With the announcement of the PlayStation Classic, due to launch in December, Sony have formally entered the retrogaming scene. They join Nintendo, who, whilst far from the first (I had a plug and play of classic arcade games as far back as 2002), have helped to popularise the concept with the releases of the NES and SNES mini consoles over the last couple of years whilst Sega are also due to get in on the act with the forthcoming Genesis / Megadrive Mini, due in 2019.
All of these mini consoles share a basic concept; a miniaturised version of the original hardware, pre-loaded with a selection of classic games. Priced at under £100, they are aimed squarely at the casual market, the perfect Christmas gift for that gamer in your life who wants a simple, no fuss reintroduction to some of the gaming delights from his or her youth.
Coupled with the trend for these mini consoles has been a steady stream of remakes. Crash Bandicoot has to some extent been the poster child for this movement with the 2017 release of the N.Sane trilogy, closely followed by remasters of Burnout Paradise and Dark Souls. The appetite for remakes though dates back further. Our old friend Nathan Drake saw his PS3 Uncharted adventures upgraded for PS4 whilst stablemate Last of Us also got in on the act. And then there is the remake of Resident Evil from all the way back in 2015 and seminal shooter Call of Duty 4 amongst a slew of other titles down the years.
And this trend shows no signs of abating. Spyro is looming on the horizon whilst Capcom made a show at E3 2018 of their Resident Evil 2 ‘reimagining.’ Not wanting to miss out, Square Enix are also working on a remake of series favourite Final Fantasy VII whilst updated versions are also slated for Medievil, Zone of the Enders and Catherine.
Yep, it sure is a great time to be a retrogamer. Or is it?
On the surface, this all seems like a good news story, a chance to revisit the ghost of gaming past in a simple, affordable and convenient way. But peel away the layers and there is something rotten at the core. Let’s take a closer look at those mini consoles. The SNES mini comes with 20 pre-loaded retro games together with the bonus of an exclusive Star Fox sequel. A quick look at the games list reveals a checklist of hits; Super Mario, Mario Kart, Donkey Kong Country and Street Fighter II all feature. Whilst not all games have been revealed, the Playstation Classic similarly packs in the hits, with featured games including Ridge Racer Type 4, Tekken 3 and the aforementioned Final Fantasy VII. Again, simple, affordable and convenient.
Except that it isn’t. I never owned a NES, SNES or Megadrive however I have owned every Playstation since the PS1. Over the years I developed a huge games collection, certainly way more than the 20 titles promised. And that just scratched the surface of the console’s library, the PS1 home to hundreds of games across its lifetime. Where are these games? How do I get to play them? My brick style, first release version PS3 came with backwards compatibility, allowing me to ditch my old PS1 and Ps2 whilst retaining access to my games library. Sadly the PS4 did not follow suit, meaning that if I want to work through my extensive collection of anything pre-PS4, I have to maintain two consoles.
And even if I go this route, the very concept is flawed. Sure, my trusty great noise box of a PS3 can handle old Playstation software but what of the Amiga? What of the Amstrad or Atari? Have you tried getting a DOS or Windows ’95 game to run on Windows 10, especially in 64-bit? It’s damn near impossible without a first class degree in computer geekery.
And what of these remakes? Reading through some previews for Spyro, the article seemed giddy at the thought of enemy placement and items reappearing in exactly the same places that they did first time round. Similar excitement abounds around how Resident Evil will reintroduce us to the original characters from the first release. How is this a good thing? Why is this being passed off as some sort of glorious achievement? I bought Resident Evil 2 on release. I have played it to completion and thoroughly enjoyed it. So now what? I get to spend another £40 to play exactly the same game but with better graphics? And I’m supposed to be happy about this?
Look don’t get me wrong, remasters have their place. If you missed Uncharted on PS3, it is an essential purchase on PS4. Indeed I thoroughly enjoyed Last of Us on PS4 having skipped it on PS3. But let’s not confuse ourselves with what these are; a cynical attempt by the publishers to generate more money from the same IP.
Mini consoles and remasters are not the answer to the retrogaming question, rather they are a symptom of a wider disease. Videogames are a unique art form in the sense that it is the only medium that seems determined to push the hardware forward at the expense of its history. In home cinema, VHS was decisively killed off by DVD. The result? A glut of re-releases and the advent of on-demand streaming services. Books will likely never die yet are in any event preserved by libraries or transposed into digital form. The history of these forms of entertainment is cherished, its prized assets protected.
But what of gaming? Some of the most important titles in the history of videogames were made for systems that no longer exist. Sure, many of these have seen subsequent release via compilations and the like but each time, in addition to a further expense to purchase, your ability to play is dictated by the life of your machine. And what of those games that don’t pass the litmus test for classic status? What of that obscure JRPG or old-school shooter, seldom discussed in gaming circles but holding a place in your heart? Unlikely to ever see a commercial re-release, it is destined to gather digital dust for eternity.
The gaming community understands this. Whilst early adopters may have been driven by piracy, emulation has allowed gamers to bring old systems to life, reliving a game that means something to you. Over time, developers and publishers have sought to clamp down on this scene, Nintendo in particular issuing notices to the most popular download sites, forcing them to remove their content. Their legal right to do so is indisputable, the draconian need to do so somewhat less clear. Whilst a Mario or a Sonic is likely to still be monetised, is there really a developer or publisher missing out on a commission if some kid in Coventry wants to have a quick go on Lombard RAC Rally?
Whatever your moral take on emulation the point remains; as technology moves forward, gaming history is being left behind. As I look over my ever growing games collection, the thought occurs that I may never get to play some of the games I own. If my PS3 breaks, so ends my ability to legally play anything from the PS1 to PS3 era. Turning to my PC games collection, outside of those games running through Steam, if the game came with a 32-bit installer, the latest versions of Windows simply won’t run it. My game has become obsolete through the very act of ensuring that my hardware meets modern gaming standards. My Amiga long since bit the dust, the Atari barely works. Hell, even my Astro Wars handheld is on its last legs.
Some attempts have been made to digitise the retrogaming experience. Both Sony and Microsoft offer subscription packages that allow you to stream a selection of games from their respective library for a fixed monthly fee. As far back as the Wii, Nintendo offered the ability to download old games from the Wii shop. But once again, these options are limited. If Sony withdraw the PS Now service, your access to that library disappears overnight. And once again, those services are limited to that manufacturer only.
Remakes and mini consoles are not the answer then. Individual streaming services are not the answer. This is not an issue limited to Sony, Nintendo or Sega. This is an issue that affects all gamers of every age and every generation. The solution requires cooperation on the part of developers, publishers and manufacturers as well as the courage to understand that this is an issue of heritage more than commercial profit.
Gaming needs its own Netflix; a single access point to the treasure trove of gaming past. Imagine being able to scroll through a list of hardware, select a game and just play. Or how about searching by developer or by genre, choosing which format you want to play on and leaping into the action. No more reliance on individual pieces of ever-ageing hardware, destined to one day fail. No more need to rely on the dubious legality of emulation. No more need for gimmicky mini consoles or half baked remakes for a game you already own.
These are our games. This is our history. Who will preserve our gaming past?