Gaming Like It's 1999

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"Retro City Rampage" is like most other forthcoming videogame releases this year, with one exception: it will look like it was made over a decade ago.

If all goes according to plan, by the holiday season owners of the Nintendo Wii and other consoles will be able to download and play the new game by Brian Provinciano, pictured above, in all its 2D, pseudo-8-bit glory. Filled with era-appropriate references, the game is a labor of love years in the making and it may become a standard-bearer for an emergent niche, "retrogaming."

Over the past several years, a community of developers and fans infatuated with the games and styles of yesteryear has developed. Their "8-bit" embrace is fueled by nostalgia, but like filmmakers working with the idiosyncrasies of 16 millimeter film, scaling games back technologically may also force fans to reconsider the elements of the medium.

Retrogaming comes in three main forms: remakes, demakes and new games made in the old style. A remake involves taking a favored old title and updating the graphics, music and dialogue, while leaving the gameplay generally untouched. A demake is the opposite: a modern game made to run on - or in the style of - consoles that were popular long ago. (Halo for the Atari 2600, for example, which is pictured below.) And then there is the third category, retro-styled games like Provinciano's: new titles that feature music and imagery in an older style. (Check out the trailer for the game at the end of the post.)

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While "Retro City Rampage" is neither remake nor demake, Provinciano is no stranger to either form. The game was born out of an earlier attempt to demake the popular "Grand Theft Auto" series. Provinciano intended "Grand Theftendo" to be played on the original Nintendo console, but he abandoned the project in the early 2000's. And in the nineties he opened up the world of remakes to other developers by painstakingly ripping apart, reconstructing and open-sourcing the software used to run many of the titles from the popular publisher Sierra. That reverse-engineering project, he says, was like "the world's best Sudoku puzzle."

"Within our little subculture Brian Provinciano is an old hero," said Steven Alexander, a co-founder of Infamous Adventures, which creates new retro-styled games as well as Sierra remakes. Sierra's games - series such as King's Quest, Police Quest, and Space Quest - were often critically acclaimed when released in the 80's and 90's and that company alone has its own community of retrogaming devotees. (The idea for this post came out of a late-night search for a childhood favorite: the King's Quest series of games. Below: a composite of the original King's Quest 2, to the right, and the AGD Interactive remake.)

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One of the key attractions of retrogaming may lie in its limitations. Modern consoles and games are lightning-fast and have virtually no restrictions on storage. That's led to "a lot of poorly developed games," Alexander said. The restrictions older-style games impose on image and sound quality force developers to put more thought into what goes in - and what's left out. "You have to boil it down to find the essence if you will," said Ian Bogost, a Georgia Tech videogame researcher who teaches a class called "Atari Hacks, Remakes, and Demakes." In a way, retrogaming is to videogames as minimalism is to art: both revolve around a focus on the fundamentals.

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Niraj Chokshi is a former staff editor at TheAtlantic.com, where he wrote about technology. He is currently freelancing and can be reached through his personal website, NirajC.com. More

Niraj previously reported on the business of the nation's largest law firms for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. He has also been published in The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times and The Age, in Melbourne, Australia. He's also a longtime programmer and sometimes website designer.

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