Destructoid Discusses! The definition of ‘retro’

It’s time again for another edition of Destructoid Discusses!

In the spirit of more community participation, we’re doing something a little different with our series of roundtable discussions of gaming topics. Each week, we will be including a different community member in the dialogue. This week’s contributor is Tactix, who has been performing his own version of this column over in the Community Blogs for a few weeks now. We could think of no better person to get into our chat. 

If you would like to participate in Destructoid Discusses, we’d love to have you. Just let me know either by PM or send me an e-mail (conrad at destructoid dot com). You could also contribute by suggesting topics for us to pontificate on, as we’re always hungry for new things to debate.

Now, on with the show. Venture past the jump as Destructoid Discusses what “retro” really is.

Conrad Zimmerman: I was listening to RFGO last week and there was a brief exchange between the cast regarding what was to be considered “retro” for the
purposes of their conversation. As a term, it gets thrown about a fair bit and I suspect that there are different definitions for everybody. I want to know what yours is.

What makes a game “retro”?

Colette Bennett: As I have said on RFGO before, for me retro is anything that boasted bit count as a selling point — basically anything I remember playing as a kid. I remember we discussed the idea that aged graphics play a part in what some people consider retro, which is something I don’t agree with. The consoles that fall into my retro basket are Atari, NES, SNES. Genesis, Gameboy, 3DO, Neo Geo, etc. Of course, this is also defined by my age. For a person 9 years younger than me, retro may be the N64 or the PS1.

Jim Sterling: I think “retro” is ultimately one of those abstract terms that will mean different things to different people when you get down to fine details. Most of us will probably have some 8-Bit image in our head when the word is “retro” is said, but I am definitely one of those people that would lump the N64 and PS1 in there.

I think that has less to do with the age of the gamer, as Colette suggests, and more to do with the age of gaming. In music, if you called a track from ten years ago “retro,” you’d get funny looks, since music is so much older than that. I think the longer videogames exist, the longer it wll take historically for a game to be considered retro. Right now I’d say it’s acceptable to label PS1 and N64 games as retro, but give it another ten or twenty years, and that benchmark may shift.

Dale North: I think the first disc-based games fall into the retro category. PS1, Saturn, Sega CD, etc…Gaming is still young. Games that are 10 years old are retro in my mind. When I put in a Saturn game and play it on a high-def tv, it sure as hell looks retro. 😉

Brad Rice: I’d say going two generations back to PS1, N64, and such, is retro. It’s what I grew up with as a child, and gaming was still wrestling with the technologies that would become the modern standard. I mean, if you look at a lot of the PS1 games, they’re still fairly archaic, at least in the first half of the generation.

Jonathan Ross: Sterling is right.

For me, retro is mostly NES and SNES stuff, and I guess some PS1 and N64 as well, but I started gaming on the NES.  Atari and Commodore games are so far off my radar that I don’t think I even consider them “retro”, I just consider them old.

By the same token, if you talk to a 16 year old kid who first started gaming on the PS2, they’ll consider even some of the earlier PS2 games to be retro.

When you talk about specific games though, it seems that for a lot of people, it comes down to graphics, which I think is kind of interesting.  It doesn’t seem to be so much about the game or how it plays or what kind of game it is, it’s more about what it looks like.

Joe Burling: Retro must be defined by the individual. When I was in Argentina, more people had and played Sega Genesis than any other console. There was no gaming store you visit that didn’t sell a Genesis and a big collection of games. All of us would label the Genesis as retro, but most people can’t afford to upgrade to a PS2 yet in Argentina. It’s hard for me to collectively call the Genesis “retro” after being enlightened in South America.

Jonathan Holmes: I think “retro” means “nostalgia inducing”, nothing more, nothing less. Like Jim said, not everyone is going to think the stuff is retro. That level of subjectivity is just one of the reasons that I’m not really fond of the word. The other big reason is that the term “retro” can be so belittling. For instance, when talking about Mega Man 9, people will often say that the game is for “retro fans only”, to imply that unless you have fond memories of the older Mega Man games, you’ll have no use for Mega Man 9.

