The modern retro gamer is really quite spoiled. We've got access to pretty much every old game ever released and, while we used to pay £10 for an average Spectrum game, we can now go online and download that same game for free in less time than it took to open the cassette box.
But that's not to say there isn't still an industry based around those classic titles. Aging IP that's gone unwanted and valueless for well over a decade is finding its fiscal significance once again rising. We spoke to Sean Walsh, Product Manager at XPLOSIV, to find out what challenges and riches a developer can find in the retro bargain bin.
"Budget range games are nothing new. There's always been a market for lower priced titles which, in all honesty, represents a significant part of the computer and videogame market. XPLOSIV is a label within Empire Interactive that focuses on products directed at a lower price point, primarily on Playstation 2, PSP and PC. Although we all wait on pins and needles for the big new releases, this corner of the market is wonderfully creative and prolific; no publisher can ignore it and survive." begins Sean, drawing the kind of distinct, yet all too difficult to find, parallel between the modern games industry and that of yesteryear we so love to celebrate.
And what he says is true. Although the years of worry lines and cracks of responsibility across our maturing faces might have changed, our game buying habits have remained decidedly ageless. The infamous "budget range" is an aspect of gaming that's all too easy to overlook with our rose tinted microscopes, and yet the shelves in our bedrooms sank under the weight of affordable gaming; not just big name titles.
Games were simpler and quicker, and we needed a regular, affordable fix. Those single cassette boxes were a potential gold mine of lesser known and "past-their-sell-by" games, exploited by the spendthrift joystick junky 20-years hence every bit as much as today's "platinum" game collector.
But the "budget range" has mingled with the retro vogue so thoroughly it's becoming hard to see the divide. Certainly one trend in our buying habits is new; cheap never used to be fashionable. These days, there's a very real appeal to something that's inexpensive, kitsch or camp. We veer away from the designer goods and look toward the small guy to provide for our trend-setting needs. At one time we bought cheap games because they were cheap - our expectations lowered in accordance with the price tag. But now we're scouring the shelves for labels that are deliberately targeting this new mode, as Sean explains:
"The games industry is growing up and over the last three to four years, gamers are now able to look back at the history of games with fondness and see how they've changed and grown. Just like music and movies, they remind us of our youth. This is the kind of appeal that can't be manufactured, hyped or diverged, but a good developer or publisher can supply to it; so long as they make a special effort to get involved and really understand it.
"Our Taito Legends series have been hugely popular because we put a lot of thought into exactly what the compilations would offer to the "retro" players. We knew they'd be well received because we'd chosen so many great titles that complimented each other - making every effort to provide not just a few good old games, but a complete nostalgic experience. It's not just the individual games - it's the collection as a whole that's designed to provoke an evocative reaction."
Sean raises a good point. Time hasn't been especially kind to many of those old games we remember so fondly. Once the dust has been blown away, a few minutes of reminiscence can often purge the distorted memories of exciting gameplay. But strength can be found in unison, and a well devised compilation - put together by someone of a likeminded disposition toward classic gaming - can stir contiguous reminiscences of the time spent playing those games, and not necessarily the game itself. While Altered Beast, for instance, may be a stilted, uneventful game these days, remembering what it was like when the werewolf filled the screen of a coin-op cabinet and roared a guttural, baseline howl into a deafening arcade air, the suffering game recaptures much of its old appeal.
Of course, all our memories are different, and triggering the correct associations is not a question of science, but art. This is an industry that's not entirely developer led; we've unknowingly helped shape it ourselves through years of youthful recollection. But do the developers accept they're playing more to our tune than their own; taking a dangerously unreliable lead from our desires to relive a misspent youth, or are they simply deciphering marketing patterns that we, as individuals, aren't able to see?
"To be honest, I think it's a bit of both. The huge sales of titles like the Midway Collections and our own Taito Legends at XPLOSIV prove people do want to play the games they played when they were younger. But it'd be a disaster if we just grabbed old games at random and put them together on a disk. We need to know what games people loved, and provide accordingly. Like I said, we simply can't manufacture 20-years of appeal, so we've got a difficult task when it comes to understanding which retro games will flourish again, and which people have deliberately tried to forget!" laughs Sean, happily resigned to the conundrum faced by all publishers and developers who're trying to provide for the fickle mature gamer.
And indeed we are fickle. As already discussed, there's a certain intangible quality that we, as retro gamers, can't even define, yet fully expect when we pay once again for an old game. Taito Legends and Midway Collections may have proven popular, but enough other retro titles have failed to recapture their glory by missing out on some elusive aspect of their re-re-re-release.
