When the Nintendo Wii was first released in 2006, its most impressive feature, to me, wasn’t the motion-sensing controller or the library of new titles. I was primarily jazzed to check out the Virtual Console, which would allow me to download classic games from not only Nintendo’s stellar back catalogue, but also those of Sega and a host of other antiquated machines. The prospect of having console mascots Mario, Sonic and even Bonk on one system was unbelievably exciting. Thus, while everyone else was busy flailing their arms on Wii Sports, I was knee-deep in ’80s classics like Bomberman, Zelda and Kid Icarus.
The retro craze has only gotten bigger since then. Both Xbox 360 and PS3 now offer scores of downloadable oldies and greatest hits collections, as well as re-rendered classics that excel at unfussy gameplay and simple art design rather than convoluted controls and glitzy graphics. Hell, Capcom recently released two original eight-bit Mega Man sequels.
The influx of lo-tech gaming is no longer limited to consoles. The demand for easygoing vintage and indie games is on the rise for non-gamers as well, who can effortlessly get into something like Plants vs. Zombies in seconds. The biggest development in this area comes from smartphones and tablets, and there’s no better example than the point-and-slingshot app game Angry Birds. A crude item compared to your typical new release—destroy structures by hurling birds at them—it’s become one of the most profitable games in history, grossing an estimated $70 million (roughly 500 times what it cost to make).
You could argue that app games are popular solely because of their pick-up-and-play nature—Angry Birds is simple enough that your average player can easily master launching birds at pigs while riding the subway. But these titles also deliver a sense of nostalgia for adults reared on simple gaming pleasures like stomping goombas. Your average iPhone or Android is certainly capable of handling lush 3-D graphics, but many people prefer fending off zombies with plants, or even replaying Atari relics like Centipede.
The integration of the internet with consoles and smartphones has been the key ingredient that enables us to revisit our old pixelated pals. In the ’90s, gamers could (illegally) download dated faves and play them on their computer. These days, nerds can easily hack a first-generation Xbox, Nintendo DS or even a smartphone and load it up with thousands of games, a practice that’s the equivalent of downloading MP3s through a dodgy website as opposed to purchasing them on iTunes.
Unlike other retro renaissances, such as the return of vinyl records, retro gaming hasn’t resurrected the physical element—those clunky, blow-inside-to-make-them-work cartridges. If you want to use the original consoles, you’re better off playing the occasional round of Space Invaders at the new Spadina Ave arcade, A&C World. Or you can just relive your gaming glory days vicariously through the newly launched U.S. version of popular Japanese TV show Retro Game Master—where an eccentric host tries his hand at the old titles. The upshot may not be as tangibly satisfying as getting a reissued vinyl album, but it does provide a warm, fuzzy feeling.
Even as advances in videogame technology continue to amaze and overwhelm, this retro love-in seems destined to last. The simplicity of retro gaming contrasts with the current trend of more cinematic and complex games—ones that have arguably lost a chunk of the innocuous aesthetic that used to define videogames in general. Thanks to the Wii’s unflashy graphics engines, Nintendo has done well by returning to side-scrolling basics (left-to-right level design dates as back far as the early-’80s Atari), but it’s bigger than just gameplay familiarity. As it becomes increasingly difficult to make the distinction between the latest Halo and a Michael Bay movie, the retro-inspired games will stand out even more.
Following the recent announcement of Nintendo’s next console, the Wii U, we can expect to hear from Microsoft and Sony in no time. Gaming will surely become even more cutting-edge in the coming months. So long as they keep allowing us to kick it old-school, I’ll gladly press Start.