30 November 2002

Edge: Retrogaming

I hate retrogaming. It makes me sick. And it’s not because I’m some sniffy youth whose first gaming experience was Tekken Tag on PS2 and who sneers that old games have rubbish graphics. The first videogame I ever played was a tabletop Space Invaders in a cafe at some point in the late 1970s. So what’s my problem?
It’s several problems, actually. First, the actual word “retrogaming”. What’s that about? I can read a novel by Joseph Conrad published 100 years ago, or a Len Deighton thriller from the 1980s, and I won’t be accused of “retroreading”. I’m not “retrolistening” if I stick on some Bach or Frank Sinatra or Van Halen. Watching classic Cary Grant films from the 1940s, or The Seventh Seal, or The Empire Strikes Back, is not termed “retroviewing”.

These media – cinema, literature and music – are acknowledged as artforms with a history, and there is nothing inherently nostalgic about appreciating art from any time. But using the term “retrogaming” does imply a kind of nostalgia, in the sense of all those horrible I Love Some Arbitrary Date from the Past television shows. And there is an awful lot of nostalgia in retrogaming. Remove the rose-coloured memory filters and actually play some of the games you remember so fondly and it can come as a rude shock. I shudder to acknowledge that I must have actually spent £5.99 of hard-earned paper-round money on something like Tapper for the ZX Spectrum. In terms of value for money, £40 in today’s money for MGS2 or Halo seems like a bargain in comparison.

So many products of early videogame history, one rapidly comes to realise, were built around a single, simple play concept that becomes boring in a matter of minutes. People nod sagely and say, “Of course, in the good old days, they didn’t have fancy 3D graphics to hide behind – so they really had to engineer fabulous gameplay!” Well yes, that would have been ideal, but for every Tempest or Super Mario Bros for which that is true, there are hundreds of lookalike platformers or jerky shooters that are an insult to the memory.

Of course there can be pleasure in revisiting bad old games, but really the game is only acting as a kind of Proustian madeleine – the experience of replaying can bring warm fuzzy memories of childhood and innocent wonder flooding back. Which is nice. But let’s not kid ourselves that the game itself was any good. What also seems to be missing the point is how retrogaming culture is very often at base a simply consumerist obsession. So you have a rare Japanese SNES game in a pristine box, huh? If the game sucks, who cares? Only collectors: the kind of people who like hoarding stuff regardless of its inherent value.

And in social terms, the tragedy of retrogaming having become a “scene” is that it has attracted the attention of that most annoying of lifeforms, the Shoreditch Twat, the kind of idiotically trendy denizen of the fringes of the City of London who will wear an Atari T-shirt for its “cool” value but knows nothing about gaming beyond FIFA and Lara Croft.

Most importantly, using the term “retrogaming” helps to keep the artform firmly in its unrespected, kiddy niche. If videogames were acknowledged as the important cultural form that they are, playing games from the 1980s wouldn’t be considered “retro”, it would just be another option available from the history of the medium. And then we would be free to discard the trash. There’s nothing wrong in admitting that 99% of videogames in history have been basically garbage, because it’s true of every artform. We remember the classics of 19th-century literature, but we don’t remember the far more numerous “penny dreadfuls” that outsold them by factors of 10 or 100 at the time. In any given calendar year, you can count yourself lucky if there appears one piece of music, one film, one book or one videogame that will be regarded fairly unanimously as a classic in even 10 years’ time.

The GameBoy Advance has been criticised in some quarters for hosting so many updates of 8 and 16-bit classics, but that can only be a good thing. If a game from 15 or 20 years ago can stand up to Advance Wars, then it truly is a great piece of software, and there’s nothing backward-looking about playing it. That’s how it is with the GBA iteration of Gradius: it’s a superbly balanced and creative shooter, and just a better game than a modern imitation such as Phalanx.

If the gods smile on me, I might some day be able to acquire an original Robotron 2084 arcade cabinet. And when I’m wrenching those twin joysticks around in a frenzy of claustrophobic violence, I won’t be retrogaming. I’ll just be gaming. And that’s how it should be.

  • Vag

    In our (Greek) blog, “Retrogamer” (www.retrogamer.gr), one of the authors (Rouchlogiama) wrote a small article about this article. He mainly wanted us to know about Steven Poole, Trigger happy and this page especially.
    I enjoyed reading this, and in general I agree, I just don’t mind because for me, retrogaming is gaming anyway.

  • Greg Houst

    Wow, Robotron 2084 – that takes me back ;)