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The New Luddism (Your Retro Career Melted)

When Limbo came out a couple of years ago, it was widely beloved and critically praised. When I played it, I couldn’t quite figure out why puzzle platformer mechanics and gameplay concepts 20 years past their sell-by date were heralded as being any more innovative or progressive than what you’d find in a Call of Duty title. I had a similar reaction to Braid. Did people not play Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time? And when I see all of these indie (and faux-indie) games with their retro-phony 8- or 16 bit graphics, wilfully low-fi chiptunes, and endless iterations on Miyamoto’s mid-1980s design playbook, I can’t help but wonder if all of this is actually moving the medium forward. Or if it’s miring areas where it could have the most creative potential in miguided, misrepresented nostalgia. Have you actually played the original Ninja Gaiden, first Castlevania game, or the Mega Man games lately? I have. I think their time has more or less come and gone and I’d just as soon not rhapsodize about how great those games were when I was ten, let alone pretend like those games are still current, timeless, or somehow better than today’s big-budget AAA titles.

More and more, I’m growing tired of the retro video games trend. Cutesy box art throwbacks, “demakes”, App Store games trying desperately to recapture the feeling of playing a 16-bit JRPG- all of it is at this point simply getting old. I’m going to play the bitter old man card here, but I played all of the stuff the retro trend- largely perpetuated by people who were likely not even born when the NES released in 1985- lionizes and references. Most of it I’d just as soon leave behind and move forward from there. The irony is that a lot of retrogressive design is mistaken for innovation.

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Over the past decade, this nostalgia for crude graphics, simple gamplay, retrograde design and even old fashioned box art has turned into a luddite reaction against the rise of high-profile AAA games made possible by cutting edge graphics engines, modern gameplay concepts and big budgets. Proponents- quite wrongly- suggest that all that matters is gameplay, while ignoring that games are a specifically audiovisual, technologically enabled and reproduced form of media. Some reactionaries- also quite wrongly- would suggest that primitive, 2D platformers and atavistic arcade-style games represent the creative and innovation vanguards in the medium.

Then you’ve got indie developers like Phil Fish and Tyrone Rodriguez, suggesting that their retro-styled 2D platform titles (the five-years-in-development Fez and the Cave Story 3DS port) are somehow superior to all of modern Japanese design and Hideo Kojima’s entire ludography (except, apparently, the first Metal Gear). Like music, games have developed their own culture of atavistic snobbery centered around nostalgia and the celebration- and reiteration- of past successes.

I completely appreciate the punk rock attitude of the garage developer and I love the notion of recovering game design from the hands of giant corporations and getting back to the days of one-man-shows like David Crane and Garry Kitchen. I think the limitations of technology and resources that many smaller developers face drive them to more retro-styled designs and this can often be a positive source of inspiration. And of course I love a lot of classic design concepts- I’m a huge fan of fighters, platformers and shmups, and if anything is old fashioned it’s genres like that. Hell, I played both Guardian Heroes and Dracula X: Rondo of Blood last night. But the totemic, romanticized, and fetishized celebration of the primitive is a phase that I’m ready to see end.

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It wasn’t always like this. In the 1990s and into the 2000s, nobody wanted to play old NES games. At least not widely, and there wasalso the issue that older games simply weren’t as accessible. You had to have the old hardware and software. With the rise of the Internet, backcatalouge became more available, so if you weren’t even born when the NES, Sega Master System, Odyssey II, or whatever was avaialble, you still could get to more or less the entire history of video games. Virtual Console was a veritable encyclopedia of gaming from the mid-1980s to the late-1990s. This is a great thing, and an important thing in terms of preserving the medium’s history and educating future generations about where it all comes from. But once the rose-colored glasses are on or the 20-year old up-and-coming programmer starts to refute modernity in rebellion against the EA/Activision corporate cartel, the past can be a trap.

The problem is that it’s easy to retreat into the past and to do that whole “they don’t make ’em like they used to” thing. I do it myself in music and film all the time. The hard part is to take that impetus and translate it into forward motion, innovation, and change for the better in the present. Games like Super Meat Boy, Shadow Complex, Bastion, or Sine Mora are hardly old fashioned or retro, despite their references and homages. They elevate their gameplay models far above simply retro-fetishism with postmodernism, revisionism, and a sense of occuring at a comprehensive point in the evolution of their respective genres- and in the evolution of the games medium itself.

I find it terribly ironic, with these points in mind, that many of the same the same people that rue Gears of War and Halo for ruining games and locking down creativity have no compunction about repeating and reiterating NES or SNES games. Slap on some somber lighting or another visual gimmick and make it seem like there’s a vaguely sensitive theme and you’ve got a hit. Even if the game is really just a deconstructed version of Jordan Mechner’s original Prince of Persia design, or if it’s really just Super Mario Bros. in emo drag.

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I’m ready for games to be more modern, not more like the games I was playing 25 years ago. I’m ready for advances in technology to make new representation and visual styles possible. I want to see new gameplay concepts that go far beyond the run/jump/shoot framework. I don’t want to play another game that’s more or less some guy’s love letter to playing Blaster Master in 2005 on an emulator. I’m done with Pac-Man variants and the entire line of post-Robotron 2084 dual-stick shooters. I’ll take something sleek and sophisticated like Yamaoka’s soundtrack to Sine Mora over some crusty chiptunes. I’m far more interested in the painterly illustration style of Dishonored or the cold futurism and amazing lighting of Dead Space 2 than I am in seeing another cute indie attempt at making an iconic pixel art character.

