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1. The Rise of Retro
It’s impossible to discuss retro-style games without discussing actual retro games. That is because both types of games have a kind of symbiotic relationship.
In the past few years, retro gaming has become easier and more accessible than ever before. Anyone with a computer can play thousands of classic games via emulators with the press of a button (no need for expensive cartridges and hardware). And we now have several reliable flash drives and optical drive emulators to help retro gamers play more conveniently on real hardware.
Generally, those who love retro games love retro-style games as well, so the rise of retro paved the way for the rise of retro-style. In turn, the popularity of retro-style games like Undertale helps driver younger gamers towards classic titles. Throw in the ongoing mainstream popularity of all things the 1980s and you have an environment where retro-style games can flourish.
2. Explosive Indie Scene
Perhaps the simplest reason why retro-style games have regained popularity is that numerous indie devs realized how easily they could bring their dream games to life. They didn’t need millions of dollars and a AAA studio: just a small team of dedicated artists and programmers could make it happen.
These days, Minecraft enjoys its status as the best-selling game of all time. And pretty much every dev working on their own labor of love hopes they’ll make the next Minecraft.
3. Easy Apps
Passion from indie devs and passion from players wasn’t enough to create a retro-style Renaissance. What really made that happen was the availability of numerous user-friendly apps.
Back in the day, coding was an obscure and grueling process, and only a handful of people in the world had what it took to crank out a good-looking NES game. Now, tools like GIMP and Photoshop make it easy for any talented digital artist to create memorable sprites.
Obviously, it still takes talent and vision to build a great game around those sprites. But the easy availability of various apps has really helped get the ball rolling.
4. Nostalgia As an Escape
When you get right down to it, all video games are a form of escapism. No matter how your life is going, you can step into the shoes of a powerful hero who slays enemies left and right.
Retro-style games take things a bit further by adding the logical nostalgia component. On top of the usual escapism, you can experience the fun of escaping into the happiest memories of your childhood.
‘ Think of it as a conditioned response. If games like Super Mario Bros. 3 bring a big smile to your face, then a game that looks like Mario 3 can more easily activate that nostalgic burst of dopamine.
5. Proven Gameplay Formulas
To really understand the appeal of retro-style video games, you must first look to the older practice of tabletop games. For example, chess remains highly popular even though the game has been around since the 15th century. Why is that, do you suppose?
The fact is that chess has simple and rewarding gameplay. And it is just as fulfilling to a modern player as it was to players half a millennia ago.
Most retro-style games shamelessly use actual retro games as gameplay inspiration. Instead of reinventing the wheel by creating something new and unproven, retro-style devs can build games around the most successful gaming formulas of yesterday.
6. Easy to Port
While there are many creative reasons why retro-style games have become popular, there is also a simple and commercial-friendly reason: these games are insanely easy to port.
To understand why this is important, think about the Nintendo Switch. While it’s a great system, it doesn’t have enough raw power to port the most demanding games. And when games like Doom: Eternal are ported over, it usually requires some serious compromise.
Indie games, however, are usually simple enough to run on everything from the Nintendo Switch to your ratty old smartphone. This helps devs turn a profit while also making their games more accessible to everyone who wants to play them.
7. The Challenge Factor
Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. Over time, even the most annoying aspects of yesterday’s games become cherished features.
Take challenging game design, for instance. In the days of the Atari 2600 or NES, it was frustrating to gamers who only had a few lives to make it through a brutal game. This is why cheat codes and the Game Genie became so popular.
Thanks largely to streamers, though, challenging games are back in vogue. And the kind of players who love the challenge of something like Dark Souls are quick to embrace retro-style games that pack the immense challenge of titles from the ‘80s and early ‘90s (Cuphead being perhaps the best example of this).
8. Killer Soundtracks
Every good retro-style game has many different components. And while we tend to focus mostly on pixel art, another defining aspect of these games is the amazing music.
Just as retro-style gaming has become more popular, so has retro-style game music. Genres such as chiptune help new performers crank out tunes that sound like they came out of your beloved old SNES.
Some of the best retro-style games have unforgettable soundtracks. Just think about the music from titles like Undertale and Enter the Gungeon and you can understand what keeps players coming back to these awesome-sounding games.