A whole lot of misguided principles, a whole lack of meaningful purpose. That, alas, has been my reaction to the Retro VGS so far. Currently being funded on Indiegogo, the $300+, ‘modern retro’ console is housed in a modified Atari Jaguar case (custom made from the original moulds), boasts a highly adaptable, apparently rather powerful FGPA circuit capable of emulating multiple old consoles (as well as accommodating a wealth of custom configurations for developers of new games) and according to its IGG page, is pretty much the solution to many of modern gaming’s ills. Also, crucially, it is resolutely cartridge-based, with no online connectivity.
The team behind the Retro VGS certainly has a long and storied history in the games industry, stretching back decades and taking in all manner of work in both tech and game development. It also has a rather promising and creative approach to the malleability and versatility of its hardware. In fact it’s initially easy to get a little swept up in the excitement. A console dedicated to recreating a particular and much-loved era of gaming, theoretically able to deliver an array of different experiences from multiple generations-gone-by, as well as the elusive tactility of good old, clunky, instant cartridge loading? Great. Nostalgia glands are a-tingle. The ‘things were better when consoles were simpler’ brigade is fiery of loins and worn of arms, such is the ferocity with which it is no doubt throwing money at screens.
The thing is, the deeper you get into this thing’s selling points, the less unique they become. Go a little deeper than that, and the machine’s value actually starts to reduce drastically. Much is being talked about the philosophy behind the beast’s dextrous guts. This is a console capable of outputting 1080p resolution at 30 frames per second, via HDMI, but which can be made to behave like an ancient Atari, or a NES, or a Neo Geo, or seemingly anything else the dev chooses, by way of the ability to reconfigure the console’s brain with on-cartridge code. Imagine having a SNES that developers could just tell to pretend it had an FX Chip plugged in so that they could make Star Fox. That’s a rough and very narrow analogy, admittedly, but a fairly sensible one from what I gather. It all sounds rather clever, but step away from the seeming cleverness of how the tech operates, and you find yourself with one, resoundingly unfortunate conclusion:
Any modern console or PC can deliver the same versatility. And already is.
The fact is, ‘retro’-style games are flourishing, and to argue that special, historically themed hardware is necessary to ‘properly’ enjoy them is simply backward, stubborn, belligerently nostalgic front-lawn fist shaking. It’s pure, luddite snobbery, selectively braying at the contemporary world in order to harness the most negative, self-aggrandising biases of the most curmudgeonly, jaded aspects of the audience. Expressed cynically or not – and I don’t think that the Retro VGS is being designed with conscious cynicism – the upshot is still the manipulation of retrogressive biases in order to reaffirm false beliefs. And in this case, sell a product that no-one really needs.
Read through the Retro VGS’ IndieGoGo manifesto, and you’ll find a cavalcade of grumbling, cynical forum post-style arguments about the supposed evils of modern gaming. Lazy development that relies on patches to facilitate the release of unfinished games. System updates that waste time, brick consoles, and make games unplayable. Online-enabled games that lose functionality as servers are eventually deactivated. It’s a desperately selective, horribly sensationalised view of gaming in 2015, and good Lord, do I unleash a mildly furious yawn whenever I think about it.
Aside from the sneering smugness of it all ("Games are tested thoroughly before release, just like they used to be"), it’s the sheer, reductive slur on the progressive modern industry that gets me. The appraisal of gaming’s development not as development, but as the implementation of a series of crutches and malpractices, taking the player further away from their pastime, removing ownership and involvement, and reducing the quality of experience as dark, corporate talons drag the mythical ideal of ‘Real Gaming’ further and further away from those stoic Real Gamers who facilitate its existence.
Let’s get real here for a second, shall we? Because this attitude isn’t only blisteringly out-of-touch, and grossly insulting to developers, but it’s flat-out damaging to all the great things happening in video games right now.
Ignoring the obvious mis-truths (system updates don’t brick consoles or stop you playing games, unless you’re playing with an eyepatch and a parrot on your shoulder, in which case the point is moot), the VGS’ campaign for better, more honest, altogether less functional gaming omits a great many facts. Facts like the fact that online connectivity and publishing have – on both console and PC – directly fuelled the ludicrous health of smaller, more experimental, and very often retro-styled games in 2015, a sub-section of video games that single-minded dedication to physical media ironically near-enough killed in the first place.
Facts like the fact that this online-fuelled renaissance of 2D design has led the big boys of the industry to directly embrace, nurture, and crucially evolve retro-style games more passionately than at any other point since the actual 16-bit era, dishing out first-party development and promotional resources, and frequently featuring that stuff at the centre of their big marketing pushes.
Facts like the fact that modern, online-connected consoles and PCs don’t just make it easier than ever for less mainstream developers to get into the business, they also allow those devs to more easily build and maintain communities, by way of the very updates and expansions that the Retro VGS deems useful only for slowing, downgrading, and excluding. Thanks to online-capable consoles and downloadable games, we live in an age of previously unimaginable eclecticism, but also one of unparalleled community involvement and audience-led development.
Whether your game is a AAA, MMOFPS about magic space-wizards, an 8-bit-looking prison management simulator, or some weird, low-res, low-polygon thing about digging and building stuff with giant bricks, the fact is that you can now react to and provide for your increasingly loyal fanbase faster and more efficiently than ever before. Everyone, from developer, to publisher, to player, is clearly better served by the present than the past. To pretend otherwise is to stick one’s head in the dirt and expect someone at ground level to both decipher and agree with those muffled grunts about campfires being better than central heating (because what if the pipes burst and you drown in your sleep?).
And beyond all of this, the central conceit of the Retro VGS actually marginalises the kind of gaming that it claims to elevate. Thanks to the current interplay between gaming hardware and marketplace, there really is no longer any such thing as a ‘retro’ game. There are just games, with a healthy array of styles, concepts, dimensions, designs and purposes. Big budget, 3D AAA is no longer the default. 2D, pixel art, low-poly, cel shading, and everything in between are now legitimate tools and options, simply different colours on the freshly democratic palette of gaming in 2015. To label certain styles as ‘retro’, to attempt to claim them in the name of a nostalgic, stick-in-the-mud agenda, is to do nothing more than limit them, creating an artificial ghetto system defining what certain types of games can and cannot be, based on nothing but dated memories protecting a regressively fetishised past.
There were good games back in the ‘90s. There were bad ones too. But the good ones were good because they were well designed, not because it was the ‘90s. Games won’t get better if we recreate the conditions in which they used to exist. They’ll only get better if we allow them to evolve. Building a cartridge-powered altar to an imaginary past isn’t a way of invoking greater quality, any more than listening to a song we once heard on a sunny day will drive the present clouds away. In both cases, there are far more, uncontrollable factors at play, and to retreat to the superficial, superstitious reassurance of the known past is simply a developmentally redundant avoidance of wrangling unknown future potential.
Because let’s face it, ideas like the Retro VGS aren’t really about recreating the conditions in which games used to exist. They’re about vainly trying to recreate the conditions in which we used to exist. And however comforting an idea that might seem, it’s ultimately a fool’s errand. Going backwards in life doesn’t really take you anywhere.