I want to see indie developers and those working outside of the larger corporate firms embracing modernism and working toward moving the medium forward. I’m tired of homage and “love letters”. I’m sick of in-jokes, coy references, and tributes. Take what you’ve learned from the past and use it to make the present better. But the retro-fetishism and nostalgia needs to be left to die and be buried, preferably in a cemetary next to Mega Man, Link, Sonic, and Mario.

Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of as well as His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

60 thoughts to “The New Luddism (Your Retro Career Melted)”

  1. YES.

    The industry moved away from 2d, 8 bit tunes, and paper thing plots for a reason: they’re bad. And limiting. What we have now is unquestionably better, even if its not always used in an optimal manner.

    1. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with smartly referencing the past and paying tribute to it per se, but when we start to get into this reductivist mindset that “old=better” by default then there’s something sort of screwed up going on. I’ve played video games literally my entire life, and I can tell you that when I was playing all of these 8-bit Nintendo games, I NEVER thought I’d get to play something like Arkham City, Mirror’s Edge, or even the Beatles Rock Band. Let alone any of the multiplayer shooters, things like Forza 4, or even HD updates of classic games. Do you think for a minute that ten year old Barnes wouldn’t have dropped Mega Man 2 for Arkham City in a hot minute?

      1. Yes, some old games did certain things well.

        However, if you showed a middle-school version of me the opening cut-scene from FF13 I would have gone completely insane. Heck, there were parts of ME3 where I was thinking “holy crap, this is better than some recent movie CG scenes”.

  2. I imagine a big part of the reason the retro style is used is due to the fact it’s easier to produce. And indie game studios often have limited resources to assign to the art.

    Mind you, I actually enjoy chiptunes…. and I think Fez looks neat, it’s not the art style that interests me, it’s the flipping of the world around. Which I imagine would be much more challenging to develop if you had to render and texture high res 3d models.

    Not to mention once you start on the high res path, you can’t very well get off without it looking like crap. So if you have to want to add a special box x to do y, it either needs to be done like all the other resources, a tweak of a different resource, or not added. It’s a lot easier to add a pixel art box than get an artist to design and implement the new box on par with the rest.

    1. Yes, absolutely. And limitations are fine- definitely make the most out of what you’ve got. But my point is to not get into this spiteful cycle where you’re celebrating and venerating primitivism to nip at the heels of games with, you know, good graphics and modern production values.

      It’s expensive to make modern, cutting edge games no doubt.

  3. I’m sorry, but while some of your games accurately reflect the thrust of your argument, your two primary examples (Limbo and Braid) are very poor examples. Cave Story is a better one.

    Prince of Persia does not resemble Braid except in the most superficial way. In Braid time can go backwards for the entire map. You may deal with time clones, manipulating time to manipulate the level… this is nothing like Prince of Persia, which simply used time as an alternate way to deal with failure. In Braid, time is a core mechanic… in Prince of Persia platforming is the core mechanic, and time is just a death mechanic. Braid has entire game mechanics that are completely new and had never been explored before; Prince of Persia: Sands of Time did not.

    In Limbo, the platforming is decent, but you are correct that it is not exceptional or completely new. However Limbo is not praised (like Braid is) for the novelty of its gameplay, but for the excellence of its atmosphere and art. It’s platforming and puzzle solving were strong, quite equal to its many predecessors. But it also had a novel art style, and an evocative score, and managed to induce more emotion than would be expected of a game that austere. The spider chase was exquisitely done, and the “New Game +” ending was unique, beautiful, and wistfully sad.

    I agree that there are some games that bring back old gameplay and add nothing new, either in the art, the story, or the puzzles. They merely format shift old games onto new devices. But your examples do not support this premise. The only game I could see that seemed to fit was Cave Story, it being a very retro game that achieved inordinate acclaim without anything particularly excellent in its construction. But I cannot think of any other good examples of this… the poor remakes exist, but they are not getting media attention for the obvious reason that people don’t like them as much. They like Braid and Limbo because they DO bring something new to gaming.

    1. Good argument, I appreciate your comment.

      You know it’s funny but out of the games you mentioned, I like Cave Story the best. I reviewed the 3DS version at Gameshark and I gave it an A-. I think it’s a very authentic, very heartfelt facsimile of the kinds of games I played when I was a kid. But I don’t need more than one of those. I don’t want to play other games like Cave Story.

      My point about PoP: Sands of Time in relation to Braid isn’t the time rewinding mechanic. Sure, Braid added a touchy-feely subtext to it and I definitely agree that there were some tricky ways that it was used in a puzzle context. But ultimately, the game is framed as a homage to Super Mario Brothers but with the cryptic, almost textless and universal narrative is replaced by a different kind of adult, wilfully vauge ambiguity. As for never explored before, I’m not sure I’d say never there. I think “rarely” or “not as specifically” would be more accurate.

      As for Limbo of course the art style is striking. But it’s also shallow and doesn’t hide the fact that the game is much to similar to any number of puzzle platformers from the Oddworld games through Another World and the (again) Prince of Persia titles.

      Other specific examples would be things like Canabalt and Super Crate Box (pictured in the article). There’s tons of this kind of retro-fetish stuff on all of the download services and mobile devices. Ziggurat, Pix n’ Love Rush, Super Crossfire, Mos Speedrun, 1-bit Ninja…I mean, when folks are emulated Game Boy graphics, where are we heading? 😉

      1. If you aren’t comparing Braid to PoP: Sands of Time in the context of it’s time rewind mechanic, then I’m not sure why you are mentioning it at all; they are two completely different games that have absolutely no genre overlap at all except the barest of ‘jump timing matters’. Braid does get some people who love and some who detest its storytelling style, but I did not touch on that in my discussion because again, it is not the artsy storytelling method that sets Braid apart… it is its completely new gameplay mechanics based on time manipulation. Some levels were completely new, with absolutely never before seen gameplay and puzzles. The palindrome level was particularly unique, with the same level and the same obstacles having a completely different story meaning in reverse.

