Neo-Retro Gaming

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A comment on  my last Sunday post reminded me that there’s a lot about game design concepts that I take for granted. I took it for granted that Megaman 4 Minus Infinity was clearly a large-scale transformation of the original material. The response was “looks like Megaman to me,” which is both extremely right, but also extremely wrong. For reasons that will probably have to wait until I specifically address rom hacks.

For now, we’ll touch on a larger, more prominent field: Retro Gaming.

At this point, it’s worth noting that there is no clear definition of “retro” gaming. In a general sense, it’s getting to the point where even Playstation 2 is considered retro. “Retro Gaming” as a concept is generally restricted to the 2D era, particularly what is considered the “golden age,” ranging from the NES up through 2D Playstation games. This is further divided into “soft” retro – the 16 bit up through the 32 bit – and “hard” retro – 8 bit and earlier

The simplest form or Retro Gaming is hooking up an old console and playing old games. For a fine arts comparison, this is looking at classical works – Greek and Roman sculpture, architecture, etc.

More prominent have been what would be called a sort of Neo-Retro gaming, which comes in various flavors.

The most obvious is the field of low-res gaming. These are modern games made in the visual/audio style of old games. They look like the retro games, but play like modern games. Meat Boy is a low-res game. The visuals are low-res pixel art, but the game play is fast-paced, fluid, and works on principles unique to more modern gaming. Fez is another example, making use of concepts which simply can not be done in actual old games. This would be the NeoClassical school of art – it looks like the Greek and Roman art, but the similarities are really on a superficial level. They are built with modern tools and techniques to perform modern tasks.

A style that is slightly harder to pin down is the field of Old-School gameplay. These are ostensibly modern games, with modern visuals and aesthetic, but their core game structure is like something out of the ’80s. In this case, it’s worth noting that the architecture is modern, but the rules are old. These are modern cars with manual transmissions, as opposed to a manual transmission built in the ’50s. Nostalgia and, to perhaps a lesser extent, Etrian Odyssey are examples of Old-School gameplay. They look modern, but they play like old games. In the fine art analogy, this is making use of Classical elements, like the circular arch, or the golden ratio. Admittedly, this is where the analogy starts creaking a bit.

Then we have Throwback gaming. This is when the system limitations of the retro era are applied – slowdown and/or vanishing objects when the screen gets too crowded, limited display palette (not to be confused with color palette), restricted control scheme, limited control responsiveness, etc. There is an appeal to these games, because hard and fast limitations can be a seed of creativity. For various reasons, it tends to be difficult to find a modern game that works as a throwback. On the other hand, they often appear as rom hacks, under the reasoning that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The fine art equivalent is someone using the tools available to the Greeks and Romans to make works int he style of the Greeks and Romans.

Finally, we have what I would call Post-Retro Gaming. This is very similar to the throwback, but uses modern game design concepts or philosophy. Retro Game Challenge is an excellent example of this school.  In RCG, we have a collection of classic-style games ostensibly played on a Famicom (NES): a Galaga clone with power ups and combos; the most badass pre-k educational game ever; a racing game with power slides; a shoot-em-up (SHMUP) that includes an integrated unlimited shield counterattack and multi-use power-ups; a Dragon Quest/Warrior II clone with recruitable monsters and weapons that use a slot-machine reel to determine accuracy, adding an element of timing; and a Ninja Gaiden clone with a rudimentary inventory/equipment system and resource management. Arguably, this is also the mark aimed for by Megaman 9 and Megaman 10, though some would argue that they gave up and simply made low-res games. Again, the metaphor breaks down. I guess using Greek and Roman tools to make post-modernist art?

The appeal of  retro gaming differs by the flavors.

Vanilla retro gaming is one part nostalgia and one part appreciation of the classic games. Some games stay with us because the nightmares will never go away, others stay with use because they were timeless.

Low-Res gaming is practical, as it allows for a small team, a low budget, and using what’s on hand. Additionally, there is an appeal to the low-res visual and audio style (among a select audience, at least).

Old-School gaming generally argues that we’ve gone soft. Doing poorly used to have consequences, and you had to earn progress.

Throwbacks seek to capture the magic of the old games while presenting new settings. All the familiar rules and visuals of vanilla retro, but with new layouts. They want to recapture the magic of the Turbo Tunnel, but sadly, that infamous level is written into their muscle memory.

Post-Retro is an attempt to have it all. You have the Low-Res aesthetic, Old-School rules (perhaps softened a little), and the verisimilitude of a throwback, all with the lessons learned of modern game design. Post-Retro comes from a fantasy world in which the old systems never really retired. Games made for a bygone era, they are a lament for what could have been.

There is good to come from each of the Neo-Retro styles. They each have something unique to add. They are specialized tools, designed to highlight certain aspects of the Art of Games.

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From the Intarwebs 07/08/12

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I’m still alive. Just needed to recover from an exhausting week. A little disappointed in myself for letting the schedule slip, but c’est la vie.

An epic Megaman 4 hack – Even if you’re not interested in romhacking, the video is crazy. Download the patch.

A mural illustrating all 120 stars from Super Mario 64.

Fans of a webcomic on hiatus decide to Rewrite History – The internet can be a crazy place. In this case, Crazy awesome.

Yet another Neo-Retro video game. Seems to be quite polished… if deliberately old-fashioned in ALL aspects of game design…

From the Intarwebs – 07/01/12

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Nintendo Appoints a Digital Strategy Executive – Nintendo needs all the help in can get in the world of networks and digital distribution. Let’s hope this position actually has some power to get things done. Also hoping he knows his stuff – Disney tends to be a mishmash of antiquated thinking and new-up-and-coming…

Speaking of Disney – A collection of products based on glamour sketches of various female Disney Villains. I kinda get a ’30s vibe from the styles. And yes, the Disney Store has its own pinterest page.

