Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Is Old-School Becoming the “New” New-School?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 24, 2010

One of the amazing things about indie games is how some of the old-school aesthetics are coming back into vogue – and not just among the pure “indie” titles. Yeah, any budget-busting AAA title is going to have the most up-to-date 3D graphic effects money can buy, but a lot of the big success stories of the last year or two have been from games that wouldn’t have looked all that impressive or out of place  five, ten, even twenty years ago.  Think about what’s happening on the handhelds, the iPhone, web-based gaming, downloadable console games, downloadable indie computer games, and the social gaming phenomenon.

So is retro the new cool? Not exactly. But once upon a time I mourned the loss of 2D graphics in games, claiming that much could still be done with modern technology with all-but-abandoned perspectives. And now – I’m being proven correct. Go, me. Now why didn’t I cash in on it?

But amongst indie games, particularly web-based games, it goes even further. Some pretty awesome stuff has been done with fat pixels and clever ideas. The games may look and sound way, way old-school. But…

Yeah. BUT..!

Old-school covers a lot of dimensions. Not just graphics. Not just gameplay. It seems what’s happening now isn’t so much a return of old-school, but a return for some lessons. A chance to explore some territory that was abandoned in a race in the mainstream industry for the fastest return-on-investment.  While in the grand scheme of things the less-than-40-year effective history of video games is pretty short. But it’s also been an incredible breeding ground of ideas in that time, many of which are waiting to be revisited and explored.

Because they can. Thanks to online distribution, and a growing acceptance of games that don’t need to have expensive, cutting-edge graphics or multi-million dollar production values, it’s possible for small developers to take the risks and attempt to innovate from a foundation long abandoned, rather than being limited to building on one of last year’s hits.

And for me, the innovation and refinement is the point. Let’s be honest here – in a lot of cases, the reason these older types of games (think – platformers, side-scrolling shooters, or the party-based & turn based first-person dungeon crawlers – a personal favorite) were abandoned. Often, it was because the market was saturated, and we players got bored with them. Simply going back and doing a minor, low-budget rehashes of  well-worn themes when it’s getting easy to go over to GOG.COM or XBLA and play the originals in their full retro glory isn’t going to score many points with me. (But it may find its niche…)

What I’m seeing and hoping to see more of isn’t a turning back of the clock. But I think our “little” hobby needs a remedial course in some lessons taught in the old-school. So I’m glad to see school is back in session!

So here’s my question for the old-school gamers out there: What would YOU like to see come back? What lessons out there would you like re-learned? What old-school design idea would you like to see revisited with new technology by a new generation of game designers?

Filed Under: Indie Evangelism, Retro - Comments: 13 Comments to Read

  • Bad Sector said,

    Simple minded but not really brainless FPS games with some sort of exploration. People like to say that Doom and Quake were brainless, but in my opinion they weren’t as brainless as Painkiller, Serious Sam, etc and the latter lack the exploration aspect (ok SS has some, but its an afterthought).

    From modern FPS games i like only a few (Half-Life 2, FEAR/FEAR2, Bioshock, etc) but for me they’re nothing like Quake, Doom, Blood, ROTT (which has a unique style without any similar FPS), Duke Nukem, etc. I’ve downloaded all custom maps for Quake 1 (except the most crude ones) and fortunately people are still making them (with a quality that goes ages beyond the original maps), but there is only so many times i can kill the same ogres and mutants :-).

    But anyway what i would like to see, at least in FPS games, is a return to more gameplay-oriented design (both game and level design) than realism-oriented. Realism shouldn’t be the ultimate goal. Being fun to play should be instead.

  • Long Tail Gamer said,

    Ludicrous settings and bizzaro game mechanics seems to be all the rage in some indie circles. I think that went hand in hand with the strain to cram your game into teeny weeny amounts of memory: I’m from the Commodore 64 gaming days, so DOS’s 640K looks like a wide open expense. I don’t even know what 4+ GB is worth in the gaming world now. Still, beeps and boops are aesthetic decisions now for retrogames — back than it was what was available.

    It seems those severe limitations brought out a purity of gameplay mixed with a need for the player to “imagine in” the blanks. Either the game worked as a game or it didn’t, and prettying it up didn’t go very far.

    You could also spot a great trick when the programmers hacked something into being that should have been impossible. (I’m thinking of the C64’s limitation on having only 8 sprites on-screen. The clever programmer could harness an interrupt to work multi-sprite magic.) Squeezing the juice from the silicon came in many forms, then. The potentials hadn’t yet been fully explored and harnessed.

  • Demiath said,

    As someone who really dislikes the whole militaristic and pseudo-realistic FPS trend in recent years, I agree with Bad Sector that we need less technically challenging shooters with more of an emphasis on simple-minded fun (which, by the way, is one of the reasons I love Borderlands so much).