        Limbo you pan because you find the art style boring, but that is a very subjective thing. It’s harder to argue that the artistic style of Limbo has been done before, because it hasn’t (that I know of). Even if it had, a well executed piece of art remains well executed the seventh time as well as the first; unlike gameplay, novelty is not a strong requirement for greatness. There was nothing low-fidelity or 8-bit about Limbo’s presentation; it was merely flat.

        The issue here is that we are looking at different aspects of the same game; I am praising Braid for what it brought that was new, you are panning it for its failings. Both are valid, but the problem is that you are arguing against the entire resurgence of low fidelity games because they bring NOTHING new to the table. And that is wrong when you choose games that DID bring something new and good.

        Many of these triple-A titles bring nothing new at all, yet we praise them for their polish, execution, and graphics. Independant games that cut corners on the polish and graphics, but bring something completely new to the table deserve to be praised, not panned.

        I also don’t understand your comment about Cave Story at all… I don’t know what it brought to the table. It wasn’t polished, it didn’t have great graphics, it didn’t bring anything new to gaming. It was just a good re-hash of mid-90’s action RPG. Yet you comment that you liked it, but don’t want any more similar to it… that completely undermines the entire thesis of your article! You are praising the well done retread that did everything adequately and panning the titles that brought something new and unique but also had flaws.

        I’m not saying your article is wrong, mind you; there are a lot of people capitalizing on the ease of development now and making shovelware retreads. They are often good games, but they walk well trodden paths and bring nothing that older gamers haven’t seen before. I just don’t think your supporting examples and arguments did a good job of making the point you intended.

        1. Just wow, guys. Keep slinging like this. It’s why I come round here to read.

          I’d say I’m in Michael’s camp on Limbo and in Myrddin’s camp on Braid. I have a terrible eye for visuals, and thus Limbo’s art style was utterly lost on me…forcing my focus to gameplay, where it maybe didn’t belong. (I had similar problems with Outland: keep your BS colors, guys, and give me a character that moves and jumps more accurately.)

          As for Braid, the gameplay was amazing compared to most other platformers in its weight class. On the other hand, I don’t like stories that have no point, and I’m willing to admit that Braid intentionally decided to conceal its point. There are a thousand better ways to force a person to think and ask questions. But I gave the guy a pass, because hey, he’s a game guy, not a novelist or screenwriter.

          I loved this back and forth because you guys are demonstrating my preferred world: opposing viewpoints firmly stated, instead of filing the edges off until everyone agrees.

          If nothing else, Michael always channels the Emersonian ethic of boldly having an opinion and waiting to be called out on it, and that voice is sorely needed in games culture.

          1. Most folks writing about games- and folks reading about them- don’t want dialogue, and they don’t understand the point of a piece like this is to get people talking and exchanging ideas. I’m not up here just trying to tell you what I think, I want us all to get together and rap about it and disagree, debate, and move the discussion forward. I love that Myrddin’s objecting and I’m thinking about my response to him right now.

            If we all softball opinions and agree that everybody likes something different, then we’ll never have a serious body of games criticism, and the entire concept of looking at games and analyzing them critical falls completely apart. At that point, we may as well be doing nothing more than posting press releases and trailers.

            But yes, this kind of thing is exactly what I was hoping for when I signed on to NHS.

          2. I think another sin of “everybody’s right” thinking is that it’s a rubbish way to try and generate best practices.

            There is a “right” way to write novels, and a “right” way to write the American Screenplay. People break those rules all the time…but the “rules” teach important lessons about the pros and cons of technique. Simply *saying* that Memento is “different”, for example, because the plot runs backwards, doesn’t help a new writer or director use the movie’s example to succeed. Arguing about what works and what doesn’t is the only way to accomplish that.

            What makes me sad is that the only “best practices” I see agreed upon for video games (at least in popular discussion, I am not a games developer) is “what keeps people playing” and “what keeps people paying”. And since I’ve said before that video games are art – that’s a curse, not praise – you can’t base an enduring business model on sales alone. Unlike nails or band-aids or drinking water, your market will eventually tire of what you sell, and if you don’t know why at that point, you’re already doomed.

  4. I think I must be the Luddites you are talking about. For me, the joy of Limbo was that is was just as fun to die as it was to succeed. It wasn’t just Mario popping off the screen after being hit, each scene could end so utterly badly and you were almost comically vulnerable to everything. It reminded me of the first two Oddworld games, which I still think are some of the best games ever made (and the graphics still hold up pretty well).

    I wonder where you’d put Terraria. It really did nothing new, just turned Minecraft into a Metroidvania. But it was pulled off so well that I think it’s my favorite game of the past few years.

    That’s not to say I don’t play other games. I’ve put in my Skyrim time, and play Counterstrike pretty regularly.

    But today I stayed home sick from work, and what did I play all afternoon? Zelda 2 for the NES (on the console, not emulated, atavistic snob that I am), and I think it holds up pretty well. Getting past those axe-throwers to get the hammer felt like much more of an accomplishment than anything I did in 60 hours of Skyrim. If some indie developer comes out with a game that completely mimics Zelda 2, I’m going to buy it.

    1. But see, I would argue that Prince of Persia or Another World had that same frisson from the death animations that Limbo had…there were some unusually gruesome deaths in those games. Limbo shadowed it and for some folks it made getting impaled even more extreme, I suppose.

