Forget Everything You Know About Retro Consoles
This week on Storming the Castle, we decided to tackle the age old question: What makes a video game console “Retro”? This question has been tackled before by many, but rather than give you a one sided perspective from a single person, we opted to give you three independent perspectives which may or may not coexist in the same macrocosm.
To help answer this question, we brought on a new group member. He is a fellow 1 More Castle contributor and also creator of the fabulous D-Ported video series. You may know him by his real name: Alex Weiss or by his Twitter name: @Chronoslinger. Everyone give him a warm welcome because this is his FIRST written contribution here at 1MC.
Alright, now that the pleasantries are out of the way, let’s get this argument started shall we!
I had a dream the other night that I got an XBOX One. It was heavily discounted compared to its PlayStation 4 counter-part. To be more specific, I remember the exact costs of each console. I got the XBOX One for $199. I was at a GameStop in the dream world, in a mall near where I grew up. What a great deal! And I’m not even an XBOX fan. In fact, coming across an XBOX 360 for cheap in its early years was not surprising. They broke down all the time.
Since it was all a dream, I figured I’d try my luck with the store clerk and see if I could get a PlayStation 4 for the same deal. Unfortunately, the PlayStation 4 would cost $599 – way more than what it actually costs. I had no interest in these consoles, but I had not discounted joining the next generation craze.
With the newer generation consoles released, I wondered what of the PlayStation 2. Could it be considered retro? As of this writing, it was released nearly 14 years ago. It’s nearing 20 years old! Unfortunately, there are individuals too prideful to consider it a retro console. Individuals from my own generation: Generation X and Y. We grew up with 2D sprite based hardware. For a long time, our argument against the PlayStation 2 could be valid. However, I don’t feel that’s the case anymore.
A PlayStation 2 game is a step up from the PlayStation 1. In fact, out of all retro consoles, only two have aged horribly: The Atari 2600, and the PlayStation 1. Both consoles have games that require a lot of imagination to overlook the horrid graphics. Don’t get me wrong, my first console was the Atari 2600. I owned it back when it was new. I was between 3 and 4 years old, but I remember it clearly. My father would bring it out from time to time and play it. Sometimes he’d hand me a controller and let me pretend I was playing it, even though he’d be controlling the action.
The Atari 2600 was an experiment of what a video game consoles potential could be – even though it never fully realized it. The Nintendo Entertainment System would realize this potential. Its games nearly mimicked what the arcades had been doing for years, and then some.
The original PlayStation like the Atari 2600, was an experiment into the 3D realm. The 3D games on that console are ugly. But this doesn’t mean they aren’t fun. Most of these games involved throwing 3D characters on a heavily compressed background image (Final Fantasy style). In the PlayStation’s defense, it could only display a limited amount of colors and polygons. Why did they bother with 3D games back then? Even the Nintendo 64 has games that aged better. The generation the original PlayStation came from was not my favorite. I wasn’t impressed with it when it came out. I wasn’t impressed with anything Sony put out until the PlayStation 2. Even then, the PlayStation 2 had its limits.
The one thing the PlayStation 2 has failed to do better than the original was produce an impressive game library. This doesn’t mean all the games are bad. There are a lot of PlayStation 2 games I enjoy, some of which have had a major impact on me. Some of them I am just discovering; one of which is Shadow of the Colossus. This is a great game, but again, it hasn’t aged well. There is an HD remake that offers higher resolution textures, but this doesn’t remedy the low polygon count of the characters, or bosses. On the other hand, it hasn’t aged to a point where it requires imagination. It fits the bill of a classic.
What Shadow of the Colossus does is what the original 3D PlayStation games try to do: Put the player into a 3D world. The original PlayStation was extremely limited on what it could render. It would have made a better 2D platform. In those days the world was ready for 3D while the hardware could barely keep up. We were impressed with stupid things, much like we were in the Atari 2600 days. For those of us who remember early arcade games, in comparison, the Atari 2600 was a bit of a joke.
So what defines a retro console? I believe two things: The time passed since it was released, and the age of its core demographic at the time. Most PlayStation 2 owners who were kids or teens when it was released are young adults now. An 8 year old in 2000 would be 21 today. Do we even need to argue this point? I think not, I also think the answer is obvious: The PlayStation 2 is retro. It’s time we embraced it.
If you would have told me back in 2001 that in a mere thirteen years, I would be arguing on behalf of the Xbox being considered “retro”, I would have told you to go play some NES games and call me in 2020. But alas, here we are. It’s actually been 13 years since the “original” Xbox was released! How did this happen? It seems impossible!
My experience with the 6th generation of gaming consoles (aka the “Dividing Line”) was a rather different one than most. Or to be more precise, I bet against the loser. When I got to college in the summer of 1999, the only game console I had left was the Nintendo 64, which was aging at that point. Something inside me was screaming for something new. And I got it when I purchased a Sega Dreamcast in September of that same year. And my mind was promptly blown! I’ll never forget walking into the game store and seeing Soul Calibur being played on the Dreamcast. The graphics genuinely surprised me with how good they looked. It was hard for me to believe that I could take that system home that day and get those same graphics in my living room. To this day, there hasn’t been a bigger technological leap forward than from the PS1/N64 era to the Dreamcast. Want an example of what I mean? Here you go:
We went from horrible looking blocky boxes, to silky smooth lovely. The Dreamcast was also unique in the fact that it was released in 1999 (at least here in the states), less than four months before the turn of the millennium. You know, that magical year 2000 that many consider the cutoff for what makes a console “Retro.” It’s this little fact that I believe leads many gamers to consider the Dreamcast as part of the 90’s era. Despite the fact that the technology in the unit is comparable to the other three sixth gen “non-retro” systems (Even the Wii if you think about it!). In terms of technical prowess, you can look at it this way if you’d like:
The Dreamcast was the weakest of the four, but if you compare the graphics side by side with any of the other three systems, you aren’t going to be able to tell much difference. The original Soul Calibur, released in 1999, still looks mind-blowingly good considering it was released 15 years ago. And yet Soul Calibur 2, released on the other three technically superior consoles, looks almost identical despite the fact that it was released nearly 4 years later. So then, why this great divide based solely on what amounts to a mere 4 months of time back in 1999? Is it really just the year 2000 cutoff “rule?” In the Dreamcast’s case, I’m going to say the 90’s retro bias wins. To prove that the original Xbox is retro though, I’m going to have to dig a bit deeper.
