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UK Mike (miner2049er)

The Bi-Weekly British Backtrack - What Is Retro?

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Now then, I’ve got a can here with something in it. I’m going to open it up and see what’s inside.

Hmm, it’s full of worms.

So, now I just opened a can of worms it’s time to open another one but this one is slightly different, this one is reviving an age old debate. The debate of What is retro?

First off, we need to take back a couple of terms, we’re taking back “retro” and we’re taking back “classic.” If you think about an analogy to represent the 2 terms, a good one to use is cars. There are classic and there are retro cars. My first car was a Ford Escort Mk2, and it was customised with a rear spoiler and front air dam, alloy wheels and bucket seats and so on, and that car is something that I would consider retro, mainly due to its age, yet is it a classic car? No, I don't think it is. I think the Mk1 Mexico and the Mk2 RS2000 are classic cars but the ordinary Mk1 and Mk2 Escorts are not.

So is there a difference between classic and retro and can we define it?

I think that there is and I think that we can. I've got a theory about what makes something classic and it appears to work so let me outline it for you and see if you agree with me.

First though, retro, in my opinion retro refers to a time scale, a period of time, but it is by no means restricted to that as you'll see later when I get into what consoles I think are retro and what I think are not. Retro also refers to an ethos, a "feel" and you can think of it in those terms. Lots of buildings in Miami are Art Deco. Art Deco is retro, but does a new building built in Art Deco styling look retro? Yes it does, but is it retro? No. Is it imitation? Is it fake? Yes it it's both of those things, so if retro is an ethos or a feel as well as an era, what is classic?

Let's think of some things that are classic.

The Model T Ford, The E Type Jaguar, the film Ben Hur, the film The Godfather, the Beach Boys album Pet Sounds, the Pink Floyd album Dark Side Of The Moon, the book The Diary Of Samuel Pepys, the book The Diary Of Anne Frank, the news footage of the Moon Landings, the news footage of the protests in Tianenman Square.

All of these many and varied examples are classics in their own field and all are spread over different eras in time. The Diary of Samual Pepys is a document written by a man living through life in 17th Century England and part of his diary describes the Great Fire Of London in 1666. The Diary Of Anne Frank is a document that describes the life of a young girl hiding with her family in the roof of a house desperate to avoid capture by the Nazis during World War 2.

Both books are classics yet they are separated by almost 300 years. You see classic isn't defined by age, classic isn't defined by subject matter and to some extent perception. Classics are defined by, I think, a comparison to their peers, which is why we can have so many classic items from so many fields without fear of compromise. For instance, I gave the example of the album Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys and Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd. Now make no mistake, these albums made The Beach Boys and Pink Floyd respectively, they defined their sound but that isn't why they're classics. They're classic because among their peers there were no other comparable albums either sound wise or band defining wise. If the year 1966 had been littered with similar albums then Pet Sounds would have faded into oblivion, as may The Beach Boys, who knows. Likewise in 1973 Dark Side Of The Moon was Dave Gilmour's chance to rescue Pink Floyd after the departure of Syd Barrett and it gave them direction and an audience.

I'll compare that to the car industry I started out with. The Model T Ford and the E Type Jaguar are classic cars, but why? Were they instantly classic and are they still classic?

Instantly classic? Well, maybe classic isn't the word that would be used at the time or maybe it is. Think of a car today that would be viewed as a classic in the future.

Perhaps the Subaru Impreza would qualify. Clearly popular, took the rallying world by storm, and compared to its peers it excels in many departments. It does what it was made to do and arguably does it better than anything else in its peer group. Would we use the word classic to describe it yet because we clearly will in the future, do we use the term instant classic or do we use the term future classic? Whatever you call it, you know what it means. It is the best in its field and will be remembered as such.

So that's what makes the Model T and the E Type classic. They excelled in their own fields and hit their targets better than their competitors did. They aren't without their flaws, nothing is, the Ferrari Dino is a classic car but until the gearbox gets warm you can't get it into 2nd gear without a crunch, but compared to its peer group, it was among the best at what it did.

So to try and get this back to gaming then, time wise the Mk1 Escort was manufactured from 1968 to 1975 and the Mk2 from 1975 to 1980. The American Escort was manufactured from 1981 to 2003 so they can all be classed as retro, and in the UK if a car is more than 25 years old you no longer have to pay road tax on it. It is considered vintage or for want of a better word classic but does that mean that all cars beyond that age should be considered classic cars? Of course not, but does that same argument ring true in gaming? Well, let's take a look.