      Limbo is definitely a descendant of Oddworld, no doubt.

      I’ve not played Terraria but I’ve heard it’s about like what you described. I really like Metroidvanias, actually…I bought Symphony of Night for like the sixth time last night, it’s one of my favorite games. And one of the only “retro” games I still go back to play from time to time.

      I definitely hear what you’re saying about accomplishment and achievement in Zelda 2 versus new games…stay tuned for my article on skill-based gameplay, coming soon.

      1. Funny you should mention Symphony of the Night. I love it too of course, and it’s one of the only “retro” style games that actually advances and makes better what came before it. SotN is what you get when you apply the retro design elements of Castlevania and Metroid, but you make it better by fixing the controls of the original CV games and going hog wild with the lack of space constraints on the CD medium. That game has some of the most ridiculous enemy variety I’ve ever seen. And the whole inverted castle twist? Magnificent, especially back in the days before GameFAQs and the Internet spoiled everything regularly. That’s how you do retro right.

  5. Bravo. You are probably going to take alot of heat from the gaming hipster crowd for this piece. But I for one agree with just about everything you said.

    1. Yeah, I was hoping I could distract them with a six pack of PBR and an Urban Outfitters catalog if they get too riled up.

      I’ve never really seen anyone speak out against the retro thing, which is kind of weird. And there’s this kind of implicit acceptance that retro or nostalgia is always good. But it isn’t.

      1. What was that? I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you — I was too busy listening to this obscure vinyl through my ironic retro headphones.

  6. It’s almost a bit too. . . safe. It’s kinda like listening to a band now that sounds like a different version of Metallica (pick a band), while you can appreciate that something is well done, in the end you’re looking for progress. Nostalgia is good, but some of us prefer something a bit more daring.

    1. It is safe. Because everybody loves Mega Man, right? We can all get behind Sonic the Hedgehog because we grew up with him. What kind of monster thinks a Mario game is lacking innovation or progress from the past five titles?

      Late last year I tried Super Mario Land 3D on the 3DS…I was pretty excited about it, actually, thinking I’d be in for a great classic Mario platformer. But I played through a couple of levels and thought “you know what, I’m over playing this game”. I realized that I had been playing that same game since ninteen freaking eighty five. Same with Legend of Zelda- I’m tired of playing Link to the Past over and over again.

      Lots of folks prefer safety and comfort, and specifically safety and comfort that is packaged as hip, palatable, and accessible. You add in a bullshit layer where it’s being sold as an “alternative” to the big games, and it’s time to bust out the big-rim glasses, white belts, and thrift store t-shirts.

      1. Without a doubt, over exposure is present. I couldn’t fathom picking up a Mario, Zelda, or Mega Man game at this point. I did recently play through El Shaddai, though. While yes, that was an action-platformer that game mechanics wise broke no ground, the level of detail that went into the game as a whole made it an extremely engrossing game for me. That’s what I want out of a game. Show me you care if you’re going to do something that’s already been done. I listen to more than one metal band, I can play more than one game in the same genre, but do something to separate yourself if you want to be called great.

        I’m plenty ok with a safe game now and then. The Gears of War series broke no new ground, but they never really made any bones about it. It was what it was advertised to be. But I had several friends telling me Braid and Shadow Complex are the most amazing things ever, when all I see is the same old crap I’ve played for years. On some level personal taste comes into play, and maybe younger players are more likely to get involved, but those two Arcade titles may as well have been every chick flick I’ve ever sat through with my wife, just repeats of the same themes with a slightly different coat of paint. Clearly those titles did something for a lot of people, but I just can’t follow.

        1. I think some of it may actually be generational. If you’re 20 years old and the first game of its kind that you ever play is Shadow Complex, it may very well blow you away. If you played Symphony of Night to death in 1998 when YOU were 20, maybe not so much.

          It’s like when a friend of mine made me sit down and listen to Hatebreed. He was much younger, into hardcore and he claimed that he hated heavy metal. He played the record and I said “Angus, this shit sounds just like the Slayer record I gave you (Reign in Blood) that you laughed at.”

          1. I will say this for the nostalgia factor: while I can’t play Mario anymore, my 5 year old plays my old SNES which is still at my parents’ place. It’s the first thing she asks to do when we visit there and it makes me a proud poppa. WTF is it about an Italian plumber shroomin’ it up that has such appeal to young kids?

            And to be fair to your buddy, while I’d still take Slayer over Hatebreed, Araya’s vocal delivery will take a backseat to Hatebreed’s. Slayer’s similar to NIN for me. Great surrounding music, but the vocals don’t always fit. . . . Slayer’s guitar work though, the influence is so clear, not just there but throughout metal. I have no idea why I typed that last, clearly obvious statement. It might be bedtime.

  7. Chalk me up as a PBR swigging luddite.

    Have you played Fez? Because I can’t think of a modern, major title using that gameplay mechanic. Likewise, check out the roguelike platforming of Spelunky, the music-driven gameplay of Beat Hazard, and every BIT.TRIP game outside of Runner. There is movement forward, albeit without the budget for high-end visuals and the sweeping soundtracks that major publishers can provide. Instead, these developers worked within their means to provide the best games they could.

    Despite these protests, many people are infatuated with retro styles for the sake of style, myself included. I love pixel art and chiptune and games that share my fondness. One reason is simplicity. I can focus on gameplay and enjoyment, and not texture pop or polygon clipping. Canabalt? I play it all the time, because I can have five minutes of fun and move on.

    I say there is room for both. The retro crowd is doing it’s thing while other people are doing their’s. It’s not like Wizorb is killing the preorders for BioShock Infinite, and some of the games you mention are recent, meaning there ‘is’ progress. It’s all different strokes for different folks, and more importantly, it’s all about havingsomething to enjoy.

