There is a sense these days that the concept of "Retro" games is disappearing. This does not mean that there are no retro inspired games being made, but it means that "retro" has been enveloped into the mainstream, and "retro" does not really exist any longer as it's own genre.. "Retro" is mainstream. At E3 this year, games that would have been shoved off into far corners and dismissed as "retro" in years past, were right up-front (i.e. Super Mario Wii, Nostalgia, Final Fantasy VII). This proved that "retro" is so all encompassing that the term means almost nothing if applied to these games.. These are just "games" (good games mind you) and are tagged "retro" only for the most superficial reasons. In sense, these are "classic" games with "classic" game play, that don't necessarily have to have a "retro" aesthetic.
At the same time, there still is a very healthy community for actual "retro gaming": Playing games on old systems old systems and emulators , or writing games specifically for old hardware. This is a truly is "retro" activity and should be treated as such.
However, a new game design movement is emerging that is very difficult to describe with the current set of accepted game genres (i.e. casual, core, retro, viral, mobile etc.). The new movement consists of new concepts, presented in retro fashion, but are not really retro games. These are not remakes, re-mixes, arrangements, remakes of old games with new graphics, or retro collections, nor are they pure play games for retro consoles. These games are something entirely different from genre I like to call: Post-Retro.
Post-Retro games are games that utilize a "retro" aesthetic mixed with both "retro" and "modern" game play elements to create a wholly new experience. The term "Post Retro" relates to "Post Modern" in that these games have "moved beyond" the pure nostalgia element of the "retro" game era and instead use "retro" as a platform for new ideas.
Post-Retro Game Features
Post-Retro games can, and have been implemented in variety of ways, making the boundaries of this genre a bit undefined at this point. However, there are some general features that many of these games contain. Not all games in this genre contain all of what is listed below, but they contain enough of them so that they are identifiable as part of the genre
- Plays Retro/Plays Modern: Game play that feels retro, but also feels not retro at the same time. (A paradox!). A sense that the game could have been made in the "retro" era but was not ever made, possibly because game design concepts have evolved since that era.
- Retro Aesthetic: Usually utilizes a retro graphical look (usually 8-bit, 16-bit or vector), and sound FX that match
- Modern Music : Music is one interesting factor that sets these games apart from retro remakes and straight retro games. Most games for the original golden age consoles had little or no music (computers games did, but that is a different story). While may of these games retain the 8 or 16-bit look of older games, they replace the relative background silence with music that is usually both trippy and/or hypnotic. Sound effects are still in place, but the sound mix puts them in the back behind the music, instead of in front. Sound effects usually match the retro look of the game.
- Hypnotic State: Another feature that many of these games have is sped-up, almost flowing game-play. In most games, "lives" and "score" are still important, but you get many more "lives" than you would have received in a traditional retro game. In a sense, these games are more about experiencing a "state" of "Post Retro" then about strictly being retro inspired games.
- Background Images: Hypnotic, moving background images to fill void space that once existed in retro games.
- Particle Effects: Massive particle effects that do not add much to game play, but add a kinetic and chaotic feel that did not necessarily exists in games from the classic era.
- No Nostalgia For Nostalgia's Sake: While these games might elicit a nostalgic feeling in certain gamers, they are designed as new experiences using (in part) a retro/nostalgic aesthetic.
- No-Remakes: No straight retro remakes. If a game is a version if an older game, the game play has been changed significantly so that it is recognizable as part of this genre.
Some emerging Post-Retro Game Features
- Automatic Shooting/Movement: This is fairly new, but these features remove some of the classic game play burden from the player so they can concentrate on the modern features
- Retro As The Starting Point: Another fairly new concept. This happens when a game uses the concept of "retro games" as the platform to create an entirely new game. I don't want to sound elitist here, but in some cases there is literary/arty feel to the games. This can occur as a deconstruction where he whole idea of certain games are torn-apart and turned-around and/or given multiple meanings, a metaphor, where the games takes on completely different meaning than what is presented, or even transcendence, where games are taken to a place beyond what they were initially created to do. (Note: Obviously this area is up to debate)
While the history of Post-Retro has not been fully examined yet, most of the features of Post-Retro games can be found in Jeff Minter's Tempest 2000 for the Atari Jaguar from 1993.
