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

Emily King September 6, 2012 - 1:00 pm

Death knell

Entering the crowd of systems and people, again, one thing is becoming increasingly apparent: emulation and legitimate downloads are going to have an increasing role in keeping this history alive. Several consoles there no longer have an audience. Having given their all earlier in the day, they have stopped working. The temperamental, ad-hoc failing of hardware – machines and cartridges – is certainly a concern. And I already know about the decreasing availability of CR2s (cathode ray TVs and screens) to run older consoles and arcade machines.

Sitting down beside a platform I’ve yet to play, I pick up the simple paddle for the Vectrex system and choose Armor Attack. My partner Paul, who’s joined me for the day, has been obsessing over this simple games system that is all-in-one: a boxed screen with cartridges and control pads. Certainly it’s a system where once it fails, it would be gone for good. As the black screen fills with simple vector images of enemy vehicles, obstacles, and my own laser-shooting jeep, in a top-down view, I notice myself feeling sad at the idea of losing something that has such elegant simplicity.

Meeting a swift defeat on Armor Attack, I cross over to a large TV that has been set-up with an Amiga CD32 and a copy of Psygnosis’s Microcosm. With thoughts of Sony Liverpool, which wound up that very week and had once been Psygnosis, winding through my head, I explore a game that is nineteen years old and has visuals that I hadn’t realised were even possible back in 1993. Directing a craft through a man’s body, I blast away at invaders that threaten to control his mind.

I ask aloud whose system this is, as my tiny body submarine is blasted into tiny pieces, and I’m greeted by a hello from a man who introduces himself as Richard Weeks – one of the coders behind Microcosm. Stepping away from the room’s collected history yet again, I ask this industry veteran what he thinks about the demise of Sony Liverpool.

“It’s gone, but it was gone a while ago,” he says. “Psygnosis hasn’t existed since 1999. It was still sort of spiritually there, but only ‘cause it was the same office.”

A source of inspiration

Richard points out that he hasn’t been a part of Psygnosis for quite some time and these days is behind a new indie games development company dubbed Total Monkery, as well as being a member of ExPlay. The ties between indie and retro are clear to Richard – he actively revisits old game mechanics to see how he can bring them into the Twenty-First Century. “We use retro games all the time as a source of inspiration,” he says.

And the continuing popularity of old videogames? “I think a lot of people, people who are harking back if they can remember it, and if you go in there [into the lounge] and see kids playing those style games – it’s fun. They’re really easy to pick up and you get instant fun. You can’t do that with a lot of modern games.” Modern games that Richard clearly identifies as too obsessed with how they look, rather than how they play. But it’s still hard for me to grasp this. This idea of harking back is still alien – and the nostalgia that comes with it.

Winding-up our interview, Richard hits me with some bad news as I ask him about keeping the history of games alive: two of his systems that he’s brought in today are only working intermittently – among their number being the headache-inducing Virtual Boy. “One problem we’re going to have is machines are going to breakdown and we don’t have anyone who can fix them,” he says, longingly looking back into the lounge. “Emulators are going to be taking over a lot more. For instance, with the Vectrex, what are you going to do? There’s no way you can emulate it.”

With the interview finished, I return to the hub-hub and spy an emulator that is set to run some arcade games and has arcade sticks set up with it. Spotting Paul, I drag him over to the system and pick X-Men vs Street Fighter for us to duel on. The screen fills with very familiar faces, as the X-Men from the ‘90s cartoon series display on part of the screen and finally, finally, I feel that nostalgic pang that everyone’s been talking about today.

It doesn’t matter that I never played the game when it was released. I’m here, and for fifteen minutes I feel like I’m ten again.

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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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