Retro vs. Modern Gaming: Arch enemies or father and son?

Monday, 7 March 2011

So you’ve just bought yourself a shiny new PlayStation 3. It’s stood proudly on your desk boasting high definition graphics, motion gaming and some of the best titles on the market. Your old PS2 is discarded on the floor amidst a flurry of cables awaiting its fate. Will you trade it in and grab yourself a few second hand games for your latest toy or will it be destined to gather dust in the loft with the Sega Megadrive and an army of old teddy bears? Is it worth keeping your old consoles or does newer instantly mean better? If that’s true, then why do people keep going back to retro games?

A/N: This article was originally destined for Bullet magazine but as apparently the entertainment editor has no say here it is for your reading pleasure.
Classic games are now being rebooted for the modern market. Characters such as Mario and Pikachu, who first appeared on Nintendo 64s and Gameboys are now enjoying their time on the latest consoles. Now 25 years old, Mario is actually older than most of his target audience. Solid Snake, famous in the Metal Gear Solid series originally hit the mass market on the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) but since then he’s been seen on each generation of the Sony PlayStation. Are games developers giving the people what they want, introducing a younger audience to the classics or are they simply running out of ideas? I think it's the former... Only this morning I got out my Gameboy colour after I had the urge to go out and catch a few Pokemon. Pokemon SoulSilver and HeartGold are the latest incarnation of the Pokemon series and they're as popular as their predecessors.

Adam Curtis works in Lincoln’s chain of Entertainment Exchange, a store that allows customers to buy and sell consoles and games along with DVDs and CDs. Selling both modern and retro gaming gear he has a good view on how both hardcore and casual gamers think.

“I think people want to look back to a simpler time”, he says “games these days seem to concentrate on shades of brown and grey and are set in a post-apocalyptic future with massive guns, violence and there’s just something missing from that simpler time. It was more pure. Sonic the Hedgehog was all green and blue and the same for Mario but now they’ve evolved and they’re violent.”

However, people aren’t just going back to the retro consoles for nostalgia’s sake. Adam said, “I think some of them genuinely have an interest in trying these games, but I think for some of them it’s a ‘cool’ thing. People with big-rimmed glasses and hilariously ironic t-shirts with something from the 80s on. They’re not sure why they like it they just know they have to. I think they’re just trying it because it’s cool within their circle to do so.”

Graphics in classic games were simply easier to draw, explains Adam. “Now they want to create something cinematic. Games’ budgets are now larger than that of some movies. And so is the money they make.” Hit titles such as Modern Warfare and Grand Theft Auto are being treated to movie-like releases where fans queue at midnight to get the latest game. On the other hand games such as Heavy Rain and Wet are criticised for their game play which, according to Adam, seems far too much like “playing a movie”.

Technology in the game development industry has blossomed in recent years. Adam explains how development teams have gone from 16 to 20 to teams of two to 300. Some companies are trying to make huge cinematic blockbusters that gets the player truly involved in the action rather than a game you can just pick up for a few minutes, enjoy it, then put it down again.

There’s also another phenomenon going on. The kids who grew up with the likes of the Sega Megadrive and the SNES are big girls and boys now. They’re having their own children who want introducing into the gaming world. So more and more younger people are getting involved. Many games, notably from the likes of Nintendo and Apple are focused at a youthful audience. Nintendo have always attracted younger audiences with their colourful and cute characters and child-friendly storylines. Apple have now brought mini-games to a huge audience, adults and children alike, with equally colourful, cute and child-friendly games on IOS. Cut the rope is a frankly adorable app for the iPhone and iPad in which you feed sweeties to a darling little lizard. PopCap games present a smorgasbord of bright and brilliant games such as Plant vs. Zombies and Peggle. Then there’s this nifty little game called Angry Birds… you may have heard of it.

Tom Foley, owner of Gotham Games, an independent computer game store in Lincoln city centre is getting used to parents in his store. He says that they’re often coming in to buy Gameboys for their children. “It’s cheaper than a brand new DS and it still has some great games.”

Is there really such a fundamental different between old and new games? Sure, modern titles have much better graphics and the developers can do so much more with the technology at their fingertips but are some games losing what makes people play them again and again years later?

“There’s more substance in the older games”, says Tom, “it’s something that makes you go back to a game again and again.”

I don’t think the difference between modern and retro gaming is as simple as one being better than the other. Clearly, technological advances mean that modern games are better made, with better graphics and better game mechanics. But what is also clear is that some modern games lack that je ne sais quoi. That intangible quality that brings you back for more. Equally one might say modern games need to earn that. Franchises such as Call of Duty, LittleBigPlanet and Red Dead Redemption are in line to becoming the classics of the future.

Either way, it’s an argument yet to be settled. For now we shall continue to enjoy the nostalgia of yesteryear and eagerly await the next big thing.


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