  8. I both agree and disagree with you Barnes; yes, there are a lot of NES/Sega clones coming out of the woodwork that really doesn’t need to see the light of day, but you’ve got quite a few games that really take the retro look simply because it takes away all the shiny packaging and presents you with an incredible game. Bindings of Issac, Super Meat Boy, Terraria, and to a lesser degree Titan Attacks. Retro shouldn’t be an excuse to make a game look bad and sound even worse; if done correctly you have a core game that breathes nostalgia without smelling like mothballs and old people. This same argument about playing it safe with retro can very easily be turned on companies like Bethesda, Nintendo, and Rock Star. You’re really playing the same game as the last one, it’s just prettier.

    1. But there’s an ultimate truth here, Blade. A good game is a good game. Design is design, and as long as the retro elements are artfully and purposefully applied toward the stylistic unity of the work and they serve a higher purpose than appealing to nostalgia or establishing indie credibility, then they don’t have to be regarded as negative.

  9. Yeah, but “everybody likes something different” is the easy way out of serious analysis, criticism, and standing by an opinion, isn’t it? if we fall back on appeals to personal taste than pretty much any discussion of games beyond “some games ae more fun than others” and “we all like games” is shut down. If my critical heroes- folks like Harlan Ellison, Pauline and Robert Christgau simply said “hey, different strokes y’all” would we be reading them today?;

    I agree that there is room for all kinds of games, only an idiot would suggest otherwise. My point is that there is a kind of movement that’s been going on that wants to suggest that retro-primitivism is somehow a more innovative or progressive stance for the medium that what is on offer from the larger publishing and development houses. I’ve seen and heard countless comments about how a game like the Bit.Trip titles (which I liked and gave a favorable review for at Gameshark) are where the “real” creativity and momentum is in games today. I think that’s false, and I think it speaks to this idea of this hip kind of Luddism. It’s cool to play Canabalt. Not cool to play Modern Warfare 3.

    It’s very reactionary.

    Would the designers of these kinds of games willfully choose to eschew the low-fi look or atavsitic design of their games in favor of something more modern and well-budgeted if they could? if so, then your comment about them doing best they could with what they had holds water. If not, then it’s like saying that Black Flag didn’t make a disco record only because they couldn’t get Nile Rogers on the phone. There is a certain mentality, an ideology, at work here that I think you might be under-selling.

    Spelunky is a brilliant game, and it’s retro employed in the right kind of way. It’s a new kind of fusion with roguelike and platformer concepts. Does it need the 8-bit graphics and chiptunes to succeed? No, because its a great design. Do they contribute to the visual experience of the game or are they just totemic references to past styles? That’s a tougher question.

  10. You have a lot of very good points here, but there is one part I have to argue with:

    Proponents- quite wrongly- suggest that all that matters is gameplay, while ignoring that games are a specifically audiovisual, technologically enabled and reproduced form of media

    As long as what you’re talking about is a game then yes, the gameplay is what truly matters. Because if the gameplay is horrible and broken, it doesn’t matter what else it’s got to offer, because it’s still all horrible and broken, and nothing will be able to change that.

    Yes, given the (otherwise) exact same game, better art, better music, better what-have-you, will make it better. Better is… better. But, the raw core of it all has to be solid, or the entire experience will just fall apart into frustration.

    And of course, there’s the entire question of what constitute ‘better’? The mainstream game industry has been hypnotized by the promise of more polygons, more rendering options, more bloom, and more fiddly little details in the game engine. And has that gotten them anything but an ever-deepening trench in the Uncanny Valley and horrible AI that can’t even pretend to be playing the same game as you?

    From that light, the retro movement looks like a rejection of some of the things that really are wrong in big-budget titles, without necessarily being fully conscious of what they’re protesting.

    Not that I’m any kind of fan of retro for it’s own sake. I never had any of the old consoles, so I don’t have a lot of nostalgia for that era, despite being around for it. But I do believe a lot of things are overcomplicated to no real purpose. As a for instance, I’d rate the three best space 4X games as StarWeb, Reach for the Stars and Neptune’s Pride. All very simple games in a genre that has produced some complicated winners. (Of course, the fact that two of them are multiplayer/negotiation only probably has more to do with it.)

      1. …Well, at that point, I’ve got a pair of related questions for you: Why are they playing it, and how long will people be playing it for?

        I haven’t gotten Skyrim, so I’m guessing here.

        But, it seems to me, with some of the comments I’ve seen, and the precipitous drop off of comments about Skyrim in general, that it is not a game with a lot of legs.

        Which doesn’t discount your point.

        So, to the first of my questions: why is it played? My understanding it that it comes down to content. The comments I’ve seen center around the questing and the world itself. There’s a lot of it, and some of it is darn beautiful.

        Ah ha! you say, that’s not gameplay!


        It seems to me, from what I’ve seen, that part of the point (going with the stunning landscapes only for a bit), is the process of finding these vistas, of looking around and suddenly seeing what’s around you. But, just think, if that’s all there was, the software was nothing but walking/running/riding through the world, and taking in the scenery, would it be nearly as popular? Would it be popular at all? Or merely an interesting technology demonstration?

        What, for the vast bulk of people, makes it worthwhile, is that you’re also doing other things out in the world while finding these moments. The intersection of tasks and finding new things is exploration. Exploration is a very valid mode of gameplay.

        This may sound like I’m trying to go for a ‘everything is gameplay’ (not unlike ‘everything is art’) position, but I’d say it’s more ‘gameplay underlies everything’.

