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WTF is a Classic Game?

Who doesn't love a classic? But let's agree on what that magic word means, and then see what we can do to achieve it.

John Nelson Rose, Blogger

July 9, 2019

8 Min Read

What makes a game “classic?” I think about this a lot as I’m playing games, hitting them with my own litmus tests to determine their worth in the grand scheme. As game makers we do this because we want to build something great. We know classic is good, but what exactly is it?

There are hundreds of definitions out there for the label of classic, but they invariably point to the concept of timelessness. A classic idea, product or work of art can hold its own in any era. There are other terms for worthy creations: quality, importance, age. These, too, are legitimate aspects. But to be classic is to endure, and this implies these other measures implicitly.

The Pantheon’s sense of space is still jaw-dropping. Lolita remains a relevant indictment on suburban America. Picasso’s Guernica still makes you tense up, and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is a nuclear payload of pure drama. Plenty of other works were great, but these have lasted. They’re classic. And, like it or not, there’s a mob aspect to it—you need a wide appreciation to claim the title. There’s no such thing as a personal classic.

So why is it that certain video games last? Is it identifiable, and can we developers aim to achieve it? Does it even matter?

Over 700 titles were released on the NES alone. Decades later, a tiny subset of these are still referenced (and played) by the industry and general population. Games like TetrisSuper Mario Bros.Mega Man, and The Legend of Zelda. They weren’t perfect, and followers may have nailed it better, but they left a mark.

Too often we forget the primacy of gameplay in games. They can be beautiful, they can sound amazing, they can make you laugh your ass off. We create them often with large teams of various disciplines. Because of this, we sometimes consider them to be an art form composed of others. But interactivity is our defining factor and reigns as king in canonizing games. A title’s gameplay is its backbone and its identity.

As the name implies, video games are inseparable from technology. The industry has long been an important force in pushing the boundaries of tech, and every device generation unlocks more potential. This is a blessing and a curse for those who want to create something classic. It can be frustrating to push the limits of hardware when a new machine makes the same effort look easy. So how do we leave a mark in a field that can seem forever disposable?

The obvious answer is to focus on design, not implementation. Unpopular opinion: game design has shown a remarkable resistance to change as technology has improved. Triangle counts have soared, shaders are incredibly sophisticated, physics systems can simulate impressive worlds, audio capabilities add an entire dimension, and multiplayer technology can include armies of players in real time. But what about what these players do and how they do it? Every year there are some new ideas, new platforms, and incremental refinements, but these gameplay foundations were laid down long ago.

This is not an indictment of lazy designers. More of a recognition that game design is an awfully hard thing to get right, and therefore the solid designs have a chance to endure. I always draw similarities with architecture as another functional art form; the underlying principles are classic. Human behavior is the meat of game design and ultimately what we’re aiming to toy with—and it doesn’t change. Succeed with your gameplay, and your title has a chance at becoming classic.

A note on nostalgia: don’t confuse it for being classic. Nostalgia is about that longing which comes from previous personal associations. It’s a mistake to credit the games themselves. After all, we can get the warm fuzzies when we think of lots of shitty games in our childhood—that doesn’t mean the titles themselves were classic. The very same feelings can be evoked by TV dinners, your parent’s music, or a breed of dog from your early years.

It’s also extremely personal. If and when our audience feels nostalgia is uncontrollable, because it has more to do with the surrounding live experience at the time of playing. What makes me nostalgic might not affect you: I have rose-colored memories of Sonic SpinballMight and Magic II, and Joe & Mac. Your emotional mileage may vary.

This is something I see fail a lot—don’t design for nostalgia. If you loved the look of a game, or you were obsessed with mastering some cool mechanic, harness the thing that made it great. Then do it yourself, through your own interpretation. Make a future player long for those days when they were engrossed in your game, because it’s pure quality. But it’s a self-limiting fool’s errand to intentionally go for nostalgia.

