Retro Rethink: Just what is Retro Gaming these days?
It's not old, it's Retro!
Ever since its inception in 2008, Eurogamer Expo (or EGX as the youths are now calling it) has focused on presenting the biggest and best games to the UK public. Thousands flock to Earls Court on an annual basis to play the latest Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, and FIFA, content to wait in line for an inordinate amount of time just a few short weeks before they hit the shelves. It is a consumer-centric show that offers publishers one final chance to show off their wares before silly season begins and the release schedule becomes saturated with AAA releases.
However, should little Jimmy, eager to feast upon all the guns, cars, and aliens the industry can muster, take a wrong turn and wander far from the madding crowd then he might be in for a shock. Stumbling upon a certain booth, not only would the queues be a fraction of what they are for the latest adventures of bald-but-stubbly space marine, but the pixels would be larger than an iWatch, chip tunes are a necessity rather than being scored by a hipster, and anti-aliasing is an effect gained for free when owning a CRT television.
Tucked off to the left of the ground floor - yet in a booth space comparable to that of Nintendo or Microsoft - is the Retro Zone. Boasting over 80 stations it covers the last 30 years of gaming with enough nostalgia to make even the hardiest of geeks misty eyed. From ColecoVision right through to the original Xbox, all generations are catered for, so no matter how old you are there is guaranteed to be at least one machine to send you back to your childhood.
Money for old rope
It shouldn’t be a surprise that it has such a presence on the show floor. Just as with the Expo itself, the Retro Zone has been a constant presence at the event in recent years and has grown steadily in size. It marks a trend within the hobby, too. For years now there have been countless articles online charting the rise of retro, whilst in print Retro Gamer has recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary. Combined with the rising popularity of websites like Retro Collect and the growing proliferations of dedicated retro shows it’s clear that it’s not just a trend but also a viable business.
“We started doing events with far less systems than we've got here,” says Gordon Sinclair, founder of Replay Events, gesturing to the machines he’s brought to EGX. “I used to collect all of the old systems I had when I was a kid and all the ones I missed. Then I met up with a couple of other collectors who did similar things and we started putting on small things in the back rooms of pubs, then we'd do a bigger show and a bigger show and we realised we could make a living out of doing these sort of things on a bigger scale.”
Founded in 2009, and now with over 400 systems, 200 arcade machines, and 200 pinball tables at their disposal, Replay Events provide retro revivals to a host of different clients, including their own Play Expo taking place later this month in Manchester. “We're sometimes quite surprised as we get corporations wanting to do staff parties. We did a job for Warburton's leadership. They took their top 50 employees to a stately home and we brought retro games for them, but surprisingly weddings are our biggest growth area.” Gordon chuckles as he sees the look on my face, “people always have a disco, and now they're putting games in there too, so if you don't want to get up and dance then you can play some games and it keeps the kids happy.”
A youthful look at the past
Quite whether kids would appreciate an offering of 8 bit hardware the same as you or I is up for debate. Indeed, the notion of retro delivers different things for different people. A great deal of the appeal is about nostalgia, looking back fondly to your past and recalling the happy times that you had or could associate with, or around, a game. I can still remember the very first time I completed Super Mario Bros. It was a Sunday afternoon and I’d brought the portable TV my brother and I shared down from our bedroom to the living room so that I could play the NES whilst the rest of the family watched something on “the big telly”. Whatever programme it was had finished, and ITV had switched to an FA Cup match; it was still during the pre-match preamble that I finally found the right castle and rescued the princess. I’ll always remember that and tie it to my love of the NES, but equally if you hand me a Master System I would have as much affection for it as I would a hairdryer. I simply have no such emotional connection to it, loved thought it may be by others.
Even more divisive is the era that your retro points to, as Gordon points out. “The majority of our clients are 30 to 40 years old and want to show off and remember the games they were good at when they were younger. But we do have younger kids booking us. We’ve done a 16th birthday party and it was just a Halo LAN.” To me Halo is one of the most influential games of my adult life but to a lad who was only three when it came out it’s definitely retro. That’s quite a sobering thought, akin with the knowledge that the songs you liked as a youth are now considered as cheesy or kitsch by the generations that have come since.
Thankfully there is one modern development that has allowed youngsters to appreciate the games of the 80s again, with a little more perspective. The rise of smartphone gaming has forced developers to go back to basics with control schemes; simply porting a game from more traditional handhelds or even home consoles is a recipe for disaster, full of virtual sticks and awkward button mappings. Sega, Atari, and Nintendo all used to make do with just a couple of buttons, and that philosophy has been rediscovered on the iTunes store.
”That style of game is coming back,” continues Gordon. “I think a lot of people are seeing games like Flappy Bird and Jetpack Joyride and then you just have to look at Balloon Fight, which is virtually the same game but written 30 years ago. People are seeing those comparisons now and realising they don't have to be like Call of Duty with its $100m budget, you can just play simpler games and have just as much fun. I think it's that move towards mobile that's helped bring retro back to the forefront.”
For some it’s never left the forefront. It influences them greatly. Much like how Oasis were influenced by the Beatles and T. Rex and it reflected in their music during the 90s, there’s a heavy inspiration from the 80s in many recent acts. What you grow up with is what shapes your artistic sensibilities and this is true across all mediums. Mike Bithell has spoken at length about how Metal Gear Solid played a large part in shaping Volume, whilst the trio behind Titan Souls admit that without Link to the Past or Shadow of the Colossus then their game would not exist. These are games that the teams grew up playing, and quite rightly have informed what games they are making now. It was a pattern repeated at regular intervals in the indie section of EGX, with folks citing influences of hardware generations gone by, yet with each putting their own unique take on something they held close.
What is very clear to me is that post-EGX my perception of retro has shifted. Up until this point I have experienced it with people of a similar age group and tastes - the thirty-something Nintendo fanboys – but seeing the range of gamers and reactions to what was on show has turned on a light. Retro is not the 16 bit era and the heady explosion of gaming it brought. It’s not the 80s and the era of two-button controllers. It’s not even vector graphics. Retro is relative, and the only thing that is guaranteed is that as time moves on, the booth required to contain it is only going to get larger.
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