For those of us old enough to remember, there were a few pinnacle moments in gaming that will likely never be topped. Beating Super Mario Bros., at the time, was a spectacular achievement. The sight of Princess Toadstool, affirming your victory over King Koopa, likely sent more then a few gamers into the sort of excited fervor normally only experienced after binging on Five Hour Energy shots. After spending hours trekking through the secret laden landscapes of Hyrule more than a few people were probably ecstatic to finally pop Ganon off. Words can't even begin to describe the sheer glory of finally managing to knock Mike Tyson to floor in Punch Out!!.
Looking back on the days now termed retro, there are a lot of gamers endowed with considerable nostalgia for the time period; nostalgia, that for a number of clever developers and publishers, has come to mean money. In the midst of all the flashiness of the current generation of video games, several companies have gone the opposite direction, tapping into aesthetics, gameplay and genres that in some cases have been considered obsolete for years.
While many in the hardcore gaming community might rag on the Wii from time to time, its success as a supplier of retro games is undeniable. The North American version of the console's Virtual Console features more than 300 retro titles, with new additions each week. There have been well over ten million purchases made for the Virtual Console since it was launched; a pretty hefty number considering the sheer age of many of the games featured in Nintendo's virtual Wii Shop.
Not all of the retro games being sold are all that old, however. Helping to cement a trend almost paradoxical in nature, several developers and publishers are putting out new games that, drawing heavily on and in some cases actually working to emulate generations old visuals, sound and gameplay, can only be described as retro.
One of the most prominent titles to exhibit this is Capcom's Mega Man 9. With interest in the franchise waning due to a consistent string of mediocre releases, Capcom opted to take a risk and release a game that took the oft cited idea of “taking the series back to its roots” more literally then most any series before it. Rather than opting for a modern, hi-def Mega Man, Capcom released a game that could have easily been released during the NES days. Chis Kramer of Capcom PR recalls his first experience with Mega Man 9:
Honestly, when I first saw MM9, I was bummed out. I had been expecting a brand-new Mega Man game created for the PS3 and Xbox 360, and the old school 8-bit graphics and sound were a total surprise. However, we started talking internally about Mega Man and the legacy of the series and we quickly became excited about the potential. From there, it was an easy step to creating the “throwback” artwork and the amazing NES cartridge press kit, both designed by I Am 8-Bit, that both captured and enhanced the atmosphere created by the game itself.”
Featuring 8-bit-style graphics, sound and gameplay, Mega Man 9 has been one of the most dramatic examples of this emerging trend. Distributed digitally, the game was a substantial success for Capcom. “Mega Man 9 sold very, very well on Xbox LIVE and PSN, did okay on WiiWare,” said Kramer. “According to our benchmarks, the game was (and is still, as sales continue thanks to Long Tail effect) a success.”
A number companies have followed a similar lead. M2 Games has dedicated their company primarily to retro games in recent year, providing emulation software for the Wii's Virtual console, as well as many compilations. In addition they have put out original titles with retro-styled gameplay and graphics, Gradius: Rebirth, Contra: Rebirth and Fantasy Zone II DX (on Fantasy Zone: Complete Collection), the latter of which was coded on real 16-bit hardware for added authenticity. Various other developers and publishers have also joined the fray, as well. In addition to Mega Man9, Capcom released Bionic Commando: Rearmed, a graphical update of the original classic. Square Enix recently released its SNES styled game, Final Fantasy IV: The After Years to WiiWare. The DS has been home to games like Contra 4, which much like its upcoming WiiWare counterpart worked hard to emulate the old style, blisteringly difficult Contra games. Similarly, Retro Game Challenge, a collection of faux retro games, was appreciated by many for offering a diverse selection of games imitating NES titles.
Equally interesting, are the games appearing that, while not directly emulating retro aesthetics are using new technology to revive once outmoded styles of gameplay. The Etrian Odyssey games, published by Atlus were well received for the way they helped to streamline the first person dungeon crawler experience using the DS Lite's touchscreen, while at the same time maintaining a similar experience, and above all challenge level to their old school predecessors.
The driving force behind this trend, more than anything else is the increasing age of the gaming population at large. The average gamer is now more than thirty years old and as the years pass by the history behind us grows larger and larger. If there is one thing you can guarantee about the past, it's that people will often be nostalgic for it, something Chris Kramer can attest to. “There is a demand for classic games for the exact same reason that people like TV shows and music from the 80s or 90s, now: Nostalgia is a powerful emotional force.” Much as you're likely to see people walking around in t-shirts paying tribute to the old days of 8 and 16-bit glory, there's a fair audience of folks wishing for games that do similar service and allow them to relive their favorite experiences of yesteryear.
Fond memories aren't the only thing inspiring developers to make retro style games. As video games have become geared toward wider audiences, their challenge level has dropped, often dramatically. Recharging health bars, countless checkpoints, and bosses that barely merit the word have become the norm, and more than a few gamers have become jaded by the wussification of the medium. Comparatively, Mega Man 9 was insanely hard, so much so that many reviewers docked it points due to the sheer level of frustration the majority of people would probably experience at some, or even most points during the game. “A Mega Man should be difficult; those original games were punishingly brutal at the outset. I remember having to leave my NES on for two straight days in order to beat the original Mega Man!” Said Kramer.
Many of the new retro games aspire to similar levels of brutality. Atlus's Etrian Odyssey and, more recently, The Dark Spire were both quickly noted for their dedication to extreme challenge. Players would often be killed within moments of starting the games. When Konami released Contra 4 to the DS, along with a loving imitation of old school graphics, the game succeeded in not just copying, but often surpassing the impossible difficulty of the originals. The NES Contra games practically required a cheat code to complete. Many considered Contra 4 to be harder then that.
Beyond challenge alone however, is the belief that sometimes gamers just want to play. “The element that most modern games miss is simplicity, “ said Kramer. “As consoles and PCs have grown more powerful, suddenly game designers are letting players inhabit entire online worlds, design their own civilizations from the unicellular level up, control entire armadas or live out complex fantasy lives. Sometimes, people just want to sit down and play a game for a little while.”
While many retro styled games might be difficult, they are often also easy to pick up and offer an experience entirely devoted to play itself. No convoluted plot lines, no hard to grasp game mechanics, just running, jumping, shooting and dying. It's a take on gaming that even some modern games have turned to. Street Fighter IV was noted by many for Capcom's decision to make the game less complicated, and more in line with older titles in the series, such as Street Fighter II. For some, simplicity is bliss.
The past is behind us, but for many gamers, the products of previous eras far surpass those of today. With all the graphical power, advanced gameplay, and online capability of today, there are those who still feel that the best of gaming has gone by. The charm of retro eras has been lost as gaming has become something that everyone can enjoy. Luckily, there are companies putting out just the sort of games these people could hope for, and for the most part new retro has been a success. Despite their flaws -or selling points, depending on who you ask- and a generally niche position in the market, many retro styled titles have met their profit goals. The accomplishments of new retro games though, are sometimes more than straight profit. “We managed to kick-start the Mega Man franchise in a big way, getting people excited about the character for the first time in a few years,” said Kramer. Where becoming more modern has gradually turned Mega Man into a has been, going retro brought him back to arguably his finest hour, which gamers could realistically hope to see more of in the future. “I couldn’t imagine Capcom NOT doing more retro games in the future.”