How Retro is “Retro”?

Let’s do a fun little activity.
When thinking of video games specifically, what comes to mind when you think of the word “Retro”?
Go ahead and think about it. Close your eyes for a minute and ponder the word.
Are your thoughts filled with old video games from the 70s, 80s, 90s, or even the early 00s? Are you maybe thinking of a place like an arcade or an old game store? Maybe there’s a certain smell you associate with the word, like the cliché wooden, musty smell of the attic or basement where you may have gamed?
Regardless of your interpretation one thing will remain constant through them all: Retro is always something that has passed, which lingers on and is not forgotten even with the abundance of newer, shinier toys in our current modern age.

While browsing retro gaming communities online I came across a post referencing Retro games including anything released prior to the PlayStation 3. I did a double take and had to re-read that line.
Retro games are anything released prior to the PlayStation 3.
The PlayStation 3? The console that released just a few years back is now a retro console? Surely the author had typed incorrectly and meant the original Playstation, or perhaps the PlayStation 2 at the most. But the PS3 surely not.

But… it was ME that was misinformed. Or rather, misremembering.
The PlayStation 3 released in November of 2006, which at the time of this writing is just under 16 years ago. So it didn’t release just a few years back. In fact, the console that did release a few years back was the freaking PlayStation 5, which came out November 2020, nearly 3 years ago. For that matter, the Switch is still Nintendo’s newest console, but it also came out over 6 years ago in 2017. Time is a strange concept sometimes…

So now I have found myself thinking what truly describes “Retro”. For that top question, when I think of Retro I think of the 16-bit and 8-bit eras of games. The Super Nintendo, the Game Boy, the Sega Genesis, and heck lets throw in those weird Tiger Electronic handheld games, why not? To me, these were the games I kind of grew up on, but also kind of missed. Titles like Final Fantasy IV that I never played on the original hardware, but played years later and could respect it for what it was for the generation it released. Retro is also nostalgic games that defined my core gaming memories. The Mega Man III’s and Donkey Kong Country’s and Street Fighter II’s of the world.

I probably considered the above games as “Retro” when the PS2 was front and center, which would mean between 2000 and 2006 or so. And do you know the time frame between those games at the PS2 era? 15 years for the NES, 12 years for the Genesis, 11 years for the Game Boy, and 9 years for the SNES. If you’re keeping track (and can already see where I’m going with this) the exact same distance from where we are currently back to the PS3 era. It is safe to say, were I born 10-15 years later, I would also start to consider anything prior to the PS3 as retro.

Now I’m torn with how I feel about this. On one had, we have so many more games, consoles, and gamers embracing retro gaming. This has no doubt lead to resurgences of older genres and styles of games seeing fresh releases; hundreds if not thousands of gamers yearning for something new from what was old. But on the other hand I find myself being protective of what is truly “Retro”. Who are these people to claim a game like Shadow of the Colossus is as retro as Super Mario Bros. 3? Where did they get the authority to make such bold claims on the wonderfully anonymous world wide web?

Again, I take a step back and look inward: I could easily see the exact same thoughts going through the mind’s of retro gamers of the 80s and 90s. It was retro to me, and that’s where I left the argument. Skip ahead a couple decades and I’ve become the older gamer I thought about when I was first holding that PlayStation controller and witnessing the evolution of gaming.

At the crossroads of what it and what isn’t retro, I did some digging. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “Retro” as “…characterized by imitation or revival of a style from the (relatively recent) past.” Given that the word relative is a subjective term, we can deduce that Retro Gaming can be anything in the past. I’d postulate we likely wouldn’t include current generation gaming as retro gaming (it kind of defeats the point of a classification in the first place). Perhaps that puts Retro Gaming as anything from the prior generation of consoles and onward. Would the PlayStation 4, then, be a retro gaming console?

One can argue for the case the PS4 is in the same category as the Atari, but I’d like to introduce an idea. Namely, the idea of Retro-ness being subjective. As the definition stipulates, the relative past is a constantly changing thing. As time goes on, we can all agree (and likely already accept) current generations of game consoles will soon fall into the Retro category. Though our agreeance on when they fall there will be subjective, the inevitability of it happening is ensured. As time goes on, all things will eventually become Retro.

Accepting that, I can look back at something like the PlayStation 3 and think it’s a Retro console. The system had some games on it I loved. Games I will always associate with that era of gaming, much like I did with the PS1 and SNES from decades past. The landscape of Retro gaming isn’t a moving platform where some games fall off while others are added. Rather, it’s an ever-growing world of what we once found captivating. One game leads to the next, building upon the last, evolving into the newest thing, and eventually cementing that memory in our mind which we look back on with happiness. That’s Retro gaming. The feeling you get thinking back on the game. The sounds of the characters. The look of the art. The emotions of the story. The memories you’ve shared that you’ll cherish for decades to come.

That is Retro.


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Foxhart

    I think of retro as pixel games and similar ones as you mentioned. But ones like later Final Fantasys I think of as just “old” and not really categorized as “retro”. Retro in a way is it’s own genre.

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