People often make the claim that older video games are better. But it is hard to see how that could be true. After all, the industry is much bigger, gaming is more technologically advanced, and gamers have nearly endless options available. The graphical, sound and even gameplay improvements are tremendous.
Even so, a growing community of people are arguing that retro games are better, and not just because of nostalgia. While modern AAA titles might have all the bells and whistles that make them look impressive, they are still lacking in some respects. But why? That’s the purpose of this article. We take a look at some of the reasons why retro games are holding their own against today’s multi-million-dollar titles.
Older video game developers were more prepared to engage in experimentation. Video game niches were not well defined in the past, so creators had more scope to play with various formats and concepts to see what worked.
You could see this experimentation in the sheer variety of titles that hit in the 1980s and 1990s. Gamers saw a proliferation of modalities that challenged their assumptions and showed them that games could take virtually any form.
For example, we started to see some of the first real-time strategy games emerge with the arrival of Command and Conquer, Warcraft and the original Total Annihilation.
We also saw the first 3D shooters hit the market, including Heretic, Doom, Rise of the Triad and Wolfenstein 3D. These games helped gamers move beyond conventional 2D platform environments and into fully immersive worlds that shocked and enthralled their senses.
That same innovation isn’t occurring on the same scale today. New genres are far rarer and many fail to make the impact that developers expect. That may change with the arrival of AI and immersive technologies, but that remains to be seen.
Another reason why older titles might have the edge over modern versions is their higher difficulty. Games of the past really made you work to win. Now, gamers want the difficulty to be “calibrated” or to meet the needs of “casual gamers.”
These thoughts never crossed the minds of developers historically. The purpose in the past was to provide gamers with real challenges and satisfying victories over their enemies.
You can see this aspect in titles like online chess, Tetris, and even Mario. These games made kids work to win and required careful thought. Players couldn’t get results handed to them on a plate.
While it is true that some games offer players a significant challenge in the modern era, these are the exception, not the rule. Historically, MMOs were extremely difficult but today they are much easier and more about grinding than skill. The same is true of role-playing games in general. Many players got stuck in the Shinra Building in FF7 Original, but hitting the wall in the remake is considerably less likely. Player-versus-player games still remain hard, but they comprise a small segment of the total market.
Retro games also had an innocent simplicity about them. The mechanics and controls were simpler compared to conventional titles.
For instance, many players enjoy the single-button controls or the fact they can use a controller and don’t require a keyboard. Others like the innocent storytelling and the unique way that many games approach graphical interfaces.
Mario, Crash Bandicoot and Snake are good examples of this. Players could enjoy these games with a directional pad and a single action button. Configuring hotkeys and using a nine-button gaming mouse was not essential.
Of course, things began to change as developers as games became more complex. More options, actions and controls made it harder to fit everything on a single keypad, particularly for more complicated real-time strategy and roleplaying games.
But that lack of simplicity was part of the appeal of these early titles. Anyone could pick them up and start playing them immediately without having to put in hours of work building up experience or acquiring new items.
Innovation Because Of Hardware Constraints
Another reason retro games create so much nostalgia and still have legions of fans is the fact that they faced severe hardware constraints. Developers had to do more with less, forcing them to innovate and try new things to ensure proper game delivery.
For example, FF7 was essentially a two-dimensional game, except for the battle scenes which Square rendered in 3D. This approach meant the company could fit more story on the game’s PS1 CDs (of which there were already 3!) You also saw something similar in Doom where the camera was three-dimensional but the weaponry and toolbar were two-dimensional.
Little savings like these made these games possible before their time. But it also made you feel like you were playing a retro game. Developers couldn’t afford to be lazy or superfluous with any aspect of their games. Everything had to serve a purpose or it would be cut. Map designs, enemy characteristics, and gameplay had to be on point.
The comparison between Diablo II and Diablo III is an excellent example of this in action. When Blizzard made the first of these games in the 1990s, the company focused on replayability, exploration and combat. Players were thrust into shifting dungeons to battle with demons and skeletons. The game’s design meant that there were almost an infinite number of ways to play, despite its small size.
With Diablo III’s graphical upgrades, things changed significantly. While the game had some replay value, it never quite felt the same as Diablo II. Furthermore, it didn’t have the creepy atmosphere of its predecessor, which meant that it made less of an impression on games, and many abandoned it in the first few months.
Of course, nostalgia could still be a factor. While many retro games were excellent and groundbreaking, a lot were distinctly worse than average. It’s just we don’t remember them because we collectively focus on the titles that had the most significant impact on us growing up. No double similar games will emerge for the current generation this decade.