Seeing this game in action is like viewing a time capsule into the future from 1993. Minter's game includes nearly all aspects of the "post-retro". While the game-play is very much like Tempest, new elements are added as well. While still a bit basic, this game was a template for what post-retro would became 15 year later.
Still, while this game might be the spiritual fore-bearer of the "Post Retro" aesthetic, it's difficult to trace all this genre directly back to the game because not much else happened in between it's release in 1993 and the appearance of these types of games en mass in about 2007.
Instead of going the route of Tempest 2000, retro games took some different turns in the ensuing years. When Hasbro bought the Atari assets in 1998, they started to create modern versions of Atari classics like Missile Command, Pong , Breakout and Centipede. At the same time, Activision took up the idea to do the same thing with Battlezone and Asteroids. While some of these were fine games, they were not really "Post Retro" because they were more like remakes with a modern paint job.
The same goes can be said of"retro collections": multiple retro games in a single package that gained much popularity on the PS2. (i.e. Activision Anthology, Capcom Classics, Namco Museum). While some of the collections offered "remixed" or "arrangement" version of games with slight upgrades, for the most part they prided themselves on duplicating an exact classic gaming experience on a console.
While other examples of "Post Retro" games are bound to exist (send them if you have them) it was not until the current generation of consoles that we started seeing games in this movement taking shape. The real "ground zero" for these games and the emergence console "downloadable" era on the Xbox Live Arcade and Wiiware in 2007, as well as the viral, web Flash gaming explosion,
Post-Retro Game Examples
One of the best, first examples of "Post Retro" would be Geometry Wars. First released on Xbox Live Arcade in 2007, this game was a smash-hit that proved marketable games could be created by a very small team, and could be successful on the XBox Live Arcade. This game has a definite retro look and feel, but it adds a modern control mechanism, hypnotic music, and other FX. It's one of the first and best examples of the new "Post Retro" movement. It was also the both a creative and financial inspiration for many of the games on this list.
Since we credit Jeff Minter as one of the founder's of this genre, it would only be fair to add one of his own games to this initial list. Space Giraffe is an evolution of Tempest 2000, and that might also be it's downfall. While this game contains most of the post-retro aesthetic (including actual 8-bit sounds from one of Minter's original computer games games), and while it is does contain some major changes to the Tempest template, it's game-play is very close to a classic retro game. There is so much going-on however, that it becomes a very tough game to play rather quickly. That might explain it's limited appeal and slow sales as compared to some of the other games on this list.
Pac-Man Championship Edition is an odd but addictive beast, and it a is very good example of one strain of "Post-Retro": the classic game reborn. This game takes the main ideas of Pac-Man (eat all the dots, east power-ups to kill ghosts), and keeps them mostly unchanged. However, it changes the game-play just enough by adding morphing mazes and progressive game-play to make it an entirely different game than the original. You never finish a "level" in Pac-Man CE, you just finish a portion of a level, and then the play field alters itself and you keep going. This not insignificant change to the core game play makes the a wholly different and addictive game. You get the sense while playing this game, that this "should have been" the sequel to Pac-Man, but the state of game design at the time just could not have spawned this game. This is an important distinction for some of the best examples of "Post Retro". The sneaking feeling that some of these games could have saved the golden age of video games.
Bit Trip Beat/Bit Trip Core
Bit Trip Beat takes the game of Pong and turns it into a journey through an 8-bit landscape filled with all sorts of challenges related to a ball and paddle. However, calling this "Pong" is like calling Galaxy Wars "Asteroids". You can see the inspiration, there really is no comparison. While it has nearly every feature on the Post-Retro list, the most striking aspect of this game is that it feels like an Atari 2600 game that was never made...but could have been made (without the obvious modern FX) if only the idea had occurred to game developers back in the early 80's. However, at the same time, the game could not have been made because it's reliance on music and musical timing would have been nearly impossible to achieve on golden game consoles. Because of this, Bit Trip Beat might be the quintessential Post Retro game on this list.