I’ve honestly felt a lot of personal anxiety about creating future classics. I think a lot of creators do, simply because we recognize that very quality in things we love. Sure, there’s some ego involved, but it’s more about pride. Trends and technology are ever-changing, consigning legions of effort to the past. We want immortality.

So how do we even attempt something that future generations might still love? Behold—three qualities that I believe describe classic games. Not only do they represent every great title, but especially those that are talked about for years to come:


Am I harping on this? Probably. But it’s often forgotten that play is the essence of any game. While the rest can be stripped away, a game will always be described as what and how the player does things. The graphics, framerate, and soundtrack can (and will) always be improved.

Don’t get me wrong: plenty of great games depend on their visuals. Their music tugs at your soul, their stories give you palpitations. But unless the choices fully pull you in, even these amazing games are destined for replacement. They will be eclipsed by a future game with better tech.

A worse fate is to be judged inferior to other media that are set up to do it better. Many games overly rely on some aspect of passive media; along comes a film, novel, or album that inherently feels more deep or important. We cannot and should not compete with traditional media here. Don’t be this game.


Lots of classic games were pioneers. Being the first (or early to the party) is a great way to cement a title’s respect and create a dynasty. Street Fighter II was by no means the first fighting game, but it remains an elder god of the genre because it was one of the first to get shit right. Counter-Strike took FPS designs in a new direction. PUBG laid the groundwork for future evolution and copycats alike. Wing Commander and Freelancer codified very different approaches to space. And don’t even get me started on Minecraft, one of the few trailblazers whose fantastic design was made possible by more recent developments in technology.

Games are called Metroidvania clones for a reason. GTA is the open-world granddaddy for a reason. Roguelikes are the obsession of players and developers for years to come. Ecco the Dolphin combined navigation with mood to create something never replicated. Has anyone beaten the original Mega Man at its own game of platforming plus guns? Take the risk: work to be the first big success in a new genre, and the odds of classic-dom are in your favor.


KISS: Keep it simple, stupid. It’s almost impossible to beat a great idea reduced to its fewest relevant parts. Nintendo worship begins at this idea: Super Mario Bros. did it, The Legend of Zelda did it. Super Smash Bros. did it more recently, but just as classically. There is no simplifying Tetris, and yet it provides a dynamic experience for all interests and abilities.

EverQuest was eclipsed by World of Warcraft, a classic game that simplified its predecessor. Pong reduced tennis. Mario Kart was not the first driving game, but it’s the touchstone for that type of racer. Cookie Clicker took the concept to an extreme and created a genre of idle games.

In the world of mobile, elegance has become even more important. Smartphone input schemes for casual spurts of gameplay meant that apps got simpler. Angry Birds was an ultra-elegant creation that made players reevaluate what games actually needed to succeed. Generations later, it’s still talked about. Blek is a beautifully simple revelation for the power of touchscreens—play it if you haven’t.

Who knows what will really be deemed a classic? For all my proselytizing, times change and sometimes even classics are demoted to the dustbin of history. Regardless, we should approach our creation with an eye to the future simply because being classic implies quality and success. Aiming to be appreciated in years to come is a way to pull back our focus and appreciate a title outside of its context.

The decades-large oeuvre of games gives us perspective, and it hopefully helps us look forward. So much work has been done: the Atari 2600 and NES are even examples of the consoles themselves being praised as classics. So we should always look for trends and principles that aid us in building a higher ratio of classic titles. There are always future challenges—like where does the relatively new practice of streaming fit in? Since every new game has a time-to-replacement, let’s learn from the past to extend ours as best we can.

This article is shared from my articles at https://medium.com/@johnnelsonrose

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About the Author(s)

John Nelson Rose


John Rose is currently a gameplay programmer at Nihilistic Software. He has worked on children’s titles, first-person shooters, and action/adventure games as both a designer and a programmer. He is a contributing author to the 2004 book Software Engineering for Game Developers.

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