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I'm old, but I'm not retro!

Posted by ZX KnIGHT on Jul 6, 2011 21:42 (Jul 6, 2011 21:42)

I've always played old games. When everyone else had an Amiga I was still playing my C64 (albeit having upgraded from cassette to a disk drive, which felt incredibly futuristic at the time). When everyone else switched to Playstation I still had my Megadrive. When I finally gained access to the internet I didn't use it to play Doom or Quake online but to download a Spectrum emulator and play Football Manager.

Partly this is because, truth be told, my family simply couldn't afford to keep me up to date with the latest gaming trends so playing older games was a habit born of necessity. It was also because whenever I did play more modern games I didn't take to a lot of them. To this day I still feel that the early 3D era of games saw a drop in quality, though I know it's partly due to the expansion of the market and my possession of a very rose tinted pair of glasses. However, even now I’d still take Street Fighter II over Tekken.

At what point then, did I stop simply being someone who played old games and become something of a 'retro' gamer? When did 'old' become 'retro'?

The desire to see old systems emulated on new goes back at least to the Atari ST, which had homebrew Spectrum emulators developed for it. The ZX Spectrum can emulate its predecessor the ZX81, though I think this is a modern project rather than one from the 1980s. But it's hard to make the claim it was retro gaming when the Spectrum was still commercially available and pumping out games into the early 90s.

Certainly when I was stuck playing the Megadrive as the world turned 3D it didn't feel particularly retro, more old and tired although I am always pleasantly surprised at how games like Splatterhouse that felt so boring and limited when they were all I had in the 90s now seem classic and entertaining enough to be remade for the new generation of consoles.

It got even worse when something happened to my Megadrive (Missing, presumed ‘lent’ to a younger cousin) and I rediscovered my Commodore 64 in the attic, still with a disk drive but bizarrely with barely any of the disk games I used to own. When everyone else was talking about Grand Theft Auto I was going home and having massive sessions of Leisure Genius’ Monopoly on the C64. Again, it didn't feel retro, more desperate, though in retrospect (pun not intended) it is a time I look back on fondly as we did have a laugh doing it. When you play so many games of Monopoly you feel compelled to create a league table of you and your friend’s win/loss record it’s hard to claim later you didn’t love it.

In the late 1990s there was a slight perception shift as friends awaited the PS2 while I was still eeking out aging RPGs on my PC and playing emulators. It became a Friday night tradition when I was in my last year of high school that before we went to watch the rugby and visit the only pub in Leeds guaranteed to serve us, everyone would pile into my bedroom with the cheapest lager Netto sold and we would have a marathon eight-player session on California Games on my Megadrive emulator.

What caused that shift in perception as games shifted from being old and tired to old and cool? I've been thinking about it and I'd suggest that as a general rule games will come back around as retro once they've been superseded by roughly two generations of consoles. By the time I was having eight player sessions of California Games the Megadrive had been superseded by the Playstation 1 and nearly the PS2, the N64 and the Dreamcast with the latter developing homebrew emulation for previous systems from the C64 through to the SNES and Megadrive.

As a new generation of consoles appears the generation immediately superseded naturally feels old hat, it’s part of the reason that the Dreamcast failed despite a killer array of games – as soon as the PS2 came out it was blatantly obsolete technology despite its relative newness (The PS1 was five years old when the Dreamcast was released but the Dreamcast was only two years old when the PS2 was released).

Over time though people become adjusted to the newer graphics and trends that emerge on new consoles and an appreciation of the older generation takes place. This manifests itself in the marketplace with gimmicks such as a Megadrive controller that contains half a dozen games or the Megadrive emulator that contains games built-in and also plays authentic Megadrive cartridges.

At the moment Xbox and PS2 games are clogging up second hand stores across the country and swap hands for just a few pounds but in a few years the cream of the generation will rise to the top and regain recognition. The difference today is they will probably find a re-release as a download only package, which will dampen demand in the second-hand collector’s market and potentially speed up the cycle.

Of course part of it is down to human nature. We naturally covet the new and exciting, which leads us to dismiss the old. Eventually it becomes so old we treasure it for the memories it contains as we get older. This cyclical process means every generation that dies becomes partially resurrected in one form or another as it becomes closer to being 'retro'. It also happens with individual games as classic titles get recycled by Nintendo for the 3DS, such as Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Starfox 64.

Of course sometimes we go back to the old 'classics' and find ourselves saying 'What the hell were we thinking?' as we remember exactly why we abandoned the game in the first place. I've struggled to return to more than one game that I used to be addicted to, determined at the time to eek every last penny of value out of any game I was lucky enough to be bought.

But I'm digressing; at what point did all this turn into a concerted acknowledgement of 'retro' as a genre and a specific group of people who could therefore be called 'retro gamers'?