The sequel, Bit Trip Core, is a similar take on shooters, but with the same feel as it's older brother.
Space Invaders Extreme And Galaga Legions
Both of these games take classic shooters and give them a Post-Retro make-over. Both have hypnotic soundtracks layered over classic sounds and graphics. Galaga Legions tends towards classic game play, while Space Invaders Extreme takes the whole concept of the original and deconstructs it. What is interesting is that both games have been made and remade over and over again for the past 25 years, but these Post-Retro versions stand-out far above any of those previous efforts.
Mark Essen's FlyWrench from IndieCade
FlyWrench takes a seemingly simple concept and turns it into a fascinating Post-Retro game. Your job is to fly your "avatar" through vector-graphic looking levels, morphing the shape to match the current obstacle that you need to overcome. The game is very difficult and very addictive. It layers modern music over classic graphics and sound FX. To be honest, a few seconds after seeing this game at E3, I knew it was part of this emerging trend. The game is striking example of how to take retro concepts to make a very new and interesting game.
Retro Game Challenge
Retro Game Challenge is very good example of another emerging trend in Post Retro: Transcendence. There are many meanings for Transcendence, but in this case it means "to go beyond". Basically, This type of games takes the actual act of playing a "retro game" and makes it into something much more. In Retro Game Challenge you play a young boy in the 80's who is visited by a man from the future who has challenged you to play through 8 different "Retro Games", trying to achieve certain objectives. These "challenges" are set-up in such a way, that playing the games themselves take a backseat to act of "playing a retro video game within a game". You get hints from virtual magazines, you input cheat codes, find hidden items, etc. However, most of these things happen inside the retro games that are inside Retro Game Challenge not in the actual game of Retro Game Challenge itself (if that makes sense). The difference here is that an entirely new game was created based on retro games, but it itself, is not a retro game, but more of a modern game. The retro genre is transcended to a completely new place: Post-Retro.
Bit Boy is a lot like Retro Game Challenge in that it takes the players through several levels, each inspired by a different "era" of video game graphics and game play. While it does not contain multiple games, it does take the player on a journey through retro games (and beyond), transcending the genre to make something totally new.
Post-Retro Viral Flash Games
Besides these commercial games, there are many viral Flash games that also fall into this category of Post-Retro. A great example as is the recent hit "Retroshoot" . We, ourselves, also have a game that sort of fits into this category named Retro Blaster, created more than two years ago.
A secondary offshoot of this genre would be the "turn the tables" retro games like Asteroids Revenge and Anti-Pac-Man. These games are good examples of a minor form deconstruction in Post-Retro viral Flash games, where the multiple meanings for the game-world exist simply by having the player take the non-traditional role of the "bad guy" from those classic games.
What Does This Mean For Indie Game Developers?
To me, there is no doubt the the genre of Post-Retro games exists and and is only growing. What then, can indie game developers learn from it?
Well, first of all, the fact that many (but not all) of these games have been very successful cannot be overlooked. It seems that people who buy downloadable games and play viral Flash games like this genre very much. It could also mean that the audience for "retro games" is getting much more sophisticated. You might not be able to settle on a pure retro inspired game and hope for it to build any kind of audience. Most likely you need to add "something more" to mix to get your game noticed.
If you are interested in making a game in this genre, here is my advice: Take a look at a couple old games, and try visualize what it would look like a Post Retro game. What would you add to the classic concept that could not have been achieved when the game was first released? Would it transcend or deconstruct the original game, layer modern game design elements on top, both or neither? I'm truly fascinated by this emerging trend, and I look forward to playing all any new games in this genre.