Insomnia | Commentary

The Second Stupidest Word in Videogames

By Alex Kierkegaard / June 12, 2008

... is, of course, the word 'retro'. Whenever you see this word used in the context of videogames, you can safely erase it and replace it with the following sentence:

"I have no clue what the fuck I am talking about."

This is what the author would have written had he possessed even an ounce of honesty in his character, or the slightest bit of respect for the intelligence of his readers. Let's briefly examine why.

The dictionary that came with my new laptop gives us a starting point for our examination:

retro (adjective)

imitative of a style, fashion, or design from the recent past: e.g. retro 60s fashions.

The word 'design' is our clue here, because that is the essence of games: their design, in the sense that each of their rules is designed and incorporated among the rest in such a way as to create that space of possibilities which I recently spoke of. Now games are divided into genres, each genre being defined according to a core set of rules which remains unchanged among all games within it. In first-person shooters, for example, one of those core rules is the first-person perspective. Another, that there must be some kind of shooting. Et cetera, et cetera. (Actually, for the FPS genre, that's it.)

Now as time goes by, and as each genre is enriched with more and more new games, there is a natural tendency for these new games to be comprised of more elaborate and refined sets of rules. The core rules which define the genre always remain unchanged of course (for when they "change" the game in question never belonged to the genre under examination in the first place), but the rest of them are always being created, destroyed and modified; all these processes conspiring either to expand the possibility-space, or change the nature of its shape and layout, or, in the most ambitious titles, to do both at once -- all this, of course, in order to differentiate themselves from existing games and thus justify themselves in the eyes of the discerning player, who has perhaps now grown weary of tasting the same dish served to him in different containers and dressed up in different styles, and who has come at last to crave -- a new dish.

Given all the above, we can only define a 'retro game' as one which imitates the design of a game from the "recent past". The retro game, in other words, instead of attempting to expand or reshape the nature of the current standard of possibility-space, nostalgically goes back to an older standard from the recent past. The very idea then of having "retro genres" (as many 2D genres are carelessly labeled these days) is ludicrous, let alone the idea of "retro visual styles" (i.e. 2D games in general, as if the visual representation technique chosen for a game had much to do with the nature of the possibility-space in which it operates!). Why people are calling the GBA and DS Castlevanias 'retro' is therefore beyond me; these new installments are so different from the Castlevanias that older gamers like me grew up with, that it's not surprising many of us cannot even bear to play them. The proof in their evolution is in the fact that many of us do not even like the new ones (though we still like the older ones). And if the latest Castlevanias, or the latest STGs, or the latest 2D fighting games, can be called "retro" in this manner, why not also games like Halo, for example? Are games like Halo not also descendants of much older games, all of them belonging to long-established genres? Isn't Halo a descendant of a game from the early '90s, namely Wolfenstein 3D (1992)?

What? -- Will you be so dumb now as to claim that games like Halo are much more evolved compared to their predecessors than games like Melty Blood are compared to theirs? HA - HA - HA! What a truly ridiculous assertion! Compared to the differences between Melty Blood and Karate Champ, the differences (the possibility-space-affecting differences!) between Halo and Wolfenstein 3D, my dumb little friend, are ALMOST TRIVIAL. There's simply no comparison between the change in possibility-space in the two cases. In the comparative evolution of the complexity of these two genres, practically a whole abyss divides them! -- Remember: we can measure a game's complexity by measuring the maximum distance between the best and worst possible players -- this is the measure of the depth of its possibility-space. If you could picture to yourself the possibility-spaces of modern shooting, fighting or serious strategy games (to be sure, a difficult undertaking, since in order to picture them you must have first learned how to play each game, and who has time these days to learn how to play the kinds of games which demand to be learned in order to be played! -- we are too busy "covering" every "breaking" news story, too busy "reviewing" every piece of trash that comes out to have the luxury to do that), you would at once perceive the chasm that separates many of the so-called retro games from many of the so-called modern ones.

Lost Odyssey a modern game? LOL, yeah. In that case dude, Phantasy Star II is a game that came back from the future. Civilization Revolution a modern game? Sure buddy. If you are one of those beings capable of perceiving time in reverse. Is one allowed to speak of retrogression, instead of evolution?

So, retro-boy. What's retro now, eh?

P.S. The UK magazine Retro Gamer must surely be the stupidest-titled videogame magazine ever. Because the games it covers are in no way, shape or form "retro" -- they are simply old for fuck's sake! -- for a game to qualify as retro it must be contemporary! I mean, for the love of Christ, there's absolutely nothing retro about stuff like Gradius!