First off let's apply that same time frame to gaming, 25 years. That puts us squarely in 1984. Not a bad starting point to be honest. 1984 is around the time I was doing the majority of my game playing. I had a Commodore 64, I had tons of free time, I had some pocket money that I could either buy games with or spend in the arcades, and this is the time when some of the best arcade machines were out there and available. Games like Pacman, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Galaga, all of these were established games that were out there and playable.

There can be no doubt that these kinds of games form the golden era of arcade games, and there can be little argument that they are retro. They are confined to history. They represent a form of gameplay and also a form of presentation that is no longer used and is no longer current. They are retro and as they formed the basis of everything that was to follow they must be classic, but more importantly those arcade games at the end of the 70s and the early 80s had no real competition, they were the best environment and the best physical equipment and the best graphically to play games on. They were the best of their peer group and they are classic, but what if we move further along the time line?

We still see some new arcade cabs being built but mainly they are the Neo Geos, the Virtua Fighters, sit down driving games, skiing games or dance stages and those are definitely not retro. I would say that the retro era of arcade cabs continued into the 90s with games like Street Fighter 2 having different versions released in 91, 92, 93 and 94 and onwards but I would put the cut off point around this time because we were now starting to see better games in the home and playing something like Gran Turismo or Metal Gear Solid was often preferable to playing some modern game in the arcade. Virtua Fighter came out in 1993 and that same year we saw Daytona USA and I would class these 2 games as part of the modern era but not just because of the games though, remember we talked about the "feel" of a game or a system? Well these games were now beginning to feel modern as well as play modern because the presentation was now different, cabs were now something other than an upright joystick driven cab, that's what I mean when I say "they represent a form of gameplay and also a form of presentation that is no longer used" so just because a game is in an arcade cab doesn't mean it’s retro and these modern games can hardly be called classic either.

So let's switch our attention to home consoles then, what consoles do I consider retro? Well using this similar timeframe of the mid 1980s and early 1990s we would have to include the NES era and anything earlier like the Atari 2600 or the Intellivision, but more recent consoles would make it too, for example the next generation which included the SNES and the Mega Drive. I don't think there would be too many arguments with that, but the next iteration of consoles is where the line becomes less clear and perhaps where we could have some disagreements.

The Nintendo 64 was released to the UK in 1997 which using our arcade analogy time frame would make it modern, but I don't consider it modern, I consider it retro. For example it used a cartridge based system which is definitely not of the modern era and I think that is something recognised by Nintendo with them releasing those games again on Wi's Virtual Console. If the system was modern would they do that? Would modern games even fit and be emulated on the Wii? Probably not.

So does that mean that all disc based consoles are modern then? Let's see.

A great case study is the Sony Playstation. The Playstation hit the UK in 1995 making it older than the Nintendo 64 but again, going back to the feel of the console it feels modern, it plays CDs out of the box, audiophiles consider it one of the best sounding CD players out there making them sought after. I have an addon for mine that allows it to play VideoCDs. It carried some Intellectual properties that are still used today such as Metal gear Solid, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, all still relevent yet modern games. So is it a retro console or not? Do you get the same feeling playing an N64 as you get playing Playstation? Does it have the same musty smell? Being honest I can see a good argument for the Playstation falling into either category but for me personally I think it comes under modern rather than retro more often than not.

Looking now at a couple of interesting SEGA consoles, the Saturn and the Dreamcast. The Saturn was released to Europe in 1995 and is a 32 bit CD based system, and having owned one I see it as the poor man's Playstation. Graphically it performs badly and 99% of games on it look and play better on the Playstation. The games look retro, the controller feels retro, the games feel retro, but ironically one of the best games on it is Daytona USA and on the Saturn I say it is retro, yet in the arcade world, I said it was modern. Confusing isn't it.

The Dreamcast then, how do we classify that? Time wise it was released in Europe in 1999 and again used a CD based format, though slightly non standard CD file structure. In general the console feels modern, it had online capabilites, it had VGA support, the controller used features of the dual shock, it had the VMUs which in themselves were retro but taken as a concept and what they were used for I would say the whole package is modern. Yes you love to play those old Dreamcast games, but graphically they are classy and slick looking, gameplay wise there were clever addons like the fishing rod, so I would say that the Dreamcast should be considered modern. Not current, but modern, and anything around that time frame onwards is also modern, so Gamecube, PS2, XBox 1, all modern.

Handheld wise I think the boundaries are more clearly defined, I think the Gameboy, Gameboy Colour, Atari Lynx, SEGA Game Gear, Neo Geo Pocket and Pocket Colour are all retro. The Gameboy Advance is kind of on the cusp. Time wise it is from 2001 which suggests modern and going by the whole feel and the quality and scope of some of the games on it I would class it as modern still, maybe now that the DSi has dropped the GBA slot in favour of an SD card that slip into retro will happen sooner rather than later, but for now I'm calling it modern still as is the Gameboy Lite, the DS and the PSP of course.

