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.

While those quality restrictions apply mostly to demakes, remakes suffer from their own limitations, as Dr. Bogost points out in his 2009 book "Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System." In 1981, Atari released "Yar's Revenge," a game that went on to become a best-selling original title for the console. The game was originally intended to be a copy of the arcade game "Star Castle," but critical hardware differences stood in the way. So Atari focused on the features that made "Star Castle" great and improvised with the rest, as developer Howard Scott Warshaw explained in an interview reprinted by Dr. Bogost: "I did something no one else had ever done. I went to my boss and said that I had an idea for an original game that would use the same basic principles of 'Star Castle' but was designed to fit the [Atari Video Computer System] hardware so it wouldn't suck. And to their credit, they let me go with it."

And it's not just developers who are forced to reevaluate the core elements of the titles they love. Players often realize "that they weren't really looking at the game in the right way," Dr. Bogost said. Take 2007's "Portal." In the modern game, a player has to solve a series of puzzles by teleporting himself or items around certain obstacles. There have been a few remakes and demakes, some of them playable online. "One of the things you realize when you play them is that the kind of space-shifting and space-bending that makes 'Portal' interesting doesn't have anything to do with the three-dimensionality of modern game convention," Dr. Bogost said. "It's interesting in any topology whatsoever." Two dimensions, three dimensions, hi-res, lo-res, it doesn't matter, the game is still fun.

The lower production values of retro games also place more of an emphasis on quality gameplay, said Bryan Young, a PhD student working on videogame ethnography at Indiana University's Department of Communication and Culture. With fewer visual details, more is left to the imagination. "It's more immersive than, say, a movie because your brain has to fill in all the stuff like when you're reading a book," he said. And the games avoid problems associated with the "uncanny valley," a theory which posits that people find images that are nearly, but not quite, humanlike unsettling. "There's this argument made for abstraction
because it doesn't make an attempt to look real, so your brain isn't at some level disturbed by it," Young said.

Whatever the reason, the appeal of retrogaming is clearly about more than just nostalgia - it's about rethinking, or at least reviewing, how games are made and played. As in films, remakes allow for modern aesthetics, references and interpretations to be applied to old themes, while demakes remove the modern veil, allowing a deeper understanding of the original title. In a way, such games allow developers to critique their own culture through the medium itself, Dr. Bogost says. "There's kind of a sense that they are little machines for producing dissatisfaction with game design."




Images:
1. Retro City Rampage screenshot.
2. Halo 2600.
3. King's Quest II: Romancing the Stones, the original Sierra game to the right and the AGD Interactive remake to the left. Screenshots courtesy of MobyGames, composite by Niraj Chokshi.
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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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