Just what is it about the retro gaming scene that is so engaging gamers, collectors and an entirely new generation all at the same time?
All you need to do to get an insight in to the rise of retro gaming is to google the term ‘retro gaming’. It is huge and the reasons for this are varied. Why are people blowing their hard earned cash on games that are 30-40 years old? What makes the search for old games and equipment so compelling? How has the gaming industry responded to this frenzy about our youth? I hope to find out with a little bit of investigation and by talking to a few of my followers about their motivation.
Firstly, it’s a new(ish!) section on Orange Bison and so you may be wondering about why its here. Retro gaming is everything that made gaming what it is today. It is the first game of Pong you played, the first time you spent your lunch money playing Space Invaders, that time your Dad bought home an Amstrad CPC and your mum nearly gave him a concussion (true story…keep reading!) and when you gave yourself eye strain trying to play your Game Boy under your duvet at night.
It is the coders that created ZX Spectrum games on cassettes in their bedrooms and Square Enix gambling the last money they had left on Final Fantasy. It is every advancement in home computing and console gaming ever made. Pretty poetic really.
In reality though, we live in a world where we are totally bombarded with technology, data and gaming from every corner of our environment. Artificial Intelligence, the car parking meter, smart phones, the latest home consoles, virtual reality, augmented reality…you could spend a whole article and more just listing them. As I am sitting typing now, I have notifications sounding on my phone, PC, old iPad, my husbands Mac…even my sewing machine notifies me when I have done something wrong! So why go backwards in to the past rather than embracing the future?
Image credit – Freestyle Interactive
Instinctively, you assume for nostalgia purposes. The thing about old stuff is the memories that you get from them. For example, your olfactory memory links smells to strong memories that you associate with them. For me, retro hardware has a smell that takes me back to my childhood. Of long, lazy summer holidays at my cousins house with their SNES and Super Mario AllStars. It takes me back to my grandfathers office where he would hoard gadgets from stereo systems to calculators. That one is a slightly tobacco infused, metallic switch and plastic button smell.
Then there are the sounds. That annoying trill of a dial up modem or the working sound of a cassette loading and praying on both occasions that everything works OK. The clack clack of keyboards. Or the ‘bleep bleep bloop’ of a Pac-Man fail and knowing you would have to rummage in your pocket for another coin for the arcade cabinet. And don’t forget the visuals…The feeling you first saw a game in colour or 3D rendered or with a cinematic or cut scene. The emotions linked to these events are so strong, that even now I can remember my ‘wow’ moments and I would expect that you can too.
Old stuff also is, in everybody’s opinion, the best stuff. That thing when everything was better in YOUR day. When games were more challenging or there wasn’t DLC or people over voice didn’t call you a noob (amongst other things). When games were not too long or too short but just right and consoles were built to last….you get the idea. I’m lucky enough to have a very helpful and active following on Twitter and I was interested in their views about WHY they retro game. @TheNerdyWL said:
“Retro gaming is just a fun experience as a whole. It evokes a sense of nostalgia. The games were beautifully designed despite tech limitations. A lot of games were fun, yet frustratingly challenging with the lives/continue system. The lives/continues system rewarded good game play while punishing poor game play, meaning you were forced to get good or forever be frustrated and stuck (unless you had codes)! I remember throwing many a controller after running out of lives and continues on hard boss fights and levels! Nowadays, you just reload to the latest checkpoint or save file.”
Many who commented talked about the simplicity of the process of playing at the time. @The16BitCouple said:
“They are games we grew up on, and its from a time when gameplay was a focus more than graphics.”
And @Shed_retro commented that:
“…for us it’s because the games were just FUN, which seems to be lacking from today’s games plus they are instant. No internet, updates or logins. Plus they are so nostalgic!”
@GamingMuso agreed with this point of view:
“A chance to rekindle childhood memories, games seemed a lot more difficult back then so it’s good to go back and challenge yourself. Plus some of the classics are absolutely timeless and you can tell how much effort went into them! No updates required, no tutorial, just play!”
Many of my followers felt that there was a sense of uniqueness about retro games and the systems that they were played on. @PughoofGaming had a great perspective about why he loves retro gaming:
“Partly for nostalgic reason, partly because I like to discover games I hadn’t played at the time. I’m also in love with retro hardware, because it’s so much more unique than today’s systems.”
