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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On Sunday, I noted the announcement of the 3DS XL, and mentioned that I had my own thoughts on the matter.  For context, I got a 3DS within the month of launch.  Can’t remember if I went so far as to get it on launch, but it’s possible.

The Good

Obviously, the larger size is nice for visuals.  There are some very nice looking DS and 3DS games that could really be served well by being on a larger screen. As I understand, the larger screen really delivers. I was never bothered by the battery life, but it was evidently a big deal to lots of people.  The XL has a longer battery life.  The XL also supports a larger SD card.  It allegedly has a nicer form factor, and is more ergonomically designed. Additionally, the $200 price tag doesn’t seem so bad.  The DSi XL seemed a bit inflated in price, but that lies in part with its proximity to the announcement of the 3DS. I can see a $200 price being justified, with the minor caveat that that puts it at the same price as current-gen consoles, if not more expensive.

The Bad

The 3DS seems to have been designed with travel in mind.  It’s difficult to reconcile the StreetPass feature with the larger system, as a larger system is less portable. Nintendo, like so many other companies, is irrationally afraid of us stealing from them, so my library of DSi and eShop games are either inaccessible or subject to a rather obnoxious migration process.  Which deletes any saves. Furthermore, any attempts to add functionality to the system will brick it. Are they trying to compete with the iPad? The price makes it competitive with iPads, but a 3DS isn’t nearly as multipurpose.  Never mind the fact that Nintendo is still terrified of the internet. People say that Apple is eating Nintendo’s lunch in the portable arena. I don’t but that idea, and think remaining a dedicated system is perhaps the wisest approach, but it needs to be done right. It can’t be done by pretending to be an iPod, or an iPad. It can’t en done by sticking to the same ideas that have worked for a century, but it also can’t be done by shouting “me too!”

A few short years ago, Nintendo caught everyone by surprise with the DS and the Wii, both expected to be flops. They seem to have learned the wrong lesson. The lesson they learned was “Screw the public, we can do better if we trust our instincts!” The lesson that should have been learned was “Dare to be different. Try new things and take risks.” Seeing as the key announcements for Nintendo have been the Wii U, New Super Mario Bros. 2, and the 3DS XL, I think it’s fair to say they didn’t learn the right lessons.

The Ugly

Everyone’s making a stink about the lack of a second analog pad. Dual analog controls weren’t the norm for quite some time in polygon-rendered games (i.e. 3d environments and characters).  There are other control schemes that work. Kid Icarus: Uprising was a disaster with controls, admitted.  But ti was a disaster precisely because the designers were married to one particular idea of what a control scheme should be. Pot, meet kettle.

Also, the color choices on launch are pretty lame.

Since we’ve just gotten the announcement, there’s really not much that would be fair to say right now, even though the anticipated release is about 2 months from now.  Seeing how things go, I may be enough of a sucker to get one – the visual improvement is hard to deny, and most of my portable gaming is on a couch anyway, and I’m probably more devoted to Nintendo than I should be or they deserve.  But Nintendo getting my business is hardly a mark of success.