Why Retro Gaming Needs a Revolution

     June 16, 2020

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Last week, Sony revealed its PlayStation 5 console. Both Sony and Microsoft are set to release their new consoles later this year. There will be much fanfare over new games, better graphics, shorter load times, and all the bells and whistles we expect from the new generation of video game consoles. Both consoles are touting their backwards compatibility as consumers are tired of upgrading to new consoles while losing the ability to play games they purchased for the previous generation. However, this backwards compatibility will only work to a point. The further back you go, the harder it is to play games from older consoles.

Because video games exist as both art and technology, they’re stuck in an awkward position that doesn’t happen to other mediums. No one stops reading The Odyssey because the hardware is the same now as it was centuries ago—it’s a book. Films may move between VHS, Laserdisc, DVDs, Blu-ray, and now 4K, but with greater care and effort put towards film preservation today, it’s rare to stumble across a film from the last 50 years that’s completely unavailable. Rather than movies being lost to technological innovations, various companies like Kino Lorber and Arrow work to make sure that older films find their way to Blu-ray so that they can be collected. But video games and the technology they require are a trickier proposition.

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Image via Microsoft

For starters, we have to acknowledge that televisions have greatly changed over the past decade. HDMI has become the new standard, but even as recently as the Nintendo Wii, which was released in 2006, Nintendo was still sticking with component or composite cables. These days, finding a TV with component/composite inputs is tough. From there, you can buy various adapters to hook your old consoles to a new TV via HDMI.

There are other ways to play retro games as well. Maybe you subscribe to PSNow, in which case you have access to some PlayStation 2 games. If you’ve got your old PlayStation 3 or a PlayStation Vita or a PlayStation Portable, you can access titles going back to the original PlayStation days. Over on Xbox, they’re working to create backwards compatibility going all the way back to the original Xbox. And on Nintendo, you have a selection of NES and SNES games available as part of Nintendo Switch Online, or if you had a Wii or WiiU, there’s the Virtual Console. Third-party manufacturers like Analogue have also put out consoles for older games but their consoles are HDMI compliant. That’s not to mention the mini “classic” consoles released by Nintendo and Sony. There are also remasters/remakes and ports, but due to licensing issues, you usually lose sports titles and titles based on IP (hence why there’s been no re-release of the beloved 007 GoldenEye). Finally, there’s always emulation if you want to go down that road.

But that’s the issue—there are both too many ways to play these old games and also not enough. If you want retro gaming, you have lots of options, and yet they’re limited in their own ways. You’re either relying on an older console, an older service, a service that’s been limited, or trying to properly play emulated software. The point is that with retro gaming, you kind of have to work for it, which may be fine for some players, but casual gamers may want something that’s easier to use. The games you loved as recently as 15 years ago may be out of reach.

skies-of-arcadia-legends-box-artLet’s use the Nintendo Gamecube as an example. The Gamecube does not have an HDMI hookup, although you can buy a third party accessory and roll the dice. But then what do you do about the games? Nintendo hasn’t made its Gamecube library readily available, and so there’s a steep markup on some games like Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance or Skies of Arcadia: Legends. Maybe those Gamecube games will be part of the Switch’s online library, but who’s to say when or if that will happen? You could try emulation, but then you’re fooling around with more complicated tools, and while it’s not a steep learning curve, how far deep down the rabbit hole do you need to go to play a game from this century?

The problem isn’t that the options are unavailable as much as they need to be streamlined. Playing older games should be as easy as playing old movies or reading old books, but because of that technology element, there’s a hiccup in getting to these libraries. Companies should be working to digitize their entire libraries into emulated formats and making those titles available, but perhaps they’re worried that the retro gaming community won’t make it profitable enough to make such emulation worth the effort. I would disagree, and I would counter that when so much entertainment is vying for consumers’ attention, companies can’t afford to leave any option off the table. An older title that isn’t easily available to play for today’s consumers is a title that’s not generating any revenue.

Obviously, companies like Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo want to focus on their newer titles, but they should be mindful that older titles can also be a sales pitch. For example, Nintendo has a new Paper Mario game coming out in July, but they’ve made it difficult to track down the previous Paper Mario games or those games’ progenitor, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. They would do well to be mindful that while these games may not be tied together narratively, they still create a series that gamers may want to explore before or after Paper Mario: The Origami King arrives.

But if these companies want gaming to be taken seriously as a real art form that deserves respect and admiration, then they need to do more work on their preservation efforts to keep older titles alive and easily accessible. Again, technology tends to focus on what’s new, but games are also supposed to be art, and art shouldn’t be discarded simply because new technology emerges. Having to jump between different services and older consoles and third-party adapters shows that the landscape needs to be remade to make these games easily accessible beyond those who are willing to put in the time and effort to fire up games from a bygone era.

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