Retro games: Why pixel graphics won't go out of fashion 2
Retro games are popular among all age groups. Kristina Reymann-Schneider/DW

Retro games: Why pixel graphics won't go out of fashion

Games with pixel graphics are striking a chord with gamers, making older players nostalgic and giving younger players an insight into video game history.
Deutsche Welle | Jan 10 2024

I was either 11 or 12-years-old when I played "Duck Tales" on my Game Boy for hours and went on treasure hunts with Uncle Scrooge. I climbed up green vines, explored a green haunted house and hopped through green snowy landscapes. Graphically, there was nothing more than light and dark shades of green, with the technical possibilities being extremely limited back then.

If I fell into an abyss or ran into skeletons, it was "game over" and I had to start all over again. There were no saved points. Nevertheless, I loved this game — even though I never made it to the final level.

Almost 30 years later, retro games are in vogue. Games such as "Super Meat Boy" (2010), which is stylistically based on classic games from the 8-bit era or the release of game collections on mini consoles such as the "Nintendo Classic Mini" (2016) boosted the hype surrounding 2D games with pixel graphics.

I was also gripped by nostalgia and played "Duck Tales" again, this time in color and on the TV. But after 30 minutes I put the controller aside again, annoyed. I was only halfway through the first level, and I wasn't having any fun at all.

Popular among millennials: Games with retro vibes

Anyone who plays games from the 1980s or 1990s nowadays must be extremely "frustration resistant," as expectations of games and game mechanics have changed. However, the pixel aesthetic has retained its appeal, which is why it experienced a revival in the early 2010s.

Pixel graphics are still used by many independent game studios today, as they enable individual developers or small teams to produce creative games without a large budget. This gives the games a retro charm that particularly appeals to those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s.

But it's not just that, explains game designer Arthur Eckmann, who, together with a friend, developed the jumping game "Super Catboy" (2023), which is not short on references to the 16-bit video game era of the 1990s and was presented on an old-school cathode-ray tube television (CRT TV) at the Gamescom video game fair. "Of course, we have the older players who grew up with the NES or SNES (Nintendo Entertainment System or Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Editor's note), who love something like this and say: 'Wow, that reminds me of that time.'"

"But there are also younger players," adds Eckmann. "Five, six or seven-year-old children who are playing it for the first time, some of whom are also seeing a CRT TV for the very first time, are totally fascinated by the old technology and learn quickly. The first attempts fail, of course, but they get better with every attempt and they have fun and develop the ambition to make it to the end."

To be honest, "Super Catboy" itself is not a retro game because it was released in 2023. The developers see their game as a further development of iconic games such as "Mega Man X" (1993), "Donkey Kong Country" (1994) or "Metal Slug" (1996). Visually and mechanically, the game is based on the classics, and the soundtrack could also be straight out of the 1990s. But it also meets the needs of today's players, which makes it more accessible.

"There are levels that are a bit more challenging. It takes a few attempts before you understand how to solve them more easily. But we also have checkpoints in the levels (stages that you reach in a game and where your score is sometimes saved, editor's note), which means it's easier than back in the nineties, where there were either no checkpoints at all or just one."

The players also have a relatively large number of lives — although this depends on the language selected at the start of the game. Since cats in Germany have seven lives according to a saying, the German version starts with seven lives. In English-speaking countries, cats have nine lives, which benefits everyone who plays the game in English. Even after the "Game Over" screen, players do not have to start all over again, but can start from the level in which they failed.

New indie games for old devices

New retro-inspired games are now a dime a dozen. A small indie scene has also emerged that specializes in developing new games for old consoles and computers.

"There are a lot of people who are still writing new games for old devices. For many, the interest comes from the fact that they had the devices in their childhood and couldn't program for them back then. We now have the knowledge. And for many, it's also a challenge to program something that runs on such an old box," says Christian Gleinser, founder of the label Dr. Wuro Industries, which develops and distributes C64 games. He has already programmed several games for the C64 home computer, which was launched on the German market in 1983 and is now on display in technology museums.

Nowadays, 100 or more people connected via the internet can play together at the same time, while everyone is actually sitting alone in front of their console or computer.

It was different in the 1980s and 1990s: Gamers sat next to each other, played together, against each other or took turns watching each other. This is also the reason why all C64 games developed by Christian Gleinser can be played by four people with four joysticks connected. This shows that the interest in retro games goes beyond what happens on the screen. Physical proximity and spending time together play a decisive role here.

Admittedly, the C64 is a collector's item. You don't actually need it to immerse yourself in video game history. Nowadays, the old games run via emulators on modern PCs, consoles and smartphones. Nevertheless, the C64 home computer, which was manufactured until the early 1990s, still has its fans today.

Christian Gleinser is not at all surprised. For him, it is comparable to a passion for classic cars. And just as a classic car fan works on his car to make it roadworthy again, a computer nerd tinkers with hardware and software to be able to start devices and games.

Pixel graphics trigger nostalgia

Nostalgia is something that unites everyone who plays retro games or new retro-style games. Nostalgia describes a feeling, a transfigured longing for a place or things that no longer exist today or that have never existed in this form. Because even if new games with pixel graphics bring back memories of the good old days, they wouldn't even run on the old consoles because they require far too much computing power.

"Everdeep Aurora," which is due to be released for PC in 2024, is another such game that is visually reminiscent of Game Boy games with its extremely reduced color palette. However, unlike most of the games from back then, "Everdeep Aurora" focuses on the story and doesn't involve any fighting.

It tells the story of a kitten that wakes up in a dystopian world and searches for its mother. To do so, it digs tunnels to find out what has happened to the world underneath.

The game's two Spanish developers, Mikel Ojea and Juan Abad, deliberately chose the retro style: "We believe that we can tell more things through the restrictions than with better graphics or more pixels." They are convinced that there is a large market for such games because they trigger childhood memories. They may be right.

According to the game industry association, the average age of gamers in Germany is 37.9 years. Many of them would have grown up with the Game Boy and revel in nostalgia when they encounter games that evoke memories of a relaxed and carefree time that was so different from today's fast-paced, digitalized and globally connected world.

This article was originally written in German.