        Similarly, between the setpiece quests, and the procedurally generated ones, there is a lot of content to go through. Or at least, the illusion of a lot of content. Many ‘I’m getting tired of Skyrim‘ posts I’ve seen look to revolve around the fact that’s gotten impossible to ignore that the bulk of the quests are just the same as what they’ve seen before. They’ve mined the depths of the random number generator behind the procedurally generated quests, and now there’s not enough new content to discover, to explore.

        From what I can tell (and I could be well off-base, not having played it) Skyrim did a couple very narrow things very, very well, and everything else competently enough to keep from distracting unduly from what it did well. It managed to hit the right chord, to generate hype, and get a lot of people on board. This goes back to my assertion that gameplay matters because if you get it out-and-out wrong it doesn’t matter how good the visuals or the music or anything else is, because people won’t get that far. Here, they were good enough, so people did get that far. But it doesn’t seem to be good enough to hold them for more than… what? three months?

        1. You just ht why Minecraft is still banging down the doors of Youtube with new videos daily.

          Skyrim has a healthy sense of exploration of (arguably) beautiful terrain. It also has some piss poor mechanics, and mind numbing quests. Basically it is a world where the point is to explore, and gives you some reasons to do that. But it has a limit, that being once you’ve seen most of Skyrim, there is little reason to keep exploring.

          Minecraft has much the same thing, great sense of exploration, some piss poor mechanics, and no real structure. What it does differently is have infinite land to explore, some really odd places to go, and the freedom to do what you want. Some people want to go cave diving to the bottom of the world, some want to build castles to the sky. Some build freaking computers.

          Skyrim is a series of hiking trails in a national park. Go where you want, but don’t try to change anything. Minecraft is that national park without the trails, and treated like a sandbox. Wanna build a fortress in that mountain? Here’s some TNT, have at it.

    1. Yes, in order for a game to be successful it needs to do so at that fundamental gameplay level. No arguing there. But I think it’s short sighted- and kind of ignorant- to suggest that visuals or other technical elements don’t matter. Games are a visual medium, even on the tabletop. How they look- the graphic design, the visual references, even the fonts- matters. It’s almost like a badge of honor for some people to say that they don’t care about graphics. Like it’s a superior perspective.

      But you’re right, you can have a shitty looking game that’s still successful at a play level.

      1. The old saw in my group, referring to animation is “Good story can save bad animation; good animation can’t save a bad story.”

        It’s the same thing here. Sure, sure, good game play and good graphics is better. But without good gameplay at all, what is the game worth?

        I’ve hammered on this in a few different places, but what it really comes down to for me is, stop spending ridiculous amounts of time and effort on ‘better’ graphics (which aren’t), and spend some time working on the damn game.

        Some cases in point:

        Dead Island; not my type of thing, but the reports were that it… well, ‘looked good’, might not be the right phrase here… and was pretty much unplayable as a game. Haven’t heard much from it after launch….

        Dwarf Fortress: (Still need to actually try this.) ASCII art. Not exactly stunning stuff. Indeed there’s a good number of people who won’t/can’t get into the game because of that. But it does have people playing it, it does have people paying attention to it. And Paradox is currently working on a similar game… with actual art.

        Civilization IV gets my goat. It is actually a pretty good game. But give me one real reason why a Civ game needed a better graphics card than WoW did at the time. Frankly, I would have been happier without all the 3D foolery.

        1. This is an interesting point, because it gets to an argument about stylisic quality versus the drive in graphics technology to reproduce reality and flip all kinds of technical switches such as texturing, bloom lighting, shading, and whatnot.

          Graphic fidelity, polygon counts, and whatnot never should have been the barometer of what is visually “good” in games to begin with. The problem is that you’ve got all of these techie folks working in the industry and also playing the games that ARE impressed by all of those tech specs and so forth.

          But from a more artistic, aesthetic level…it doesn’t matter how many polygons you’re pushing or how many light vectors you’ve got on a subject. What matters is what is most effective and stylistically consistent.

          Mirror’s Edge (again…) is an example where a very strong visual style with a distinct color palette, very specific futuristic concepts, the depiction of architecture, and an overall unique mise en scene is FAR more important than 60fps, the detail on a blade of a grass, or facial animation. The graphics in Mirror’s Edge aren’t the best on a technical level, yet it’s one of the most striking and best looking games of this generation.

          To circle back to the retro thing, when retro graphics are used to convey a particular style or sense of context, there are reasons that you’d go the 8- or 16- bit route. But when it’s just empty “remember hwo cool these games were?” nostalgia or “look how un-AAA my game is” posturing, then it can become a liabilty- regardless of the quality of the gameplay.

          1. Precisely!

            I once compared the high-detail 3d-oriented direction of game marketing to Intel’s old practice of marketing CPUs by their clock speed. It makes a great bullet point, and while it was never the full story as to what was going on, it’s an easy to explain one, and at one point it mattered. (Well, once you buy into the idea that 3D must be better than 2D, but that’s a rant for another day….)

            These days, the idea has run into the equivalent of the clockspeed wall Intel ran into with the Pentium 4. Improving the numbers is harder and harder, and gets you less and less. With any luck we’ll see a similar movement off of polys and towards things that make more sense, like good UI and art styles that support the style of the game.

  11. I think it would help if you call out some more specific games. Super Crate Box is a good example, because Vlambeer purposely makes retro-style games.

    Fez, Braid, and Limbo were in development long before pixel-art and 8-bit music came back in style. Canabalt is the youngest, appearing in 2009, but arose from the Experimental Gameplay Project, in which the entire goal was to pursue minimalism.

