to stop and think whether all of those games have been played within recent (and more importantly, objective) memory by the person or people compiling the feature. Probably not. So how can a fan of Role Playing Games looking for an older title to explore trust the opinions of the paid-by-the-word journo eager to get a story out, when it’s more than likely the article has been based on the zeitgeist it is naturally tethered to, or that ethereal qualitative opinion of ‘general consensus’? The answer of course, is that they can’t.

So while it’s fantastic to kick back and tune in to retro based shows, fire up that copy of WWF WrestleMania 2000 for the N64 you cherished as a child, or sport a pin badge with your favourite old-skool mascot for a trip down memory lane, just remember that you’re experience may well vary wildly to the next person, and that memories may be deceiving in the land of retro gaming fandom.

5 Responses to “Ret-Ruh-Roh!”
  1. avatar Wayne Shayler says:

    Hi Xero, nice article, but I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at. We both well know, and play, a lot of the classics from yesteryear. Wonderful games, whatever the technology they were produced for. A lot of the old games we played were simply a product of their times, as were favourite albums of my youth, or some of my favourite childhood films! People can’t watch or listen to them today with fresh eyes and ears. They just don’t hold up. Yet I find myself, after the mighty Demon’s Souls, getting more and more into ‘rogue likes’, a game style developed in 1980, featuring random dungeons and items with incredibly harsh penalties for death.
    Games aren’t only getting ‘better’, they’re getting easier, which isn’t always a good thing.
    After playing the Heavy Rain demo I find myself comparing it to the legendary Goldeneye. The graphics look pretty good with a quick glance, but stare and listen a little longer and something doesn’t quite fit. I’m hoping I’ll find the full retail game a little more involving, as I enjoyed Farenheit so much.
    Some things will always be classics, while some thing will always be a product of their time.
    Thanks for opening the door to a wonderful debate.

  2. avatar Pat Jennings says:

    Thank you for an interesting article: I certainly agree that the rose tinted spectacles have affected most of us. I lament some of the games I used to think were great only for Virtual Console or XBLA to leave me sorely disappointed with a few quid wasted (was F-Zero really that bad?!). Games are definitely better now, for reasons of finance (the industry is bigger, more mature and more valuable) and experience (the people developing now are “second generation” – they grew up with games rather than breaking the mould).

    However, I do have to slightly object to some of the content. I still like Alex Kidd (really!) and the following:
    “…with the benefit of review aggregate sites such as Metacritic, you’ll notice that year on year the quality of games has been steadily growing…”
    This is the saddest and most harmful self-fulfilling prophecy of our times. A higher score doth not a better game make. Metacritic is now used by publishers as a stick with which to beat developers, and so sites are often persuaded, via exclusives, etc., to mark up the scores they award accordingly. In fact, big sites like Gamespot and IGN have a notably positive increase in average scores with time, correlating with their ownership / access to exclusives / financial gain per review. I do think that the standard of games has risen with time, but there is still a lot of garbage (if not more so) put out there. These days it is rare not to have a plethora of patches “fixing” a new game in the couple of weeks from its release date, and the number of clones of popular franchises seems to grow rather than shrink. Originality is, in fact, rarer now than it was, say 20 years ago. This is to be expected in a more mature medium, but isn’t it sad that the most innovative development in recent memory is the Wii.

    Finally, I can only say that all reviews are inherently biased as we all “love” the game we are currently enjoying. Reviews need to be immediate to document details and to advise us all whether we should buy something, but it is difficult to be objective so soon after release. The classic example is surely Assassin’s Creed, which on first play seemed great (GTA in the Crusades) but eventually was seen to be the repetitive slog-a-thon it really was.
    The true test is thus: in six months’ time, do you still get excited at the thought of cracking open the box and sticking the disc in for one more spin? Does another visit to Liberty City seem like a good idea – or are you worried it will eat another week of your life? If so then that is a great game, and one worth buying. Assuming, that is, you bought it when it came out!

  3. avatar xeroxeroxero says:

    This is a question of relevancy I feel, so let me approach this from another angle. When you pick up a work of Shakespeare, even though it utilises a language and prose structure we are no longer familiar with, even though the characters are Florentine Princes and Scottish Kings from over half a millennium ago, the story is still relevant and we still hail them as great works of literature. Likewise, when you look upon the Mona Lisa you don’t baulk at the fact that it hasn’t been created in Photoshop. If we are to make an argument for games being art then, we need a new form of retro games journalism that does away with the age old ‘product of its time’.

    I feel Pat’s comment that Metacritic is only rising because of corrupt journalism is a different debate altogether (one that certainly needs to be had). As to his comments about ‘fixing’ games, fair enough, but let’s face it, there have always been games that are shipped broken, at least now developers have a chance to fix them. Though I don’t agree that games criticism is biased, it is inherently personal as you say, but my point is that retro games should be approached with a fresh pair of eyes and as objective a view point as possible, there’s nothing to be gained on a critical level from emotional memory.

    Oh and I secretly still like Rollergames, though I’d be hard pushed to find anyone else who could derive any enjoyment from it now.

    Thanks again for your well rationalised comments, definitely food for thought!

  4. avatar Phizzy says:

    If you see a caveman’s scribblings on a wall, do you say ‘yes, this is beautiful’? That’s what EARLY RETRO is, just a bunch of techno-cavemen bashing rocks together to make pixels move on the screen. Historians will talk about how magical it all is, but the average manperson will just call it shit and wander off to smoke his magical future man crack pipe and play Halo 3.

  5. avatar xeroxeroxero says:

    Exactly, though I do feel some old games are still beautiful, hence why we should take each game in their own merits. Take Tempest for example, very basic but still gorgeous, but I can name a ton of games from around that time that don’t hold up.

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