As with so many things the internet changed everything, allowing emulators and homebrew games to be shared among millions of people, who could chat about them on forums which encouraged them to retain their links to the older systems. I used to be much more into 8-bit gaming when I frequented the forums at World of Spectrum and Lemon64 daily, a habit I lost as life got in the way.

But who were the first retro gamers? Although there were retro compilations on the Megadrive and Playstation of early arcade classics I find it hard to consider the people who bought them to be conscious retro gamers. This may be because I view the compilations themselves as cheap cash-ins by games companies, but I think it is mainly because the releases were disparate rather than a concerted acknowledgement of a growing movement or genre.

To me, the first generation of retro gamers were the hardy souls of the early days of the internet, who published numerous emulators for every system from a Tandy Dragon to a Sega Game Gear and allowed anyone who found their website to download them and relive their memories of games gone by. Yes, there were people (probably the same ones in many cases) who had done similar things on earlier systems but the internet changed the way emulators were distributed and made it possible to share them among the widest audience possible.

The internet allowed these small disparate groups to congregate online, first on message lists and then on websites and forums, to share their memories and experiences and preserve old games for future generations, which is as good a point as any to plug another website I write for – ‘Games That Weren’t’ – where we try archive and preserve unreleased games across numerous systems. Check it out.

These sites grew in popularity as more people went online and retro communities developed. Naturally much of what was offered online breached various copyright laws so eventually came to the attention of the games companies themselves but by this point a critical mass had been achieved and a retro gaming community existed, augmented by the appearance of fanzines and magazines dedicated to this growing consumer group. After all, many of the people who had grown up playing 8-bit systems were now adults with their own disposable incomes and they were happy to spend money collecting all the games they couldn’t necessarily afford when they were children as well as the ones they could.

Furthermore, once a group is identified as having a purchasing power it accelerates its own growth and acceptance into the mainstream, think of the ‘pink pound’ or the development of the concept of ‘teenagers’ in the post-war era as young adults (or older children) had a disposable income for the first time in history.

Those online retro heads were in my opinion the first true retro gamers and they helped lay the foundation for much of the retro renaissance that has followed in subsequent years. Of course there were many other factors and I’m not suggesting that no-one else was interested in retro games at the time, as you can see above I never stopped being interested in them. I’m also not suggesting the reason we have retro remakes and re-releases on various systems is solely down to them, but it’s the same argument as saying if The Beatles hadn’t come along someone else would have done what they did at some point. It might be true but the fact is they did it first and it deserves recognition.

So if you were one of those hardy few, developing emulators and uploading them on your 56k modem for free download on your geocities website, converting games to ROMs, archiving material on websites, remaking games like School Daze and Manic Miner for the PC and posting threads on forums, thank you.

On the other hand if you were one of those people who insisted visitors vote for your website on a spam and porn-filled ‘Top 100 sites’ list then you can piss right off.

ZX KNIGHT also blogs at

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#2 Jul 7, 2011 20:36:37 ( Jul 7, 2011 20:36 )

 That's interesting, my own recollection of compilations of that era are the sort of crappy 'centipede and space invaders' style ones, I wasn't aware of Gauntlet and SNES games being released on the PS1.

From what you say it looks like there was the beginnings of the 'retro' genre and theme back in the PS1 days, which passed me by completely. So bizarre to think of IK+ on the PS1 though!
#1 Jul 7, 2011 17:19:04 ( Jul 7, 2011 17:19 )

You say "But who were the first retro gamers? Although there were retro compilations on the Megadrive and Playstation of early arcade classics I find it hard to consider the people who bought them to be conscious retro gamers." but as I read this article it occurred to me that it was during the PS1 period that I started to consider my interest in old games as Retro gaming.

Those PS1 arcade collections were certainly not cheap for the most part, the Namco Arcade Museums, Williams Collection and Capcom Classics Collection put you back by an amount sizable enough to re-consider if you should be spending this much on old games instead of the latest 3D Tomb Raider or whatever. 

Part of the fun of owning all those arcade compilations for me was finally playing arcade original games on my TV that I had played on the ZX Spectrum all those years ago in an inferior form. It was strange when me and a friend found that the Spectrum version of Gauntlet was actually more fun than the arcade original.

I still remember the joy at walking into a game store and seeing the old 8-bit classic International Karate + had been released for the PS1 for only £9.99 though.

PS1 releases of classic SNES games also turned up on the console and althoughChrono Trigger was an expensive import and those Final Fantasy games 1 - 6 were also available and not something I was likely to ever play on a real SNES.

Before PS1 I was usually a generation behind for most of the generations life span and PC Spectrum emulation was my only significant backwards step. It was during the PS1 that I actively sought out older 2D style games to play, although I did still enjoy MGS, Gran Turismo and Tomb Raider.
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