Retro style games have been gaining popularity steadily over the past couple of years. The release of successful games of this style such as Undertale and Shovel Knight by independent developers have shown that the market is happy to accept a very different type of game.
Article by Caroline at Culture Coverage
Yet what’s driving this sudden market change?
While visually impressive titles such as Grand Theft Auto V continue to do well, there’s no denying that games with a smaller starting budget are drawing in fans new and old alike. In truth, there are several different factors to consider.
Certainly most of these games are “safer.” Retro games rarely incorporate a strong online element, whereas modern games are always online and pose a real risk unless the player is using a fine-tuned Virtual Private Network, firewall and security suite.
Yet to understand this phenomenon, the place we start is in the past.
The Obvious Nostalgia Element
In the same way grandma likes to watch her favorite shows from the ‘60s, gamers experience a similar feeling of nostalgia playing older games. The nostalgia effect is well documented in nearly every type of medium, particularly when declinism is accounted for.
It isn’t hard to see that gamers growing up with mediums such as arcade machines, Atari, the NES and other similar game systems are going to be interested in reliving certain elements from the past when they were healthy and carefree. After all, someone that started playing games when Nintendo was just getting big could easily be in their 30s by now.
Yet that type of psychological explanation isn’t enough. Just saying “we like the stuff from our childhood” isn’t an adequate explanation. Otherwise, there’d be a lot more adults playing with action figures and watching Saturday morning cartoons. We need to take social factors into account.
The Price of Games Is Too Darn High
When the NES first retailed in North America, it sold for $99 bundled with Super Mario Bros. Adjusted for inflation, that’s just over $200. Modern systems frequently retail in the $300-400 range, often without a game included. And while the price of games seems to be relatively lower when adjusted for inflation (NES games tended to retail between $30-$50, so close to $60-100 in today’s terms), we mustn’t forget that modern games also have a great tendency to include separate DLC. That alone can nearly double the cost of some games.
All of this should be taken in the context that income levels aren’t exactly at their best right now. Many people simply can’t afford every big new game that comes out. Retro and retro-style games, on the other hand, are often not so expensive.
Shovel Knight, to use a prior example, has sold for between $15 and $25 (a considerable discount compared to big box games). Undertale, by comparison, sells for $9.99. Yet these are both indie games. That means they have to be cheaper, right? Consider Mega Man 9 and 10, as both games were developed by Capcom. Each game was designed to look and feel like the original 8-bit Mega Man title, yet they retailed for $9.99 each as well. The fact is that these games required considerably less development time and resources, so their cost was much lower. Yet are these games fun?
Tight, Focused Gameplay
Newer games can be very complicated. When you look at a newer game like Fallout 4, a few things immediately come to mind. The game is absurdly open-ended and diverse. From character customization to world exploration, there are just so many things for a player to do. Just starting up, the game can take a considerable amount of time because character customization takes real effort unless you just choose the defaults (and that’s no fun).
When you look at Shovel Knight, there aren’t a lot of decisions to make from the beginning. You pretty much turn the game on and get going. From the moment most retro-style games load up, the player is immediately engaged. The controls are usually fairly simple, but basic controls don’t necessarily equate to limited gameplay. To use Mega Man as an example, consider that the player really only has two buttons (aside of movement on the D-pad); jump and shoot. Yet despite that limitation, Capcom has managed to make countless different games with varied enemies, weapons and challenges for players to overcome. The ease with which players can pick up and understand these controls makes them appealing to varied age groups over a long period of time. They don’t overwhelm new players.
What About HD Graphics?
There’s absolutely no denying that modern games look utterly incredible in some cases. When you compare Metal Gear Solid V to Metal Gear for the NES, you can see there’s been a fundamental transformation that makes comparison nearly impossible. Art, however, is very subjective. Stylized pixel art turns the HD market on its head because while the graphics may be very low resolution, their artistic integrity is still very high. Without the memory limitations of old consoles, new retro games can capitalize on a new art form to express themselves and their medium. The fact that a subset of the gaming community would resonate with this new-old art form isn’t too surprising. Hollywood produces stylized movies in black and white such as Sin City from time to time. These films often meet with good reviews, and are not that different from throwback products.
The growth of the mobile market has also contributed greatly to this movement. With few exceptions, most mobile games are of relatively “low” quality compared to a console or PC game. They’re often not much more than flash games. That isn’t to say they can’t be fun. It’s just that that the production values tend to be fairly low. Most of these games go by the “freemium” model, which many gamers look down upon and others get bored with quickly. Retro games, by contrast, are a slight step up. There’s a cost involved, but it’s just a single purchase. They also tend to be more user friendly by the virtue of using a keyboard or controller. While many gamers might start with mobile games, they discover the retro market has everything they want and don’t go back.
Word of Mouth
Video games have traditionally relied on word of mouth. This has changed with internet advertising to some extent, but quite a few retro-style games actually start on Kickstarter or with other crowdfunding campaigns. This pretty much equates to advertising that is not only free but actually helps pay for the game. It definitely seems more effective than just spending thousands or even millions on a TV commercial. The Kickstarter model gets thousands of supporters personally vested in the game in a way that can’t be matched by a big production budget. These supporters tell their friends and it keeps rolling on from there. What do you think? Is there something inherently special and different about Retro gaming? Do you see the trend increasing or dying off in the next few years? What will retro gaming look like in the next decade? Share your thoughts in the comments.
About the Author:
Caroline enjoys a bit of nostalgia from time to time when she’s not writing about pop culture or technology. If you enjoyed her article, visit Culture Coverage to read more of her work.