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.
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.