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Opinion: Neo-Retro - Movement Or Passing Fad?

In this opinion piece, Japan-based journalist Nayan Ramachandran considers the appeal of Mega Man 9 and other "neo-retro" titles that hinge on gamer nostalgia, and ruminates on the potential shelf life of the burgeoning subgenre.

Nayan Ramachandran, Blogger

November 6, 2008

5 Min Read

[In this opinion piece, Japan-based journalist Nayan Ramachandran considers the appeal of Mega Man 9 and other "neo-retro" titles that hinge on gamer nostalgia, and ruminates on the potential shelf life of the burgeoning subgenre.] For gamers over the age of 22, the 8-bit era holds a certain level of nostalgia that is hard to explain or replicate. Unlike the generations before or after that, there's something truly magical and special about the era the Famicom and Nintendo Entertainment System took the world by storm. The sound was low-fidelity but strangely endearing. The graphics were blocky and lacking in color but oddly beautiful. It’s been a long time since the 8-bit era saw its end, and most gamers have moved on to far more beautiful and complex games. Many gamers have forgotten what it was like to be six years old again, playing a single level for hours in hopes of getting that unattainable high score. Near the beginning of this year, Namco announced a DS game using the Game Center CX license, a Japanese television show in which comedian Shinya Arino must complete insanely difficult challenges in Famicom games. Expecting a list of old Namco games to make appearances in the DS version, gamers were floored when they found out that not a single one would be making it in. In fact, not a single real game would make an appearance. Instead, Game Center CX simulates the Japanese 8-bit experience, offering a list of fake retro games that never existed, but could have in an alternate world. The game even gives players a shelf full of retro-styled magazines to flip through and find cheat codes for particularly difficult challenges. It was amazing to see that Capcom felt the urge to feed the neo-retro niche when it announced Mega Man 9. Not only did the company manage to capture the visual style by aping the art and fidelity of the early Mega Man titles, it even managed to keep the feel of the music and the general aesthetic, making it a true throwback to the old days. WayForward's Contra 4 was a similar attempt, turning back the clock both on the game itself as well as the timeline of the series. Pushing less satisfactory titles out of the game's continuity, WayForward and Konami successfully pushed Contra 4, a 2008 title, back in time, connecting it directly to Contra III: The Alien Wars, which originally released on the SNES and Super Famicom. While PlayStation and PlayStation 2 incarnations of the Contra series tossed the number convention in favor of unconventional naming methods (e.g. Contra: Shattered Soldier and Neo Contra), WayForward purposely used the number 4 as a subtle nod that they were in fact going back to what made Contra a leading action series in the late 80s. Ostensibly, Contra 4 was a real sequel. While I'm sure the main purpose of making a piece of neo-retro gaming (a game whose conventions mimic those of a previous generation without having existed at that time) is to recapture the feeling and ape what we all remember by using our nostalgia as a powerful weapon, the potential market is larger than that. For those who never grew up in the 8- or 16-bit eras, games like Mega Man 9 and Game Center CX offer an accessible, easy-to-purchase glimpse into that time period. Since many of the games' goals don't involve finishing the entire game, and it even incorporates the era's surrounding culture as well, Game Center CX is not just a glimpse into the technological time period, but the very culture and childhood many of us enjoyed. Mega Man 9 is a different beast to Game Center CX. While Game Center CX is self-aware of its anachronistic nature and offers the game as a snapshot of a time period with all its trappings, Mega Man 9 might likely not stand the test of time. This is not a comment on the quality of the game in any sense, but rather its ability to remain relevant to gamers 20 or even 30 years from now. Many gamers who bought Mega Man 9 did so because of the game's inherent nostalgia, or because they never had a chance to enjoy the older games on the Nintendo Entertainment System when they were younger. Mega Man 9 is very much a product of its context. Its gameplay is fantastic, but it too is a product of the time period in which it reigned supreme. It suggests the question: can neo-retro games stand the test of time? Will games that mimic or lampoon the 8-bit era remain relevant and interesting to the masses long after its original audience has disappeared? A friend suggested that perhaps "neo-retro" will mean something different in 30 years. Perhaps games with PlayStation- and PlayStation 2-quality graphics will become the new standard for neo-retro revivals. Maybe in 15 years, gamers will get a Vagrant Story sequel running in the same phenomenal engine the PSone original did. It's a nice thought, but as evidenced by even current attitudes of PSone-era graphics, that period has not aged well. While 8-bit and 16-bit sprite based graphics still hold a charm that can only be described as "je ne sais quoi," PSone polygonal games are downright ugly. They have not aged well, and I suspect in 10 years, we will feel the same about PlayStation 2 and Dreamcast. It certainly is impossible to explain why polygonal-based graphics don’t hold the same nostalgic allure of its sprite-based cousins, but that modern perspective speaks for itself. Those who think Super Mario World is still beautiful are the same that will agree that Rival Schools, while an excellent fighting game, has aged horribly visually. The game is downright horrifying to look at. Perhaps neo-retro gaming will never get that far. It's a burgeoning subgenre now, but no one really knows how long its steam will last. We may never get as far as 10 years before interest in its anachronistic mechanics and aesthetics thins out. It is hardly in its death throes now, though. Namco has already announced Game Center CX 2 with a host of new old games, including a parody of Famicom Detective Club. Mega Man 9 was also a big success for Capcom, garnering massive profits on all platforms for which it was released. It is hard to deny that, at least for now, there is an interest in replaying our childhood.

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