The Reason Retro Games Keep Slaying the Game
Nostalgia is a powerful force. Through a rose-tinted lens, we view older experiences in a different light than how we'd see them today, but nostalgia isn't everything.
Sometimes, the things we used to love are exactly as good as we remember them to be and rarely is this as true as it is in the world of retro games.
Though limited compared to games of today, the boundaries of retro games in no way mean the titles must be bad. After all, simplicity can be a very good thing, and retro games capture this simplicity like few other forms of entertainment.
Made by the right team and guided by the right vision, retro games plus modern players can be just as great a combination as ever, and we want to explore why.
What are Considered Retro Games?
This is a difficult question and one which necessarily changes with time. We considered retro video games retro because of how old they are, but as video games evolve, the definition of old continues to shift.
Back in the year 2000, retro games would usually involve anything that came before 1990. Since video games only really took off post-1980, this would classify any game released in the first half of the industry as retro.
Today, just as always, what we consider as retro games is more than a little arbitrary. Generally, retro games are seen as those on PC released before the year 2000, or those on the sixth generation of consoles (PlayStation 1 and Nintendo 64) or before.
Though this still maintains a connection to around half of the lifespan of commercial video games, it's likely that a 20-30 year gap will eventually become a standard definition of retro, as it has with movies and music.
The one confounding issue to note here is that there is a new subgenre of retro-inspired titles like Sonic Mania and Undertale. These aren't considered true retro, more retro-inspired than anything else.
Why do People Play Retro Games?
In simple terms, because graphics and complexity don't necessarily equal fun and quality. Checkers, for example, has existed in some forms as far back as 3,000 BCE. As with retro games, checkers is so fun that it's never dated itself out of existence.
For this reason, it's probable that many retro video games will never go out of style, as they become permanent fixtures among gaming enthusiasts.
Are Retro Games Better or Worse than Modern Titles?
Ultimately, this is a question of taste, with no strict yes or no answers. For some players, the streamlined approach of older titles means that they'll always be a superior choice to the bulky games of today.
For others, older games might be so graphically unappealing that they can't find themselves able to engage in any real way. Most players, however, will find this more about genre appreciation and how the different generations reflect the possibilities for different types of games.
What Genres are Available in Retro Games?
Taking place before the year 2000, it's natural that some genres won't appear in the retro games era. Playing retro games online, for example, isn't going to be easy for fans of modern multiplayer games.
Even if the networks which host these games remain online, the experience is rarely streamlined, and jumping through these hoops can be frustrating and alienating.
Similar problems could be found in newer genres that simply didn't exist before the new millennium. MOBA games only came about in 2003, with the release of the Defense of the Ancients mod for Warcraft III.
For this reason, fans of LoL or Dota 2 aren't going to have any options in retro gaming. The same applies to battle royale games, which didn't really exist before PUBG in 2017.
How Do People Play Retro Games?
Today, few people play retro titles on their original systems. Since retro systems are no longer being built, and many have broken over time, the cost for older consoles and PCs can be prohibitive.
To overcome this problem, most modern players turn to rereleases or, more commonly, emulators on PC and other systems.
Emulators give players access to practically, or perhaps literally, all retro games plus a range of options not available on original systems. This can make retro games easier to play, with access to save states, more ergonomic controls, and many other modern conveniences and advantages.
Running retro games through these means configuring the right emulator, and then running the game file, called a ROM.
Though emulating more recent systems can be problematic due to performance concerns, the low demands of retro systems mean getting them working at full speed is usually a simple task.
Our Top Five Retro Games
As with any video game, taste is largely subjective. After all, the games that you love might not be loved by everyone, so making a top-five list is a tricky pursuit. That said, some titles are so influential and broadly loved that their importance is undeniable.
With that in mind, here are our picks for the top five retro video games, with a little information on what makes them so special.
As of late 2021, Tetris has sold over a hundred million copies, making the mobile version alone the third best-selling game of all time. Factor in the many other well-received forms of the game, and Tetris might even find a place as the most popular game ever.
The very first Tetris title was released in 1984, developed by Soviet software engineer Alexey Pajitnov. Produced for an early 1978 computer called the Electronika 60, Tetris was one of the rare games that could operate well on early home computers, and it quickly became a hit.
Much more relevant to the game's future success would be its arrival on the NES and Game Boy, where Tetris skyrocketed in the western consciousness.
