David Stewart on Retrogaming

Author and musician David Stewart‘s recent video touches on a topic near and dear to me: retrogaming:

David’s top 10 reasons to get into retrogaming are solid. I’d like to focus on two in this post: restraints leading to creativity and a focus on gameplay.


I discussed this with regards to music from Nintendo games a while back, and the point hold to all aspects of retro games.

By not having tons and tons–essentially, unlimited–memory space, these composers had to create catchy melodies that wouldn’t annoy the player, and would heighten the mood of the game. From the epic, adventurous themes in The Legend of Zelda to the claustrophobic and creepy music in Metroid, these composers did a little with a lot–especially considering they had four channels to their disposal and not endless samples, rock bands, and full orchestras.

Even in the 16-bit era, the music remained compositionally advanced. Listen to the soundtrack of Final Fantasy VI (III in the US) and tell me that’s not fantastic.

Graphics fall into the same boat. As David explains in the video, much of the magic of pixel art is creating the impression of something, like a character’s face, rather than perfectly representing the thing itself. For example, Mario was given a mustache in order to make you think he had a face.

Hence the importance of music to these old games.

I love the look of pixel art. I find it downright beautiful. I think what these artists were able to create have remained in the public consciousness not just because of nostalgia but because of the creativity on display. From the bright landscapes of the Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog series to Metroid‘s alien labyrinths and Castlevania‘s creepy gothic horror, these old games formed an aesthetic that is still used in newer games like Shovel Knight, to name one prominent example.

Some may call this art primitive. They are wrong.


I like a game that doesn’t require a time commitment equivalent to writing a dissertation to play. I don’t want to play a movie where I occasionally press a few buttons. I want to be given an objective and a set of rules, and then figure out how to use these rules to accomplish said objective.

And I like being able to play for 30 minutes or so and feel like I got somewhere.

I find old games, the good ones, are laser-focused on the core gameplay, whether it’s a shoot ’em up, a beat ’em up, a platformer, an RPG, or whatever other genre.

Look at Solomon’s Key: You can create and destroy blocks. You need to get a key every level then get to the door. Go figure out how.

Or a personal favorite, The Guardian Legend: It’s a shoot ’em up and an action RPG a la The Legend of Zelda. Both elements are relatively simple, as far as rules go. The magic is in what the designers do with those rules.

The original Castlevania is a great example: Simon is slow and can only jump a certain length. The levels are built around this, making the experience almost akin to a puzzle game and not just a platformer.

Contrast this with Ninja Gaiden, where the levels are built around your character’s speed.

Best of all, these games are complex enough to require some time to get good and figure out various tactics and complete, but simple enough that you can dive right in and play as the designers intended without an hours-long tutorial scenario or ultra-steep learning curve.

Maybe I’m just a crusty old bastard. Maybe I haven’t played enough current-generation games to understand their merits.

Both are fair criticisms.

But what I do know is that it’s not just nostalgia keeping retrogaming alive. Punch-Out!!! will still be a classic when everyone who played it at the time it was new are long gone. So will many, many others of these games.

Provided they don’t all digitally degrade first.

And as David notes, you feel a real sense of accomplishment when you finally finish these old games.

My novel A Traitor to Dreams had a retrogame serve as inspiration for its setting. Read it and see if you can figure out which one!


  1. This would be my ideal approach to teaching game design. I would force my students to create assets that would fit on an 8-bit cartridge, then a 16-bit cartridge, then a 64-bit cartridge, then a CD-ROM, then finally a DVD-ROM. Only for the final project would I allow them to “go nuts.”

    I would do something similar for music students who wanted to compose game scores. I would challenge them to create excellent music with only six channels, after which they could arrange it as they like with orchestras and keyboards and whatnot.

    Liked by 1 person

      • “the possibility of losing.”

        Yeah! No kidding Hans. Lots of newer games don’t even have things like continues or lives or any kind of limits. I understand the “gamers don’t want to be punished” idea in theory, but it makes for an unsatisfying experience you can finish in 45 manures or whatever when there is no chance you will fail.

        And then you’re like “Wow, I spent sixty bucks for a game I should’ve just rented for the weekend.” Disappointing, and no sense of accomplishment.


  2. Alexander

    The lesson I draw: constraints and limits actually encourage creativity,innovation and definitive endings. With unlimited hard drive and memory space you can hide a lot of mediocrity and lazy programming


    Liked by 1 person

  3. That was a great video, I’m with him on every point except collecting. Collecting sucks now.

    My cousin’s son just got an NES clone for his 16th birthday, he says he’s interested in hard games in particular. I’ve got a spare copy of Battletoads I’m going to give him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Battletoads! Good but HARD.

      I don’t have the patience or money to collect. I’m also bitter about all my old consoles and games I sold. The NES, SNES, and PlayStation classics will suffice, as well as the forthcoming Genesis and TurboGrafix-16 classics.


  4. The other benefit of restraints is that more is left to the player’s imagination. This in turn makes the experience more memorable because “filling in the blanks” creates a certain degree of personalization.

    Also, constraints help achieve what I’ll call the “‘Casablanca Effect'”: audiences can more easily suspend their disbelief and become immersed in “ridiculous” or “overwrought” stories and games IF the setting isn’t too realistic. “Casablanca” is obviously filmed on a studio lot with painted backdrops, but this helps tone down what’s an otherwise cliche-laden story bordering on the absurd: Nazis! Smugglers! Mysterious port city! Letters of Transit signed by de Gaulle himself!

    Maybe this is related to the Uncanny Valley Effect?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great points! The use of the player’s imagination is why I think these games stuck so much with me and millions of other players. I was about to describe the limitations as “graphical shortcomings,” but I don’t actually find them to be shortcomings.

      Great points about “Casablanca” as well. And yes, this may have something to do with the Uncanny Valley Effect. To me, today’s hyper-realistic graphics in video games actually take me OUT of the experience. Give me the original Dragon Warrior any day.


  5. I’ve recently gotten back into retro gaming and am thoroughly enjoying it. Yes the NES pumped out some dreadful games. Yes the move to 3D produced some horrific graphics. Yes modern games are beautiful with their movie-like storytelling and immersive gameplay.
    However, for every Assassin’s Creed there is a Super Mario World. For every COD, there is a Contra, and for every Diablo III there is a Streets of Rage!

    Liked by 1 person

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