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Opinion: Neo-Retro - Movement Or Passing Fad?
Opinion: Neo-Retro - Movement Or Passing Fad? Exclusive
November 6, 2008 | By Nayan Ramachandran

[In this opinion piece, Japan-based journalist Nayan Ramachandran considers the appeal of Mega Man 9 and other "neo-retro" titles that hinge on gamer nostalgia, and ruminates on the potential shelf life of the burgeoning subgenre.]

For gamers over the age of 22, the 8-bit era holds a certain level of nostalgia that is hard to explain or replicate.

Unlike the generations before or after that, there's something truly magical and special about the era the Famicom and Nintendo Entertainment System took the world by storm. The sound was low-fidelity but strangely endearing. The graphics were blocky and lacking in color but oddly beautiful.

Itís been a long time since the 8-bit era saw its end, and most gamers have moved on to far more beautiful and complex games. Many gamers have forgotten what it was like to be six years old again, playing a single level for hours in hopes of getting that unattainable high score.

Near the beginning of this year, Namco announced a DS game using the Game Center CX license, a Japanese television show in which comedian Shinya Arino must complete insanely difficult challenges in Famicom games.

Expecting a list of old Namco games to make appearances in the DS version, gamers were floored when they found out that not a single one would be making it in. In fact, not a single real game would make an appearance.

Instead, Game Center CX simulates the Japanese 8-bit experience, offering a list of fake retro games that never existed, but could have in an alternate world. The game even gives players a shelf full of retro-styled magazines to flip through and find cheat codes for particularly difficult challenges.

It was amazing to see that Capcom felt the urge to feed the neo-retro niche when it announced Mega Man 9. Not only did the company manage to capture the visual style by aping the art and fidelity of the early Mega Man titles, it even managed to keep the feel of the music and the general aesthetic, making it a true throwback to the old days.

WayForward's Contra 4 was a similar attempt, turning back the clock both on the game itself as well as the timeline of the series. Pushing less satisfactory titles out of the game's continuity, WayForward and Konami successfully pushed Contra 4, a 2008 title, back in time, connecting it directly to Contra III: The Alien Wars, which originally released on the SNES and Super Famicom.

While PlayStation and PlayStation 2 incarnations of the Contra series tossed the number convention in favor of unconventional naming methods (e.g. Contra: Shattered Soldier and Neo Contra), WayForward purposely used the number 4 as a subtle nod that they were in fact going back to what made Contra a leading action series in the late 80s. Ostensibly, Contra 4 was a real sequel.

While I'm sure the main purpose of making a piece of neo-retro gaming (a game whose conventions mimic those of a previous generation without having existed at that time) is to recapture the feeling and ape what we all remember by using our nostalgia as a powerful weapon, the potential market is larger than that.

For those who never grew up in the 8- or 16-bit eras, games like Mega Man 9 and Game Center CX offer an accessible, easy-to-purchase glimpse into that time period.

Since many of the games' goals don't involve finishing the entire game, and it even incorporates the era's surrounding culture as well, Game Center CX is not just a glimpse into the technological time period, but the very culture and childhood many of us enjoyed.

Mega Man 9 is a different beast to Game Center CX. While Game Center CX is self-aware of its anachronistic nature and offers the game as a snapshot of a time period with all its trappings, Mega Man 9 might likely not stand the test of time.

This is not a comment on the quality of the game in any sense, but rather its ability to remain relevant to gamers 20 or even 30 years from now. Many gamers who bought Mega Man 9 did so because of the game's inherent nostalgia, or because they never had a chance to enjoy the older games on the Nintendo Entertainment System when they were younger.

Mega Man 9 is very much a product of its context. Its gameplay is fantastic, but it too is a product of the time period in which it reigned supreme. It suggests the question: can neo-retro games stand the test of time? Will games that mimic or lampoon the 8-bit era remain relevant and interesting to the masses long after its original audience has disappeared?

A friend suggested that perhaps "neo-retro" will mean something different in 30 years. Perhaps games with PlayStation- and PlayStation 2-quality graphics will become the new standard for neo-retro revivals. Maybe in 15 years, gamers will get a Vagrant Story sequel running in the same phenomenal engine the PSone original did.

