Why are retro games so good?

Forget the LJN schlock-lot. Why are good retro games so incredible?
November 18, 2013
Why are retro games so good? Not all of them – anyone who’s ever played “Awesome Possum” or one of the dozens of LJN licensed titles can attest to that. But the good ones – why are they so good? Why can’t we keep a smile off our faces popping Contra into the old NES, 25 years after it was released? Why are we filled with memories just looking at the title screen of Super Mario Bros?

Let the memories commence!

While many would argue its just nostalgia, I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that there was something inherent in the games themselves – or at least in the historical way they were experienced – that gives them such staying power. And so I’ve come up with a few possible reasons why.

They were the first technology many people experienced

In the ’80s and early ’90s, few people had computers or cell phones. Hell, lots of us didn’t even have VHS players back then. Remember “VCR rental” shops? Certainly, five-year-olds didn’t have their own iPads or iPods or iWhatevers. Most importantly, there was no Internet before about 1993, and no modern Internet before the mid-to-late ’90s. If you did have Internet, it was almost certainly through a dial-up connection.

It was against this relative dearth of personal technology that the 8- and 16-bit gaming machines were released. There was something incredible about sticking a cartridge in that gray box and in five seconds, playing a game. It was instant, it was new, and there was nothing else like it. These consoles were truly breaking ground in a way that newer consoles and games no longer can.

Now of course there had been the Atari 2600 and its ilk since about 1980, but those games were simple even by the standards of the day. They were fun and amusing, but lacked the kind of storytelling and immersive elements that would make the next two generations so incredible at a time when popular technology was still in its infancy.

You can turn around..and go the WRONG WAY! Totally rad!

The feeling you got as a young child putting F-Zero into the SNES and seeing a 3D game on your television must have been something like the feeling of watching Star Wars in the theater back in 1977. It was a moment in time which can never quite be replicated.

The technology was at its peak by the “retrogaming” era

As I mentioned above, the generation of consoles before the NES/SNES/Genesis was extremely limited. They were, as it were, transitional technologies. They were 2D gaming in its infancy. The 8- and 16-bit eras were 2D gaming all grown up. Then, we got the 32-bit generation, which was this time 3D gaming in its infancy.

But 2D gaming at the peak of technology and interest was a wonder to behold. The games were beautiful to look at – none of the stick figures of the 2600 era, none of the blocky polygons of the 32-bit era, and certainly none of the grim military graphic style that now inundates modern gaming.

As simple as it is, there's nothing missing here.
Games and series like Contra, Castlevania, Mega Man/Mega Man X, A Boy and His Blob, and Zelda created environments and even worlds with great detail and visual appeal, and in a style that looks old now, but not dated.

One need only look at the handful of newer 2D games to see why that era captured something special. Many now incorporate dizzying 3D effects within a 2D plane, like the newer Tekken games. It’s bizarre to have your background rotating in full 3D while the characters face each other like in Street Fighter. Or those “2.5D” games that had platforms and things sticking out in a 3D effect, like you were wearing 3D glasses. Tarzan on the PS1 comes to mind. Things like this don’t add to the 2D gaming formula, because quite frankly, the NES/SNES/Genesis era left very little to add.

The background rotates, but it might as well be Shaq Fu

The combination of superb storytelling with accessible simplicity

The games were simple. You could pick them up and, well, play them. No learning the controller, no tutorials, no training missions, etc. etc. They were accessible in a way that the sprawling open-world games of today’s consoles are not. In fact, with online play overshadowing single-player campaign modes in many modern games, the whole idea of gaming as it stood in the ’80s and ’90s is being eroded.

At the same time, many of them were complex in their storytelling and creativeness. The timeless epic of Zelda is unforgettable. No one can forget tearing up during that cutscene in Mega Man X when Zero meets his doom (not to worry though, as he stars in every subsequent X title). And there is something almost magical about that bramble level in Donkey Kong Country 2.

One damn powerful moment in a two-minute text bubble exchange

Ironically, the old 2D action games were often made fun of for lacking storytelling, yet in some ways the briefness with which the stories were told added to the complexity of the gaming experience. You were never quite allowed to slip into the story completely, so gaming never felt like watching a movie. Zero’s dead? Dry your tears because in five seconds the next level is starting. The ability to combine fast pacing with genuine emotion is unique to the retrogaming era.

What’s more, the very simplicity of the games in some ways made the stories and backgrounds deeper. Because you could only say so much in text bubble cutscenes, developers told cool backstories in the instruction booklets and included posters in the box, Nintendo Power released comics and promotional items, and so the story was not merely self-contained but “everywhere.” There was a whole gaming world out there. The fact that you don’t actually meet Captain Falcon while playing F-Zero makes the story even more interesting.

Is it just in our heads?

The rebuttal to all this, of course, is that everyone has their own personal fond memories. For some it’s cartoons, for other trading card games, or books, or music, or what have you. In other words, there’s nothing special about the games, or anything in particular for that matter. Anything that’s done well will be remembered fondly.

But of all the millions of pieces of media content we saw, all the games we played, as children, there are still that handful of gaming memories common to almost everyone who grew up in the retrogaming era. What does it mean? It’s up to you, but I’m vouching for the games.

Addison Del Mastro

New to video game writing but not to video games, I figure it's time to waste some time sharing my gaming love with the public instead of wasting it alone. You may see more of me, if anyone thinks this is worth publishing. Thanks for reading!
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