Published Feb 20, 2007With this months launch of the Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii, gaming enters its seventh generation of consoles since Magnavox launched the mid-70s PONG craze. But despite all these next-gen technological bells and pixilated whistles, retro-gaming has never been more popular.
Admittedly, people were probably nostalgising their Atari 2600s by the time Nintendo took over, but old schoolers no longer have to scour eBay for used TurboGrafx-16 titles or download "MAME emulators to run ancient arcade games on their PCs.
In recent years, classic games have come back thanks to plug-in systems like the wood-panelled Atari Flashback 2 and plentiful anthology compilations from publishers like Namco (Pac-Man, Pole Position), Midway (Mortal Kombat, S.T.U.N. Runner) and Konami (Frogger, Rush'n Attack). In November alone theres Activision Hits Remixed (Pitfall, Keystone Kapers), the Sega Genesis Collection (Sonic The Hedgehog, Golden Axe) and the second volume of Capcoms Classics Collection (1941, Strider). But the reason classic gaming has finally left cultdom and entered the mainstream is because "it took a product like GameTap or Xbox Live to refocus peoples attention and say this is really good content that people should continue to play, argues Ricardo Sanchez, VP of Content for Turner Broadcastings GameTap subscription service, which became available in Canada last month.
"I dont think retro games ever stopped being popular. I think we just started paying attention to it. The best of them Pac-Man, Frogger, Street Fighter they never really went away, we just werent thinking about them as a market. Last fall GameTap took the HBO route with an on-demand broadband service costing $10 U.S./month for unlimited access to 700 downloadable games that disappear when payments stop. There are the odd new titles like the episodic, family-friendly Sam & Max: Culture Shock and Uru Live, a resurrected version of 2003s stillborn massively multiplayer Myst game, plus assorted music and video channels (including original episodes of Space Ghost: Coast to Coast).
But GameTaps raison detre is its immense library of classic console, arcade and computer games, including most weve already namedropped plus more from publishers like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Sierra and SNK and Taito. Sure, there are too many random obscurities and a huge Nintendo-shaped hole, but it also boasts overlooked gems like Beyond Good & Evil and The Last Express. Plus, its a Sega fanboys dream, with selections from Genesis, Dreamcast, Game Gear and even the ultra-rare 32X and Japan-only SG100. (But wheres the Saturn?)
If playing Galaga on your high-end desktop seemed unlikely, just imagine what Microsoft thought the chances were of anyone using their fancy-pants 360 for playing Frogger, Dig Dug or Doom. Yet they are and in great numbers; though Microsoft wont give out exact figures, they say that there have been 12 million Live Arcade downloads, including both retro games and new arcade-style titles.
Xboxs summer release of Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting, with online multiplayer matches, was a full-fledged event in the gaming world not bad for a 2D title that stopped eating quarters in the mid-90s. That furore will likely reignite when long-time rival Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 begins ripping out spinal chords on Live Arcade later this year.
These classic games cost between 400 and 800 Microsoft Points, an online payment system thats about $6 to $12 Canadian, and download directly to the 360s hard drive (though theres an "unplugged" compilation the non-broadband can buy).
This format looks likely to be the standard, as Nintendo has already announced its Virtual Console will have "downloadable access to 20 years of fan-favourite titles from not only the NES, Super NES and Nintendo 64 but also some Sega Genesis and Turbo Grafx16 games. Sony will soon make PS1 games downloadable to their PSP handheld and while still mum on the PS3s online network, its rumoured that some of Sonys back catalogue will be available for paid purchases. The question remains: why do so many people still care about these old games? Well, part of it is certainly the nostalgic buzz GameTaps main demo is dudes 25 to 49, though they note many subscribers have children, creating "this interesting dynamic where kids are playing titles that were made before they were born.
But fanboys and newbies alike can appreciate retro-gamings Zen-like simplicity. Sure, that was done out of technological necessity (and many old games are much less fun than you fondly remember) but theres something intimidating about a game that demands a few hours to even get the hang of and another 50 to finish. Classic arcade games were created for casual bursts kid pockets could only hold so many quarters and console titles had to make up for graphical constraints with great gameplay.
Youd be surprised how little Nintendo strayed from formula with last springs New Super Mario and yet its deservedly the years third best-selling game across all platforms. "I was dubious of PONG, admits Sanchez, "but believe it or not even before we made it available as multiplayer over the internet, it consistently showed up in our top 30 games because its fun. Good games are good game regardless of when they were made.