Why Is Retro Video Gaming So Popular? It’s Much More Than Nostalgia.

Wake up from the cultural hypnosis, and discover that the most forward-thinking move can be backward

I got my start playing video and computer games as a kid in the mid 70s, so I have seen how dramatically they have changed over the years. Yet, I keep being drawn back to the old-school gaming experiences. I initially wondered if it was just nostalgia, but after watching how kids react to them, I figured it must be something more.

Why are vintage video games hugely popular? Many rush to say it’s nostalgia, but that’s a superficial take on something much richer. Among many reasons, solid game design transcends technology - good games don’t need modern tech to be lots of fun. Learn about what keeps everyone going back.

Table of Contents

Before we get started, I want to say that my intent is not to say you should play retro games instead of contemporary console games. I will contrast different types of experiences - those associated with vintage gaming, and those associated with a one of the most popular genres of modern console gaming. This isn’t about an ultimate new vs old, but a question about what kinds of experiences we want to have. I hope to broaden our understanding of just why the old school stuff has come back so powerfully, and what it might tell us.

Also worth noting: as a part of this discussion, I do call out some unfortunate trends in contemporary game design that are concerning, and worth thinking about seriously.

I’m going to lay out some foundational ideas, then unpack a set of 5 attractive retro gaming features, and then finally broaden out into an overarching theory that speaks to the bigger issues.

No, Retro Video Gaming Isn’t Just a Nostalgia Trip

When I started playing retro games again, I got curious about what was driving others to play them as well. Yes, for many, nostalgia is a meaningful part of their enjoyment, but this is only one piece of the pie. Somehow though, many of the articles I have read wanted to peg the retro gaming phenomenon to this. Sure, a lot of players who grew up on these games may be reliving a golden period of their lives by revisiting experiences that were an important part of those times. However, to say that nostalgia is the key is to miss what’s actually going on.

So let’s hit the nostalgia thing first, to get it out of the way. Old-school video gaming can evoke a strong, wistful feeling in people who played these games “back in the day.” The experience combines a sense of comfort with some escapism, bringing back all sorts of positive thoughts and emotions that are enjoyable for the player. It’s like thumbing through old memories, with each taking us on a little journey in the Wayback machine to an idealized remembrance of our earlier years.

Yep. That can be a part of it, but there is a lot more. Let’s explore that now.

Finding a Better Measure of Having a Good Time

In another article, I touched on the idea of how we determine if something is fun. I want to expand on those thoughts here.

Early games were severely limited in what the technology was capable of, so gameplay was shaped by what could and could not be done. Games like Pong, Atari (2600), and text adventures made clever use of what was available, and simple, or non-existent graphics were standard fare. But limitations are famously fuel for inventiveness, and good design. Working within the constraints of the time meant game creators had to rely heavily on longstanding principles of what makes for good gameplay. They worked to craft experiences that combined rules (game mechanics) with a measure of novelty, while mixing in challenge. They distilled ideas about what kinds of activities were fun, and found ways to infuse that essence into what they were creating.

In the early days, it was amazing to be able to play anything on your TV, but much of the time, the tech lagged behind what was available at the arcade. This meant the wow factor had to come from the play, since the raw graphics were already not best-of-the-best. Engagement had to be created via well-crafted game designs. Of course, there were plenty of things that weren’t very good (especially in the Atari cartridge market “gold rush”), but there are many that so captured this essence of good design that they still shine today.

Steve Jobs (of Apple fame) worked on the early arcade game Breakout, and noted that the kinesthetic sense (one’s sense of body movement and position) was key to Breakout’s enjoyable gameplay. Spinning the control wheel back and forth in order to slide one’s paddle into place and knock the ball back up-screen to crash into more bricks has a unique “feel” to it. This feel is a combination of body and onscreen movements. Add in the quickness and coordination required to keep the ball in play, plus the reward of seeing bricks chipped away, and you get a simple game that is surprisingly satisfying today, some 40+ years later.

Breakout and Super Mario Bros
Real fun grows from a much deeper root than sophistication. The limited capabilities of early game systems forced game designers to rely on smart gameplay, instead of realistic simulation.

