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Indie Games: Retro Overkill

by on May 16, 2013

Retro culture is a problem for a lot of reasons. On one level it’s a problem because of creative stagnation. Rather than trying to do your own thing, you simply ape an earlier creation and try to get by off that thing’s popularity. On another it feels like a cheap tactic. When you promote something as retro, you exploit this feeling of nostalgia that people have in order to market your product.

In the game world, retro obsession is obviously a problem in the indie sector. Just go to any of the more indie-focused online stores like Desura or Indievania and you’re bound to find more than a few pixelly games.

At the end of the day, gameplay is your core here.

Now, there’s a whole other reason for retro obsession with indies; it’s easier to make a game with really simple graphics. That’s totally fine, I can live with that. What I mind is the much more disingenuous kind of dev: the guys that act like it’s a stylistic choice.

Now, let’s just be clear on something here. I don’t mind if your game looks like ass. I play tons of games with awful graphics, I really don’t have an issue with it. Just don’t try to act like it looks like ass on purpose. ‘Oh no, it’s not that our graphics are awful, it’s just that we wanted to remind you of the golden age of gaming’.  I mean, I’m pretty sure it’s not that hard to tell when a designer just wasn’t skilled enough for something more complex. Look at Minecraft. You check out their page and they don’t say a thing about retro or pixels. They prioritize their game. At the end of the day, gameplay is your core here.

Having said that, there are some remarkable examples of Pixel Art, which can be quite impressive. But if you’re going to go pixel, make something that’s really appealing on a visual level, a la Fez. Then at least you’ve done something interesting with the format.

Looks aside, I have a pretty big problem with games that go full-on retro. If your game looks like it’s from the NES era and it plays exactly it’s from the NES era. If all you did was recreate a very basic NES platformer, I’m sorry to inform you that you’ve done very little.

There’s a fuckton of retro gaming out there already

These retro games you’re recreating were a lot of things, but they were not that rare. The NES alone has over 700 titles. Now granted, most of those titles are probably shovelware, but the fact remains that there’s a fuckton of retro gaming out there already. Even the ultimate classics like Megaman and Castlevania have a dozen iterations each to them.

Mega Man X

We have emulators that allow us to experience these games across NES, MSX, C64, TurboGrafx and pretty much everything else out there. And even if you wanna do it legit, you can use the Virtual Console so you don’t feel like an idiot for buying a Wii. Your game has no reason to exist if it is totally indistinguishable from one of these games in terms of graphics and gameplay. Your game isn’t helping me relive a golden age, it’s adding to a saturated market.

Also, those guys made really minimalist games because that was all they could pull off. You read these stories about how the developers had to change colors on their design because they were pushing their 8-bit systems to the breaking point, and it makes you understand that a lot about these retro games was limitation, not inspiration.


On the topic of inspiration and limitation, I have nothing against taking major cues from the 8-bit era. You just have to end up with your own take on it. Take Shank for example. Shank is a side-scrolling beat-‘em-up that’s incredibly similar to Streets of Rage and Final Fight. The difference is that Shank is fluid as all hell, and it has this really well-implemented mix of melee and ranged combos. A dude saw me playing it once and said that’s just like those old games at the video arcade. But then I pointed out that those games feel like you’re steering a forklift through butter and they require this arcane precision to actually hit something. Shank took this really fun model and brought it into the modern era.

Understand that the classics were based on overcoming a limiting medium.

Same thing happened with Meat Boy. It aimed to recreate the classic platformer, but it made a variation based on speed and incredibly precise controls. I don’t know of any retro titles that are as smooth and fast as Meat Boy.

So essentially, I’m not saying you can’t look to the classics for inspiration. God knows they had some genius ideas and they have tons of potential. But don’t, y’know, make a photocopy of a classic. That’s just boring.

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  • charon
    June 2, 2013 at 10:49 AM

    I find this argument moot. This is supposed to be a ‘free market’ no? So everybody is allowed to sell what they are selling using any kind of advertising tactics they want. Selling a weakness as some kind of a strong point is one of the oldest tactics, right? “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!” Just look at the mainstream game industry. They don’t usualy say “we are trying to sell you the same old thing, and it only looks better than the last thing because your hardware improved in the meantime.” They say “we streamlined the gameplay” (we dumbed it down so even a braindead can play it) or “remarkably innovative gameplay” (we copied Doom and added the ability to look up and down).

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