Retro Games, Presentation, and Gatekeeping

For those of you who are white collar workers, imagine the following scenario. It’s happened to me more than once in real life, and perhaps it’s happened to you too …

A new bit of jargon recently crept into your industry. For now, let’s just make up a word, like … “scropely.” 

Everyone starts to use it, slowly at first, but it quickly builds momentum. At first you think you understand what scropely means, but then a few people use it in a new and seemingly contradictory way. Now you’re back to square one.

At some point you’re in a large meeting. The new jargon is being tossed around freely – everyone is talking about how something is or isn’t scropely. At some point it’s your turn to talk, and you bravely (or foolishly) state:

“I’m not sure about you folks, but I honestly don’t know what it means for something to be scropely.”

You fear that you will be mocked, but the opposite is true. Suddenly multiple people in the room reveal that they too have no idea what the word means. You’ve all just been nodding your heads and playing along because you were too afraid to challenge the new status quo. Or maybe you feared that showing a bit of vulnerability would instead be interpreted as you showing incompetence.

I feel this way about retro video games – specifically, the rendering of retro video games. And as usual, I’m unsure if anyone else feels the same way.

Let’s cut to the chase with an example of what I’m talking about. Here is a screenshot from ArsTechnica’s review of the TMNT Cowabunga Collection, a retro collection that bundles up a truckload of old Ninja Turtles games:

For the life of me, I cannot tell what is wrong with this image. How is it obvious that the lines are misaligned?

And it’s not just this example. Any time I see a reviewer complain about a retro re-release featuring bad filters, squished pixels, or screen tearing, I have no idea where they’re coming from. By and large, the games in these re-releases look the same (or close enough) to what I remember seeing as a kid.

Screen Tearing

Full disclosure, – I actually didn’t even know what screen tearing meant until I looked it up for this piece. It isn’t at all what I thought it was, and I honestly can’t think of a single retro compilation where I noticed anything like this.       

To be clear, I’m not saying that these visual defects don’t exist. What I am saying is that there is something off about the conversations regarding this topic.

For example, I’ve been long afraid to admit my “blindness” to these visual defects for fear of being labeled a “casual” fan of retro games. I can’t think of any specific examples off the top of my head, but I feel like I’ve read reviews that contain phrases akin to “casual fans won’t notice these flaws.”

But what exactly makes one a “casual” fan of a retro game? And if there is a definition, are we sure it has anything to do with visual fidelity?

Case in point – I remember reading a lot of complaints about the Mega Man X Legacy Collection, both in regard to its graphical fidelity as well as input lag (which was allegedly so bad as to make some of the final bosses impossible).

Personally, I couldn’t tell anything noticeably bad about the way the games look, but I did beat the bosses of X1 and X2 without breaking a sweat. My muscle memory of those fights never faded, and if there was any input lag, it certainly didn’t get in my way. I also beat the bosses of X3 and X4 without much frustration.

If I can’t notice graphical defects, but I can beat the pants off these old games, does that make me a dirty “casual?” If you ask me, I think my experience here reveals the flaw in this line of thinking. The idea of a “casual” or “non-casual” gamer is itself a largely meaningless label, but it becomes even more meaningless when you start to apply arbitrary rubrics to specific (but still arbitrary) aspects of the game.

Am I a casual retro gaming fan if I can hum lots of classic video game chiptunes, but can’t tell minute differences in how they sound on modern retro compilations? What exactly matters here – one’s passion for (and experience) with the material, or one’s ability to understand the most precise technical details?

If you ask me, I’d say the former is far more important. And while this all boils down to personal preference – and I admit that I can’t read minds – this focus on minute technical details feels at least a little bit like another form of gatekeeping. A whole new audience can now experience these retro games – including people who weren’t even alive when they were first released – and I wouldn’t be surprised if that spurs a certain type of person to try and find ways to establish new, exclusionary gaming bonafides.

Basically this, but literally.

Or, if we go back to my original work scenario, perhaps it’s true that people like to throw around these terms without understanding what the hell they actually mean. It’s an easy way of sounding smart without actually revealing your ignorance, which is why most of us (myself included) do it to one extent or another.

This can be a dangerous game to play, at least in the professional world. You can end up promising to deliver on things that you don’t actually know how to accomplish, and sooner or later that will bite you in the ass.

Of course, when it comes to a hobby like gaming, it’s unlikely that you’ll cause any harm by faking it until you make it, though I can easily imagine a scenario in which a good game (or a good compilation of old games) gets unfairly maligned because players throw a bunch of cargo cult accusations against it.

Let me end this conversation with a very specific comparison. Film buffs can be insufferable for all sorts of reasons, but if I told a film buff that I watched an old film on a scratchy VHS tape, and I really liked it, I somehow doubt they’d give me crap for not having watched it on 4K Blu Ray. They’d just be happy to have someone new to talk to about it. Sure, it’s possible I’d appreciate the 4K version even more, but if the acting and the direction and the soundtrack are good enough, they’ll still evoke powerful emotions, even in a diminished form. And the film buff would likely rather talk about those emotions than about differences in color grading or film grain.

That’s the kind of conversation we as a hobby should focus on.

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1 year ago

I don’t think I’ve seen this attitude in real life, but even knowing many of my coworkers play games, we don’t talk about them much. And I don’t have any other friends who still have older systems. Do SNES games look the exact same as when I had it hooked up to a commodore 64 monitor in the 90s? Probably not. Does it matter to me? Not enough to try and track one down. I can appreciate that people want that authenticity. I feel like most people who do seek it want it for themselves, not to prevent others from playing the games (or, restated another way – I think that the hints that a retro experience *isn’t authentic* if it’s not pixel perfect are from a vocal minority).

As far as rereleases go – I’ve never really had a problem with them. I’ve noticed input lag, but it’s never enough to prevent me from playing and enjoying the games – and honestly I don’t even know how much is from the game itself vs the controller connection vs the TV input… there are several things possibly at fault in those cases, but if I have time to troubleshoot, I’d rather just play the game. If I’m setting up my kid with Legend of the Mystical Ninja, she’s not going to care about whether you can see the pixel edges. She’s going to be asking questions about the ghost lady (that I can’t answer).

Last edited 1 year ago by chris
1 year ago

i have never been too hung up on my status in the gaming firmament, so i dont mind admitting i do let the discussions of whether a retro release is pixel perfect go over my head most of the time. as long as games run well i am likely to be satisfied. to your point, i have always bristled at reviews focusing too much on things like graphics and not enough on emotional resonance, quality of writing and “directing,” or character development and world building.

i agree that discussion is often de rigueur in reviews of re-releases but i have always chalked that up to the checklisty/consumer reports style of most game reviews rather than gatekeeping. like, its just one on a list of things reviewers feel the need to cover.

1 year ago

What kind of loser even plays rereleases instead of buying a thousand dollars worth of gear or keeping a few CRTs around to really ugly up your living room to play games on original hardware?