Fundamentally, game graphics are an interface - the way the game represents what is happening, and the actions we are taking in response. Early interfaces were limited by technological capabilities, and were much more primitive than what can be created today. Perched as we are at a point in history where technology allows us to create stunningly believable simulations of reality and fantasy, it’s easy to be blinded by all the visual spectacle, but to understand real fun, we have to press past that, into what really makes a game enjoyable.

Gameplay design involves the mechanics of how the game is played (like Breakout’s paddle only being movable in a left/right direction), and what the objectives are (bricks are knocked out when hit) as well as the complications that create the challenge (the changing speed and direction of the ball under different conditions). When the game’s interface and gameplay are well matched, they complement each other to create a fun experience. Resolution, rendering speed, and all the trappings of simulation are not necessary for a fun game. Whether you are whipping a Breakout paddle around the screen, to keep that ball knocking out bricks, or you are jumping Mario around between platforms, the fact that the interface isn’t presenting high definition realism does not keep the game from being fun. These types of games don’t need realism, and in fact, would likely be less enjoyable if they had it. Their stylized (artfully simplified) approach provides the optimal match of play and interface.

To be perfectly clear - good gameplay design transcends technology. I’m making the point that it’s not exclusive to any level of technological capability. But since my point here is to demonstrate that retro games shouldn’t be dismissed as mere nostalgia, my focus is on how good gameplay creates engaging experiences in older games.

As you play more retro games, one thing you’ll see is that the more recent headlong run into believable simulation has narrowed the focus of popular console gaming in key ways. You see a lot of a specific type of gameplay which is rooted in three-dimensional representations of realistic spaces where your character runs around in a first-person, or over-the-shoulder third-person perspective, and engages in some kind of combat.

This wildly popular game style, that I will call “realistic combat simulation” had its popular breakthrough moment in 1992, with id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D. This was a 3D reboot on a solid 2D game - Muse Software’s 1981 Castle Wolfenstein. id’s follow ups with Doom (and its sequels) and Quake (and its sequels) cemented the style, and loads of imitators showed up to feed the interest.

One interesting connection to this is that the popularity of 3D rendered combat games (shooters, sword fighting, etc, etc) was a beautiful fit for console and computer hardware makers, who could sell ever-more-powerful hardware to handle the higher polygon counts, resolutions, and frame rates. This created something of a feedback loop in which publishers could sell ever more sophisticated games, hardware makers could sell newer, more powerful platforms, and gamers could throw themselves into ever more sophisticated simulations. Advances have continued in believable image simulation, physics, and sound, along with armies of artists creating them. Impressive as these feats are (and they are!), they have created a kind of hypnosis that has a lot of game makers and players chasing a game style which pushes along in this one direction. Nowadays, when someone says they are a “gamer,” the connotation is often that they are involved in some variant of this kind of gameplay: the immersive, realistic, combat simulation of one sort or another.

Hyper-realistic combat simulation
The cult of realistic combat simulation has swallowed a good portion of modern console gaming. I propose that this is due to the feedback loop that is chasing simulationism as the holy grail, and driven in part by the lucrative sales of advancing tech.

In doing my research on this, I found that a number of gamers out there are seeing the same thing. They expressed frustration at how many modern games make simulationism a top priority, and sometimes let other game design aspects go slack. To be sure: within the console realm, there are other types of games being played, but this world of realistic combat simulation represents a large, characteristic segment of the contemporary console experience.

I want to call attention to the fact that the popularity of retro gaming raises important questions about the common experiences many are busy flocking to. The questions say “Hey - we’ve left some important qualities of the gaming experience behind.” They call us to broaden our tastes, and they clarify that retro gaming is not at its core, a nostalgia trip.

They call us to wake up from the cultural hypnosis, and discover that the most forward-thinking move can be backward, to retrieve something you left behind.

Let’s run through 5 major points where retro games shine.

Retro Game Feature 1: Some Great Gameplay Design

There’s something interesting lurking in this common evaluation of retro game popularity as a nostalgia trip. The core idea seems to be that the value of the experience is not intrinsic (actually part of the game experience itself) because the real motivation is extrinsic (outside the game, and in the nostalgic memories stirred up by the game experience). Baked into this seems to be the assumption “Why would you go backward in a medium built on technology?”

