[Soapbox] What Is Retro?

July 3, 2023

“Retro” is one of those things that, as it pertains to video games, doesn’t have a single, definitive answer. Merriam-Webster defines the word retro as “relating to, reviving, or being the styles and especially the fashions of the past : fashionably nostalgic or old-fashioned.” Meanwhile, Wikipedia defines retro gaming as “the playing and collection of obsolete personal computers, consoles, and video games.” Right away these two definitions don’t exactly work together. Gamers tend to think of retro as just “old” and that’s it. It fits the Wikipedia definition, but the literal definition of retro infers that retro isn’t the past, but rather resembles the past.

Defining what games are “retro” is like defining a catch in the NFL. Every now and then, a play will happen that either is or isn’t a completed pass, and most of the time it’s obvious – did the receiver catch the ball or not? But sometimes, because of the rules, the answer might not be cut and dry and if often left up to the officials to make the call. With retro gaming, though there are no officials or rules, we can easily determine what is very clearly retro and what is very clearly not retro – what’s unclear is everything in-between. This article is mostly just me thinking out loud trying to clarify things more for myself than anyone else, I’m not trying to make myself an authority figure on the topic.

While there’s no clear cutoff date for what is and isn’t retro, there is a grain of truth to the idea that retro is simply “old.” From the 70s until around the turn of the millennium, video gaming was in its infancy not just as a technology, but as an art. Arcades were hugely popular during this time, often having games that looked better than what you could get at home. Machines weren’t just in arcades, but in malls, restaurants, convenience stores, even waiting rooms. Over time, consoles started getting to a point where they were as good as what you could get in arcades, and gamers quickly another reason not to touch grass, leading to arcades beginning to die out. The “fad” period of video games serves as a cultural anchor point for what is retro.

I think the most recent point in time where games are clearly retro is the dawn of 3D in the mid-to-late 90s, specifically Nintendo 64 and Playstation. While gaming itself was well established by then, 3D home gaming was not. You can especially see the “gimmickiness” of 3D in the Nintendo 64 with its marketing based around the 3D N logo, not to mention the exotic and ambitious controller it used. There’s a reason people are starting to imitate that style – it’s an era of abstract visuals and simplicity that was a byproduct of technlogical limitations present at the time. The aesthetic of the next generation, comprised of Playstation 2, Gamecube and Xbox, is harder to nail down, and that’s where “retro” starts to get blurry for me.

Now let’s work our way back from today. Obviously consoles that are still being produced are decidedly not retro – they simply aren’t “old.” At the time of writing this article, we’re three years into the life of the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X|S, and six years into the Nintendo Switch’s life. Playstation 4 and Xbox One are nearing their tenth anniversary, and the Wii U its eleventh, yet some are already considering the Wii U retro. While I don’t agree, I can understand why – the Wii U had a gimmick that was dead on arrival, the Gamepad, which, along with its relatively weak graphical performance, contribute to the feeling that it’s old. But consider that although the Wii U launched in 2012, it didn’t exist only in 2012 – it was still the newest Nintendo console up until the Switch’s release in early 2017. Is 2016 considered retro?

This brings us to the gooey, malleable center of what may or may not be retro. I’m not sure I would consider Playstation 3 or Xbox 360 retro, on the grounds that many of the triple-A releases on those consoles continue to resemble triple-A games today. Uncharted, The Last of Us, Gears of War, Bioshock, Bethesda’s Fallout as well as Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto V, modern-era Call of Duty and Battlefield, Assassin’s Creed, Arkham Batman, Borderlands, Dark Souls, just to name a few, all debuted in this generation. The gaming landscape simply hasn’t changed much since then, so it’s harder for me to consider them retro.

The Wii, however, is another story. Factors such as the Virtual Console, backwards compatibility, and the highly divisive motion controller, all make compelling cultural arguments for why it could be retro. However, if the Wii is retro, would that make PS3 and 360 retro by association? How retro can the 360 be if its online services are still available nearly 18 years after launch? If the PS3 and 360 are not retro, is the Wii not retro by association? What about Kinect? The video game equivalent of the Furby, it was immensely popular for a brief, fleeting couple of years before fading into pop culture obscurity. What about VR? As much as I like VR, I do worry about the potential future where it becomes the next “3D glasses” and is on the verge of the same fate as Kinect. Could PSVR and PSVR2 date the Playstation 4 and 5 sooner than its contemporaries? In these cases, perhaps time is the only factor.

Then there are the Playstation 2, Xbox and Gamecube. Games on those consoles had moved past the growing pains of early 3D while being free from the gameplay gimmicks seen in later generations. This is the hardest for me to pin down. I don’t consider PS3 retro, and I do consider PS1 retro, but for PS2 I’m just not sure. Maybe it’s just harder for me to accept as I grow older and deny my age, and I do have a considerable amount of nostalgia for that era of gaming, the games just don’t feel old to me. Having played Final Fantasy XVI recently, I can’t help but make comparisons to the original Kingdom Hearts. Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City and San Andreas each changed the industry in ways that are still seen in games to this day.

Fun fact, Vice City released in 2002, 21 years ago, and takes place in 1986, 16 years before it came out. 16 years is the same time gap between the NES and the Playstation 2, and as mentioned earlier, the 360 will be 18 this year. It goes to show just how rapidly both technology and culture were changing back then, but things really haven’t changed a whole lot since the late 2000s. I didn’t even touch PC games – my Steam account turns 18 years old this week, is Steam retro? The retro gaming board on 4chan, one of the few boards on 4chan I still occasionally visit, has a hard cutoff of December 2007. By that definition, Crysis is retro. Despite having a remaster, that’s hard for me to justify.

Speaking of, do remasters and rereleases contribute to the retroness of a game? Is The Last of Us retro for having not one, but two remasters, despite only just recently turning a decade old? What about retro style games? By the Merriam-Webster definition, retro already is a style. Is Shovel Knight retro because it imitates a retro game both visually and in its game design? At what point in time will Shovel Knight go from one definition of retro to the other? Will it ever? What about games that look retro but have contemporary gameplay, like Vampire Survivors, or even Minecraft?

Ultimately, while there are are a lot of answers to whether a particular game is retro, not all of them are correct or incorrect. It’ll boil down to individual interpretation, and I can’t even come up with a definitive answer myself, but maybe this article can help steer others in the right direction. That being said, I don’t believe that “retro” is a specific cutoff date, nor is it tied exclusively to the consoles or the games on it, nor is it necessarily the cultural staying power, nor is it Bioshock. Especially not Bioshock.