Retro Video Games: What Was Lost

Nick wanders back to the glory days of Retro Gaming and contemplates what exactly has been lost between then and now.

Axiom Verge (2015) is perceived across the board as a throwback to gaming’s retro days. The 16-bit graphics and 2D platforming are the first evidences of this claim. Digging deeper, the game’s listing on Steam has been given the user-defined tag of ‘Metroidvania’.

This tag is a popular one now, denoting a game that shares characteristics with the Metroid and Castlevania serieses, both of which have titles that originate back to the mid 80’s – those sweet, blessed ‘ol timey Halcyon Days of yore. Those days when we should have been outside basking in golden rays of sunshine and playing with the other children but instead diligently hunkered down indoors and soaked up a different kind of radiation altogether.

Yes! The core mechanic in Metroidvania games is that of exploration, part of which requires the dedicated player to backtrack to areas previously visited, most likely equipped with an item that unlocks a new doorway or blasts a wall made up a of strong material or grapples specific points in the ceiling wherewith to swing gracefully over a lake of acid that was hitherto unpassable. Bossfights also served as prodigious gatekeepers, requiring the player to exercise grit and reflexes to defeat the monstrosity in order to further continue exploring. Often the spoil(s) of victory included that very item needed in three sectors past to open the way.

Super Metroid Start Screen

Axiom Verge possesses these things along with holding merits of its own. And seeing as how I think Super Metroid (1994) is one of the greatest games ever created, reason therefore dictates that Axiom Verge is right up my alley. I hearkened back to my retro gaming days recalling the righteous triumphs and blood-boiling defeats. But whichever way the scale tipped, I always had the dedication to press forward.

And thus I played Axiom Verge, dutifully so, trying not to compare every little detail to Super Metroid but also trying to slip into the mind of my 13-year-old self, to channel that youthful dedication and grit needed to progress through these levels and defeat these bosses. Because, contrary to many current AAA open world video games where there are more side-quests than stars in the sky, if you don’t beat this boss, you shall not pass…

“I’m Too Old For This Crap!”

But my existential channeling failed. I could not, and still can’t, beat the final stage in Axiom Verge. Not for lack of trying, mind you, but a lack of focus, dedication.

My attention waned and has thus drifted elsewhere, to other newer games or my steam backlog or to whatever is happening on my second computer monitor or the updates which my phone chirps are ready for my attention.

Oh, Axiom Verge is a fine game, worthy of every shred of praise it has received. Other players are significantly better at it than I am. Indeed. This is a classic case of ‘It’s not you. It’s me’. And maybe this can apply to you.

Clearly, my approach to playing games has changed compared to when I was a youths. I do not bemoan this because, despite all its other complexities and toils, being an adult is awesome. If anything I use this change as a crutch, as an excuse, for the moments when I perform poorly: I’m not sharp enough for this crap anymore! I don’t have time for this!

Axiom Verge Start Screen

Still, it’s interesting to look back and consider what exactly has changed, where has my unwavering gaming grit and dedication gone?

A few weeks ago, Sir Tony ButtonMasher brought Man Crates to my attention – Specifically the Retro Gamer Crate.

This product jarred something loose in my stubborn, inundated adult mind. Here, quite possibly, is the answer to the question posited above.

Upon first visit, my attention shifted from the image on the webpage – of the gaming console, cartridges and bounty of ‘sugar intoxication’ – to my desktop PC. Now just over three years old (and aging pretty stinkin’ well, I must say) this gaming computer is tapped into the entire digital world. Its computer brain can complete computer process faster than my meat brain can even comprehend. I can steal audio CDs, Skype, download, and virus scan on one monitor while I play Endless Legend (bought at a convenient 67% discount) on another.

“Just Play the Damn Game, Son”

Retro gaming consoles, conversely, were dedicated platforms. As the Man Crate page says: “Before there were streaming services, before there were all-in-one media boxes, a video game console had one purpose.”

Indeed. Just play the game. And when I was younger the video game console was my purpose!

Whereas now, I keep an eye out for heavily discounted games that I will never physically touch, nor will I ever fully ‘own’. The transaction consists of three clicks of the mouse. The game is then downloaded and ready to play in anywhere from 45 seconds to 15 minutes.

The Retro Gaming Man Crate

The Retro Gaming Crate available at ManCrates.com

But, in the retro gaming days, these grey cartridges were the end result of weeks of chores and youthful entrepreneurial endeavors. We had to have someone drive us to the store to even attain them. The drive back from the store felt like an eternity, all the while the closest you could get to playing was gazing longingly at the box art and the cartridge nested inside.

These cartridges were all we had! Every single line of code had to be explored, conquered and exploited. And that sure enough took dedication, grit and plenty of sugar intoxication.

What the Retro Gaming crate captures is the essence of what gaming used to be. When our focus was laser-tight and our time and dedication had purpose.

One personal example comes to mind.

Rampage. The 1988 Nintendo port of the arcade classic will forever be stitched into my essence. The game, in summary, takes place over 128 days. Each day takes place in a different city of the USA. The player assumes the role of a monstrous lizard or guerrilla or werewolf mutated from human form and must destroy all the buildings in that city/day in order to move on to the next day.

Rampage Start Screen

It’s a simple premise but an absolute blast to play – especially as a kid who would be stuck at Grandma’s house for the weekend. Indeed. I don’t remember why I had to be at Granny’s that weekend but I knew that I’d be on my own with lots of time on my hands. It was a perfect opportunity to push the limits of my Rampaging abilities.

Plus, I had a goal, a benchmark to reach. Ryan Gold said that he got to day #97. That little bastard had been bragging about it during recess all week. Tired of his boasting I was dedicated to not only reaching day #97 but surpassing it, thus guaranteeing my dominance of morning recess discussions/bragging sessions.

And so, I packed up the NES, assured the rampage cartridge was stowed and traveled over the river and through the woods. Granny had an extra black and white TV in one of the small bedrooms upstairs. I had plenty of licorice on hand, which doubled as straws to slurp my orange soda. And there I planted myself, sitting on a pillow on the floor, my gaze glued to this little radioactive box sitting atop one of the dining room chairs. Thus, the weekend rolled forth with very little variation.

Innocence Gained

Whether or not I beat Ryan Gold at his own game is besides the point (plus, I honestly don’t remember), but as I sketch out this recollection I hope to illustrate the gamer’s dedication that has since been lost, something that even playing Axiom Verge could not bring back.

The dedication is more than just promising oneself to finish the game. It is about creating the setting and having the motivation to throw yourself into a game. More often than not, as adults, we try to squeeze in the time when we can, and as a result often end up skipping along the surface of an ocean of video games to explore, fathoms of which are well and beyond what we can see from the waterline.

May those afflicted with adulthood strive to channel — and make the time for — the innocence of youth, to reclaim the fervor, focus and dedication felt while playing all those retro video games.

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