So that covers retro for the most part but which of these systems and platforms can be considered classic? Well let's look. The criteria I laid out for something to be classic is that it has to be better than, and stand out from, its peers, so we have things like the early home Pong machines which had no real competitors and laid the foundations for home gaming systems so I would argue that something like that would be classic, the ColecoVision by far excelled in its range of Arcade ports so I would argue that it too is classic. The Atari 2600 swept the board and cleaned up where home entertainment systems were concerned, it had game cartridges, joysticks, paddles, light guns, movie tie ins, the lot. It has to be classic.

Here is where we start to question home systems though and whether or not they were classic. Case in point the NES. Was it superior enough over the Master System to be considered a classic or is it just plain old retro? I'll confess to having no real love for the NES but really it has to be considered classic and I can easily accept how other people would call it that. It obviously has a vast library of many classic games but as a system to me personally it doesn’t mean that much, despite the fact that it became engrained in the English language and kids would say that they were playing Nintendo no matter what system they were playing, it became a common place word in that respect, and for those reasons the NES would be called classic.

Following that generation we're pretty much struggling to apply the term classic to any home console. The SNES didn't sweep all before it and nor did the Mega Drive, they jointly did of course but neither system excelled over their main rival. However, they did see off challenges from a slew of systems that all had mixed success and don't deserve the title of classic such as the Atari Jaguar, the 3DO, the SEGA Saturn and the TurboGrafx. So the SNES and the Mega Drive would perhaps have to be called classic, and it would just feel wrong not to call those two systems classics.

The N64 had some classic games but hardly defeated all comers in the console department, particularly of course the Playstation which rears its awkward head again. Now like I said the Playstation is something I consider to be modern rather than retro, but it is what I would term a future classic. The Playstation took the game industry of the early 90s by the balls and shook it up. It dominated totally. The N64 that followed it should have used the disc system. It didn't, it flopped. The Playstation will be looked back upon as a classic. I'm sure of it.

Now here is where I upset a huge chunk of the British audience by moving to home computers. Competing for honours first up are the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum. Both enjoyed huge success in competition with the other and they shared the market rather than one winning totally and completely, but the Commodore 64 is the best selling computer in history. It is classic. Moreover, it became the best selling computer in history while in direct competition with the Spectrum, so, it is a classic and the Spectrum sadly is not. It doesn't do enough things well, or better than the Commodore 64 to be a classic computer. It is an also ran, which brings us onto the next generation and we have another interesting case study. The Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST.

These 2 systems fought it out and shared the market place without totally dominating it so can either be called classic? Well, without bending the rules I would say yes, they can both be classics because they did very different things very well aside from just playing games. The Amiga was without doubt one of the finest computers of its time, its OS was in some respects ahead of its competitors making it a valid Operating System in its own right. It was excellent.

The Atari ST was renowned not only for its midi inputs but what it allowed you to with them, in fact the ST can still be seen in use for music production today. It was pioneering in some respects in the music industry and it deserves props for that. So, many of its games were Amiga ports but many weren’t, and it wasn’t chiefly a games machine anyway. I’m firmly in the Amiga camp on this one but I would say that both of these machines qualify as classics.

So what's the upshot of all this rambling and how does it all work? The same game (Daytona USA) is modern in the arcade but retro on a console, the Nintendo 64 is newer than the PS1 and is 64 bit to the Playstation's 32 bit, yet I call it retro and the Playstation modern, as I suspect do most of you.

I actually changed my mind about 1 system while I was putting this Editorial together, and I changed my mind about 2 more while I was recording it, so you can see how confusing you can make the topic the more you think about it, and let's be honest there is no right and wrong answers. Retro is intangible, there is no finite rule, no line in the sand, it is purely subjective and very personal, my retro may not be your retro but that doesn't mean either of us are wrong, it depends on your age, on your gaming history, on the types of games you play and where you choose to play them, and also the platform on which you play a particular game.

Also, consider this. Will we be having the same discussions in 10 years time? In 20 years time? In 100 years time? Only then it will be even more difficult. Then we'll be deciding on what is retro, what is classic, what is vintage and what is historic. Then we'll have to think about what systems slip from retro into vintage. In 2109 will the 2600 be retro? Will the Intellivision be vintage? Will the Fairchild Channel F be historic?

One thing's for sure, I won't be around to worry about it, but somebody will, maybe even somebody reading this will be thinking about it. They'll probably be more concerned with the slightly warm, damp feeling spreading throughout their crotch or who's going to chew their food for them but you never know.

Maybe by then Virtual Reality will be a Virtual Reality and Duke Nukem Forever will have been out like ..... forever.

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