It’s easy to think that consoles like the original NES, Sega Mega Drive, or even the Atari are nothing more than museum pieces, mere footnotes in video gaming history. However, there’s plenty of interest in retro gaming: And people are even making new games for these old consoles.
Nowhere was this clearer than at Gamescom 2022 in Cologne, Germany, where a decent-sized section of a massive hall was dedicated to retro gaming. It featured grizzled hobbyists showing off their collections of vintage games as well as teenagers playing games like Daytona USA 2, a racing game from 1998, or trying out Pong on an Atari arcade clone.
Most striking, though, especially if you’re not familiar with retro gaming, is that a lot of these older consoles are getting new game releases. In fact, there’s a cottage industry dedicated to developing games for the NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, and other classic consoles. More surprising yet, there’s also a decent-size market interested in buying them.
According to Chris Noll, who owns Retrospiel, a small store in Cologne, Germany that sells retro games for all kinds of older consoles, it’s not just guys with graying temples buying them, either. “When I started the shop in 2002, I thought I’d only get customers my own age. Now, though, kids as young as 12 or 14 are buying games.”
Christian Gleinser, who makes four-player games for the Commodore 64 under the banner of Dr. Wuro Industries, has the same experience. According to him, there is an assumption that graphics are the main attraction for younger generations. Put them behind an older console, though, and “kids can see both kinds of games can be fun.”
According to Gleinser, this is because there’s practically no learning curve to retro games. “Our games are simple to learn, you can be playing within a few seconds.” Noll also points out that in retro games, there is more focus on gameplay over story, placing the player directly in the action.
Picking up one of these games for yourself, you can see what they mean. Even on games that were released recently, you’re in the action before you know it. And, since most older controllers have just a few buttons, you can figure it out without a tutorial. It’s almost liberating when compared to how cumbersome some modern games can get; there’s clearly a lot more at play here than just nostalgia.
Still, though, it does leave the question of how anybody can get to play these games. Older gamers may still have an old console or two kicking around, but teenagers won’t have one in the attic, usually, let alone have it plugged in and ready to go on some dinosaur of a television.
According to Noll, though, this isn’t the problem you may think it is. There are plenty of older consoles still kicking around in the second-hand market, and you can always use newly built clones like the C64 Mini (a Commodore 64 clone) or so-called Famiclones like the FC Twin that can handle NES and SNES games.
Failing that, you could also simply install a software emulator on your current device. One great option is RetroArch, which can emulate almost any operating system of yesteryear, though there are plenty of console-specific emulators out there, too. Examples include PPSSPP for the PlayStation Portable (remember that one?) or even the ability to emulate arcade machines with MAME.
In fact, going the software route may be the better option as it takes away one issue older gamers will definitely be familiar with, the hassle of dealing with physical copies. Online, games for older consoles may cost as little as $10—or even come as a free download—while the physical product may sell for as much as $60, equivalent to a modern AAA game.
That said, it’s surprising that the cartridges are still being made. According to Noll, they’re relatively easy to acquire, though there can be some serious fluctuations in availability and price depending on platform. There’s also the issue of whether the makers can get their hands on the right parts, which goes a long way to explaining the occasional $60 price tag.
That said, enthusiasm seems to be a bigger part of retro gaming than profit motive. For example, Gleinser offers his Commodore 64 games for free via his site, only requiring payment for physical copies. He describes his game-making as an “intense hobby,” and the idea that he’d charge for games seems far from his mind.
Much the same goes for Elektronite, which makes games for Mattel’s 1979 Intellivision console, and offered them at Gamescom for just a few bucks. When asked about why you’d want to make games for this obscure console, the company’s rep just smiled and answered “why not?” before explaining that it’s a way for people to experience a bit of history, while staying current in older programming languages.
Noll also points out that many games are made by people that have an idea for a game but don’t have the skills to make their dream a reality. Retro games, in this case, are a great solution as you don’t need the same advanced skill set as you would if you tried to use a game development platform like Unity or Unreal Engine.
Noll showed us several games at his exhibit that were made by people with little to no programming experience who just wanted to try and put something together. Examples include a drawing program called Doodle World put together by a father and his toddler or some simple shoot-em-ups. As basic as they are, they still drew interest from passersby.
Opening Up the Market
That’s not to say that it’s only hobbyists making retro games, either. A few small studios are making high-end, professional games that can work on both older consoles as well as newer ones. One good exception is Intrepid Izzy by Senile Team, which was published for the Sega Dreamcast in 2021 but is now also available to play on Windows—you can buy it on Steam.
Two new NES games, Alwa’s Legacy by Elden Pixels from 2020 and Micro Mages by Morphcat Games from 2019, are also available via Valve’s online platform, meaning that even people who don’t want to bother with NES clones or emulators can play these games.
Changing Things Up
A big hook for these games seems to be that while they use some of the design ideas of yesteryear—getting into the action quickly, simple controls, reduced graphics—they also implement modern design decisions.
A good example is Arkagis Revolution, a game for the Sega Mega Drive in which you fly around with a jet blowing up tanks. In a clever twist, the makers decided to let you use the A and C buttons on the controller to turn your ship, letting you explore the game map in ways that really stretch the capabilities of the console and may never have occurred to people who originally made games for it.
Other examples include how Alwa’s Legacy introduces non-linear gameplay (unheard of in games from the 90s) or even straight-up graphical upgrades, like Intrepid Izzy has. While the console you may be playing these games on might be dinosaurs, the games themselves aren’t throwbacks—far from it.
As a result, the retro games scene is an interesting mishmash of professional and amateur, with players able to choose from both slick productions as well as games put together by hobbyists with some time on their hands after work.
The rich tapestry of ideas and games harkens back to a bygone area and is a big change in pace from modern AAA gaming. It deserves the attention of anybody interested in not only what gaming used to be like but what it could be in the future.
If you’re interested in dipping your own toes into retro gaming, you don’t necessarily need a classic console—there are lots of great retro controllers you can connect to a modern PC.