Meet the people who create new retro games

A person using a Nintendo Entertainment System controller.
Peter Gudella/

It’s easy to think that consoles like the original NES, the Sega Mega Drive, or even the Atari are nothing more than museum pieces, mere footnotes in the history of video games. However, there is a lot of interest in retro gaming: and people are even creating new games for these old consoles.

Nowhere was this clearer than at Gamescom 2022 in Cologne, Germany, where a decent-sized section of a massive room was dedicated to retro gaming. It featured gray-haired fans showing off their collections of old games, as well as teenagers playing games like Daytona United States 2a racing game from 1998, or try Stink in an Atari arcade clone.

The most surprising thing though, especially if you’re not familiar with retro gaming, is that many of these older consoles are getting new game releases. In fact, there is a cottage industry dedicated to developing games for the NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, and other classic consoles. More surprisingly, there is also a decent sized market interested in buying them.

appeal to youth

According to Chris Noll, owner of Retrospiel, a small shop in Cologne, Germany, that sells retro games for all sorts of old consoles, they’re not just bought by men with graying temples. “When I opened the store in 2002, I thought I would only get customers my age. Now, though, 12- or 14-year-olds are buying games.”

Christian Gleinser, who makes four-player games for the Commodore 64 under the Dr. Wuro Industries banner, has the same experience. According to him, the graphics are supposed to be the main attraction for the younger generation. However, he puts them behind an older console and “kids can see that both types of games can be fun.”

Commodore 64 at Gamescom
Fergus O’Sullivan / Instruction Geek

According to Gleisner, this is because there is virtually no learning curve for retro games. “They’re easy to learn, you can be playing in seconds.” Noll also points out that in retro games, there is more focus on gameplay than story, putting the player directly into the action.

By choosing one of these games for yourself, you can see what they mean. Even in recently released games, you’re in the action before you know it. And, since most older controllers have only a few buttons, you can figure it out without a tutorial. It’s almost liberating compared to how cumbersome some modern games can be; There’s clearly a lot more at play here than just nostalgia.

going retro

Still, it begs the question of how anyone gets to play these games. Older gamers might still have an old console or two lying around, but teenagers won’t have one in the attic, usually, much less have it plugged in and ready to go on some TV dinosaur.

However, according to Noll, this is not the problem you think it is. There are still plenty of old consoles on the second hand market, and you can always use newly built clones like the C64 Mini (a Commodore 64 clone) or so called Famiclones like the FC Twin which can handle NES and SNES games. .

Otherwise, you can also just install a software emulator on your current device. A great option is RetroArch, which can emulate just about any operating system from days gone by, though there are plenty of console-specific emulators out there as well. Examples include PPSSPP for PlayStation Portable (remember that one?) or even the ability to emulate arcade machines with MAME.

In fact, going software may be the best option as it eliminates a problem older gamers will definitely be familiar with, the hassle of dealing with physical copies. Online, games for older consoles can cost as little as $10, or even come as a free download, while the physical product can sell for up to $60, equivalent to a modern AAA game.

That said, it’s surprising that the cartridges are still being made. According to Noll, they are relatively easy to acquire, although there can be some big fluctuations in availability and price depending on the platform. There’s also the question of whether manufacturers can source the right parts, which goes a long way to explaining the occasional $60 price tag.

enthusiastic design

That said, excitement seems to be a bigger part of retro gaming than profit motive. For example, Gleisner offers its Commodore 64 games for free through its site, only requiring payment for physical copies. He describes making games of his own as an “intense hobby”, and the idea of ​​getting paid for games seems to recede from his mind.

The same goes for Elektronite, which makes games for Mattel’s 1979 Intellivision console, and offered them at Gamescom for just a few dollars. When asked why he would want to make games for this obscure console, the company representative just smiled and replied “why not?” before explaining that it’s a way for people to experience a bit of history, while staying up to date on older programming languages.

Intellivision Gamescom
Fergus O’Sullivan / Instruction Geek

Noll also points out that many games are made by people who have an idea for a game but don’t have the skills to make their dream a reality. Retro gaming, in this case, is a great solution, as you don’t need the same advanced skill set that you would if you were trying to use a game development platform like Unity or Unreal Engine.

Noll showed us several games in his showcase that were made by people with little to no programming experience who just wanted to try and put something together. Examples include a drawing program called doodle world put together by a father and his young son or some simple shoot-em-ups. As basic as they are, they still attracted the interest of passers-by.

Fergus O’Sullivan

market opening

That’s not to say that only hobbyists make retro games. Some small studios are creating high-end professional games that can run on both older and newer consoles. A good exception is fearless izzy by Senile Team, which was released for the Sega Dreamcast in 2021 but is now available to play on Windows as well; you can buy it on Steam.

Two new NES games, Alwa’s Legacy of Elden Pixels of 2020 and micromages from 2019’s Morphcat Games, are also available via Valve’s online platform, meaning even people who don’t want to bother with NES clones or emulators can play these games.

image of The Legacy of Alwa
elden pixels

changing things

A big hook for these games seems to be that while they use some of the design ideas of yesteryear (get into action quickly, simple controls, stripped back graphics), they also implement modern design decisions.

A good example is Arkagis Revolution, a game for Sega Mega Drive in which you fly with a jet that blows up tanks. In a clever twist, the makers decided to let you use the A and C buttons on the controller to turn your ship, letting you explore the game’s map in ways that really extend the console’s capabilities and may never have even occurred to people. who originally made games for it.

Other examples include how Alwa’s Legacy introduces non-linear gameplay (unheard of in 90s games) or even direct graphical upgrades, such as fearless izzy has. While the console you may be playing these games on may be dinosaurs, the games themselves are not throwbacks, far from it.

Fearless Izzy image
senile team

As a result, the retro gaming scene is an interesting mix of professionals and hobbyists, with gamers choosing between slick productions and amateur-created games with some downtime after work.

The rich tapestry of ideas and gameplay harkens back to a bygone area and is a huge change in the pace of modern AAA gaming. It deserves the attention of anyone interested not only in how gaming used to be, but also what it could be in the future.

If you’re interested in diving into retro gaming, you don’t necessarily need a classic console – there are plenty of great retro controllers out there that you can plug into a modern PC.

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