As much as I dislike the use of cliches, it’s true; what was old in gaming is indeed new again.
For several years now major publishers and indie developers alike have been channeling the nostalgia of longtime gamers who grew up during the 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit eras of the eighties and early nineties. New installments in beloved franchises designed to imitate the past as well as brand new IP that draw inspiration from multiple classic games have been releasing are a common sight these days. The retro-inspired gorgeous pixel artwork and classic gameplay mechanics have stood the test of time and are once again viable in a marketplace where many strive for realism and substantial scope.
The Retro-Revival Era Begins
Mega Man 9 and 10 are widely seen as the harbingers of the retro-revival
Pinpointing the exact start of the retro revival is difficult but it in the mainstream it’s widely attributed to Capcom’s Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10 (co-developed by Japanese studio, Inti Creates), released in 2008 and 2010 respectively. While the industry at large was adjusting to high definition development and beginning to push the boundaries of open-world and cinematic content, Capcom chose to revive its iconic franchise by emulating the visuals and gameplay of the original NES installments. The bold move paid off as the games were well received by critics and fans alike, being heavily praised for being virtually indistinguishable from their predecessors.
In what could easily have been a cheap ploy to merely take advantage of nostalgia, Capcom demonstrated to the entire industry that retro-style games have a place in the modern market.
In the years following Mega Man 9 and 10, indie developers proudly carried the 2D retro torch. Critical darlings such as Duck Game, Shovel Knight, Axiom Verge, Stardew Valley, Mercenary Kings, Towerfall: Ascension, Pocket Rumble, among many others, released that paid loving tribute to classics such as Metroid, Castlevania, Metal Slug and Harvest Moon. Nostalgia was being blended with modern game design techniques and control schemes to spectacular results. These titles helped scratch the itch for the type of games that simply weren’t made anymore while also forging great, unique identities of their own. In fact, some of these indie darlings are considered among the finest games in recent years.
Larger companies have also been getting in on the fun. Just a couple months ago, Arc System Works released Double Dragon IV; A classic-style sequel to the timeless beat-em-up franchise. Also this summer, Sega will be releasing Sonic Mania which is a sort of directors cut of classic Sonic games from the Genesis era that includes new and expanded levels. Soooo basically the Sonic game fans have wanted for literally decades.
Stardew Valley and Shovel Knight are two retro revival success stories
2D-Retro Gold Waiting to Happen
Having seen what so many talented developers have accomplished with their retro-styled games, my mind has been racing thinking of all the franchises that could get the 2D-retro treatment to potential spectacular results. Here are a few that I came up with…
Not to knock what Square Enix has been doing with Final Fantasy since the late nineties (in fact, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed almost every main entry since) but the newer entries barely resembles the series it once was. Just look at Final Fantasy XV and compare it with its groundbreaking predecessors like Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI. The similarities even beyond visual and technical are few. In fact that particular style of classic JRPG that the original Final Fantasy titles were is exceptionally rare in general these days; much to the dismay of longtime genre fans everywhere.
So here’s an idea: What if Final Fantasy XVI was done in the style of a classic 16-bit Final Fantasy like Final Fantasy VI? Imagine pixel sprites but done in high definition. Imagine a top down view as you navigate cities and dungeons. Imagine loose guidelines encouraging the player to explore a vast world. And imagine a classic and deep turn-based battle system. Sound tantalizing? Of course it does!
The formula is tried and true and if done well, a Final Fantasy developed in this style would feel both unique and fresh in the modern gaming landscape. Also, the thought of developing the next Final Fantasy in manner that helped to reign in costs and avoid many of the challenges of modern Triple-A development has to be compelling for Square. After the decade-long development saga of Final Fantasy XV, a smaller more focused and grounded project that channels the nostalgia of long-time fans would certainly be one to ponder.
Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden may be best known for it’s brutally hard 3D action games but the franchise originated as a 2D action-platformer with gorgeous pixel artwork in the late eighties. I suggest that Tecmo and the Team Ninja, the in-house studio responsible for developing the franchise, revisit this model for a new entry.
Imagine Ninja Gaiden’s signature brutal difficulty but on a 2D plane featuring challenging platforming and level navigation. Also it simply wouldn’t be Ninja Gaiden without an extremely polished and genre-defining combat system complete with smooth, responsive movement. I would suggest drawing inspiration from other 2D games with brilliant gameplay such as Salt & Sanctuary for enemy/encounter design and Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir for control layout, responsiveness and combo systems. If well executed, Ninja Gaiden could become the sort of defining franchise for 2D action-platformers that it became for 3D character-action games.
Is there a more obvious candidate?
Metroid rose to prominence in the eighties and nineties as one of the revered franchises s in the entire industry. It played a significant role in pioneering gameplay that focused on exploration and back-tracking and was an exceptional action-platformer in of itself. Super Metroid in particular is widely regarded as one of the absolute best video games ever made, 2D or not.
Not to disparage the more recent Metroid games, which are fantastic, but it’s hard to imagine I’m alone in wishing that one do we will get to experience a new entry than emulates its legendary predecessors. As displayed in recent indie titles such as Axion Verge and Guacamelee, the core gameplay formula absolutely holds up and all that would be missing is that beautiful pixel artwork that we love so much. What better game is there to serve as a pillar of the retro-revival than one of the franchises it is most heavily inspired by?
Capcom has already flawlessly translated their 2D fighting game brilliance into the 3D era. The character models and environments may be 3D but the gameplay goodness is still as 2D and genre-defining as ever. But I still want a classic Capcom pixel fighter, damn it!
I want to see this largely because Capcom’s pixel artwork in the 90’s was god-tier and matched only be SNK’s NeoGeo classics. To me and many other fighting fans, the 2D pixel design and animation of Capcom’s classic fighters is simply jaw-droppingly gorgeous and I would give anything for it to make a return for even a single game. Take the time to watch some footage of Capcom classics like the Street Fighter Alpha series and Darkstalkers 3. Visually nothing like them exists today and to me that is a shame. This level of pixel work is damn near a lost art and to completely lose it to the annals of history would be tragic.
Capcom creating a new fighter in the style of their late 90’s classics would set the enthusiast gaming community ablaze in the best way possible. They would once again set the standard for pixel artwork for the entire industry and make dreams come true in one fell swoop
The Future of Retro Gaming
Even if not a single one of these classic franchises returns to their roots, there are plenty of indie developers out there still cranking out amazing games that masterfully channel the past. If you happen to be a fan of classics from the NES, SNES, Genesis, etc. like myself, keep your eyes out for wonderful looking projects like Cosmic Star Heroine, Flinthook, Heart Forth Alicia, Chasm, and many more. I sincerely hope that this wave of brilliant retro games carries on well into the future. Given the current landscape of upcoming releases, it seems I have nothing to worry about.