What makes retro games so special?

Infendo

Super Mario Bros.

The last thing I need is more new games to play. Despite this, publishers continue to tempt me with upwards of 50 new games a month. These people are so prolific, in fact, it’s rare for my backlog of “games to play” to number fewer than a dozen at any given time. More if you count games missed in the last several years.

And yet here I am, downloading Donkey Kong Country on Wii—a game I’ve played a dozen times; a game I beat 15 years ago. Why do I do this to myself? How is it that an old favorite has beguiled me yet again, so much that I willingly hand over more money to play it?

With my finger placed firmly on the pulse of gaming, I know I’m not the only one with this “problem.” So why do these things keep bewitching us, especially in light of “new and improved” games? What makes retro games so special?

The most obvious answer is that people get all warm and fuzzy inside when remembering a fond experience, especially one from adolescence. “For people who’ve enjoyed video games since childhood, there may be some classic titles that will always hold appeal,” says Denise Kaigler, former vice president of corporate affairs for Nintendo. In other words, nostalgia—I got it.

But my recent time with Donkey Kong Country goes beyond pleasant memories. Despite its age, it’s as much fun as this year’s Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time, a modern platformer. So there must be something else.

James Grahame, managing editor of Retro Thing, argues that classic games are timeless because they’re easier to understand. That being the case, they’re often more addictive. “I can explain the essence of Pac-Man in about five seconds,” he says. “Eat the dots and don’t get caught.”

What’s more, early designers weren’t distracted by things such as physics or cinematography found in today’s games, says historian Nick Reichert. They were just trying to make their games fun to play, not necessarily life-like or fun to watch. “You can really focus on what makes a game interesting when there isn’t too much getting in the way,” says Reichert, who owns and operates a website dedicated to cataloging the best retro games.

Since modern games are more than 30 years old, there is a treasure trove great oldies—hundreds of them. Aware of this, publishers are re-releasing these games on services such as Virtual Console, PlayStation Network, and Xbox Live Arcade in droves. Why the sudden interest? Grahame says its all about timing, much like the famous Disney vault. “Nostalgia seems to peak a couple of decades after the introduction of a game or technology,” he says.

And here we are today.