Over time, practically every video gaming system received a port of Tetris. Whether playing retro games online or even in physical releases like with Tetris Effect, the low requirements and easy-to-understand gameplay have made it a perfect fit for both casual and hardcore gamers.
Now even featuring international competitions held on older ports of the game, Tetris has never shown any signs of slowing down. After all, as anyone who's played Tetris can tell you, the game only gets faster the further you get.
Super Mario Bros
When the NES launched in North America in 1985, it heralded a new healthy age of video games. Following the video game crash of 1983, players of retro games were after titles that had more depth, and this is exactly what Super Mario Bros delivered.
As is typical in some of the biggest retro games on the market, SMB didn't invent the important elements like smooth scrolling and fine control, but it did raise them to new levels. Mario was fast, he was precise, and he showed just how powerful early consoles could be in the hands of the right developers.
Directed by the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto, Super Mario Bros would be a commercial and critical hit. Inspiring thousands of future platformers and retro arcade games, Mario almost singlehandedly proved the viability of the burgeoning platforming genre.
So popular was the little plumber that he eventually became Nintendo's mascot, where he's remained for the last 35 years.
Today, the legend of Mario lives on not just in remakes, but also in huge retro games groups like the speedrunning community. With players close to achieving a theoretically perfect fastest time, the original Super Mario Bros' spot as one of the biggest retro games is beyond dispute.
The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time
With so many entries that transformed all of gaming, it's difficult to choose just one Zelda entry to put on this best retro games list. For the sake of popularising 3D adventure gaming, however, it's 1998's Ocarina of Time that earns top billing.
Building on the precedent set by the former retro games of the series, OOT had Link set on yet another epic quest to save Princess Zelda from the hands of the evil Ganondorf.
On his way, Link would encounter many new friends and foes, as his expanding list of abilities and items opened up new places and ways to explore.
Like the original Zelda and later Link to the Past, OOT raised the bar of adventure to new heights, proving what was possible in 2D could also work in the challenging 3D space.
Like with SMB, rereleases and a dedicated community have ensured that Link's first 3D quest has remained one of the most popular, even with newer releases significantly modernizing the formula.
By the time Doom was released on PC in 1993, developer ID Software had already proved their pedigree in the 3D action space. With other major retro games like Catacomb 3D and Wolfenstein 3D under their belts, they knew first-person shooters better than anyone, even before FPS became a term.
In fact, Doom would be so important that before the advent of the FPS title, games in the genre would commonly be called Doom clones.
Doom introduced 3D environments well beyond anything that came before, with technology that was thought to be impossible on the home computers of the time. Backed by the design philosophies of Tom Hall and John Romero, and coded by John Carmack, Doom was generations ahead of the competitors.
It's also one of those retro games that understood the importance of game purity. The players of Doom had a simple mission: get to the end of the level and kill any demons foolish enough to get in their way. Doom was violent, it was smooth, it was skill-based, and for many, it was also the first time the audience managed to play retro games online.
With source-ports and console releases, the original Doom games are still widely played and loved. Gamers have still shown reverence to the new entries, but for millions of players, no retro games on PC better illustrate the platform or action games better than Doom.
Street Fighter 2
The original Street Fighter was an average game by many standards. It was slow, clumsy, and even the most dedicated Street Fighter fans recommend against giving it your time. Street Fighter 2, on the other hand, is seen as the true origin of the entire fighting games genre.
Making retro arcade games was tricky, as early titles had to find a way to pit players against what was essentially a high-score table. In Street Fighter 2, the enemy was right next to you, and it was only your skill over them that would win the day.
With grapples, fireballs, spinning-bird kicks, and an accidentally invented combo system, SF2 changed the course of multiplayer games forever.
Undergoing numerous updates and arcade rereleases, this title also brought to light the importance of patches to eliminate bugs and exploits, as well as balance tier lists.
Though one of the sequels, Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike would arguably be the most popular in the series, the second entry has maintained an active competitive player-base for more than 30 years.
A Retro Future
With each new year, the list of games we consider to be retro continues to grow. Make no mistake, even the most cutting-edge titles we love today will eventually be seen as retro games by players a few decades from now.
With this in mind, understand that a game's age in no way reflects its quality. Just as there are great and terrible games today, there were great and terrible games in the retro era.
Take the time, dip your toes into the pool of retro games, and you might be surprised at what you can find. Whether looking for a way to spend an afternoon or a new series to play through from the beginning, don't overlook what the landscape of retro games has to offer.
As they say, classics are classics for a reason.