@liamx2000 went on to say:
“I play retro games because I grew up with those games and when I play them It kinda takes me back to a simpler time as a kid where life wasn’t so complicated lol. I also love pixel art and sprites and the music that comes with these classic games like Chrono Trigger for example.”
Finally, there was the perspective of the history buffs who find the technology and development angle fascinating. @jmanof08 commented:
“I retro game because it’s like a history lesson for me, i get to see and experience the games that my parents and extended family played when they were young. I get to take a time machine back to when gaming was in its golden age”
“Just like with movies, new games add to the pool of available media but doesn’t make the old ones obsolete. Unique game play, graphics and sound make each old and new system interesting enough on its own”
And @Chinnyvision summed it up perfectly for him:
“It’s not retro gaming. I never stopped! It’s just gaming!”
In fact there were so many responses that my Twitter notifications went mad. Its such an evocative subject for so many people. You can find the Twitter moment with some of the responses here: https://t.co/QP7yxSledX
The cons of something being popular however, is that there is always someone out there to make a buck or two out of it. Retro gaming is an expensive hobby for collectors. Prices have, as you would expect, rocketed due to demand. I and many others have found that there are people and indeed large companies out there completely taking advantage of the wave of interest in retro gaming. For example, a recent controversy in the community regarding the UK chain CEX photocopying box covers without indication on the box about the fact that the box art is not genuine. This can greatly effect the resale value of a game and goes to show that the keen collector is looking carefully at the authenticity of games.
Reproduction artwork, boxes and cartridges have also flooded the market with people keen to make a gain out of the popularity of retro gaming. While this isn’t a problem for the casual player or collector, those who have a specific wish for the collecting of genuine, mint condition products can run in to problems. This was even prolific back when the games were released – my husband brought back a copy of Pokemon Gold back in the ‘90s in Spain only to find it WAS Pokemon Gold but it wasn’t genuine and as such, wouldn’t progress past a certain point. As ever the rule of thumb is “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is!”
Another distribution rights issue that causes contention is the use of online emulators. Emulator use has exploded with the internet age and the era of the home coding computer such as the Raspberry Pi. Multi platform consoles too are a popular and more affordable way of condensing a collection of games. However, many have pointed out that these methods of accessing games can violate legal distribution protocols of not just the games but the open source that is used to make the emulators work. A controversy over the use of open source emulator code created by RetroArch in 2014 blew the industry wide open in terms of the discussion around the use of emulation for profit. An article from Eurogamer written by Daniel McFerran explored the crux of this issue for the emulator developers:
“RetroArch’s success is down to a team of spirited and enthusiastic volunteers who have given up their time and talent to produce something which – amongst other things, as De Matteis is keen to point out – connects players with the games of yesterday. Unfortunately, this hard work is being undermined by the fact that parts of RetroArch’s codebase are being sold within commercial systems without the permission of the creators, and without giving the team (or any of the developers who have spent countless hours creating the emulation ‘cores’ which reside within it) any financial reward or basic recognition”¹
The open source software of emulation such as that developed by RetroArch is being taken, added to, changed and removed and then packaged in to expensive hardware and sold for profit – directly violating the open source agreements that should be legally adhered to. And as such, they have no way of fighting their own legal corner. Daniel De Matteis, leader of RetroArch was quoted as saying:
“We are (or were up until now) hobbyists, people who don’t have lawyers on speed dial or have legal funds in order to mount a convincing defence. In many ways, we are the victims of our own success; we have succeeded as a project in that we are now omnipresent and everywhere, and our software is being used on many devices where it is not apparent to the user what software is actually running. Unfortunately, any economic opportunity has been stolen from us at every turn. Class-action lawsuits would be an option, and the longer software that is licensed as non-commercial continues being sold, the higher any potential damages could be – but again, the money for that would have to come from somewhere.”¹
Nintendo goes one step further and shuts down entirely the idea that the use of any sort of emulation, free or otherwise, is acceptable:
“The introduction of emulators created to play illegally copied Nintendo software represents the greatest threat to date to the intellectual property rights of video game developers. As is the case with any business or industry, when its products become available for free, the revenue stream supporting that industry is threatened. Such emulators have the potential to significantly damage a worldwide entertainment software industry which generates over $15 billion annually, and tens of thousands of jobs.”²
A running school of thought is that you are allowed to emulate games that you already own under a legal ‘backup copy’ loophole. However the site states that:
“There is a good deal of misinformation on the Internet regarding the backup/archival copy exception. It is not a “second copy” rule and is often mistakenly cited for the proposition that if you have one lawful copy of a copyrighted work, you are entitled to have a second copy of the copyrighted work even if that second copy is an infringing copy. The backup/archival copy exception is a very narrow limitation relating to a copy being made by the rightful owner of an authentic game to ensure he or she has one in the event of damage or destruction of the authentic. Therefore, whether you have an authentic game or not, or whether you have possession of a Nintendo ROM for a limited amount of time, i.e. 24 hours, it is illegal to download and play a Nintendo ROM from the Internet.”²
Pretty clear which side of the fence they sit on. Howtogeek.com made a clear statement in their article about emulation law. An emulator is legal. Making ROMS from your own games for personal use is debatable. However downloading or distributing ROMS online or to make reproductions is most definitely piracy and therefore illegal:
“You’re probably starting to see a pattern here. ROMs are such a grey area because there are potential legal defences on both sides—but no one’s truly tested these arguments before. Bambauer couldn’t point to any case law specifically about video game ROMs, and was mostly just extrapolating from other areas of Internet copyright law.
