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Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The “This Game Is Now Retro” Line

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - Where is it now?

Back in 2003–2007, much of KoopaTV's staff were using the official Nintendo NSider Forums ran by Nintendo of America. That was the era of the GameCube (and a little bit of the Wii). In those times, we considered the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES—1985 to around 1994) and Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES—1991 to around 1997) to be “retro.” Basically, if you're 12 or so years back, you were retro.

Per Wiktionary, retro is defined as “Of, or relating to, the past, past times, or the way things were.”

According to game developer Mega Cat Studios, it's 20+ years back, but their idea of nostalgia is the NES and SNES, and all of their games reflect that. According to the untrustworthy folks at Man Crates (though that links to a good article), “retro” and “nostalgia” are inherently intertwined concepts.

Logically, the line for what's considered retro has moved since 2007, right? It's 2020. We're at least two to three generations ahead of where we were back then. That means the 64-bit consoles are retro. The PlayStation 2-GameCube-Xbox trio is certainly retro as well. I mean, if you consider the SEGA Dreamcast retro, it only follows you would also consider the consoles that came out around then to be retro, too. It also means the big three console manufacturers (Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft) have at least one “retro” console in their history.

Are the Wii, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 retro?

Well... It's certainly possible. When the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X release, there will be the same console-generation (since, despite their reported demise, generations are still a visible thing) gap between those and the GameCube vs. SNES. It's also possible that anything you feel nostalgic for is retro, and you can certainly feel nostalgic for, say, Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

What if the factor isn't time, but how much different game design is now compared to back in the day? We can try comparing, say, Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988, NES), Super Mario Sunshine (2002, GCN), and Super Mario Odyssey (2017, Switch). Perhaps The Legend of Zelda, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? Those are approximately equal lengths of time apart, too. Back in 2003, we considered Super Mario Sunshine to be cutting-edge, and Super Mario Bros. 3 to be retro. Now in 2020, we should similarly find Super Mario Sunshine to be retro...

Videogames what is considered retro line continuum Super Mario Bros. 3 Sunshine Odyssey
Yes, Super Mario Bros. 3 is obviously retro.
Super Mario Odyssey is obviously not retro.
But what of games in-between like Super Mario Sunshine, which aren't far off from today's games but are clearly old?

...While there is a world of difference between Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario Sunshine, I don't think that applies to Super Mario Sunshine vs. Super Mario Odyssey, in spite of massive differences in processing power and graphical capabilities afforded to their respective generations. Super Mario Odyssey is directly influenced by Super Mario Sunshine... and they're not that far apart. That's not a phenomenon specific to this one example. Lots of sequels today, or even new franchises, are direct derivatives of existing products. Just bigger and prettier. Maybe that could be why someone would object to defining the early 2000s as “retro”—the game design philosophies back then are largely still in use now. But many of the design philosophies of the 1980s are gone now. And that's a good thing, because a lot of those are inspired by arcade games and fake difficulty.

Why, the biggest defining factor of how games are different now than 20 years ago are things like games-as-a-service and micro-transactions. (And making everything open-world.) Those aren't great things for an era to be known by, and those certainly aren't world-changing like the transition from 2D to 3D. This, and past generations, are so devoid of a massive (positive) game design shift that indie games that get much of their appeal from having 1980s and 1990s-era retro styling have grown to become massively popular, I guess partly due to backlash.

I'm perfectly willing to say the late-1990s and early-2000s are retro. I think we should wait a year or two before the rest of the 2000s are retro, if only because the PlayStation 3 still doesn't seem very old yet. Persona 5 released on the PlayStation 3 in 2017, after all. (But the Nintendo Switch still lacks it...)

Ludwig isn't sure what can actually qualify as the next evolution of game design after 3D besides something like virtual reality, which isn't mainstream at all right now and hardly qualifies (in 2020) as a new era in gaming. That failure shouldn't stop games from a whole human generation ago to be considered retro, however. Let Ludwig know in the comments section if he's underselling the current crop of games, or if you think “retro” should only be from the 1980s and early 1990s and should never be updated even if another decade passes.


  1. Imo 15 years old is a good ballpark estimate of when something turns retro. Don't ask why, it's just what feels right to me.

    1. Well, guess that means the PSWii60 will be retro next year!

  2. I feel like there should be another word used. To me the word retro refers to a very specific time period of games, or maybe even a specific style. That being 8 or 16 bits. Super Mario 64 is old indeed and probably considered Retro by many, I myself have always thought of it as old but never with the word retro. Now that I'm typing out the word multiple times it's starting to sound kinda funny, Retro Retro Retro Retro! At any rate, I know I'm going to have a very hard time seeing things like Pikmin 3 Deluxe or Mario Odyssey as retro when the years finally pass by.

    1. "8-bit and 16-bit era" or maybe "sprites era" should be what you say; "retro" by definition has a shifting timespan.


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