    On the return of old school, I’d say nothing comes close to being a better example of how retro-styled games should be designed than Terry Cavanagh’s mind-blowingly awesome puzzle-platformer VVVVVV. That game combines clever level design and relentlessly skill-based gameplay (both characteristics of really good old games) with the almost unparallelled accessibility and forgivingness inherent in its very generous checkpoint system.

    There are many archaic gameplay mechanics and antiquated visuals which should be left on the dustbin of history, and it takes smart developers like Cavanagh to understand what works in 2010 and what doesn’t…

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    VVVVVV and I Fell In Love with the Majesty of Colors were the games that inspired this post, actually…

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Long Tail Gamer: I believe that the limitations often inspired creativity, rather than thwarting it. Sometimes it feels like the more freedom we have to do *anything*, the less we do with it.

    Not that I’m gonna complain about that freedom, mind you. 🙂 I like having less worry about what the hardware is capable of doing … though it’s still a problem (especially w/ a 3D game).

    @Bad Sector: Realism can inspire fun gameplay, but it’s no substitute for fun gameplay.

    My favorite FPS games are actually the more realistic ones – games more like simulators than straight-up FPS games. Like ARMA (and its predecessor, Operation: Flashpoint). But it’s a totally different feel from something like Counterstrike or F.E.A.R.

    But I also find myself craving the good ol’ fashioned DOOM deathmatch. Simple rules, lots of depth.

  • meep said,

    Action sims- I’d love to see a return of mech sims like Mechwarrior, Earthsiege, and StarSiege. Space shooters like X-Wing, Tie Fighter, Freespace and Wing Commander would be nice too. I realize there are few MMO games in this style, so single player is what I’m missing.

    Turn Based strategy- Maybe I should have narrowed it down, but oh well. Games like Masters of Orion, and Heroes of Might and Magic kept me playing “just one more turn” into the wee hours of the night.

  • Tesh said,

    I really miss the MOO/MOM pedigree. I also really miss Privateer and XCOM. Subsequent stabs in those directions have been… lackluster. Star Control also needs a real sequel to the fantastic SC2.

    I have high hopes for the MechWarrior reboot.

    All that said, what I’d most like to see is Seiken Densetsu 3 in the ‘States, and for that lineage to continue. Legend of Mana was underwhelming and the DS Mana never did much for me.

  • Tesh said,

    Oh, and I miss the platforming of Strider (arcade). That game had marvelous flexibility (if punishing difficulty in places) to climb around on the walls and ceilings that weren’t perfectly square. I’ve not seen many games with that sort of option, and bringing that up to date with some of the fluidity of more modern games could be a lot of fun.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Incidentally, I hear GOG.COM is adding Atari games to their lineup, starting with MOM.

    I’ve considered (more than once) doing a 2D version of Void War in the style of Star Control. But it’s not like Void War is a hot IP or anything. But the Star Control games were among the game’s original inspirations.

  • Bad Sector said,

    @Rampant Coyote:
    When i wrote “Realism shouldn’t be the ultimate goal. Being fun to play should be instead.” i meant that making a game realistic should be a goal if the game becomes fun because of it. For people who like simulation-like FPS games realism is a high goal. But for people who like more “arcade” gameplay realism isn’t as important.

    I think this old comic by Shamus Young shows what i mean: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/comics/stolen-pixels/5030-Stolen-Pixels-2-Capturing-the-Something 🙂

  • Xenovore said,

    @ Bad Sector: Well said! There is a purity and polish to the gameplay of those old FPS games that is rarely found in modern FPS games — only two modern games come readily to mind, Left 4 Dead (1; L4D2 is hella fun, but the “purity” has be diluted somewhat) and QuakeLive. Although QuakeLive isn’t really that “modern”. =)

    There’s certainly no reason a game cannot have both amazing visuals and amazing gameplay — every so often something comes along that achieves both. But I think it’s safe to say that, as the complexity and detail of the visuals increases in games, less time and effort are spent on polishing the gameplay. Also, we are seeing a trend of much shorter games, with less-to-no free content and/or modding.

    I enjoy good, realistic visuals, like in Crysis or Farcry 2, but I certainly prefer fantastic game-play over visuals. We’re well past the point where graphics are plenty good enough — game developers should be focusing more on things like physics and world/character interactions.

  • Cuthalion said,

    Descent. It may be because I haven’t played as many games as I perhaps should have, but I haven’t seen another fps/flight sim combo like that. It was awesome.

  • Wildbill said,

    I miss the old isometric style games.
    In fact I’ve been looking for a no programming or limited programming iso game maker for a while.
    In fact I’ve decide just to make my own Iso RPG game.