    The question I keep asking: why doesn’t the mainstream get the right message? EA, Activision, and THQ have all dipped their toes in the indie pool lately, but every announcement reeks of cash-ins. What we need are these publishers to look not at the sales potentials, but rather, the ideas being presented.

    *For the record, I’m from Milwaukee. I’m allowed to drink PBR.

  12. (written directly after my last post, so mind the lag)

    “My point is that there is a kind of movement…to suggest that retro-primitivism is somehow a more innovative or progressive stance for the medium that what is on offer from the larger publishing and development houses.”

    To that – the attitude – I can definitely agree. I’ve played quite a few abysmal games that received rave reviews from people obviously enamored with the idea of indie development. A crap game is still crap.

    Progress most certainly happens in the mainstream. I think there are two reasons that it doesn’t get as widely recognized:
    1) Dilution. For example: I remember being struck by the use of color in Dead Space. While contending with music, lighting, motion, and plot, most people aren’t going to notice that.
    2) Scale. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize when progress is happening, because it typically happens in bits and pieces from games incorporating ideas here and there. In contrast, that same concept is going to be more prominent in relation to the smaller scale of an indie game.

    1. You’re getting at something here- the “idea” of indie development as this romantic, Robin Hood-like notion contrary to the AAA houses.I think that’s a big reason why so many of these games are championed. Not that there aren’t good ones that deserve it, but I think a lot of people are simply enamored with the alternative.

      Good points on innovation- I would add too that another reason why innovation isn’t recognized is that it often occurs in games that aren’t as polished or refined as the top-tier franchises.

  13. I love this blog.

    I’m a huge fan of these indie retro games but barnes you make some valid points in this piece even if I ultimately disagree with you.

    I’m sorta new to nhs. Came over from the kuchera pa link but the conversation here is nothing sort of amazing for a game blog. This place so far has a shocking gamer to troll ratio.

  14. Feature Creep. It often seem to me like those two words are the Achilles heel of many AAA games, particularly in sequels where there is a constant marketing push to add new content bullet points to a games feature list.
    Can anyone honestly say after playing Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood that they thought to themselves was “what this game really needs is a tower defence mode”.

    I think what Brian Rowe says about Canabalt being seen as a champion of minimalist design has a fair amount of merit, because I seem to remember at the time a lot of people championing Canabalt as what “Mirror’s Edge should have been”.
    That statement personally never quite felt right to me, but I can 100% see where it came from.
    The combat in Mirror’s Edge felt like the consequence of a publisher panicking about how to sell a first person game without gun’s, a change which fundamentally pushed against what made the design interesting in the first place.
    I don’t know if Canabalt was a concious reaction to this, but certainly I don’t think it would have achieved the traction it did if Mirrors Edge hadn’t left so many frustrated gamers in its wake.

    Ultimately though both feature creep & the choice to peruse “Reto styling” both flow from a simple piece of business thinking. Its less risky to give people what you know they like, than to try and create something new and untested.

    1. Sure, and that’s getting at some of the points where business and art overlap and sometimes come to loggerheads. The problem is that when you’re releasing games with AC level budgets and marketing costs, you’ve got to try to please as many people as possible with as many features as possible.

      Mirror’s Edge likely fell prey to this kind of thinking, which is why the combat is there. It’s so half-assed, because I’m sure the developers felt like it wasn’t necessary. But you’re right, that bullet point has to be there.

      And it’s a good point you’re kind of subtly making, that the retro/indie designs are more focused and purpose built. Definitely something to think about there.

  15. I think people like “indie” and/or retro games simply because the big companies (EA/Activasion) aren’t doing them. It’s totally about being a hipster. If the next Activision developed game was Super Meat Boy I think everyone would get there hate on. There will always be that crowd. It’s like some people will always trumpet Sage Francis over Lil’ Wayne. People want to feel special and better than other people. But both artists are pushing a boundary and inventing new stuff. Just like in video games. If Call of Duty didn’t add perks and leveling where would the shooter genre be?

    That said Symphony of the Night is one of my favorite games of all time. A close second would be Secret of Mana.

    1. Yes, that’s some of what I’m getting at. They’re the alternative, so they have this kind of street cred. And I think you’re right on the money, if Activision put out a game EXACTLY like Super Meat Boy (assuming SMB doesn’t exist in this alternate reality), the indie/hipster crowd would find ways to trash it while celebrating some tiny developer with an underground game that plays something like Combat for the Atari 2600.

  16. “It’s totally about being a hipster.”

    That’s right. I like indie games because I want thousands of strangers on the internet that I have never met and probably never will meet to think that I’m cool.

    1. You’d probably be surprised at how important”looking” cool on the Internet is to a lot of people.

      I get what Nic is saying. And I bet if you were to go to one of the indie games events or conferences you’d see exactly what he’s talking about. Probably plenty of geniunely cool, nice folks. But almost certainly a contingient of people- particularly younger and more impressionable people- trying to out-indie (or out-retro) each other. That kind of social environment is where hipsterism takes root.

        1. I did too. There’s always the guy that wears the Crass shirt that has no fucking clue what any of their messages are about…but it’s the done thing. And when everybody else starts wearing a Crass shirt, he switches to a Conflict shirt.

  17. I, perhaps naively, assumed that the thrust behind this movement was to drive toward more interesting game play/mechanics, rather than fussing over graphics polish and sound tracks, i.e. investing in gameplay and inovation over graphics/sound ala Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress. I believe this was the original intent.

    I haven’t played many of the games mentioned, but I do think there’s a bit of “bandwagoning” going on, but you’ll have that with any successful genre/style. I don’t think we can dismiss the whole because of that.