Sure, a lot of the game’s appeal does come from the fact that it makes older Mega Man fans feel like young again, but besides that, Mega Man 9 is a damn good game, regardless of how “retro” it is.

I’m still hoping that Mega Man 9 did well enough to encourage other developers to make more games like it. Then, sprite based 2D platformers wont be retro anymore, they’ll be “current”, or whatever the hell the opposite of retro is.

Hamza Aziz: Retro is whatever RetroforceGO! tells me is retro.

Joseph Leray: I’m not particularly nostalgic for my PS1 or N64, because, by then, I had started to really think about games critically and seriously. Of course, I was only 13 or 14, so I wasn’t doing anything mentally taxing, but videogames were no longer toys for me — they were something else.

Let me put it this way — when I was a kid, playing SMB 3 was like playing with my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. By the time I was playing my PS1, the ante had been upped from “this is a toy” to “this is something more like books and movies.” I think there was something of a paradigm shift when games moved into 3-D. Like Brad said, that’s when the modern standards were being created, and games from the N64 on just feel different than ones for the Genesis or NES. So, for me, retro stops at the SNES, because the benchmarks were changing, design philosophies were changing, etc …

Of course, the types of games I was playing at the time was changing as well, which may have something to do with it.

Dyson: I don’t consider the N64 or the PS1 to be retro, I just think of them as old. My definition of retro has more to do with the era than anything else. In the sense that Led Zepplin will always be “classic rock” and Pearl Jam will never ever be so; the early days of video games had an entirely different feel to them than the generation that spawned the PS1.

To me it has nothing to do with disc based systems. The Sega CD and the Turbo CD are definitely retro, but is the Saturn? Not really. The time period that contained the Saturn, the N64, and the PS1 marked a change in direction that happened in the video game market. It may be hard for people who are younger to know this since they were probably pretty young (I think Husky was 9 when the N64 came out and I was 20?), but there was a shift in the way things were and the end of the “golden era” of gaming came about in that particular generation.

Topher Cantler: As has been said, retro is kinda relative. Jonathan makes a good point with the nostalgia thing. There are young’ins out there who will say N64 and PS1, because that’s what they cut their teeth on, and to them it’s antique. At the same time, there are quite a few people my age, or even younger, who will rage on you for including anything after the Intellivision.

Judging by almost two years’ worth of RFGO comments, there’s very little agreement. We have people slamming their keyboards against the desk because we mentioned the Saturn, and then someone crying for a Final Fantasy IX episode a few comments later.

Personally, I think most consoles that came packed with an RF adapter in the box are certifiably retro. Anything that boasted bit count, as Colette said, is retro. To touch on Dale’s point, calling it based on the media a system took isn’t the best indicator. The N64 used cartridges, but is it retro? I don’t think it is. The Sega CD took discs, is it retro? I would say yes.

I tend to award the retro label based on a system’s general intentions. The Saturn used discs and was released later, but its library consisted primarily of classically-styled 2D games. The N64 is older and used cartridges, but was obviously pushing for a 3D future. And no, it’s not a matter of 2D versus 3D when you’ve got stuff like Castle Crashers and Otomedius on 360 and Starfox attempting to be 3D on SNES.

It certainly does have to do with age, technology and release date, but when it gets into that grey area, I think a console’s “soul” is what determines whether it’s retro or not. Was it pushing for the future like the PS1? Not retro. Holding onto the glory of the past like the Saturn? Retro.

Brad Rice: Oh, I definitely agree that the bit-era was the “Golden Age” of games, but I still feel like PS1/N64 fit into the “Silver Age.” To stick with the comic book equating for a moment, the Silver Age was when there were a lot of advancements made in the realm of comics, seeing a major shift away from the Golden Age, but are still distinctly different from the Modern Age of comics. So, while there was a big change from the Golden Age stuff, the Silver Age stuff is still retro in my mind, because it still has a distinctly different mindset from Modern Age stuff. I don’t really see any PS1 games that remind me of Gears of War, after all.

