Newly old things

[PS2 games] (2)

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: 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.

15 thoughts on “Newly old things

  1. “…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” 😂😂

    I feel like a large part of ‘retro’ is relative. It’s to do with returning to a different era in the trajectory of your own personal relationship with games. Up to N64 feels retro to me. After that less so. There’s a watershed there for me, between the consoles I grew up with and the ones I played as an adult with a job and bills.

    Maybe that’s not the case for everyone, but I think it must be for some. That a person’s sense of what’s retro is so tied to their own life that it can’t be universally defined.

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    1. Definitely! I do feel we need more of an acknowledgement of how ~personal~ that retro/not retro line is – like the non-difference between “Dad rock” and “That music I grew up with” :D

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  2. It’s actually really easy, you see. Everything that happened after I finished school in 2000 isn’t and can’t ever be retro. That would mean I’m old. And that’s illegal.

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  3. Great points and it is odd how the cut-off line hasn’t moved for so long, even though as you point out it moved plenty before the PS2 era. Playing some of the early popular PS2 games they certainly don’t feel particularly less distant from now than the PS1 ones before then. Although that might come back to personal perceptions and the fact that that the PS1 is the only console I actually played at the time until the Wii.

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  4. Great post (as always :D)!

    I often think about how certain games have been with us for way longer than it might feel. World of Warcraft is way older now than Warcraft was when World of Warcraft came out. Half-Life fans had to wait a whopping 6 years for Half-Life 2 to come out… but it’s been over 12 years between Episode 2 and Alyx!

    I think in the PC space, some games don’t feel retro despite their age because they’ve been actively played and developed for their entire lifetime. Like Skyrim – it’s older now than Morrowind was when it came out! But in the 9 years since its release it got expansions, and re-releases, and most importantly mods. It’s a living, changing game – you can come back to it now and have a new experience with it.

    The points you raised about the PS2 are very interesting – especially how the console’s legacy doesn’t feel as ancient as it should. Very good observation about how a lot changes since then have been incremental rather than revelatory.

    I am also very excited for people to start (or keep, since some have been doing it!) rediscovering the PS3/360 catalogues. In general, conversations about games can be way more fun once they are removed from the context of marketing, hype, expectations etc.

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    1. Good points all round, especially on the difference active support (official or otherwise) can make!

      I can’t wait to see people digging into the untapped potential of these back catalogues and unearth the treasures we missed :D

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  5. Good observations. I also get the feel that the term ‘Retro’ seems to be deeply linked with pixel graphics. Although the development in 3D engines is substantial, I certainly agree they’re not as big as a shift from 2D to 3D.

    It’s been pointed out that we also seem to have a severe disconnect in recognizing just how many years have passed.
    It’s being excellently visualized by the pictures floating around on twitter which state that not pixel graphically Final Fantasy VI is 20 years ago, but the 3D and still nicely looking Final Fantasy X is, just like you mentioned as well.

    Love your articles.

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    1. You’re very kind, thank you!

      And good point bringing that “FFX was 20 years ago” image – it’s as accurate as it is funny :)

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  6. Great read! I went a little bug-eyed when I heard that the game boy classics were marketed as such no more than 10 years after their original release (fairly certain I’ve seen photos of WWII soldiers having a break with Centipede…). This puts into focus a broader question – has the advancement of technology warped our collective sense of time?

    I’m just upset at how prohibitive access to the PS2’s library is. It was never accessibly emulated (I don’t want to hear about that mythical BC PS3, which was virtually unobtainable a mere 4 years after release), and completely region locked (even if you could get a mythical first gen PS3). Comparatively little of its library has been made accessible in modern consoles (sure, FFX will be bundled until the end of time, but Bumpy Trot? Sakurazaka Shouboutai? Even freaking Urban Reign?! Never. Ever.)

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  7. I think another reason people have a hard time calling the PS2 retro, is because of just how long it’s lifespan was. Here in Greece, I could go into public (local multimedia store chain) a couple of years ago, and STILL find a handful of brand new sealed PS3 games. I remember getting a ps3 late into its life span, and 2 years later had a friend excited to be getting his first console, a PS2!

    Personally, I saw the Gamecube as retro years before I ever considered the PS2 as such, despite the PS2 being the weaker console hardware wise. I think there is just a lot of small factors that influence what people view as retro.

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  8. I think much of it has to do with who is dominating games discussion. On bigger gaming forums the median age seems to be slightly above 30 which means for many people the PS2 is around the cutoff time between youth and adulthood. Look around at places that have a significantly younger audience and I doubt they’ll see the PS2 as anything other than “old”.

    One other thing: As mentioned above the PS2 never really made it to a state where it’s easy to emulate its games (yet). I feel that the emergence of emulators such as ZSNES (and others like it, please don’t use ZSNES anymore) is what significantly helped building the retro scene. And you just can’t as easily keep a complete set of PS2 DVD-rips to try a little bit of everything.

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