The resilience of retro

The nostalgic community of retro gamers has kept the video gaming industry alive since the early 1970s. With each generation creating new memories, video games and nostalgia go hand in hand.

Illustration by Ben Coy

Illustration by Ben Coy

When we think of our childhood, we think of a lot of the usual suspects: getting lost at the Royal Melbourne show, bicycle injuries on family holidays, Jake would fight off evil spies, and Sara saved princesses from tyrannical overlords. You know, the usual.

By the age of 10, Sara had probably saved Princess Zelda (who is thankfully much better at saving herself nowadays) at least three times, and as such, forced her mother to introduce a lengthy ban on playing video games before school. Both of our childhoods were very similar: Jake would spend hours watching his brother play Final Fantasy VII, and Sara would watch hers play Super Mario 64. We both enjoyed summers playing Banjo Kazooie, long after-school Mario Party sessions with friends, and, once we upgraded to the new Xbox, a lot of losing at Halo (in Sara’s case).

 
Nostalgia is most commonly triggered by sensory input, such as hearing music from your favourite video game as a child or seeing your favourite character. In some cases, it can result in collections such as this one. Wiskeris/VisualHunt (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Nostalgia is most commonly triggered by sensory input, such as hearing music from your favourite video game as a child or seeing your favourite character. In some cases, it can result in collections such as this one. Wiskeris/VisualHunt (CC BY-ND 2.0)

 

This penchant for fond memories, and those objects or situations that induce them, is known as nostalgia, and is something we all likely experience on a day-to-day basis. Originally conceived as a medical or neurological disease, nostalgia has long been a human sensation of interest. Negative moods, feelings of loneliness, and sensory input are the most common triggers for nostalgia, thanks to a region of the brain known as the hippocampus intrinsically linking our memories to our senses. 

But nostalgia isn’t just a nifty trick our brain does to keep memories alive. In mice, nostalgia has shown to protect against depression-like behaviour, and many researchers believe that nostalgia is important in emotionally difficult times, especially when we experience stress and depression. The beauty of nostalgia is that it often carries a bittersweet edge: a tendency to overlook any negative aspects of a memory.

The communal and immersive nature of video games is what lends them to such strong feelings of nostalgia. The feeling of being a part of something, of creating one’s own in-game adventure, is an enormous component of the gaming experience. It is one of the most common themes in current research into nostalgia: the reliance on the self as the protagonist. Some research has suggested that video games elicit more nostalgia than other entertainment media. Shona Johnson, creator of the longest running Legend of Zelda fansite, believes that: “Playing a game is such an immersive experience… When you’re playing a game, you’re the one who is driving the action. You’re more invested in the fate of the hero or characters because you need to direct their actions and keep them alive”.

 
A 1982 advertisement for the Atari 2600 Video Computer. The first commercially successful home video game console, it took interchangeable game cartridges and had joystick controllers. Tod Simpson/VisualHunt (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A 1982 advertisement for the Atari 2600 Video Computer. The first commercially successful home video game console, it took interchangeable game cartridges and had joystick controllers. Tod Simpson/VisualHunt (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

Video games have now been around long enough to sustain a whole community of nostalgic gamers, from the days of playing Pong in arcades in the late 60s to Atari’s first commercially successful home console in 1977. Sporting only 128 bytes of RAM, the Atari 2600 was considered sophisticated for its time — and it was, with the popularisation of the microprocessor and interchangeable game cartridges. The success of the industry, however, is largely attributed to Nintendo’s release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) to worldwide markets in 1985. 

Since the days of running around as 8-bit heroes wielding pixelated swords, the video game industry has advanced in technological leaps and bounds. We’ve moved on to games that are so photo-realistic they come with warnings, and consoles have progressed from taking cartridges with three save slots to internal storage on 2TB hard drives. Multiplayer has taken the leap away from local in your living room to online with headsets. Instead of starting a game and pressing play, modern games come with updates, extra downloadable content, patches and microtransactions. Motion control technology is far less exciting than it was when Nintendo released the Wii in 2006, and VR is quickly becoming commercially available.

 

Trailer for the 2015 release Star Wars: Battlefront. The hyper realistic graphics are common in modern games, and players often come across emotionally and morally complex storylines.

 

Yet, every system introduces its own generation of players, and each one will experience their generation of games and consoles in a way that is unique to them. By and large our generation grew up with the Nintendo 64 before being swept up in the wave of Microsoft’s impressive Xbox or the hugely successful Sony PlayStation 2. What is nostalgic to us, however, is not nostalgic to the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 generation to which my cousins belong, nor the Wii U generation of my nieces. Yet even so, all these generations know who Mario is.

While some researchers suggest that older adults tend to experience nostalgia more frequently, it seems likely that as the age of gamers increases, appeals to nostalgic experiences are only going to escalate. This is especially significant when we consider that, since 2005, the age of the average gamer has increased from 30 to 38 in 2016. This increase coincides well with the increased accessibility of retro games over the last decade, often at the click of a button. 

Xbox Live, after gaining massive traction from the release of Halo 2 in 2004, proved to be the first large-scale online gaming success after many years of failed attempts. The service has since grown from 300 to over 300,000 servers. This shift into a digital gaming culture has meant that developers can now create online stores from which players can download retro games onto their modern console. For the truly dedicated this may not make a difference, for it is the thrill of hunting down that elusive game cartridge that draws them to the retrogamer community. For the majority, however, it has made accessible and affordable that which was once forgotten, and suddenly the games of the ‘80s and ‘90s are back in our living rooms and into the mainstream.

