“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit — all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”
Brian Eno — A Year With Swollen Appendices, Faber and Faber | 1996
Videogames have come a long way since their arrival in popular culture. From Pong to Pacman to Perfect Dark to Persona 5, the advancements within the medium have been swift and stunning. Many games nowadays pride themselves on their photorealism, urging players to dig into every gritty detail of the images displayed before them. But as games have advanced further and further into these digital imitations of the real world, many developers have continued to make games that adhere to the aesthetics of old.
That first line of the Brian Eno quote I read earlier, that whatever we find weird or ugly about a new medium will be cherished and emulated as soon as it can be avoided, really hits the nail on the head. Though we were once bound by the constraints of game engines and hardware that could only handle a few pixelated characters or prerendered backgrounds, our ability to transcended those boundaries allows us the means to mold them in our own image and create games that — while filled to the gills with myriad quality of life improvements brought about by modern game development — look, feel, and sound like the games we grew up with.
If you look at the vocabulary we use to describe the modern gaming landscape, it becomes more than a little apparent that we view much of 21st century gaming through the lens of what came before it. You’ll hear something described as a “Doom clone” or a “spiritual successor” to games like SystemShock or Half-Life. We even label whole genres by the games that inspired them. We have “Roguelikes” for games inspired by 1980’s Rogue, and “Metroidvanias” for games styled after 1986’s Metroid or Castlevania — these classifications sometimes even acting as adjectives to other game genres. In the past decade we’ve seen retro-styled games like Hyper Light Drifter, Fez, Celeste, Strafe, Void Bastards, Project Warlock, Dusk, Dead Cells, Blasphemous, and titles like the recently announced Bomb Rush Cyberfunk carve out their own corner of the gaming landscape, even amidst a sea of more “modern” titles. We’ve even seen modern amalgamations of multiple older titles, like the fan-made Sonic Robo Blast 2, a 3D Sonic game built on the Doom ’93 engine.
So if we’ve always been thinking about these kinds of vintage amusements, when exactly did our obsession with emulating them begin? Well, that’s a little harder to pin down. I think, in a way, “retro” feeling games have always been with us. We can look at a modern side-scroller like Blasphemous or a modern point-and-click like Roki and see the fingerprints of their predecessors, just as we can look at any number of modern FPS titles and see how they’ve drawn inspiration from games that came before. But I think the reductionist trap many of us often fall into is seeing all side-scrolling games as “retro”, or all point-and-click games as “retro”, since we perceive those to be some of the earliest established genres within the medium.
As I was working on this script my thoughts kept returning to two modern games — one you may have heard of, and one that may be completely off your radar. The first game is Halo: Infinite, the sixth title in the famed sci-fi shooter series and the third developed by Microsoft-owned 343 Industries, and the second is the newest title from independent developer Virtuoso Neomedia: a seafaring dogfighter called Zodiac XX. Both titles are prime examples of the now blurred line between “modern” and “retro” games.
Zodiac XX is a game so packed with character that it might as well be its own Super Smash Bros. roster. Though the anti-facist narrative is undeniably a product of the modern era, the art, gameplay, user interface, music, and sound design all scream the praises of an era of gaming long gone from the spotlight. Zodiac XX is the type of game you’d write a Last Starfighter-style screenplay about. It’s the kind of game you lose a whole night’s worth of quarters to at the arcade. If you’d told me it was some lost Dreamcast title that had been resurrected and optimized for modern systems, I would’ve believed you. But it’s not. It’s a game from 2020.
But while it should be obvious why Zodiac XX’s heavy metal/pop-rock/jazz-fusion early-Japanese-import inspired look and soundtrack might make one recall perhaps a classic Ace Combat or other turn-of-the-century dogfighting game, why would Halo: Infinite spark thoughts of “retro” gaming in my mind? If you look back at the list I mentioned of “retro” styled games published in the modern era — including Zodiac XX — you likely noticed that all of them are indies. What bearing does a next gen, AAA, first-person-shooter have on an analysis of retro games? Well, depending on when you’re watching this video, you may have seen the recently released Halo: Infinite gameplay footage that was shown off as part of the virtual Xbox showcase in June of 2020. The footage was very reminiscent in style to the early Halo titles, but once fans were able to pick apart the footage frame by frame, many were surprised by how the game actually looked up close. Halo has always been a franchise that has pushed the FPS genre forward, both in terms of gameplay and graphical fidelity, but it seemed to many that this most recent entry was a step backward — especially for a game that was set to release as part of the next generation of game consoles. Now, I’m not at all qualified to comment on whether or not that is true, I’m not an artist or a professional game developer, but I’ll repeat what others more knowledgeable than I have said. Oftentimes the discussion of “graphics” is really a discussion of Art Style. Graphics has become something of a blanket layman’s term for the look of any given game, but really what we’re talking about is the Art Style and Art Direction.
If someone were to look at a game like Hyper Light Drifter and say, “That game has such bad graphics”, purely because it’s a pixel art game and the unfortunate Game-Critique-er in question only likes photorealistic titles, their observation would be wrong. Now what you might be more correctly able to say (though I don’t think you should) is, “I don’t enjoy the color palette in this section of the game” or “I don’t think this is good character design”. These are actual criticisms, even if they lack validity. “This game has bad graphics”, is more often than not, an uninformed and incorrect observation of a given work of videogame entertainment — rooted in a lack of knowledge of the medium.
But what about Halo? From where I sit it definitely feels like 343i is trying to get back to the mood and feeling of the original three Bungie developed Halo games, but with a nice coat of AAA polish. They have said in interviews after the release of the gameplay footage that the video players saw was not representative of the final look of the game, and more polish was yet to be done — even announcing in August of 2020 that the game was being delayed from 2020 into 2021. I’ll go back to Brian Eno for a second here. Though Halo has often been at the forefront of pushing forward the limits of graphical fidelity, 343 — free of the burdens of previous generations of console hardware — appears to have chosen to emulate an older, softer art style in order to more authentically capture that early Halo charm. In this regard, I’d say Halo 6 is the first “retro” Halo title. And please comment if you disagree. It’s a win/win for me. If you don’t comment I’ll assume you agree with me and if you do comment it will push this video further into the algorithm — only making me stronger.
At some level I think a lot of this comes down to nostalgia. Nostalgia is a big selling point, as should be obvious from the amount of re-releases and remasters we’ve seen hit the shelves as of late. The 2019 remaster of Link’s Awakening or the 2020 Final Fantasy 7 are direct attempts to cash in on this feeling, but I think our interest in “retro” feeling games — at least in terms of original IPs like Hyper Light Drifter or Blasphemous — has to do with the texture and feeling of nostalgia. Do these games feel like the ones we knew growing up, the ones that caused us to fall in love with this medium in the first place? Do they sound like the games we played as kids? As the medium continues to advance into next gen we’ll continue to see developers of all stripes making games like these, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. It’s all about taking those things you loved and making them your own.