July 14, 2019 — Why, in this world of sheer technological advancement and superiority, does the retro-inspired game scene thrive — and continue to thrive — in an industry where it seems that bigger is always better?
The ever-so vibrant world of video games has grown in great strides since the days of 8-bit graphics. Games have created fantasies brimming with sprawling open worlds begging the player to explore to their heart’s content, inviting those into experiences that early video game developers weren’t even capable of dreaming of only a short three decades ago.
One glaringly obvious reason behind the success of smaller, independently developed games is the easy pick-up and play style of interaction. There’s rarely any complex button inputs to memorize. They’re surprisingly simple to understand and execute leaving players of all skill levels in relatively the same boat; or, at least the same body of water. Sure, often times mastering these games can take up loads of dedication to a particular craft or mechanic. But the entry level of introduction or basic understanding of most independently, retro-inspired titles aren’t triggering any brain hemorrhages from over-complex button inputs. Instead, independent and often self-published games invite players into an experience made for sheer enjoyment, not for the sake of forced innovation or attempting to create a mirage of difficulty through complex control schemes.
That’s not to say independently developed games aren’t innovative. They are. It’s just, the expectations for these type of games is different than high-end AAA titles. You’re typically not seeing much usage of photo realism or fidelity in most of the indie titles. Instead, you’re seeing developers take note of what makes video games great: gameplay! Gameplay that allows players of all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels to hop into a game and grasp the premise near instantaneously.
But there’s one major feature that allows indie or retro-inspired titles to continue to thrive in today’s modern era of gaming: nostalgia. It doesn’t matter if you grew up with Super Mario Bros., the Commodore 64, or with Fortnite; indie games take inspiration from the past. Gaming started in the arcades with simple button commands, easily digestible visuals, and incredibly catchy theme songs to move players along. Our tastes as players may have matured as technology feeds us more advanced design capabilities, but it shouldn’t overshadow what brought us to where we are now — and continue to head.
And if you’ve been paying attention to recent releases over the last couple of years, it hasn’t. A large amount of remakes, remasters, and classic collections hitting the market is a sure sign players still appreciate the more casual, less risky, and well-established method of gaming. They may not be dominating sales numbers when compared to Battle Royale or MMORPG online multiplayer experiences, or the global appeal of nick-and-dime micro-transaction mobile games such as Clash of Clans, but without a doubt, independent, retro-inspired games are starting to make serious dents.
Regardless of the above, you could make the argument that these “indie companies” are merely cashing in on nostalgia rather than preserving a less complicated design template — and you may not be entirely false to think so. Rose colored glasses can often fog one’s own nostalgia and smoothing out the rough edges of older titles can be a safe method of reeling in sales. However, while specific play mechanics may need to be overhauled, overall game design doesn’t, and it’s the timeless gameplay that sells those titles.
Aside from successful remasters and ports, why are new independently created games with conservative budgets and less “wow” factor that are inspired by classic computer and arcade games often remarkably successful? You would think with over three decades of recycled formulas and only so many concepts to attempt that players would grow tired of the same old facade. Well, perhaps that’s the exact reason why those independently and often self-published games are here to stay. The games industry today shoves open world after open world, realistic visuals, lootboxes, micro-transactions, season passes — complex business models combined with complex control schemes thrown in the faces of gamers — and in that regard, smaller games are a breath of fresh air the industry desperately needs to keep the medium from growing too stale. The bootstrapped, conservatively budgeted Yin to the (often VC-funded) high-budgeted Yang.
Finally, are there any other reasons many retro-inspired games are successful in today’s modern era? The same reason why classic rock or classical jazz is still relevant in today’s music industry. Or why age-old recipes continue to be handed down from one generation to the next. It’s because these formulas work. Alterations and innovations are certainly the way of the future. But sometimes the past is just as appetizing, especially when rehauled and iterated to perfection.