 

Teenagers react to playing the NES, a console from 1985. Despite the NES being released well before they were born, they still recognise the games, characters, and playing style.

 

Since the introduction of online gaming, video game companies across the world have grown exponentially. Australia alone saw a 27% rise in digital sales. Given the shift in the market, it has become imperative for companies to adopt strategies that segment and target that market in order to best position the company. For a business to be successful in the market, it must understand individual, social and cultural consumer behaviour.

Nostalgia is a powerful marketing tool in the context of consumer behaviour, and companies can use it to tap into a consumer's individual, social and cultural variables. As Rob Caporetto, retro game collector and popular streamer on YouTube, explains: “The people who've grown up with games have gotten to the age where they've started to look fondly back at those elements of their childhood, and desire the reconnection to these simpler times.” 

Interestingly, studies have suggested that there are age-specific changes in the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine in our brains that may explain less risk-taking in older adults. Dopamine is partially in play when we are rewarded or experience pleasure, and also plays an important role in gambling addiction. Video game developers are increasingly enlisting the help of psychologists to utilise these behavioural principles in their games

While the research is correlational in nature, there are suggestions that adolescents, due to neurophysiological differences, are more susceptible to addiction or to stimuli that excite dopaminergic circuits. This means that games we all played as children or teenagers were likely to be more reinforcing — that is, they probably had a much more significant impact on our neurochemistry. When we look at risk aversion in terms of marketing and decision making processes, there is evidence that we would rather not lose something, than to gain something. When we know a game is going to give us pleasure, we might prefer to go with its tried-and-tested experience, rather than playing a new game that may be too difficult, not what we were after, or simply terrible. In the process, though, we sometimes forget that the game is 15 years old and not all it was cracked up to be. 

 
The NES’s release in 1985 is claimed by many to be the pivotal point in the video gaming industry, and the console responsible for popularising home video gaming. blackwarrior57/VisualHunt (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The NES’s release in 1985 is claimed by many to be the pivotal point in the video gaming industry, and the console responsible for popularising home video gaming. blackwarrior57/VisualHunt (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

But we can’t talk about nostalgia marketing without mentioning the Nintendo Classic Mini; it can be said that the two go together like Mario and Luigi, after all. Consistently at the forefront of console innovation, investing so much in Nintendo’s hardware has left a lot to be desired when sitting beside Sony and Microsoft’s stunning graphic design. Nintendo have declared that “it’s not about specs… for us it’s about the content.” In an age of photorealism and 2TB hard drives, Nintendo are dominating the retro gaming market with their latest console release: a replica of the 1985 NES. The Nintendo Classic Mini is the company’s most recent bid at nostalgic marketing, and it is an overwhelming success. With retro game downloads already mainstream, the Classic Mini is bringing the games to life with fuzzy CRT filters and replica rectangular controllers, much to the delight of fans of all generations.

With the majority of Nintendo’s game franchises running for over 30 years, the company is a prime example of the use of nostalgia as a tool to access players of the 1980s and ‘90s. Shona Johnson thinks that the success of iconic franchises such as Mario Bros. or her speciality, the Legend of Zelda, can be attributed to having “really solid premises.” She said “the core gameplay, characters and worlds are incredibly appealing, and while they certainly have loyal fanbases who’ll continue to play them as long as they’re released… Newer gamers are picking them up as well.”

In the same vein, the renowned Final Fantasy series that began in 1987 was originally intended as a one-off installment as the company faced bankruptcy. It ended up selling so well, however, that they made a second… and a third… and a sixteenth. As of 2016, the franchise has turned around over US$20 billion, and sales are only ever on the increase. Despite, or perhaps largely because of, minimal changes to gameplay and fighting style, the franchise remains the highest selling series for the developers. 2017 will see the remake of Final Fantasy VII, one of the most celebrated games of the series. Again, we see the tendency for players to return to a familiar game design that is unlikely to disappoint.

 

In 2016, SquareEnix announced the remake of Final Fantasy VII. It has long been regarded one of the most groundbreaking titles of the series, and, quite clearly, a fan favourite.

 

Despite advancements towards cinematic storytelling, many developers and gamers alike are still working in a world of pixelated figures and side scrollers. The increase in independent game developers has created a niche market for small-budget games that rely on clever game design rather than complex add-ons and impressive graphics. Rob Caporetto explains that “we've seen independent developers making a comeback — and by creating games with smaller scales, with more limited resources, it's about the content, rather than being able to push a hardware platform to its limits.” The rise in popularity of indie games like Spelunky and Minecraft has brought the retro gaming experience to the newer, less familiar generations and brought it back to the older gamers. They strip away the complexities of modern video games and revert back to four directional and two attack buttons. The ease of gameplay makes these games accessible to everyone, much like the previous era’s pick-up-and-play mentality.

The retro gaming industry may be stuck in the pre-’90s era, but it is absolutely still alive, well, and far from becoming obsolete. The movement towards a digital gaming age has only made it more accessible, and nostalgia marketing has pushed it into the mainstream.

So whatever your generation, and whatever your game of choice, it is now easier than ever to seek out, settle down, and set off an adventure of days past.

Edited by Jessica Herrington