A Campaign to get Portal Lego Sets – Cuusoo is a voting platform for people to vote for sets that Lego may actually consider making, so it is in fact Legit. Proposal was rejected at first (licensing issues, I imagine), but has since been un-rejected.

Cold Stream for Left for Dead 2 is almost ready for launch – Cold Stream was unveiled for public beta around this time last year. We are working on Valve Time, though…

Steampunk Star Wars Outfits – Because reasons.

Classic Nintendo Delivered as Japanese Woodcuts – This has been around for a while, but is still being steadily updated. Rather fun and imaginative interpretations.

Support Roles

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And now for something completely different…

A popular mechanic for many games is a class system, giving a sense of variety and tactical decisions. Each class excels at a certain role, applying the principle of specialization of labor.  In theory, this specialization also allows for the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts – after all, specialization of labor is absolutely integral to the basis of civilization and the manufacturing revolution.

There is, however a tension between classes, as classes can fall into two general categories: Soloable roles and Support roles.  The Soloable class is often the Fighter, able to take a hit and dish out a solid blow.  They don’t need anyone else.  Support classes tend to be things like the Tank (indestructible, low damage output), the Artillery (massive damage output, glass jaw), and Utility (low damage output, fragile, but dirty tricks).  A support class trades core competencies for greater aptitude in other areas.  Depending on the precise system, Tanks and Artillery are semi-soloable, with Tanks being slightly more soloable inclined.

Leaving us with Utility.  While Tanks and Artillery get some of the Support stigma, their value is readily apparent, as is their soloability. Many Utilities are capable of soloing, but they lack the survivability and damage output to do it as fast and successfully as soloables.

Many people dislike Utilities, whether it be playing with them or playing as them. People of course appreciate healing effects, but that usually means that anyone with healing talent is reduced to “Healer” regardless of other competencies. Or “Useless,” if their healing isn’t terribly effective.

Utility tends to work behind the scenes – their role is “make the others feel more awesome.” They trade in making allies more powerful or making enemies weaker. They also tend to be extremely good at this, to make up for their terrible offensive and defensive capabilities. This tends to be a thankless job in many settings, as fanfare is delivered for striking killing blows or making phenomenal saves.  Everyone cheers for the Quarterback, while the Linebackers, at best, are praised as a unit.

As a general rule, then, it tends to be a certain class of people that gravitate toward Utility roles. The stage crew often gets as much satisfaction from a successful play as the lead roles. The editor takes pride in turning a gifted author’s work into something readable and less fraught with cliches. These are people that don’t seek – and often don’t want – the spotlight, though they do appreciate the occasional shout-out, or even just a nod of appreciation. Interestingly, many of those naturally inclined toward Utility actually find themselves bored by the more Soloable roles – Utilities often take a wide-angle approach to a given situation, while Soloables take a narrowly-focused, more personal role. If someone’s used to being a chessmaster, they resent becoming a single piece, even if that piece is the Queen.

Which leads to a growing trend, which is somewhat distressing – the attempt to “fix” Utilities.

From a demographic standpoint, many more people want to be Soloables than Utilities. As stated, they find Utilities worthless, frustrating, or simply a headache. So people petition the designers to make the Utilities more soloable, because they want variety in their choice of soloables. The designers are then compelled to increase the soloability of Utilities, consequently weakening their utility.

Examples of this abound throughout games. In Team Fortress, the Medics are fragile and have relatively weak attacks. This is balanced by allowing healing to be counted for assists, as well as providing them with the only submachine guns in the game. In City of Heroes, Controllers had their hard controls weakened, in exchange for “containment” – an ability that dramatically increases their damage output. These are relatively good examples, as the classes remain Utilities, but aren’t quite as helpless when they’re alone.

For a less beneficial example, we turn to an unfortunate example – unfortunate because it already gets enough grief on the internet as it is.  I am, of course, referring to Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition, or D&D 4E (and the coming 5E). In previous editions, there was quite a range of power level, especially if you’re talking about everything falling under the d20 umbrella. Generally, there was a balance between Utility and Soloability, with the ever unavoidable exceptions, and many of the less combat-capable were extremely useful outside of combat. Alternately, their value in combat was less for their own combat capabilities and more for making their allies better.

But that was not to remain the case. As one of the most popular D&D memes is “Bards Suck,” the designers decided to start from the perspective of the Soloability proponents. Thus, all classes were developed to be nearly interchangeable with balance – different classes meant slightly different flavors, but everyone worked in a relatively similar manner. Healing was reduced to a short-term concern, an d particular effort was made to ensure that no class would be a “heal bot.” Control effects were lumped together with light artillery – maintaining perhaps the greatest degree of utility, but still focusing heavily on damage output.

There are largely three problems with “fixing” Utilities. The most obvious drawback is the fact that there are people that truly enjoy and desire Utility play.  “Fixing” utilities simply drives them away, as the implication is that they’re not really wanted. The second issue is similarly apparent – at best you end up with a variety of fruit-flavored fighters, at worst you end up with Frankenstein’s monsters that aren’t very good at anything. Finally, you have the intangible – the primary role of the utilities is to make their allies feel more powerful. When utilities are weakened, it can lead to everyone feeling less powerful.

So, even if Utilities aren’t your thing, let them live. There are people who love staying out of the spotlight, especially when they can do more from out there. Besides, it’s more civilized. Utilities allow for a team to work together – a group of Soloables is simply soloing in tandem – there is much less need, desire, or appreciation for cohesion.