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What is a Retro Game?

Retro gaming has seen a boom in recent years. Players happy to relive their childhood, new players looking to experience games they may have missed and speculators looking to turn a quick profit have all helped to grow their popularity (and price). Retro games have also influenced several indie developers, with games like Cosmic Star Heroine, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon and The Messenger taking influence from retro games. The recent popularity in retro games has even seen older franchises return, with Mega Man, Bubsy and Blaster Master making a comeback in recent years. Other franchises, such as Wild Guns and The Ninja Saviors, have gotten remasters as well. Gaming is unique among media in that often games can be tied to one medium (in this case a certain console) and the only way to experience it may be to either find it and a console to play it on, or to emulate it. Some games may be available on online stores like Xbox or PlayStation but there are a lot of games just left in limbo. There are even games available on online stores that may be closing soon or defunct altogether and have not made the leap to newer consoles. These stores tend to be in the seventh generation, most notably the PlayStation 3 and Wii. These are machines that have launched over 15 years ago at this stage. Thinking about older games as I emptied my wallet this week and watching ManaOwls’ video on 3DS Games to Buy Before the eShop CLOSES! got me thinking, what exactly classifies as a retro game?

Mega Man 11

Some games are undeniably retro. Anything from the fifth generation and before is absolutely retro. No one could argue against labelling Super Metroid, Shining Force or Silent Hill as retro games. However, when we think of “retro”, often we look towards the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. The retro inspired games I mentioned above all draw their inspiration from 8-bit and 16-bit games, such as Chrono Trigger, Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden. Despite this, mentioning PlayStation, Saturn or N64 games will make people go “oh yeah, they are retro”. Even the sixth generation falls into the “retro” label, even if it isn’t as immediately recognised. These consoles are a bit easier to collect for (especially the PlayStation 2) mainly due to the widespread availability of the games but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their fare share of expensive titles. It’s just that they’re not as hard to come by as, say, Earthbound or Castlevania Symphony of the Night. When we move to the seventh generation, though, it becomes a lot more murkier. The seventh generation is often associated with HD gaming despite two consoles not having HD outputs at launch (the Wii would never output in HD). This generation is very rarely ever considered “retro”. In fact, I recall Dan Driver making a case for it but being rebuffed. People just don’t view the Wii, PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 as retro and the question is; why?

Seventh Generation of Consoles

I mentioned HD because as we move to modern TVs, outputs such as S-Video, SCART, composite and RF become harder to find on modern sets. Even TVs that have these outputs (like my Polaroid) can have latency issues as it attempts to upscale the image. Some people have found ways around this with the likes of mods, line doublers and modern consoles that can play retro games. The Xbox 360 (outside the first batch) and PS3 output through HDMI so are compatible with modern HD TVs but the Wii still outputs in SCART or composite. If we were to base “retro” games off of the consoles output, the Wii would fall into retro but the Xbox 360 and PS3 may not. This then leaves a generation with its foot halfway between retro and not. If we were to focus on the graphical output of these games, again the argument could be made for the Wii being “retro” as it is closer to the previous generation, especially the GameCube. The PS3 and Xbox 360, on the other hand, present a much larger jump over their predecessors. There may be a case that because the jump between the graphical capabilities of the sixth and seventh generation is much larger than subsequent generations (i.e., seventh to eight generations), that retro games would only come pre-seventh generation. I think this is a false flag, however. Looking at the PlayStation 3 compared to the PlayStation 4, there is a noticeable jump in graphical quality, especially if you look at some of the earlier PS3 games such as Uncharted or Resistance: Fall of Man. Its not uncommon for games to get better and the gap to widen between generations throughout a console’s lifespan. Even going back to the original PlayStation, the graphical jump between Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy IX is phenomenal. It may just be a case that we remember PS3 and Xbox 360 games looking better, especially as some of them have found their way onto the likes of PS4 and Xbox One through remasters.

Resistance: Fall of Man

Another aspect we can look at is time. The sixth generation launched in 1998. Anyone born then would be nearly 24 by now. 1998 can feel so far away (unless you’re me). France had won their first World Cup (they now have two), Pixar released their second film, A Bugs Life, Michael Schumacher only had two World Drivers Championships, and most people consumed television through analogue signals in a 4:3 ratio. It feels like a life-time ago. By this stage, some may have considered the Super Nintendo retro, having launched eighteen years previously and being two generations previous. Fast forward to 2022 and the Xbox 360 launched roughly 17 years ago (PS3 and Wii would be a year later in 2006). There’s also a two-generation gap between them and now. In terms of timescale, it feels like it should meet the threshold for being classified as “retro” but there may be a slight caveat to it and that’s the lifespan of the generation. The seventh generation lasted until 2012, when the Wii U launched, with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One arriving a year later. It may be a case that people associate the consoles with the 2010s rather than the mid-2000s, giving the impression that the consoles aren’t that long ago. Another could also be that this was the first generation of a lot of social media users and they wouldn’t place it in the same category as, say, the Super Nintendo or Sega Mega Drive which was before their time. There may also be people who, despite having a PlayStation 2 or GameCube, may have become incredibly interested in gaming, similar to how I was with the original PlayStation. Or maybe I’m just old…

Super Metroid

The last aspect may be related to availability and price. A lot of the games from the seventh generation are readily available and cheap but go back further and the price starts to increase. There’s also Xbox and its backward compatibility as well as PlayStation’s remasters, which help to keep these games fresh. Sure, Nintendo do have older games on the Switch as well as a chunk of Wii U ports but their Wii offering (especially from the Virtual Store) is a bit lacking. Very few games from the seventh generation command ridiculous prices but you will find some. I’d imagine as we move through the current gen, these will climb in value. There’s also markets (the London gaming market was on this weekend so its in my mind) and these often stock games from the sixth generation and before, putting more emphasis on the idea that these are retro but the seventh gen isn’t. It’s a difficult one to judge because there are plenty of “retro” games worth pennies and plenty of modern games priced very highly, it all comes down to availability (and greed).

I don’t really want to draw conclusions or give a definitive answer as the what’s retro and what’s not (I couldn’t even if I wanted to) but I thought it was an interesting discussion. When buying games, I don’t really distinguish between modern or retro, just what games I want to play. I will switch between generations at will, depending on what game I want to play, not really giving a second thought to it. I know I focused on the seventh gen a lot but this is the one where the “is it retro” question comes up a lot. What do you think? What would you classify as retro? What conditions do you think it should have to qualify as retro?


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One thought on “What is a Retro Game? Leave a comment

  1. I wrote a little about this too and have come to realise since that retro gaming is more a genre than a notation of time. Back when I bought a PS3, 90s consoles were considered retro. Now the same time difference is there and I just don’t consider any game from the PS3 or XBOX360 era to be a retro game. Availability definitely plays a part in it but I truly think that the retro genres is defined by difficulty and lack of quality of life changes like autosave, difficulty adjustments and controller setups. Retro games are definitely more of a challenge than their modern counterparts. Great read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

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