Jonathan Holmes: Topher, by your standard of a consoles “intentions”, is the shmup heavy, Marvel Vs Capcom 2-packing Dreamcast “retro”?

I know that I’m a hell of a lot more nostalgic about the DC than I’ll ever be about the N64…

Tactix: I also agree that retro is primarily defined by the individual person.  To me, “retro” games are the ones that I remember playing as a child, while wearing my Big Bird slippers and jammies.  But I really dont consider the N64, PS1 days as retro, which is why I was a big fan of the term “retro limbo”.  Games during this era do bring a sense of notalgia equal to “retro” games (for me SNES and earlier), but I just remember more of a maturity about these games and myself (in line with what Joseph was saying).  Thus, they are in some sort of medium world of old, yet new.

One thing that I’m not sure of, however, is that the current games will be considered “retro” eventually.  To me, so much of the feel of a retro game is that the technology that made them was so limited and 8-bit (yet still amazingly fun :D).  I feel that graphically the games of the future aren’t going to seem much different than the current games, so it will be kinda weird distinguishing them as “retro”.

Also, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys FTW.

Topher Cantler: I wouldn’t say so. I think a lot of its library was “retro,” but the system itself was all about moving forward. Any console that boasts online play doesn’t exactly whip up an air of nostalgia. True, many of its games were old school in spirit, but that was mainly due to the fact that it was beefy enough to run arcade ports, so it ended up with a lot of “retro” stuff because the games that were in Sega’s arcades in years prior had nowhere to go before then.

Also, 1999, so no. Sillypants.

I think Dyson made an excellent analogy when he compared it to classic rock. Led Zeppelin and Queen were “classic rock” in 1989, but Metallica isn’t classic rock in 2009, even though it’s comparatively just as old now as Zeppelin was then.

Point being, I don’t think PS2 will ever be “retro.” There’s a golden age for everything, and once you’ve missed that boat, there’s no hopping on it. PS2 and Xbox will be “old” but not retro, or “classic.”

Dyson: I have to disagree strongly with the idea that the concept is based on how old you were. No that I’m not a big fan of nostalgia, but by using that methodology anything can be retro. Like the analogy I used before with the music, retro is more about the era and the type of games that were made during that time. Is there a gray area? Or course, but they don’t make games the way they did back then.

I also agree with Topher: PS2 will not be considered retro.

Conrad Zimmerman: I’m with Topher and Dyson in regards to the design style being more of a factor to me than age is. I will have a hard time reconciling the idea that PS2 and Xbox are retro, should the population at large ever deem to refer to them in such a way.

At the same time, it makes me wonder about games like Mega Man 9. Its gameplay and design are totally in tune with the aesthetic that I think of as being “retro”. Is this one of those situations where something can look like a duck and quack like a duck but wind up being your drunk uncle wandering in to your childhood bedroom for a light groping?

Topher Cantler: Agreed. I don’t think of that grey area as a line that definitively cuts off at 1990-something. It’s more of a zipper, with little teeth poking out into one era or the other, overlapping to make a mesh of awesome in flux.

Dyson: I have no idea what that even means, but it was awesome.

Topher Cantler: I don’t either, but I’ve downed an entire pot of coffee in the past hour and a half, so the whole universe makes sense at the moment. I probably said something about bees. I like bees.

Jonathan Holmes: How about if the Wii does end up changing consoles forever, and from here on out it’s all motion and pointer controls? Will that put the PS1-PS3 in it’s own catagory, like this “silver age” that Brad brings up?

I know that when I played the RE5 demo, it felt “old” to me compared to RE4 on the Wii.

Tactix: Conrad, why does your drunk uncle look and sound like a duck? Are you related to Howard the Duck? 😀

That whole “design aspect” of retro games is precisely why I dont think the modern games will ever be considered retro.  As for Mega Man 9, it definitely has a retro feel to it because I could totally see myself playing that game back when I was a kid.  The problem is, I don’t think a definition for retro will ever be placed in, say, Merriam-Webster, because retro does mean different things to different people.

