Sony’s PlayStation 2 is now twenty-one years old, the console now old enough to work, vote, leave home, get married, and belt out karaoke classics in the pub to a crowd of people who suddenly realise they’re not drunk enough to enjoy the spirited vocal performance they’re being subjected to. The hardware’s critical and commercial achievements can’t be overstated, nor does the technology housed within feel as old as it probably should – Final Fantasy X, XI, and XII are all available on modern formats, their slight tweaks either improving what was already there or… doing what Final Fantasy X did. Zone of the Enders II, Phantom Brave, and Devil May Cry 3 are all now on Steam and elsewhere with little more changed than the resolution – nobody’s complaining. Looking only at the console itself the PlayStation 2 came with a built-in DVD player (still a handy thing to have around the house) and with its wide variety of official accessories could do anything from go online to print out screenshots from Gran Turismo 4 (really!) to control games using only an EyeToy and your own body movements.
My point being that in spite of its advanced age it doesn’t look, feel, or get treated in the same way “retro” gaming is served up to us: not the ignorant TV show style – the beeps, boops, the N64 controller held upside-down, someone yelling “But mum! I just need to kill the Mecha Dragon Lord!” as the screen shows them playing Super Mario Bros 3 – and not in the same way enthusiasts pay for gorgeous coffee table art books or reverently dissect the plot or game design of universally-agreed classics either – and this is even though the console’s existed for over half of my nigh forty year lifespan (my apologies to anyone who perhaps thought I was young and cool).
This weird disconnect between “old” (and the PlayStation 2 is old) and “retro” got me thinking: What is “retro gaming”, does “retro” change over time, and does it matter anyway?
Retro gaming is, well, old stuff isn’t it? The passage of time neatly taking games from new to old to this mysterious other state known as “retro” – or it would be if it weren’t for the fact that time is never more elastic and unknowable than when used to define periods of gaming: Some games have been retro for almost as long as they’ve existed – Space Invaders, Asteroids, Missile Command – titles recognised as the foundations of the entire industry. In those early days everything moved so fast even the Master System and original Game Boy had “classic” compilations and re-releases, enabling users to play the likes of Centipede and Pac-Man in the comfort of their own homes roughly a decade after their arcade debuts – half the gap between the PlayStation 2’s Ridge Racer V-filled launch and now. To put it another way – significantly more time has passed between Metal Gear Solid 2‘s release and today than there was between Defender‘s arcade introduction and its inclusion on Williams Arcade’s Greatest Hits for the SNES.
So if it’s not just about being old, is it a generational thing then?
Nobody would bat an eyelid if I called the consoles and computers I grew up with – the Amiga 500, Saturn, SNES, and all the rest – “retro”, that’s just what they are, aren’t they? They’re not advanced enough to be anything else. But to use perceived power as a straightforward is/isn’t indicator of their retro status flies uncomfortably close to erasing a huge part of the hardware’s history: The Mega Drive came proudly emblazoned with “16-BIT” on its sleek black shell because advertising its next-gen arcade quality power was a key component of its early success. And the SNES? You couldn’t move at the time for talk of “Mode 7” effects, sprite scaling, 256 simultaneous colours (transparencies too!), and the Super FX chip. Nothing was more powerful than the SNES, and that mattered – that was the 16-bit home console capable of running Doom without having to buy either an expensive add-on or invest in a whole new system entirely. What about the style of game then? Those perfectly balanced action games from Treasure, Konami, and Capcom. Square and Enix’s magnificent RPGs. Atlus‘ too. Gleylancer. Musha Aleste. Sapphire. They don’t make games like that any more, do they?
No they don’t. They don’t make crummy licensed titles like Cliffhanger, Blues Brothers 2000, and Hudson Hawk either. We’ve also been free of in-game advertising for Chupa Chups, Cheetos, and Quavers for decades now, thank goodness. Remember Cool Spot, a game based on nothing more than 7 UP’s then-current mascot? Or Capcom charging full price money to play as Street Fighter II‘s bosses? Now we – those of us who have the time, money, and typing skills to do so – have the ability to politely push aside the resounding chart successes of Nineties versions of the exact same mix of sports titles and popular IPs we tut at the ignorant masses buying today and can choose to carefully pick our way through gaming’s past and spend our days elevating hero-questioning tales or discussing how inventive Rocket Knight Adventures was instead. It all sounds a bit… gatekeep-y to me: I play retro games (Greendog: The Beached Surfer Dude), I appreciate real classics (Brutal: Paws of Fury), whereas the children who grew up with an Xbox 360 (now a sixteen year old console) were forced to make do with crass commercial products like Halo (twenty years old this year), Skyrim (ten years old this year) and Lost Planet 2 (one of the greatest games of all time), the poor things.
The Mega Drive was “retro” when the Dreamcast was still available – a decade and just one Sega console separating the two – so why shouldn’t the PlayStation 2 – now three Sony’s and two decades behind not be considered retro too?
Is it… Gah. This is one of those questions where you’ll ask ten people for an opinion and get thirteen answers back. Some of it has got to be down to the way hardware has progressed: changes have become incremental rather than epochal, creating a comfortable slide between generations – shinier floors, better shadows, longer draw distances, less texture pop-in (Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s infamous door excluded) – when we once had almighty leaps. I think the only thing to do is to use this nebulous term responsibly and with good intentions; to acknowledge the passage of time, to use the term not to exclude others but as a happy excuse to revisit and re-evaluate the games of now dormant hardware in exactly the same way we already have done for the now definitively “retro” formats. It was a transformative act for those libraries (who honestly spoke of Shin Megami Tensei, Wonder Project J, or even Metal Slug before we started digging past the OK-ish racing games and titles based on long-dead cartoons that used to regularly fill up magazines and forums?), and there’s no reason why it won’t be the same for a “modern” library like the PS3 or Xbox 360’s. In fact it takes nothing more than a quick online search to reveal forgotten oddball RPGs like Folklore, Eternal Sonata, and Lost Odyssey – and those were all readily available worldwide. Look into Japan-only imports and you’ll soon bump into EX Troopers, Boku no Natsuyasumi 3, and the only home port of timeless Cave shmup Mushihimesama Futari. We should embrace these newly old consoles as “retro” – as something closed and “done” and ripe for the picking – and see all the wonderful things we’ve been missing or left behind, (re)discovering and celebrating the treasures we find there until we forget there was ever a time we didn’t all adore them, the same way we now do the likes of Bahamut Lagoon and Phantasy Star IV.