Opinion | Where will retro-inspired developers turn next?

Games that hark back to an age of sprites and 2D scrolling have been all the rage for a while, with PlayStation-style 3D games taking over. But where will we go next for our retro fix, Devon wonders…


In the early 2010s – a time of mainstream popularity and growth in the indie game development scene – a number of titles came out that revelled in the ‘retro’ era. Shovel Knight charmed everyone with its diligent attention to the NES palette and old-school sensibilities, Super Meat Boy channelled Nintendo’s ‘hardcore’ platforming level design (and even borrowed its use of “Super”), and Volgarr The Viking was an arcade-style love letter to classic beat-’em-ups. For a while, 1980s and 1990s game design was jumping into a renaissance, thanks in no small part to developers who were raised in the familiarity and nostalgia of these eras having developed the skills to channel it in their own work. In the late 2010s, we also saw N64-like titles jump into the ring, with games like Yooka-Laylee and A Hat In Time bringing polygonal platformers back in big ways.

Thanks to the linear progression of time, though, I feel like I’ve only noticed this ‘nostalgia window’ gradually creeping forward through indie spheres, as new developers rise up the ranks and game development becomes a more accessible medium to emerging creatives.

Today, more than ever, this ‘retro renaissance’ has started honing in on the Dreamcast and PSone era of games, with communities like the Haunted PS1 community revelling in the uncanny valley aesthetics of Sony’s first console, games like Szrot channelling Gran Turismo with a European twist, and the Bloodborne PSX demakes by LWMedia being… well, PSone demakes of modern titles. If you grew up in the late 1990s and early 2000s (like myself), there’s truly no better time to be watching indie games. But what is maybe even more interesting to me than all this channelling of old-school values is where they take it from here.

The PlayStation 2 had no shortage of wacky and interesting experiences that I can see indie devs wanting to emulate, and with indie development being where it is right now, it’s likely we’ll see more compact but polished experiences like GameCube games in the works soon (if not already!). In the post-PS2/GameCube era, however, game development really starts getting wild, for better or for worse.

Triple-A games chase intense (and expensive) realistic graphics more than the stylised experiences of yore, and as a result, everything also gets noticeably more grungy and brownish-grey. I really can’t help but wonder if we’re going to see smaller developers start attempting to emulate the bigger-budget experiences as this nostalgia window moves. Will we see Gears of War or Uncharted-alikes coming out from smaller indie teams on shoestring budgets? Will software be accessible and user-friendly enough to empower devs to replicate these experiences themselves?

Tech has already unlocked the potential for small creators to create from basically nothing. Nowadays, it’s entirely possible to record mocap sessions by using an iPhone camera, or photoscan real objects to get a quick 3D base, while software like Houdini has made it possible to generate entire cities with the click of a few buttons. A decade ago, none of this was remotely possible, even if you were operating with a multi-million dollar budget. Today you can do it all, and for a relatively small sum of money.

Or, failing the adoption of big-budget design approaches, will these nostalgia titles start getting more cyclical? Will devs start to channel the vibes of older XBLA titles such as Trials HD, or the disposable nature of downloadable, first-party PlayStation 3 titles like Trash Panic? I can certainly see a future where everything wraps around on itself and the devs who grew up playing Shovel Knight start making Shovel Knight-alikes, and so the cycle repeats over again. After all, what makes a ‘retro’ title retro if not drawing inspiration from those that came before it? We already see this pattern in the triple-A space, where remakes of older titles are repeatedly raised from the dead, and even slightly older digital media, such as movies, have no fear in putting out new spins on old classics every couple of decades or so – I see no reason why it might not start happening to indie games, too.

Unfortunately, I can’t say I have any idea where these retro-inspired games are going to end up, but I do know that I’m super-excited to stick around and find out.

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