While to some degree you might pass this off as the game industry and those who live and die by it simply celebrating its roots, it seems like a deeper sociological issue. But the question is, why? It can't be a coincidence that suddenly 2D is en vogue once again, and that even games that could be 3D or use modern design are now steeped in the aesthetic canvas of what could often be seen as digital stipple pieces. We survived the primitive (and often downright ugly) Cro-Magnon first steps of 3D game design and aesthetic—before anyone really had a solid handle on the implementation of textures and lighting, let alone what would make for compelling gameplay—and came out on the other side with games that have the capacity to be truly jaw-droppingly gorgeous examples of living visual art. (One only need play Uncharted 2, Enslaved, or Mirror's Edge to see that.) And yet I would argue there are few gamers who don't enjoy, say, seeing an art mock-up of Nate Drake in an Uncharted 2D platformer, or playing a working, fan-made PC demo of Super Smash Bros. running on the original Game Boy's specs. This isn't about the games, necessarily. It's a cultural phenomenon. And I think it's one that, while obviously borne from nostalgia, is perhaps an indirect statement on the homogeneity of the games industry today.
Simply put, companies don't make games like they did in the 8- and 16-bit eras anymore. They may put out retro-minded revivals like some of the games mentioned earlier in this piece, but it's always a game of calculated risk, resulting in cheaper digitally downloaded releases, or relegating to development of games that traditionally follow a 2D lineage like Castlevania to the most appropriate consoles (e.g. the DS). This isn't a bad thing. Nintendo has been able to capitalize on the retro craze time and time again, but perhaps the most with New Super Mario Bros., whose astronomical sales in its initial DS iteration proved that, yes, fans still want to play retro-styled games.
Similarly, with the rise of indie game development, game designers that have first and foremost been gamers for years now have a chance to do dream projects. And what do so many of these fans want to do? Recapture some of the joy of gaming they had as children. Gamers today eat that up. For example, when I first played Super Meat Boy at last year's PAX, I could not stop raving about it. Team Meat had painstakingly crafted a brutally, sadistically challenging old-school platformer, and its aesthetic style was appropriately and lovingly made in the same vein. Obviously, I loved it.
I'll be the first admit I go nuts for pixellated games; I even have an 8-bit print of Resident Evil 4 hanging above my desk. Part of the fun with engaging in such an antiquated visual style is wondering (and let's face it—for many of us, fantasizing) just how the design of a modern game like RE4 could be crammed into a side-scrolling, 8-bit vocabulary, and more importantly how much fun it would be to experience a favorite modern game from an entirely different perspective. The other part, I think, is analogous to houseguests—it's not that you're tired of your newer friends, but it's nice to go back and visit old ones, as well.
In a recent Wired article, Patton Oswalt wrote about how nerd culture is now normal, saying "Everything we have today that's cool comes from someone wanting more of something they loved in the past." I think that's apropos. Given the game industry's majority penchant to bury its past deep under the next layer of cutthroat evolution, the retro movement is our archaeological response, excavating a presence that might otherwise have been forgotten.
CCC Freelance Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*