We’re so trained into the idea that technology gets better, and old technology becomes obsolete. If tech is about power, speed, and the slickness of capabilities, then why would you want to head backward on that timeline... unless maybe you’re akin to Napoleon Dynamite’s Uncle Rico, and you want to recapture some sense of lost glory.

But this theory falls apart when you see kids getting lit up playing an old console. They are finding real, intrinsic enjoyment in the gaming experience itself. They have no nostalgia to fall back on. They just know that it’s fun.

Advancement shouldn’t only be measured by the powerful capabilities we can wield, but by the nature of the experiences we create. Essentially, how do we define a quality experience?

If we break the hypnosis of chasing after seamless simulation, we can see that games with all different levels of interface sophistication offer compelling enjoyment.

Indiana Jones beats VFX-laden shlockfests every day
It’s not about sophistication of execution, but the things beneath the surface that make something great. Both new and old endeavors can get this right if they concentrate on what’s important. But technological sophistication can make it easier to cloak lackluster substance in smoke and mirrors.

This whole point is made obvious when we consider that we still watch old movies as well as new. We do the same with music. Styles, and the sophistication with which they are done may be different, but put something like Raiders of the Lost Ark up against some bazillion-dollar VFX-laden yawnfest, and tell me - which is the more enjoyable movie? I’m with Indy. And so’s my 13-year-old daughter. Quality is to be found in the substance, and we need to look past the mere surface.

It’s important to be clear here - I’m not saying that new games are all snazzy-looking schlockfests. I’m simply demonstrating the point that slick interface is not required for a good time, and so stepping into the less-slick back catalog of gaming is a perfectly sensible way to find fun experiences.

And while we’re talking about advances in tech, keep in mind that we’ve been taught that newer is better because of speed, power, expanded capabilities, etc. But the way we form and use our tech is also an embodiment of the kinds of experiences we are choosing to have.

These choices aren’t neutral, but shape the character of what we do and how we do it.

Retro Game Feature 2: When “Less Sophisticated” is a Real Strength

As mentioned earlier, a game’s presentation - it’s interface - should be matched to the gameplay. But there is another angle here worth considering. We are 40+ years into video and computer gaming, and many of the things we’re seeing today are built on experiences that have come before. They are refinements of older approaches, and refinement is often a great thing. But we have seen such an increase in technological capability, that refinement has in many ways come to mean complication. Simple has evolved into sophisticated, because more sophisticated experiences become more possible as the underlying tech becomes more able.

Simple vs complex
Simple, and complex. Have we misdefined progress? Good abstraction leading to good gameplay should be our goal over fine-grained modeling of reality.

For those who have been playing for years, all the complication can feel like enrichment. The experiences feel deeper, because they have more moving parts (in the gameplay, or in the interface, including the controllers above). This is simulationism at work again. Real life has tons of moving parts, so adding more nuances to each world, character, action, etc, makes the whole thing feel more real. BUT, at their heart, games abstract reality. Good abstraction (including the right things) is the target, not just sophisticated abstraction (including more things).

Yes - not all contemporary games ladle on fine-grained sophistication, but generally speaking, it is a common characteristic of the present era.

Now here’s where this sophistication comes home to roost, and knocks many people off their perch. Not everyone wants to have heaps of sophistication with loads of buttons, menus, actions, objectives, etc. Complicated games raise the bar to entry. While seasoned players feel it’s no big deal, this is because they are making use of their years of accumulated experience. A person who is brand new to gaming can often be overwhelmed by all the things they have to master to even become competent, much less good in a modern simulation game. Many people just don’t want to have to dedicate a whole portion of their life to getting good at sophisticated games with lots of moving parts. There are plenty of potential players who would have fun getting involved if it didn’t require so much.

So again, to be clear - sophistication is not bad, but it’s not always good, either.

Simpler games also mean easier pick-up-and-play. You can dip in, and back out of a simpler game much more quickly. Just last night, my 13 year old daughter and I wanted to play a little Atari before we closed out the night. We popped in Warlords, banged through half a dozen games, then moved on to Maze Craze, and played half a dozen of those.

