The Neo-Retro Urge

If you play independent digital games, you’re surely familiar with the retro style. Even the scary mainstream publishers have put out titles like Megaman/Rockman 9. This neo-retro approach — I’m not sure if there’s a common name for it — has modern developers make new games that could theoretically run on old hardware. There are quite a few excellent neo-retro games out there, like La-Mulana, a tribute to the MSX, most of the entries in the TIGSource Bootleg Demakes competition, and a work-in-progress game I’ve been playing today, This game is Wizard.

I’m making a distinction here between neo-retro games and games that just use “retro” graphics. Pixel art like in Cave Story or lo-fi art like in Cactus’s games are purely artistic choices, and don’t necessarily represent a deliberate restriction of the game design like the neo-retro approach. That’s what it is, really: a restriction.

Like poets writing a pantoum or authors adopting Oulipian constraints, developers using the neo-retro style are intentionally putting limits on their games’ design. Old gaming platforms have restrictions on resolution, color palette, sound generation, and graphic design, among many others. While most developers throughout history have sought to overcome the restrictions of their platforms, developers using a neo-retro approach do the opposite; they embrace the restrictions.

The results are often strange. Newer gameplay elements like in-game tutorials and saved progress appear side-by-side with 16-color graphics and fake crack intros. But the games have a strange charm. It may be nostalgia for a simpler era, or just the quirkiness of shoving 2008’s game design techniques into 1990’s hardware constraints, but neo-retro games are quite popular among indie game folks.

Why do developers and players like these comparatively primitive-seeming games? On the one hand, making a neo-retro game is a challenge. “Can I make a cool game that could have run on the Commodore 64?” To succeed under such restraints is a test of the designer’s and developer’s abilities. On the other hand, the constraints can serve as inspiration and guidance for the game. La-Mulana is from beginning to end a love-letter to the MSX computer, imitating its graphics, its games, and even incorporating a portable MSX in the game world.

Neo-retro games are a good way to look back at where digital games have been and how things have changed. Everyone likes to think they live in an enlightened era, but I do think we have people creating games today that put more thought and creativity into game design than in the past. This, combined with our more advanced tools, means that we can create games for an archaic platform that are more fun, more creative, or more interesting than the games originally released for it. Remember your humility, though; in twenty years, someone will make an awesome neo-retro game aping the Playstation 3 that’s better than anything we have today.

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