Retro-style games have been a trademark of indie game development for a little over a decade. Many claim it makes production budgets vastly cheaper and others complain “It is the easy way out. A scourge to gaming.”. Thankfully, there is a market for these types of games no matter how niche it may be. Some gamers can see the beauty in between each pixel without resorting to the “Nostalgia” excuse. For years these games have evolved and expanded to new realms of game design, some utilize current gen engine features to revitalize its aesthetic value. It wasn’t until recently that we have truly seen where modern technology can breath new life into this niche group. Lets analyze this new world of retro game development and see where it fits into the future gaming.
Developer of ‘Papers, Please‘ released their first prototype of their latest game to the public, dubbed ‘Return of the Obra Dinn‘. This game takes the Unity game engine and blends creative shader design and fluid gameplay mechanics to produce a new level of Retro game design and aesthetics. The style is very familiar of the early 80’s Macintosh graphical limitations. One would think with that goal the game would be a straight up slideshow adventure game, similiar to Manhole by Cyan or Hi-Res Adventure #1: Mystery House by Sierra . To much of myself and other’s surprise, the game is actually a full 3d first person adventure game that manages to fuse fluid first person interaction with classic early 80’s Macintosh graphics. The current gen capabilities brings lifelike immersion such as placing the player character’s hand on door knobs in a dynamic fashion and other in-game objects (though these are scarce). On top of the gameplay side of things, the graphical capabilities of dynamic environments like the oscillating ocean and stenciled shadows bring a new level to retro game design.
Lets start off by explaining three types of Retro design. As you’ll find out, these names are coined by myself and don’t fit into some greater theory established by the industry. I just find that categorizing them a certain way would help me better explain what i’m getting at. Furthermore, I’m ignoring gameplay design as in my opinion, elaborate gameplay design can be quite possible no matter the system or artistic theme. More self explanatory than anything else and will be void in the following classifications and the rest of the article.
First off, there is Retro, a straight forward creation immitating a style of the namesake. With a particular focus on the choice of system’s limitations such as palette choice, sprites per screen, lack of GPU/CPU features, and at some points, computational limitations that effect game-play. Generally a product that builds from the ground up to imitate their system of choice.
Then there is NeoRetro. This design style mainly focuses on increase the graphical fidelity of on-screen visuals. Whether the gameplay tries to stay true or not, NeoRetro aims to mix the retro style with modern design concepts. Whether its the use of reflections, bloom, gradients, etc. Its essentially a new coat of paint on the retro art style.
Last but the not least is NeoRetro 2.0. Sure, I could easily merge this with the original name, but I feel that this stage offers more to the game than anything before. So whats makes this a big enough jump to reckon its own category? Well its pretty simple. NeoRetro 2.0 generally throws static graphic design out the window and takes the capabilities of current generation procedural functions to provide a truly dynamic environment. Whether its degrading a full 3d world to a bunch of pixels or going all the way to imitate a DOS game. Its the total lack of sprites and tiles than make it the next generation of NeoRetro, utilizing dynamic features to simulate the retro design. The ability to utilize a fully realized 3d world and with shaders that imitate the style of decades old game systems is a feat in itself. One could utilize this new frontier with dynamic cameras or even static ones but utilize the dynamic environment to sell your story. This category could also describe an evolution of Vector Based graphics popularly seen in classic atari games that utilize line vectors to form shapes but 1000x times more dynamic.
Check out: Return of the Obra Dinn by Lucas Pope
Back in 2011, released on iOS was a game called Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. Well if you’ve played the game, like myself, before it hit the PC. It was a game that brought the beauty of the pixel to the main stream. Surely the plight of “Pixel” hate wasn’t as pronounce at the time. Superbrothers were able to capture a level of graphic fidelty with their pixel design by mixing it up with modern graphic concepts.
