Were Retro Games Really that Great?

When you take a look at Steam, you’ll notice a plethora of 8- and 16-bit inspired games. Many try to recapture the essence of games like the original Ninja Gaiden, Contra and, of course, Super Mario Brothers. There’s a strong sense of nostalgia in the video game community especially for the “Golden Age” of gaming. I occasionally fall into the same trap. Heck we all do in certain aspects of our lives whether we’re talking about movies, books or just ‘the good old days.’

It’s easy to get nostalgic. We tend to look at our past with rose-tinted glasses because we’re holding onto the good memories while the bad memories fade away. It’s one of the reasons why so many people look back at bad relationships with fondness many years down the road. I’d wager it’s the same with video games.

The Golden Age of Gaming

For many gamers, myself included, the NES was the first console we had. Sure, we played at the arcade, but having a console at home was an entirely different experience. You didn’t have to wait in line to play your favorite games, you only had to pay once for a game instead of spending all your hard-earned quarters, and, most of all, you had all the time in the world to beat a level…well as much time as your parents allotted.

There was a sense of wonder associated with playing games on the TV. Who would have imagined it! I know I played Mario and Duckhunt for hours. Then later we got Nobunaga’s Ambition, Tecmo Bowl and Tetris. Even my parents loved playing. In fact, they’d put us to bed and secretly play Tetris while we were “sleeping.”

As time passed, technology evolved and games became more complex. Soon we games evolved to 3D and now we have VR/AR. Yet despite all of these advancements gamers seem to be even more unsatisfied than before. More often than not you’ll hear them wax poetic about a retro game like the first Ninja Gaiden or, of course, Super Mario Brothers. Even game developers look to these older games for guidance on how to make a “great” game. While that’s not a bad idea in and of itself, there’s a lot that has changed – not just graphics and processing power.

Tutorial Levels

One of the biggest complaints I see today with new games is that they “handhold” you through the intro experience. You’ll often have developers point out Super Mario Brothers or Mega Man as great examples of how games taught users through gameplay the basics of the game. While I think that’s true to a certain extent, they also forget these games came with instruction manuals on how to actually play the game.

Console games still have these manuals, but more and more people are turning to Steam to digitally download their games. These don’t come with any instructions! That means the developer has to provide in-game prompts to introduce the button schemes. Of course, there are games that take this to the extreme, but ultimately what might seem like “hand-holding” is how developers teach users how to play.

If there were no obvious instructions, I’m pretty sure gamers would complain the game didn’t work. For example, when testing out The Painter’s Apprentice we showed people how to jump in our tutorial world. We then provided their first obstacle, a jump too high to reach with a single one. I can’t tell you how many players couldn’t figure out the double jump. Some did, after a couple tries, but many stated I should have it printed out. Where does  hand-holding begin and end?


The above is just bad level design. Apparently you need specific shoes to make the jump, but they appear randomly in shops…
I know there are people that thrive on frustratingly difficult levels. I’m not one of them. With that said, there needs to be a certain amount of challenge. Again, many gamers point to older games as perfect examples of difficulty. When you actually play older games today though, many are way too hard and punishing. Games like Mario and Ninja Gaiden rely on pixel perfect jumps to extend the gameplay. As well, there are just some levels that are meant to act as filler to keep you from progressing to the end too quickly (looking at you World 7-4). I’d even complain about the controls being a bit too touchy and the jumps a little too float-y. Certainly, you could say that it takes some time to get used to, but I think this is where the trouble comes in – we have thousands of games we could be playing right this second.

This is where the problem starts. There are so many choices available to gamers today. Back in the NES days there were only 712 games TOTAL for the system. The PS4 alone has aroudn 1,300 games. When you add in Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and Steam, you’re looking at almost 20,000 games and that’s not counting previous generation consoles or mobile games!

With NES games, we would spend hours and hours trying to beat a level because 1) we had time since we were kids and 2) THERE WAS NOT MUCH ELSE TO PLAY! I know this isn’t a popular opinion, but I think most games today are better balanced than older ones. Sure, some might be a bit on the easy side, but there are plenty that offer a good mix of challenge and fun.

And that’s what I want when I play a game – fun. I’m okay with a bit of difficulty, but I have zero desire to replay a level 5, 10, 20 times to build up “muscle memory” so I know how to do a jump just right. And while I think there are people who don’t mind it, I’m sure there are many more who are like me. Today, game and level design has evolved to the point where something can still be difficult, but not punishing. And I believe it’s because there’s more competition. While there will always be a special place in my heart for Super Mario Brothers, I don’t believe it’s the pinnacle of gaming.

The Power of Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. In fact, marketers use it as a way to get people interested in a product. What makes it such a great tool? As Forbes states, “Reliving positive memories and beloved icons from the past feels good.  Alongside hectic work schedules, unrelenting responsibilities, and more, fond memories make us smile — and that leaves us open to brand messaging.”

So were old games really that good? In one sense, yes they were. At the time. When it came out Super Mario Brothers offered an entirely new gaming experience. While it didn’t create the platforming genre, it certainly exemplified it and ultimately brought the genre into the spotlight. For that reason, Super Mario Brothers was and still is a great game. When stacked against today’s games though, I’d say many older games only remain in high esteem with gamers because it was one of the first games they played. And that’s okay.

For many game developers, like us, these games inspired us to start creating. We daydream about providing an experience on the same level as Super Mario Brothers or Contra. That’s the goal. And, of course, we can still learn quite a lot from older games whether it’s level design or working within the confines of budget or technology. So while I don’t think we should hold “retro” games as the shining example of what games should be, I do think they’re excellent resources.