Topher Cantler: Pointing to Dyson’s wise analogy again, I think of Mega Man 9 and Castle Crashers the way I think of bands like The Darkness. Looks like classic rock, sounds like classic rock, but really just an inspired hearkening back to the awesome that was. Just as good? Sometimes. But not for the same reasons.

Dale North: Really? “Silver age?”

There’s going to be some guy that pshaws at us for suggesting that the SNES is retro. He’ll cite Commodore shit as the “real retro.”

Jim Sterling: I have to disagree with Tactix. In fact, I think modern games are more likely to be considered retro one day than the games we currently call retro. If I were to draw a parallel again with music, we deem “retro” music to be more around the sixties and seventies. If we go waaaay back we have classical music. I think the games we currently see as retro could possibly achieve more of a “classical” status while the games we currently view as modern-day could become “retro.”

I could also be talking major bollocks, but who cares?

Brad Rice: What’s wrong with Silver Age, Dale?

Dale North: Your mom is a Silverback

Dyson: I care Jim.

Topher Cantler: Dale’s right. Some hipster in a trucker hat is slamming his fists into his monitor right now because we considered the Genesis. To him, it isn’t retro unless it’s got fewer than four colors on the screen and brushed aluminum on the controller.

Tactix: I could be talking bollocks as well, but in keeping with the music analogy, “classical” music, “retro” music, and “modern” music are all completely different, so its easy to differentiate them.  My view is that I’m not sure future games will change so much to make the current gen seem “retro”, just “old”.  Now I know I don’t know whats coming next as far as future games and consoles, so I could be completely wrong.

(Shameless plug: to find out what some community members think of what we might expect from the next next-gen consoles, stay tuned for next weeks Dtoid Community Discusses! Woot!)

Topher Cantler: Which, to be fair, is a semi-valid point. Held side-by-side, the Colecovision doesn’t exactly fit into the same phylum as the SNES, but in the bigger picture they’re on the same end of the spectrum. But if you’re going to go that route, you can easily open a six pack of worms about TRS-80, Pong, etc.

Dyson: If we’re considering the era of the 8 and 16 bits to be the golden era, than we can look at the Atari and its competitors as the progenitors of that era. I love me some Return of the Jedi for my 2600, but Topher is correct in saying that games from that time do not fit into the phylum (nice word!) of our retro definition. I remember there was always some guy commenting in RFGO! for awhile that would consistently get on us for not talking about those games as retro stating that they were “the real retro.”

I disagree (whore mouth). It’s the same as someone calling out a pc retro person by saying that Univac and Babbage’s fucking Difference Engine are the “real retro.”

Jonathan Holmes: C’mon guys, do you see what we’re doing here? First we all agreed that “retro” is subjective, now we’re all trying to define it via eras in gaming history!

This is madness!

I think it’s better to classify eras in gaming by what the most dominat visual style was at the time. We’re definitely in the “pocky faced man with stubble” era now, but it’s slowly tunring into the “crappy caracture of myself” era with the advent of Miis and other avatras.The 16-32 bit consoles fit into a sort of “I wish I was a cartoon” visual era, and the 2-8 bit consoles fit more in the “I’m look like I’m made out of legos” era.

All of these vidual styles have a place, just like cubism, realisim, and caracture all have a place in visual art.

Topher Cantler: People love to berate us about that shit. They don’t see that my 2600 is still plugged in as we speak, and yes, i do play it reasonably often. We don’t get into that stuff much on the show because really — how much is there to say? Pitfall Harry swung from vines and jumped on crocodiles’ heads, and yes, it was awesome. But can we go on at length about it the way we could about FFII? No. How much can you really say about Centipede on the Intelivision?

Jonathan Holmes: Woah, Centipede was on the Intellivision?

Did it have trackball support? I only had it for the Atari 5200, and my Trackball done got broke.

Topher Cantler: So were Burger Time and Donkey Kong. It doesn’t matter though, because we all fail at life for not talking about old PC games, fnar fnar fnar.

Dale North: Exactly. So, really, what’s retro to you? I always think of the retro t-shirts, but those shouldn’t define what we consider retro. Old, awesome, and somewhat forgotten-about. That’s my retro

Conrad Zimmerman