The nostalgic era of 8-bit and 16-bit games … In the 80s and 90s (and even 70s), games with pixelated visuals and, often, challenging gameplay were the height of fun for technology buffs. Part of that fascination, at that time, may be linked to the popularization of the first electronic devices exclusively focused on entertainment: video games. Companies like Nintendo and Sega reigned with their cartridges, consoles and legions of fans.
“Ah, but in my time …” – Older school players, that is, those who actively lived the period of the 3rd generation of consoles, which mainly comprised the releases of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Master System, and also of the 4th generation – with Mega Drive (Sega Genesis), Super NES, Game Boy and Neo Geo, they are usually proud to have been players during this period. I dare to go back a little further, in the 2nd generation, and also to highlight the iconic Atari 2600.
What most of these pixelated games had in common, in addition to the unique aesthetics and gameplay, was the challenge to creativity for game designers, artists and programmers – who had to circumvent the technical restrictions of the time to shape and animate those various squares in scenarios and characters, as credibly as possible.
These titles, which may seem simplistic to some, especially in times of ultra-realistic games, set the stage for many of today’s AAA games. Learning how to do the simple (and do well) is essential for anyone thinking of entering this market. In fact, many of those who are now in charge of famous studios may have learned with the 8-bit and 16-bit style.
Nostalgias aside, we are currently in the 9th generation of consoles, which started with the Nintendo Switch (2017) and was reinforced, in 2020, with the arrival of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X / S. That said, the question is: is there still room for retro-style games? Already giving spoiler of the answer: yes! And there are a lot of people developing games with this aesthetic, either using the visual appeal of the 8-bit / 16-bit era, or using their gameplay mechanics as inspiration (or all of that together).
Why do retro-style games still enchant today?
Some developers, who continue to bet on style (or get inspired by it) today, claim that good games will continue to be good games forever and that regardless of the season. Cyrille Imbert, Executive Producer at Dotemu (Streets of Rage 4), explains that “the question is how to work with them [jogos estilo retrô] so that they make sense to the modern public ”, he points out. “But for them to [os jogadores] really invest your time and money in a game, you need to meet your expectations and that’s what we did with Streets of Rage 4. ”
Beausoleil Samson-Guillemette, programmer at Guard Crush Games, who was also part of the SoR4, adds Imbert, stating that there is a dose of nostalgia that cannot be denied. “The last decade has seen the emergence of free-to-play and, with it, a fixation by RPG. Each game had some sort of leveling mechanics, coins, item creation, etc. In contrast, beat’em ups are much simpler and offer everything from the beginning ”, comments the programmer.
Samson-Guillemette also says that in this style of play [beat’em up], with roots in 16-bits, as the series itself Streets of Rage, is the player who improves as he progresses and not his avatar. “This can be very invigorating and very useful in games with local multiplayer, since you are not stuck in a savegame.”
Another reason, according to Samson-Guillemette, is that we are less impressed with 3D today. “Many 2D genres were more or less erased by 3D, at the turn of the millennium. At that time, 3D was synonymous with selling. 2D has since returned, first for retro aesthetics and now with the possibility of creating real 2D games, as we imagined when we were children. ”
Aleksandr Goreslavets, Sound and Game Designer from Four Quarters, responsible for Loop Hero – which had more than 500,000 players in its week of release on Steam, agrees that games need to be fun and that at any time.
He also adds that retro-looking titles have their own audience. “There is no direct competition with ultra-modern games. Retro graphics are one of the visual styles that can be adapted for games. They have their own place in the games industry and the preference of players who love this aesthetic, ”explains Goreslavets.
And it is a lot out there as everyone said: there are elements of nostalgia, especially for those who lived in the 8-bit / 16-bit era; there is a return of interest in 2D (the “different”) amid a sea of offers in 3D; and there is also its own space, its own place in the old school gaming industry.
Who plays 8-bit / 16-bit games?
But is it that, even with all the winds in favor, this more old school style of making games has the strength to conquer a new generation of players? Ramon Nafria, Producer of Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX, the remaster of a Master System classic, says that games of this type can be enjoyed by players of different ages, “even though our game [Alex Kidd DX] be a little more challenging, in the beginning, than the original game ”, according to Nafria.
To exemplify how far titles with retro aesthetics can reach different audiences, the producer of Alex Kidd DX he says that his son, only six years old, is “helping” to test the remaster. “He wanted to play while we were developing and had a lot of fun, so I assume there is no age to enjoy a 2D platform game. On the other hand, what is true is that there are some games that attract a lot of attention from the younger audience due to the influencers and trends of the moment. ”
Frédéric Gémus, Game Designer of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge, beat’em up that promises to rescue the nostalgia of the arcades of Ninja Turtles, says that as surprising as it may be, titles with an old school theme are not only pleasing to those who grew up in the middle of 8-bit and 16-bit consoles, but to younger players as well.