This also begs the question that maybe the retro industry itself is a fad - that we capricious players will once again clamour for the next new innovation, as we did when we callously (and, in retrospect, unadvisedly) cast lush 2-D games to the wind in favour of lifeless 3-D titles of the early ‘90s.
"In this modern, busy lifestyle a simple but addictive game is perfect to fit into the 20-minutes of free time most people have got these days. If for no other reason than that, I think "retro" is here to stay. There'll always be gamers wanting to play older games, but just as many who'll want to play fast, addictive games, which makes these two aspects of the industry so wonderfully compatible." explains Sean.
Indeed, the term "retro" has taken on a meaning and connotation all of its own due to the massive, global revival culture that's permeating our entertainment mediums. The word "antique" might just about suit in terms of literal definition, but lacks the useable, regenerative nature of classic games. Neither does simply calling them "old" instil the correct sense of fun we know to be true of a great game, so instead we've adopted the categorically ambiguous word "retro" and saturated it with new sentiment.
Because of this new definition of an old word, we have the liberty of leaving the boundaries of its meaning in a state of flux. When exactly does something become retro? What is it if it's now too old to be retro? If we're honest, we don't want these questions answered, as that would interfere with the nebulous quantification of childhood we're enjoying right now. But, according to Sean, retro is also open to progression - a concept which at first seems contradictory, but isn't necessarily so.
"Retro will evolve. It already has done. A few years ago it was all about original arcade machines and 8-bit games. Now it's 16-bit that's proving massively popular, with Megadrive and SNES titles appearing on the Wii and X360. Soon it will be PSOne collections. As current technology moves forward, so does its capability to recreate the advancements seen 20-years ago. For us, that's one of the real beauties of being involved in the retro industry!
"But that's not to say we can just sit back and follow a simple, linear progression of releases. We have to look at all opportunities for all formats, and weigh up the market for each release and see where each title fits best. It's the difference between deciding whether a game will be best received as part of a multi-format, commercial collection, or whether it'd stand alone on a download platform. Double Dragon, for example, is a great start for Empire on XBLA and we have the hugely popular Speedball II coming soon. Luckily we have the legendary Bitmap Brothers handling the XBLA version of Speedball II so the game is in the best possible hands. But these are powerful, respected titles that demand to be released under their own weight, and not as headliners on a collection. We have to be very careful to respect the way gamers feel about certain games, even if they're not particularly conscious of it themselves." says Sean.
As a massive Double Dragon fan, I can appreciate Sean's point quite personally. Seeing the conversion bearing up under its own formidable weight on XBLA feels like a fitting testament to a classic coin-op. Seeing it being used to shore up a host of anaemic titles on another compilation would betray my sentiment of what a great game it was. Of course, I place absolutely no conscious thought into this as I pick up a controller - I simply want what I want, and fully expect the industry to provide it without question or hesitation!
And, it seems, we're also generating subtle undercurrents within the retro industry. Genres are re-explored, while others seem to lull. Then, as Sean himself let slip, other games are totally dissected and prepared anew for the next generation of gamers; a cunning tactic that allows us, the mature obsessives, to knock gaming elbows with the younger, casual twitch players (the majority of whom are our own, beleaguered offspring). Speedball is the prime example, as Sean himself explains.
"Speedball II is a true gaming great with a very dedicated and loyal fan base. It's still one of the best 'sports' games available, with its frantic action and competitive gameplay. It was actually an independent decision, away from the updated PC version, to put this onto XBLA. We feel that the game, in its original state, is the one that everyone's crying out for on Live. As well as getting the classic version of Speedball II, exactly as people know and love it, they'll also get an HD version with newly modelled players and arenas all in shiny high definition.
As mentioned previously, the Bitmap Brothers are handling the development of the XBLA version of Speedball II so we get the exact game the fans love and the attention to detail that only the Bitmaps can bring to this title. It's our intention and hope that we'll be providing the retro experience people really cherish, while still giving them something new. For me, that's the pinnacle of a good retro game; personally and from a business perspective."
It seems that publishers and developers of retro games must face a delicate balancing act, with continuously shifting rules set by a market that, by its very definition, refuses to adhere to established trends. But so long as we keep our playing habits fresh and varied, researching the depths of classic gaming and not simply splashing around in the shallow end with repetitious talk of Street Fighter 2, Sonic and Mario, we're inadvertently refining the future retro market and sustaining our gaming enjoyment for years to come.