With the advent of the Xbox One and the PS4 and the photorealistic experience they bring, has the death knell of retro gaming finally been sounded? Not a chance, says guest writer Alex Blake.
Next gen consoles have been somewhat hogging the limelight recently, with every man and his dog ruminating on which one to buy, what the best games will be and comparing them head-to-head. The gaming blogosphere is riding a wave of zealous excitement like a kid at Christmas, deconstructing the consoles and everything about them with admirable vigour. It’s all rather overwhelming.
The question that no one seems to be asking, however, is what impact the new consoles will have on retro gaming. To put it bluntly, will they kill it off? There are those who would say there is a perfectly good reason for this lack of curiosity: no-one plays retro games any more, they argue, those things died a death years ago. Well, not quite.
Though far from the peak days of the 1990s, games systems like the N64 or GameBoy Color have found something of a niche in nostalgic adults re-enacting their childhoods and young students re-imagining their own. Thomas Amato owns retro gaming store Super Tomato in Cardiff and says that he usually does very well off such a clientèle. “It’s insane,” he says. “We can put up an N64 with Mario Kart on the shelf and thirty minutes later it’ll be gone.”
Yet he states his belief that within the next generation of consoles, hard copy media will completely disappear, marking an end to the time of physical CDs and cartridges. If this comes to pass, experiencing the world of retro gaming as it existed in the past will become increasingly difficult.
And to many that’s not a problem. Expectations have risen and the clunky, pixelated graphics of the N64 and its ilk have never looked more out of place. You’d have a hard time pushing a 1080p television to its limits when playing on a SNES, for example. In a world of photorealistic gaming and deeply immersive content, the cut-out styling of Donkey Kong can seem more archaic than classic to some.
Yet even if cartridges and CDs become a thing of the past, that will not mark the end of Mario, Link and friends. While the halcyon, mass-selling days of the actual retro consoles are long gone, the games themselves live on in the new era on platforms such as Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. Some are near carbon copies of the original, whilst others have been remade for the twenty-first century, but any gamer feeling the tug of nostalgia or the draw of curiosity can re-enact the highs and lows of Banjo Kazooie or Nights into Dreams on their modern console. Modern gamers may not have a Sega Saturn to hand, but they can still experience the fabled games from this era without having to fork out for a new console. The desire to play these games – whether it is from older, nostalgic gamers or new players looking for a retro thrill – is evidently still alive and kicking.
And it’s not as if the cost of a retro console will discourage people from taking the plunge. If a gamer can afford a £400+ next-generation console then it is likely they would be willing to shell out £50 for an N64 and an armful of games. The rarest and most collectible games will be costly, but favourites like Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario 64 are cheap and accessible.
Darran Jones, editor of Retro Gamer magazine, rightly points out that not all retro gaming is cheap: “Nintendo released games in cardboard boxes,” he states. “They look amazing but they offer poor protection, making boxed versions of certain games insanely expensive.” However, for the casual gamer who is not looking for a collectable, the savings over the console behemoths of today is striking.
And there’s the simple concern of longevity. An N64 from almost twenty years ago can still have as much zest and lifeblood as when it was first released – will the same be said of the Xbox One or PS4 in twenty years’ time? Microsoft and Sony spend huge sums convincing people to upgrade their consoles, and the lack of support for older machines suggests that next-generation consoles could be rather useless in a couple of decades.
In contrast, some old school games are justly acknowledged as classics, and Amato believes there will always be a market for them. He likens them to celebrated films or must-read books, arguing: “There will always be an appetite for people to experience those things again.” That people are returning to these games decades after their initial release speaks volumes for the endurance and vitality of titles from this bygone era and for retro gaming as a whole.
So despite the entire media furore for the latest round of glitzy, hi-tech consoles, don’t discount their retro brethren just yet. Far from being destroyed, they have found a new home in the twenty-first century, living on to find a new generation of fans and admirers.
You wouldn’t know it from reading the blogosphere. But then again, you can’t believe everything you read.