If one thing is clear, though, it’s this: if you don’t own a legal copy of a game, you don’t have any right to download it (yes, even if you delete it after 24 hours, or other such nonsense).”³
Emulation, it can also be argued, also hurts indie re-sellers and genuine folk who travel the country selling retro games and hardware at reasonable prices. Its an argument that could burn for many pages and not everyone has the same viewpoint. Much like movie torrents, the piracy that started in kids bedrooms with copied cassettes has morphed in the internet age and the legal standpoint has struggled to keep up. But can the law be enforced for every single case of emulation the world over? It’s contentious to say the least!
EDIT: On 19nd July 2018, Nintendo began legal action to sue two large ROM sites for the distribution of their software as cited in their statement which can be read here. But what of the overwhelming positives here? The preservation of video games and hardware, including the home computer, has really gained traction. The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge, for example, opened in 2013 and has amassed a simply stunning collection of computing goodies. They run educational workshops and tours as well as being open to the general public (their website is also an exquisite resource). This ties in to a general frenzy of the return and resurgence of the home coder with cheap and accessible equipment for accessing simple coding of all sorts of hardware and software available from multiple outlets. Computing has become an embedded part of the National Curriculum, teaching computing skills to children from the age of 4. The preservation of games has become more of a focus for collectors and historians alike. Documentaries such as ‘From Bedrooms to Billions’ and ‘Atari:Game Over’ delve in to the history of gaming and the rise and fall of the industry over the decades.
YouTube is full of amazing content detailing the history of games or franchises, educational pieces about how the technology developed and even live action charity shop rummages to try and find a hidden bargain. The cultural significance of retro gaming has permeated every corner of modern life. You also can’t fail to see the re-introduction of characters such as Spyro, Sonic, Mario, Crash Bandicoot and others on to modern formats; thus keeping those franchises fresh and alive. In stores, you can get Mario fridge magnets, N64 t-shirts, Playstation wallets, Crash Bandicoot caps, Atari Box art T Shirts and so SO much more. A whole new generation of players, including my 4 year old son, are discovering Pokemon, Tetris, Sonic the Hedgehog, arcade cabinets and so much more for the first time and we can enjoy that experience with them too.
Tim Nicholls (@woodpunk) coding Christmas ‘82 or ‘83 on Texas Instruments TI-99/4A – Used with kind permission
My own family snaps of my son growing up with gaming aged approx 8 months and 2 years old.
Oh and the concussion story? Well, my well meaning dad blew the equivalent of several weeks wages on an Amstrad CPC shortly after he and my mum married, even though my parents were trying to save for a bigger house with all the mod cons…like central heating. My mum was so angry with him that she chased him through the house with nothing to hand except a bag of potatoes. Poor dad got a barrage of spuds aimed at his head with a couple of very successful hits. I’m so glad he did though. It was my first computer experience and one I still have such fond memories of. My mum…less so!!
While there will obviously always be someone profiteering from anything and everything, and obviously I am very biased as I sit here gazing at my own collection, retro gaming seems to be here to stay. It reminds us of our modern gaming roots, our developer history, our technological advances and most importantly the joy of reliving our childhoods and rediscovering the emotions associated with our precious games of the past.
Citations (Accessed July 2018)
Thank you to all my Twitter followers who helped with their responses about why they love retro gaming.