Friday, August 03, 2018

A definition of retro gaming

I was recently asked what my definition for "retro" gaming with regards to PC gaming is. The question is necessary as everyone's answer regardless if they're a console or a PC gamer, is different. It's one of those questions that's unlikely to ever be definitively defined in such a way as to be agreed upon by everyone.

Quake II

For PC gaming, some sources will use the arrival of the CD-ROM or the move from a dedicated DOS mode to a native Windows game is the deciding factor. Others define the viewpoint, control system or essence of the game as retro - e.g. I've seen Pillars of Eternity (which evokes Baldur's Gate's isometric viewpoint) or games like Cuphead (a traditional side scrolling Run & Gun) being referred to as retro because they're *based on* the ideas of the types of games that aren't considered modern, although the games themselves certainly are.

In the gaming console community, many players use the generation of the console and say that 4th generation consoles or those that came before them are retro. Others however drag that out to 5th and others claim 6th generation consoles, meaning that the Playstation 2, Game Cube and XBox and the games designed for them are all retro. Players from both camps have argued that the switch from 2D to 3D games to define what's retro and what isn't.

So it's obviously subjective as what is retro or just 'old' at the end of the day, but for me personally I tend to consider a few factors including how well a game functions on modern hardware without significant editing but I would consider the game's base engine technology as a primary factor. A game's engine has a considerable effect on the look and feel of a game, both graphically and functionally although in some cases an engine can be pushed from it's retro beginnings to something that wouldn't be considered retro at all, for example Max Payne (2000) and Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (2003) use the same engine (MAX FX) but for Max Payne 2 it was so much improved that it surely surprised everyone that it was using the same engine as it's predecessor.

I designate games like Quake II as retro due to the fact they were created using engines that game developers were still getting to grips with the concept of true 3D engines. I think my cut off point would be games using those early blocky 3D engines like Quake II, Unreal, Jedi Knight and Neverwinter Nights where humans had square heads, triangles for noses and were woefully animated. Many were in fact less asthetically pleasing than their 2D counterparts. In my opinion the Unreal Engine 2 (Unreal Tournament 2003), id Tech 3 (Quake III) engine and their contemporaries are less dramatically different from today's similar games and shouldn't be regarded as retro. Splinter Cell (2002) for example was one of the first games to use the Unreal Engine 2 which was considered good enough to power the entire Splinter Cell franchise for 11 years, up to and including the most recent Splinter Cell: Blacklist (2013).

Splinter Cell

There was a crop of games between around 1999 and 2003 that straddle the divide between retro and not, I'll just give you a few examples:

  • Quake III: Arena (1999) = Not retro (id Tech 3)
  • Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance (1999) = Retro (Last in the greatest game series of the 1990's but graphically a dinosaur compared to space-flight games of the 2000's)
  • Deus Ex (2000) = Retro (Unreal Engine 1, needs work to get working on modern PC)
  • Star Trek: Voyager: Elite Force (2000) = Not retro (id Tech 3)
  • Max Payne (2001) = Retro (MAX-FX engine in development since 1997)
  • No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way (2002) = Retro (LithTech Jupiter engine, is comparable to idTech 3/Unreal Engine 2, but rights issues have prevented re-release and support of the game and it requires retro-style shenanigans to get working).
  • Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (2002) = Not retro (id Tech 3)
  • Neverwinter Nights (2002) = Retro (Aurora Engine, Bioware's first 3D engine)
  • Knights of the Old Republic (2003) = Not retro (Odyessy Engine, Bioware's second 3D engine, a dramatic improvement over Aurora that would set a standard for years). 
  • Judge Dredd: Dredd vs. Death (2003) = Retro (Rebellion used the Asura engine previously deployed with Aliens Vs Predator (2000) and this iteration of it was not up to id Tech 3 standards but later iterations were).

Of course I reserve the right to change the status of the entries on this list in time due to technical circumstances, but this is what I suspect to be true at time of writing.

In conclusion 'retro gaming' is an entirely subjective concept and merely a semantic issue at the end of the day, unlikely ever to find a true concensus. But now you know where I stand.

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