It's a nice thought, but as evidenced by even current attitudes of PSone-era graphics, that period has not aged well. While 8-bit and 16-bit sprite based graphics still hold a charm that can only be described as "je ne sais quoi," PSone polygonal games are downright ugly. They have not aged well, and I suspect in 10 years, we will feel the same about PlayStation 2 and Dreamcast.

It certainly is impossible to explain why polygonal-based graphics donít hold the same nostalgic allure of its sprite-based cousins, but that modern perspective speaks for itself.

Those who think Super Mario World is still beautiful are the same that will agree that Rival Schools, while an excellent fighting game, has aged horribly visually. The game is downright horrifying to look at.

Perhaps neo-retro gaming will never get that far. It's a burgeoning subgenre now, but no one really knows how long its steam will last. We may never get as far as 10 years before interest in its anachronistic mechanics and aesthetics thins out.

It is hardly in its death throes now, though. Namco has already announced Game Center CX 2 with a host of new old games, including a parody of Famicom Detective Club.

Mega Man 9 was also a big success for Capcom, garnering massive profits on all platforms for which it was released. It is hard to deny that, at least for now, there is an interest in replaying our childhood.

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Jake Romigh
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I just hope these games bring back 2D as a viable way to play mainstream games.

Tom Newman
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Neither movement or passing fad. These games are still viable because people still play them. They have never stopped and people continue to revisit them the same way you go back to an old movie or sitcom, not just for nostalgia, but because quality stands the test of time.

MaurŪcio Gomes
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There are a reason why polygonal graphics are ugly: They ARE ugly, they always looked ugly, people only got bizarrely happy in buying anything 3D to show: OH I HAVE A 3D GAME!!! HWOHOOOOO

I am currently making a game with a 3D engine verision and a 2D engine version, the 2D engine can easily kick the ass of the 3D version in graphical beauty, but!!!

But 2D engines do not support complex animation without eating memory, and 2D engines do not support some nice effects (really dramatic lighting) that 3D games allow.

So, why PS1 games graphics usually suck? Because this was not understood, we see Star Ocean for example, the game is mostly 2D, with pretty graphics, but it has some randomly tossed 3D graphics of the items, and those suck completly, why I want to see items in 3D? I do not want! I want to see environments with dramatic lighting in 3D, not... items on equipment menu!

Michial Green II
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I completely agree, I remember games like tenchu, silent hill 1, Bloody Roar, final fantasy 7...I used to think these graphics were amazing, but when i look at them now, they look worse than i remembered them...but when i play games like, Final Fight, Streets of rage, Rocket knight, Super Mario world, they are pretty much exactly as I recall them in my head. So if you enjoy megaman, and a game that recreates the feel, and continues the story comes along...I can really see picking it up; ESPECIALLY since these games didn't require 20+ hours of dedication to thoroughly enjoy!

Giles ODell
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It's not just the technology itself which charms or impresses... it's the art direction. Among sprite-based 2D games, the Mega Man series had some phenomenal character design -- but there are thousands of forgettable and ugly 2D games. Among the first 5 years or so of the era of 3D consoles, there are some titles with superb art direction that will always stand out with timeless appeal (e.g., Parappa the Rapper, Jet Set Radio).

Manuel Montoto
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It's easy "to explain why polygonal-based graphics donít hold the same nostalgic allure of its sprite-based cousins"

Take a picture with your digital camera. Reduce the resolution. Reduce the colors. The image is still OK. It's lacking in detail, but the image is OK.

Back to videogames: In 3D, it's the polygon count what really counts as resolution. If you don't have enough polygons, your graphics are simply deformed. In 2D, graphics are always OK if the art is well executed. It requires skill, but that's why we all love to work with good graphics artists, do we? All games with correctly drawn graphics since early 80s had enough resolution and colors to draw correct graphics. Megaman is not deformed in 2D. But it is in 3D. Even the PSP version looks bad compared with the original NES versions.

About the sound, I'm sure I'm not the only one out there who loves the simple waveforms used in the sound chips of the 80s, and surely it's not something limited to videogames. There's a lot of people in the music market working with such waveforms today.

Jamie Roberts
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I think what the author didn't recognize is that the 8-bit era wasn't the beginning of 2D graphics. Early 3D games are analogous to pre-NES systems like the Atari 2600. Now that 3D has aged and advanced enough, more recent games will probably age much better.