One feature was smooth gradients. Back in the 90s and even before that, games created gradients with sort of a restricted pattern. A single color that abruptly transitions into a slightly brighter/darker color. A step-like pattern that looked neither soft or smooth. So with Sword & Sworcery, the developers chose to mix it up with vibrant gradients, glowing lights, environmental effects and much more while sticking to the big pixel style. All thanks to a greater range of colors on screen in addition to innovative touch screen controls. Sword & Sworcery brought a much needed awakening to the genre and was welcomed with open arms by both casual gamers and hardcore enthusiasts.
Sure there have been many games that had come before that offered retro style game-play, but they generally fall into the realm of classic platformers or vectored visuals which don’t really stick to the pixel style. Games like Castle Crashers or Super Meat Boy come to mind.
Since then, NeoRetro didn’t catch on as much as I hoped. Many stuck to the big pixel mentality, mostly opting into utilizing the full color range offering more vibrant colors and less palette limitations without stumbling into Sonic CD or Donkey Kong Country territory. We got games like ‘The Other Brothers”, “Hotline Miami” and a few others that just aren’t coming to mind. No I didn’t forget about Fez. That game I would classify as a NeoRetro 2.0, utilizing a bit more graphical power to offer dynamic 3d worlds while still harboring the flat 2D isometric style.
So there is where I try to defend this artistic style. There have been many complaints by either “Graphical Elitists” or “Bored Gamers”. Questions like “Well if developers are spending this much time on a useless feat, why don’t they just make it HD” or “Pixels are Ugly, so die!”.
I don’t see Pixels as ugly beings that each children at night. It’s a style. A style very familiar to the traditional artistic form of “Pointillism”. Its a beauty in itself. It may not tickle you the right way but its still. That’s fine, because nothing is for everyone. That is why so many games opt into going for a more minimalist painterly or realistic style over something that offers more room for imagination. Pointillism is the best example of the concept as it pretty much translates exactly to the reason some enjoy Pixelated graphics. For me, Pixels don’t correlate to Retro. Retro comes from nostalgia. Therefore, Pixels offer more than just sub-pixels on a screen. They offer room for imagination. Space inbetween the laws of the world provided before you. I digress though, that’s more of my personal grudge against those that seem to make their life’s goal to bash things they don’t agree with.
With that rant out of the way, lets take some time to think about the possibilities of NeoRetro 2.0. Lets take Space Quest 2 for example. One of Sierra On-line’s great text parser based adventure games. We have the background which is made up of pixels. We also have sprites for items, characters or parts of the screen that animate. Developers had to painstakingly animate/pixelpaint each frame of the animation and every backdrop in the game. Now lets jump ahead to modern times. How could we make this better? For starters, developers could recreate the environments in full 3d. One could even model it as low poly as possible since majority of detail would go unseen with the drop of screen resolution. Then one could utilize minimalistic texturing to create the color palette one would use on an old IBM PC or Macintosh. Then with the use of real-time lighting, shadows can be cast through the environment either as dynamic or straight up baked lighting.
This may seem like a waste of time compared just PixelPainting a backdrop. Well, there are some major improvements you may get by going this route. One major one is real-time lighting. Swaying light sources, casting shadows, destructible environments and much much more. Even modeling a single character model and animating it like you would do with any Skeletal Rig. Now you can change the character’s clothing without changing much else. No more reanimating the same sprite sheet over and over.
To further prove a point, here is an example scene recreated from Space Quest 2 in Unreal Engine 4. Click here to download or watch the video below.
There is so much potential that derives from a dynamic engine that imitates the beauty of retro pixel graphics.
There is so much potential that can come from this new level of NeoRetro gaming. Whether its to satisfy the love for nostalgia or the admittance of Pixel graphics as an art form. Pixels are here to stay no matter what side of the argument you are on. For the love of game development and gaming itself, our creative minds shouldn’t be restricted by anyone else but your own. You know what you want out of your project, so stick to it. I truly hope NeoRetro 2.0 will find its home and continue to thrive from a loyal fanbase. Don’t look at it as an overused style by indie developers, but as an art form handcrafted to bring back the age of imagination.
I’ll leave you with this question. What games would you love to see brought back and reformatted to t the NeoRetro standards?