2 games X 6 plays each = 15 minutes

Easy fun without the deep complication. And this lack of deep complication can also mean that the learning curve is not nearly as steep. This leads me to my next point:

Retro Game Feature 3: Less Focus on PWNage in Retro Games

Console games, like other pursuits, have a culture. Because of the kinds of games that are so popular today, “PWNin’ n00bs” is a well-known activity. For the uninitiated, it means people who have dedicated tons of time to getting very good at the necessary skills in a head-to-head (usually combat) game, will often find enjoyment in mercilessly crushing those who have not dedicated such large chunks of their life to mastering the necessary game skills. With online competitive play being such a huge part of gaming, and games rewarding reflexes that are most often possessed by younger players, victory dances, trash talk, and rage quitting are a big part of gaming culture.

This aspect of play is the gamification of poking each other with sharp sticks. Fine if you like that sort of thing, but not everyone’s cup of tea.

Pwnage is a common characteristic of a lot of modern console gaming
The rapid fire action of combat simulation games lends itself to the constant rehashing of scenarios where experienced players with thousands of hours of obsessive gameplay under their belts routinely destroy n00bs.

And it’s not only the hyper-antagonistic pwnage that’s the issue, but with so many games being about hunting down and annihilating other players - usually looking down the barrel of a rifle - it just creates a certain tone of game. If that’s your thing, fine, but take a walk on the wild side, and try a completely different form of interaction.

This isn’t to say that competitive play and trained reflexes aren’t a big part of old-school video games, or that you won’t get trounced in an unbalanced matchup. But that shrill delight expressed when one player absolutely destroys and then humiliates another by rubbing their nose in it, is not a defining characteristic of the retro gaming culture the way it is with the “shooter game” -dominated landscape of today.

Retro Game Feature 4: Time Spent Together in Person Having Fun

Here’s where a particular technological shortcoming offers a big upside. Old-school console games were not built around online play, the way contemporary ones are. This wasn’t a choice, but a byproduct of where technology was at the time. The effect of this baked-in characteristic turns out to be an interesting benefit: to play against friends, you have to actually get together, and sit down with one another. Add in the fact that cords on old controllers are kind of short, and you’re not only sitting in the same room, but relatively close to each other. Playing retro games can be very social, and not in the pseudo “social” sense of much interaction today where people do things separately and share them online.

Vintage ads of people having a blast playing video games
A key component of the video game culture of the past was friends getting together in the real world and having an absolute blast. (Images are from a charming series of German ads for the Atari 2600)

Chomping down pizza, and rocking through a boisterous game of Atari’s Warlords with friends is a fantastically fun time. Gameplay is simple enough that no one can dominate by putting boatloads of time in to level up their skills. Variability due to surprises means that everyone stays on their toes. And being seated together around the TV means reactions and excitement are amped up - with a significant difference…

The separation of playing online, and the anonymity that often occurs in online play, work together to create a well documented spike in bad behavior. As long as “online” has existed (going back to the 80s, and BBSs), anonymous strangers coming together for interaction has meant people being less inhibited, and more likely to act in ways they wouldn’t act in person. Trolling is not new, and flame wars date back to the early days of online computing. Dropping the key elements that contribute to this can make a difference in the tone of play.

It isn’t about being unable to handle that behavior, it’s about wanting an experience that doesn’t have it as such a prominent feature.

In that real-world interaction, you are actually socializing, having an in-person, non-virtual shared experience, and you find a whole other dimension to your gaming enjoyment. I’m personally an introvert, but hanging with friends and having a noisy, fun time together, interspersed with shared food, drinks and other spontaneous tomfoolery, is something I really enjoy doing.

As an important note on this point - I recently had an online interaction with Tommy Tallarico, video game music composer who has worked on hundreds of games since the 1990s. He is the man behind the reboot of the Intellivision, which is slated for release in 2020. This single aspect of in-person play is so important to the Intellivision Amico, that there is no online play in their games. You can see the importance of this principle in the fact that their tagline is “Together Again.” It’s also noteworthy that several of my points are also echoed on their site as well. Clearly, people are seeing these issues, and Tommy & Co. are looking to address them by creating a brand new console that follows some of the key experience touchpoints as retro games. It’s new tech, deeply informed by wisdom reclaimed from old experiences.