“Simplified visuals, simpler to understand and, generally, with more focused mechanics tend to attract people”, explains Gémus. “In addition, some more casual players may not be very interested in some AAA games due to their complexity and time requirements. Having a game that reminds them of the games they grew up with is sometimes a lot less intimidating. ”
I also add, to Gémus’ comment, the fact that, especially in the Brazilian reality, not everyone is able to assemble a super computer or even purchase the latest consoles to play heavier titles. Games with simpler visual styles can help include more players in the hobby by, for the most part, asking for less robust technical specifications. And that just talking about the PC, not including the massive success of mobile games in attracting new audiences.
Streaming platforms, such as Twitch, YouTube and Facebook Gaming, have contributed a lot to the popularization (especially among the younger ones) of games with retro aesthetics. Danilo Dias, Game Designer and Artist at JoyMasher, Brazilian studio responsible for games like Oniken, Odallus and Blazing Chrome, believes that the majority of the audience for JoyMasher titles (all in retro style and very difficult) is still the people who grew up in the midst of these 8-bits / 16-bits games.
“I also notice many young players who end up looking for games in the retro style out of curiosity and because they like a high challenge”, comments Dias. “Mainly thanks to platforms like Twitch and etc., I notice that young people have a lot of fun making videos ending difficult old games or even old school titles that almost nobody knows about. It became like a niche. ”
What does the future hold for retro games?
Cyrille Imbert believes that as the video game market grows and causes players to have different experiences, their tastes also evolve. “Today you can find games of any kind, on any platform, for just about anyone. Therefore, I am convinced that there will always be an audience for retro games ”, comments the Executive Producer of Streets of Rage 4. “It’s the same as other arts, people still listen to classical music or watch movies in black and white.”
Danilo Dias, from JoyMasher, prefers to look more cautiously at this future and cites a possible, even predictable, wear on the style. “I think that today we may be suffering from a little repetition. Many retro games or pixel art are being launched at the same time ”, explains Dias. “This may, in my opinion, create wear and tear, but it is natural and has always been somewhat cyclical in video games.”
Hector Toro, Art Director at Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX, shares the same opinion I have about games made in retro style: good graphics do not necessarily mean that the game will be good.
“Currently, we have the recent Loop Hero. Possibly, the game with the worst graphics in-game this year (hahaha, just kidding), but its gameplay mechanics and story are exciting ”, comments Toro. “In contrast, we have very realistic games that are a failure. Today, I think the average player has already come to that conclusion alone, or at least I want to believe that. ”
I want to create old school games! Where do I start?
Although I do not develop games, the fact that I am just involved in this medium and talking to creators (especially from small studios) allows me to give my opinion on this issue as well: I believe that if you want to start making retro games (and even in other styles) it’s interesting to focus on simple designs and test mechanics. Less can actually be more, in this case. Simplifying processes can even help you to map errors more easily and make appropriate adjustments.
Samson-Guillemette, programmer for SoR4, also has that thought. He says that regardless of the type of aesthetics, start simple. “Making a game can be rewarding and, even in a clone of Pong, you will learn a lot ”, he advises. “As Game Jams [maratonas de desenvolvimento de jogos] can be a good opportunity to focus on the simple. And it will sound strange, but don’t plan too much. If everything is planned very rigorously, it can seem like an arduous task or, even worse, an insurmountable mountain. ”
Mas Frédéric Gémus, Game Designer of the new Ninja Turtles, makes a point of making it clear that – despite the simple look – developing an 8-bit / 16-bit style game is, in most cases, more complex than a fully rendered 3D title.
“Changing an animation on a 3D model can take a few seconds, while pixel-based and 2D games would require a complete redesign! This is also the reason why some film studios generally opt for films rendered in 3D than in traditional 2D animation ”, comments Gémus.
The Game Designer also highlights:
“If you want to adopt this look, you will have to work hard! As for old school gameplay, its strong point lies in familiarity: many will be able to understand the basics of their game in a few seconds. After that, it is a question of how to deal with the expectations that come from the players; break them and create a meaningful new experience! ”
(Frédéric Gémus – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge)
Retro games do have their space!
“Ah, but in my time …” – Nobody needs to miss the times when the 8-bit and 16-bit games reigned supreme. Nowadays, there are many options both for ways to play the original Super Nintendo titles, Mega Drive and etc., and even for new productions, which may bring references to the old games.
As already said, there is room for everyone and even nowadays, times are different and there is a lot of talk about ultra-realistic graphics, retro games continue to win the hearts of players of all ages, due to their simple and cartoonish pixelated look, gameplay often challenging and also an excellent option for gamers who may not be able to invest in more robust PCs and new generation consoles.
Whatever your favorite style, it is possible that there is a similar retro game as well or that (you will know) it was used as an inspiration. If you’re not a fan of the style, at least give it a try, you might be surprised. If you’re already a fan, grab your controller and dive into the pixels!
The charm of retro games
At the Hit Kill 22 there was a super cool chat about the fascination that 8-bit and 16-bit style games still have today. Come and listen!