    1. I think Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress represent something very different than the kind of retro-fetishizing I’m getting at here. Minecraft is actually extremely innovative, even though I can’t stand it I think it’s a hugely important design that we’ll see influencing game makers considerably over the next ten years or so.

      Dwarf Fortress is such an insular design…it’s its own thing. Obviously it’s derived from Roguelikes and 4x games, but its staggering complexity and ability to create its own sort of style of game is significant. It may look retro, but I don’t think it really is. There’s a big difference between it and an umpteenth generation Mario clone.

  18. I think using Canabnalt as example of this retro revival is a bit of a misnomer, because the creator, Adam Atomic, is a pixel artist who has done work on handheld devices which actually required pixel art to function. And Canabalt ushered in the unthinkable a couple years ago by innovating the use of no buttons and a constantly running playfield, with an analog jump button which actually felt really good.

    And poor Fez. I remember seeing videos of that thing back in 07 I think. I can’t fault a guy for doing something which was was at the start of the trend, and just happened to take the life of the trend to see release.

    1. Yes, had Fez appeared back then it would have been at the front end, not the tail end, of this retro thing. Now, I don’t even really care about it.

      I actually have a lot of respect for Canabalt- it’s a strikingly minimal design and it’s effective. I’m not sure how innovative it is other than the automation of walking, but there have been automatically scrolling playfields forever.

      1. I know your frustration on the Fez part. When it was first shown it’s retro aesthetic was almost necessary to make a stark contrast to moving the camera around, and for keeping something incredibly readable. It had sizzle and steak, and now that so many people are doing sizzle you’re not in the mood for steak anymore ! I’ve been through something similar before, can’t remember what though, so I feel your pain.

        Games have had auto-scrolling forever but most of those games still featured d-pad control, and Canabalt answered the question of how to move a character through an environment without using a virtual dpad. It’s such a simple solution that it just seems silly that it wasn’t done sooner.

  19. I don’t agree with you, there are areas where retro styled games can do thousand times better than modern AAA games. This is because they can focus better than modern “big bag o’bucks” games.
    The gameplay evolution would be completely halted if it was only for MW or PoP clones/sequels. Please give modern examples to your theory that new games tend to innovate because Mario Galaxy was released 5 years ago, Sands of time and Call of Dusty are from 2003.

    1. But how, I ask you, is gameplay evolution moving forward if the mechanical references are specifically geared toward retro sensibilities and recreating experiences from past generations of gameplay?

      There are plenty of very innovative modern games- 2003 is still modern, you know. But more to your point, take a look at Catherine, LA Noire, Bastion, Sine Mora, Brink, Mirror’s Edge…all very innovative, if not always successful titles. Then there are innovations in even larger games, like the Autolog function in the recent Need for Speed games and diegetic information as seen in games such as Dead Space and Splinter Cell: Conviction.

      Can you, in turn, explain to me how games like VVVVV, Machinarium, or Game Dev Story are innovative in any way other than representing low cost development and digital distribution?

      1. The first Call of Duty may have come out in 2003, but there were plenty of innovations introduced in 2007 to COD4 which have become staples in current multiplayer titles.

        VVVVVV was innovative in taking a unique direction for the jumping mechanic. And being a 1 man operation on that game I wouldn’t expect much more innovation.

  20. Ok, of course in standard human progress timings 2003 isn’t so far away, yet in the videogame industry it’s about the 25% of the whole history.
    Aniway I would say that the graphics technology rarely expands the gameplay possibilities. Of course it can (and it does) empower a product to the level where a good gameplay is not any more a selling point.
    A retro styled game hardly can count on this kind of super-cheat and has to use different selling points to appeal to the masses.
    I agree on the fact that the industry should move forward but if retro graphics or gameplay allows intensive experimentation i think this would definitely help this progress.

  21. Hmmm. Put me in the middle ground here–I don’t think ‘retro’ itself is bad, it’s just that now you have the extreme ones that are using ‘retro’ as an excuse for making poor quality games overall (rather than truthfully admitting that it’s a poor game that happens to use retro styling.)
    Simplified mechanics in and of themselves aren’t a bad thing–after all, that is, for the most part, what is driving the ‘casual’ game market, is it not? Games that can simply be picked up and played, without having to learn complex mechanics first.

    As far as the graphics–again, in and of themselves not a bad thing, as long as some effort is put into them *and* into providing good gameplay along with them (part of why the older games that inspired the retro movement in the first place *remain* popular is because they have good, fun mechanics and gameplay). And part of the whole reason the retro movement started in the first place was because it seemed like companies were obsessing on looks and pretty pictures to the expense of good gameplay–you could budget one or the other, but not both, and end up with things like Squaresoft’s Bouncer (lovely FMVs…with not much in the way of actual gameplay other than a fairly basic fighting game to connect them).

    Kind of amusing that ‘hipsters’ are brought up, actually–part of the problem is that ‘retro’ games have gotten mainstream enough that you have games purposely done poorly to mock the ‘retro’ idea that people take seriously as being proper examples of it, as well as the ones who simply ‘don’t get it’, and end up pulling all of the *worst* traits into their designs, while convinced they’re doing it the right way. And of course, as with any fandom, you have that group of vocal loonies that thinks we should just throw away all these ‘pointless’ technological toys and go back to the days when video games were pieces of furniture. (Me, I’m a technogeek–I’m loving the fact that you can take the *entire* NES, SNES, and Genesis libraries combined, and stick them in your back pocket to be played anywhere and any time you feel like)

    1. Yep. I love(d) The Faint, and since they were something of a revivalist act and the song title was appropriate, it worked out nicely. 😉

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