Back to the Future: the union of retro and indie games

Emily King September 6, 2012 - 1:00 pm

Feature: At a recent retro gaming event, the first of its kind to be held in Cornwall, Emily King played retro games and met indie developers in order to explore the link between the two. Here’s what she found.

I’d always suspected that it was more than just the relative ease (as relatively easy as you can get in games development) that leads to so many indie games being produced with visuals that hark back to older days. It’s commonly thought that there’s also a drive towards nostalgia was at work. And with the Cornwall Retro Gaming Event I was able to test out this theory.

My journey begins well before the wet, windy, seaweed-covered day that I am to spend in Penzance. But it didn’t begin in the 1980s or the 1990s – it only started in the 2000s, so despite my age, I am a late participant in the videogames scene. I have no real nostalgia for retro videogames. What memories I have of older games, prior to my first play through of Pokémon Blue, revolve around pastiche visions of archaic titles handed down by Hollywood, and recent dabblings in Kariosoft’s Game Dev Story.

Entering the lounge that the organisers have booked out, I’m greeted with a gathering of tables laden with consoles that in several instances I have never heard of, let alone seen. But there’s one in particular that catches my eye: an actual Nintendo Virtual Boy. It’s like seeing a relic of legend, but here it is, standing on a table, controller and game cartridges at its feet. And so I experience my first ever Virtual Boy headache while trying to navigate the red and black world of Wario Land.

Headache in tow, I track down key organiser Matt Sephton. Matt had taken to programming on the Acorn Electron when he was just ten; these days he’s in-charge of his own business that occasionally sees him involved in game development. He’s also a member of ExPlay, a collective of South West-based indie developers. Standing outside the lounge, away from the chorus of beeps, bops and boops from the collected platforms, I ask Matt why he thinks retro titles continue to be popular and he explains that there are two reasons.

The power of nostalgia

One reason is “the whole nostalgia factor”. For Matt and many others, “[they] have grown up with all these systems and they still wanna have those flashbacks to when they were a kid.” Beyond nostalgia, Matt tells me how the mechanics of the presented games show a key link between videogames of twenty or more years ago and the games being created by indie developers today.

Matt smiles and explains: “All those retro games from the arcade or from older systems up to the Super Nintendo are pure gameplay. The graphics weren’t capable of being any better, so it’s all about the gameplay…” And if there’s one thing that’s missing from today’s games? To Matt, older titles are all about chasing the score. “I think that’s something that’s really missing from today’s games,” he says.

As Matt and I return to the lounge and all its hullabaloo, I’m dragged over to an original Xbox that has been modded to play emulations of lots of old games that couldn’t make it to the event in person. But one title is barely a year old, and booting up an Atari 2600 emulator, reveals itself to be The Wicked Father, a game created by Jamie Hamshere, also an ExPlay member, after he’d read Racing the Beam – an exploration of what made the console so special. It was a straightforward case of reading the book and deciding afterwards: “I need to make an Atari 2600 game.”

That’s what Jamie tells me as I pry him away from a working Atari that has spent most of the event being used to run Llamatron. Standing outside the lounge, he gives me his run through of why indies continue to be inspired by retro: again a heady mixture of simplicity and nostalgia, plus a little something else. “It’s like keeping something alive,” he tells me. “I think that’s the appeal really.” And if there was one thing that the event was about, it was to stop the passage of time wiping away the cultural heritage of videogames.

Jamie doesn’t feel that people will ever truly forget “where we came from,” and that they will always come back to games where high-powered graphics and Hollywood storylines aren’t the order of the day. Why? “Some people just want to get a joystick in their hand, hit a button and go and get a high score,” he says. Jamie admits that score-chasing isn’t for him; instead, it’s all about the satisfaction of getting to the end of a game without having to worry about bonuses.

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Comments (1)

  1. Avatar of Sean Cargle

    This sounds very similar to the Videogame History Museum they had at E3 this year, but the show you were at did seem to have a lot more working consoles and such. The Videogame History Museum on the other hand did have a ton of really old arcade games, but few playable consoles.

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