Steven Poole on our changing relationship with videogames past
As I stumble through the first half hour of Another World: Anniversary Edition, learning again to kick slugs to death and suffering repeated instadeaths from badtempered laser-wielding giant wombats, I feel a powerful nostalgia. Dim memories of playing the original on my little sister’s Atari ST; a whole early-1990s gestalt revived. And yet it’s not merely nostalgia. The enormous influence of Another World can still be felt in modern classics such as Inside. And our relationship to the past in videogaming has changed, for the better.
For a start, Another World is still spectacularly beautiful: its flat pastels are a testament to the power of thoughtful artistry over mere virtual photography. A terrifying monster is conjured merely by a few red pixels blinking for eyes among a spiky blank expanse of black. A green-screen commandline computer terminal was already a wry retro aesthetic when the game first came out. And the mute storytelling of the minimalist cutscenes still seems more authentically ‘cinematic’, in a new-wave style, than today’s interminable mo-capped expanses of wisecracking murderers and horse-botherers.
The game loads by default with sharpened visuals, and it’s with a sigh of relief that you turn them off to experience the exact pixel art of the original. The surprise is that this doesn’t make the game feel more old-fashioned; weirdly, the lo-res version seems actually more modern. After all, the 8bit or 16bit graphic aesthetic is now the preferred style for so many new games – and not just micro-budget arthouse experiments – that it no longer reads as exclusively retro. It has become one possible representational mode among many. Perhaps the success of Minecraft among the young has primed them to accept blocky graphics as an art style even though they never lived through a time when that was all you could do.
People used to talk about a thing called ‘retrogaming’, a term I always hated. (If I read a Stendhal novel, I’m not ‘retro-reading’; if I listen to a Beethoven quartet I’m not ‘retrolistening’.) But what has changed is that retrogaming is no longer a nerdy subculture. It’s everywhere. People playing fruit-based smartphone puzzle games on the train are retrogaming, even if they never played the originals. The form has finally matured to the degree that game ideas, as well as art styles, from 20 or 30 years ago can still, in the right hands, feel fresh and contemporary. Hence, of course, the success of Nintendo’s Mini SNES – it’s cannily marketed as a way for oldsters to relive their 1980s memories, but classics such as Super Mario World and
A Link To The Past make it a totally credible videogames console for fresher-faced consumers in 2018.
Understandable, then, that Sony should have tried to grab some of this action by announcing the PlayStation Classic. The original PlayStation is only four years younger than Another World, but represented a huge leap forward at the time. The trouble comes when we start to consider the relationship between its games and today’s. We remember PS1 fondly because it was the first console to reliably run fairly shonky versions of the kinds of 3D games that dominate the market now. Whereas the visuals of Another World would still grace any indie platformer today, you couldn’t get away with seriously releasing PS1-quality code as a modern game. And so the danger is that PS Classic, unlike SNES Mini, is a machine restricted to retrogaming in the bad, old sense.
And yet, and yet. It has Tekken 3, which surely still has legs (and arms) as a hilarious twoplayer punch-up. And, dammit, it comes with Ridge Racer Type 4, my favourite racing game of all time, the one with the best soundtrack ever, and as it happens the game I caned all summer while I was writing Trigger Happy in 1999. I know that if I decide to play it I run the risk of ruining those memories. And, unlike with Another World, it would make much more sense to do a remaster of
R4 with higher poly counts and framerate, rather than force us to play the original, because the temporal resolution of the PS1 version almost surely does not cut it any more. But it was also the most lovingly artdesigned racer of its era, a triumph of sundrenched electro-jazz ambience. I can’t believe that has disappeared.
Hmm, so I seem to have talked myself into a PS Classic after all. Now, for pity’s sake, will someone please remake Cannon
Fodder and Turrican 2?
Game ideas from 20 or 30 years ago can still, in the right hands, feel fresh and contemporary