Yes, the almighty Halo. Honestly, I am pretty sure I have spent more time with the original Halo than any other game in my entire life. Countless YEARS of my life were spent blasting the Covenant, Flood and my friends (in 4 console Xbox LAN parties). It’s one of the few games in my life that I truly mastered in every way, the only other I can think of being Final Fantasy 4. We even went so far as to call it the “Halo Box”, simply because it was really all we played. Yeah, I was one of those weirdoes that skipped the PS2 and Gamecube and got myself a Dreamcast and an Xbox. But I’ll tell you what, I don’t regret it for one second.
I know though, I missed out on a whole lot of incredible games. But that’s ok with me because the memories I have with my “Halo Box”, I will treasure forever. Which brings me to my argument; I honestly believe that what makes a console “retro”, are your personal feelings about it. And by this I of course mean nostalgia. Nostalgia is what makes retro consoles “retro” in the first place. Now, that’s not to say that newer consoles should be considered retro. Obviously, the Playstation 4 isn’t retro because it isn’t yet old enough. Your memories of it are limited and the ever incessant tick of time has not swung its magic hand to give you that balmy feeling of sentiment that only comes with age.
It may sound silly, but one of the highlights of my college years was simply playing Halo. In darkened dorm rooms with Ethernet cables running down the halls, in my parents garage where we could scream to our hearts content, in my friend Steve’s upstairs gaming loft, at my friend Pete’s apartment where we lugged heavy-ass CRT television sets over to get that 16 player game going, in my friend Mikes apartment where we would frequently ignore hot girls that stopped by and asked us if we wanted to go out clubbing, on Christmas break on my parents TV, just me and my brother, perfecting Halo on Legendary difficulty. These types of memories make the Xbox an absolute retro console for me. What other way could I possibly view it? What’s considered retro is obviously in the eyes of the beholder. But if it’s old enough to be viewed through rose colored glasses, it’s old enough to be considered “retro” in my book.
One of my first memories of the GameCube was actually months before it was even released, on the back of a Gameboy Advance box. Nintendo used this as a tactic for showing off the potential the GBA had as a controller for the Gamecube. I was determined however, not to buy one because I had only gotten a Nintendo 64 less than two years prior. Why did I need a new console already?
But I was worn down eventually, kind of. My brother received a GameCube for his birthday not long after the system launched, which gave me license to start buying games for the system. To be truthful, I started renting more than I bought. But I loved everything I played. I rented some usual suspects like Wind Waker and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, but I even enjoyed titles like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4.
What I really like about the system though is the controller. Not only does it feel nice and snug in my hands, but the buttons were shaped in a way that made sense. I didn’t have to look down and remember where the placement of each one was because they were uniquely shaped. I have many memories of the GameCube and it remains one of my favorite Nintendo systems. Despite those feelings though, it’s hard for me to call it a retro console.
The word retro can conjure up different images for different people. For me it brings to mind the video games I played as a kid, perhaps some of the movies I watched as well. But in my mind the idea of “retro gaming” will always be the NES and Genesis eras. The Nintendo 64/PlayStation/Saturn era seemed like some funky bridge between old and new schools. What with the arrival of polygonal graphics, disc based games, and fully realized 3D worlds. But since a lot of the early 3D games haven’t aged the best, I’d still classify that generation as retro.
The Dreamcast kicked off the sixth generation of gaming in 1999. And it’s with the Dreamcast that many (including 1 More Castle) draw the line and say the era of retro gaming ends, and the modern gaming era begins. I would say something similar to that except I wouldn’t count the sixth generation of gaming as retro for the simple fact that the graphics look too similar to current games.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Modern games run at higher resolutions and have all kinds of neat special effects that make the games looks super real, which I would agree with. But I counter with one game. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess for the GameCube. While arguably the more popular version was released for the Wii, it was originally developed for the GameCube and the two versions look almost identical, except for the fact that the Wii version had widescreen support and motion controls (and the entire map is reversed).
My point is that if a “retro” system can make a game that looks that good, why should we call it retro? Really, the only difference between then and now is that games look shinier these days. The litmus test for a console being retro in my mind is when developers start imitating the style of that console with modern games. There are probably too many retro style games to count, but among them are Retro City Rampage, Cave Story, and Mega Man 9/10. All of them hearken back to the 8 or 16-bit era, even if they do things graphically that the original hardware could not. But you don’t see modern developers making games in the style of the GameCube, which reinforces my point that they look too similar to the current generation to be called retro. That’s not to say we aren’t far removed enough from that era to look back on it with some fond memories. Maybe we should figure out another term for the GameCube era, but for now, I hesitate to lump it in with the retro games of my childhood because for me it’s just too modern. Call me old school, but the Gamecube isn’t a retro console.
So in conclusion, we ask the question: what makes a console truly retro? Is it the graphics? The hardware? The gaming cycle it happened to fall into? Does it have to be at least 10 years old? 20? 30?? The argument will rage on. But one thing is certain, in time, all consoles will eventually become…. retro.