Bryson Whiteman
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I thought this was a good write up but I completely disagree with the blanket claims that PS1/old-3d aged horribly.

The games that look bad now, looked bad then.

I never played Silent Hill 1 until recently and it surprised the hell out of me how frightening and atmospheric it is without the latest technology. The game has brilliant art design which styled its reality that worked for how limited the hardware is.

Even take games like Virtua Fighter 1 and Tobal No. 1. In both of those games you could see the individual polygon faces on the characters. Simple textures, if they had textures at all. Very stylized, abstracted in a way that I believe they still look good now. No, they're not blowing minds visually but the design is there.

Katamari Damacy uses a similar low-poly, minimal texture style and we're seeing that game on Xbox360 now. Who says games have to strive for photorealism to look good?

With mobile hardware imitating consoles, we're still seeing these PS1 quality games (i.e. FFIV on DS).

People will continue to experiment with different mixes of visuals as long as games exist. Whether a company tries to monetize it or not depends on how good the pitch is.

Glen Isip
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I agree with Mr. Whiteman. While I think a lot of late PS1 games (think 98-00) went crazy with the texture maps on characters, other games that featured flat or Gouraud shading (FFVII, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, Jumping Flash, Tobal, etc.) still look pretty good today in their own way. Maybe it's the fact that they're not clipping with textures so often.

Anyway, neo-retro is a movement that's also a fad right now. Pixel art has been popular (outside of games) for years.

Bionic Commando Rearmed updated the graphics on a classic, which is the direction I would've expected Mega Man 9 to take. Mega Man 9 will probably on the same "classic" level as any other Mega Man game, but it's not broad enough as something like Tetris or Pac-Man.

Preston Sumner
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The impact of neo-retro games on the future will be their revival of pick-up-and-playability. Many, if not most, of today's games require enormous levels of time commitment. Somehow, everyone forgot that when they were a kid, they could pick up and play Super Mario World or Super Street Fighter II in minutes. It's refreshing to try out Ms. Pac-man today and really get into it because it's so simple and quick. In contrast, when I play Fallout 3, I feel like I have to invest an entire evening to properly experience it, and I have to buy expensive hardware to run it enjoyably. While such titles sell well, it's to a small hardcore market that doesn't grow and doesn't represent most people.

The accessibility of the games mentioned in this article will only grow as gaming moves more into the mobile space, led by the Nintendo DS and iPhone. Newer games like Street Fighter IV are also remembering their accessible roots and playing more like the past, because those older games were easier and quicker to get into. Street Fighter III's complexity may appeal to trash-talking fighting game tournaments and their tribalistic members, but the rest of the world just wants to play a game at home with their friends.

If the success of neo-retro games doesn't convince anybody, how about the success of the Wii? It proves that the future of gaming is to do what gaming used to do--be simple and fun. When I was a kid, my dad played Super Mario Bros. with me. I couldn't imagine him playing today's games with my younger sister.

In conclusion, neo-retro games are really an excuse for developers to return to what gaming already used to be just 10-15 years ago--accessible and fun. It didn't have to have an immersive studio production for the first 15 minutes of the game. You just pressed start or inserted a coin, and you were in level 1 doing mostly what you would be doing the rest of the game. Look at how popular simple games like Braid and Geometry Wars are on a supposedly hardcore console like the XBox 360. People like these quick, fun games that you can pick up and play.

Rafael Vazquez
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We also have to look into the rise of casual games as to why neo-retro games are becoming popular. As Preston said, games of yonder had an easy-going, pick-me-up-and-just-play attitude. You didn't have to learn all the combos, every inch of a map or a spreadsheet of data. They were simpler times, and for this new wave of casual gamers back to basics is just right. This explains the success of games like Braid. What called to us back then (simple gameplay, easy on the eye graphics, intuitive mechanics) is still valid now, and for all those "new gamers" its just as appealing as it was for us back in the day.

richard hutnik
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I believe true neo-retro lies in games like Geometry Wars. You take the essence of what is found in classic games, and add modern play mechanics , and graphics. Pretty much pick up and play, but he ability to hold interest, rather than be a flashback to the past you play for 5 minutes or so before moving on.

I believe games like PowerUp Forever (Namco) and Weapon of Choice (XBox Live Community Games) are also two examples of this. One could argue Puzzle Quest also fits into this also, if you want more puzzle and turn-based.