As I hope I am making clear in this entire article, real advancement includes being able to go back and retrieve things you realize you’ve lost, but need. I believe that a modern console built with a retro philosophy makes the Intellivision Amico the most forward-thinking systems out there. This is because they are not just pushing the envelope based on what tech can do, but consciously shaping it based on what they believe would create better experiences - as measured by a more fully-dimensioned understanding of “better.”

Retro Game Feature 5: A Lower Cost of Entry, and Total Cost Overall

You can save some real coin with retro gaming. Consoles are routinely under $100 (commonly around $75, with warranty), or less if you want to buy direct from a private seller. Most cartridges for popular systems are in the less-than-$10 range. If you’re wise, and willing to take steps to get the best prices, you can get a lot of bang for your buck.

Everyone likes to save money, and an entertainment experience with a lower total cost of ownership is a nice plus, but there’s another subtler benefit here as well. Cheaper costs mean lower risks. You can snag a handful of retro game cartridges for less than the cost of one new game on a contemporary system. I’ll assume that you’re googling the games before you buy them to avoid stinkers, but walking out with that handful of game carts leaves you with much lower total risk per game. It wasn’t great? Well, it was $3. That $5 one was great? Big win.

Two game cartridges for the NES: Lode Runner, and Solar Jetman
Game cartridges for many retro game consoles are often less than $10. Bang for your buck is high, and risk per purchase is low.

This total cost of ownership, and lower risk-per-game can mean a good fit for kids, too. Plus, no in-game upsells that the kiddos come to you wanting.

One last thought here on money: I’m having a blast playing games that are 40 years old, but many contemporary games are pushing toward an online, multiplayer focus. This requires pricey technical infrastructure to support (servers to handle all of the online components). Those servers only make sense when the game is making enough revenue to pay for them, the staff required to program and support all of that, AND make a profit. When those numbers change, servers don’t stick around. For games that are built around online multiplayer… that’s the end of the line. Will it be possible to play that stuff in 40 years? In 10 years?

Challenging Cultural Orthodoxy: Unpacking The Myth of Progress

The whole headlong run into faster/more powerful/more complicated is rooted in something larger than gaming. The concept of innovation and progress have become so ingrained in us as a people, that we tend to view it as a natural given, like gravity. We expect it, and consider it an irresistible force. This has turned us into a bunch of neophiles - people obsessed with novelty.

This obsession was folded into marketing and advertising, creating a steady drumbeat that makes people anticipate the “next thing,” and fear being “left behind.” Many products have generated revenue off of this fear and expectation, without actually bringing anything really compelling to the latest iteration. We just expect it, like a pack of Pavlovian dogs.

Pavlov’s dog, and new tech
The Pavlovian response to the new has now been trained into us over generations. Things are often considered improved because they have ratcheted up some specs. Is this a rational belief? Shouldn’t we have a broader set of evaluation criteria?

This drumbeat of progress tells us that the new thing is naturally better. Sometimes it really is an innovation, and sometimes it’s a bunch of hype. But we’ve been on this ride for so long, that now it’s just part of how we look at things. The idea of inevitable forward motion in all things - progress - has take on mythic proportions, and shapes culture in ways that can be hard to recognize because they are so familiar to us. This mythic quality doesn’t mean that progress doesn’t exist, because of course, it does. What it means is that the way our expectation has been trained, and the way in which we relate to the new through that expectation, has distorted the way we evaluate whether something is or is not actual progress.

Another important consideration is that we’ve been so trained to excitedly run to the next thing, and the pace of cultural change has so increased, that we do a lot less reflection and long-term follow-up evaluation than we should. New steps are very often follow-ons to previous changes that we haven’t really evaluated. We end up with a pile of poorly-examined premises we’re building on.

This elevation of change also trains people to look upon the past with derision. Look around, and you’ll see this kind of past-deriding everywhere. It’s a common-enough formula in viral social media posts - get some yuks by laughing at how silly that old stuff was! It shows up in advertising all the time, especially when tech is being advertised. It’s not just the speed and power of our silicon and software, but the paradigms that shape its purpose and use. Unfortunately, our reflexive derision of the past makes us less likely to revisit it and re-evaluate the paths we’ve taken.

Yes - there are many ways in which newer things are demonstrably better. They help us perform some task more accurately, or efficiently. But that leads me to the crux of this thing:

How are we defining “better?”

What happens when we realize the yardstick we’ve been using to measure “better” is not what we thought it was? When we realize that this particular measure of overall improvement is only partial, and at times arbitrary? Even some of our tried and true “objective standards,” like the ones I mentioned above: accuracy and efficiency… They measure specific aspects of an experience, but do they objectively hold a lock on the definition of better? If they do, why are vinyl records so popular right now? Clearly, even these sacred measurements are imperfect. Vinyl lovers have decided that records are better in some key ways, in spite of (and also because of) not being more accurate (in sound fidelity) or efficient (as a means of playback). Alternate criteria for “better” in this case include things like having a physical object, the “ritual” aspect of getting a record out, cleaning it, placing the tone arm, flipping to the other side... Even the primitive method of record grooves mechanically recreating vibrations in a stylus, is part of the charm. We just like it that way.

We need a new measurement of "better." Witness the resurgence of vinyl records which are neither more accurate (in sound fidelity) nor more efficient (as a means of playback).
We need a new measurement of “better.” Witness the resurgence of vinyl records which are neither more accurate (in sound fidelity) nor more efficient (as a means of playback).

It’s at this point that we realize that this headlong run into an arbitrary future defined by narrow focuses, can put the blinders on us. We need to look around and ask not if something is “better” according to the criteria marketed to us, but according to more considered criteria that involve overall quality of experience, and by extension, life.

This isn’t a novel idea. Giants of the tech world, such as Jaron Lanier (founding father of virtual reality and Silicon Valley insider) have been actively questioning various aspects of tech world “progress” for years now - questioning fundamental choices, and how “In Tech We Trust” has directed cultural trajectories in negative directions.

Popular Linux insider and spokesperson Bryan Lunduke has done informal self-experiments, such as the one where he decided to do all of his computing for a month according to the paradigms of 1989. He emerged with some interesting insights, and found himself overall happier, and more relaxed. His takeaway was that he liked the idea of going back to certain ways of thinking about and relating to technology, and wanted to bring those reclaimed values into the present.

Once we prick this mythic bubble, we can stop being so focused on short-sighted understandings, look around, and see a much bigger world around us. It’s a world composed of entire cultural histories waiting to be explored, and their discarded benefits reclaimed. I believe our best future requires key ingredients we need to retrieve from our past.

In addition to accuracy and efficiency, another of the criteria we have been sold on is the idea of sophistication. We love that our entertainments have become so big, so richly envisioned, so epic! We’re at a point now where digital entertainment (gaming especially) has become so immersive and rich, it can nearly replace your real life. We need to recognize that right now, it is a well-documented fact that modern tech has deployed an army of psychological manipulators against us - from the macro to the micro - making their offerings both addictive and manipulative.

Consider also that we know smartphones, apps, and social media are intentionally designed to be addictive - not just enjoyable, but inducing compulsive behavior. Facebook, the masters of addictive manipulation, are pushing hard on VR gaming. Surely, some future entertainment mashing up VR, AI, and addictive manipulations is being cooked up into a culmination that everyone will have been trained to find irresistible.

Is that really the future we want?

The Matrix’s pods, and opium addiction
What does our future hold? If we keep our unexamined premises, and dive headlong into the next generation of immersive illusion, will we be better off? Dystopian science fiction, and real history both point to our propensity for destructive escapism.

And we need to ask - is sophistication even the direction we want to keep traveling? We’re in such an info-deluge in all areas of life. Everything has become so much more complicated. We’ve become addicted to distraction, hyper-connection, and the virtual over the actual. Maybe that dull state of agitation and dissatisfaction we often feel is telling us that we need to cultivate the opposite - simplicity, focus, and presence. Maybe bucking the trend and re-engaging the past is not some personal, nostalgic self-indulgence, but it’s part of a larger counter-cultural move that says ENOUGH! and starts seeking out antidotes to this addiction we’ve gotten ourselves into.

Are we free to redefine better, or do we stay stuck on the trajectory we’re on? Which future will win?

It’s game on, man.