As the children of the ’80s and ’90s became the adults of the 21st century, they yearned to revisit the halcyon experiences of their youths. Publishers were happy to oblige these wistful gamers – those who had never heard of ROMs and emulators, anyway – by slapping hundreds of unmodified retro favourites onto compilation discs for various modern platforms.
The only problem was that so many of the experiences of our youths kind of sucked. To revisit unvarnished classics as an adult was often tantamount to balling up memories of joy and throwing them into a furnace of frustrated rage, leading only to dismal reflections. How much precious childhood was squandered on hopeless attempts to refuel (let alone land) in Top Gun, while staring at an empty sky that roared like a demonic vacuum cleaner? How many sunny days passed while we failed to progress in the punitively difficult Adventures Of Bayou Billy? How many ballgames, days at the swimming pool, and (in the most serious cases) proms were missed while the body of a man-shaped turtle was repeatedly dashed upon underwater electricity traps? And how could a turtle-man even swim in water with electricity traps in it?
These kinds of adult questions didn’t facilitate the childlike immersion we craved, but publishers quickly figured out what was missing, the crucial ingredient that couldn’t be synthesised through mere reproduction. It was the feeling of unwrapping something shiny and new. Into this breach piled HD remakes and franchise reboots, conspiring to ensure that vomit-piles of ’80s pixels would besmirch our rose-tinted spectacles no more.
Whether re-envisioned from the ground up, top loaded with extra content, or just given a fresh coat of HD gloss, these games combined pacifying nostalgia with graphics that actually resembled the objects they represented and updated mechanics that weren’t designed by vengeful nerds to destroy innocence. Why haphazardly command flickering sprites to leap down pits in Double Dragon when you could make slick 3D polygons zip around neatly in Double Dragon Neon? Why shoot monochromatic aliens in Space Invaders when you could shoot aliens of many colours in Space Invaders Extreme? Why hop around on three floating ledges in Jetpac when you could hop around on upwards of five in Jetpac Refuelled, thanks to advances in floating ledge technology? It was the best of both worlds: our childhoods, but contemporary, and as vivid as we remembered.
At first, the reservoir of legitimately beloved retro titles seemed to have no bottom to scrape. Players both nostalgic and new had a blast with the free-roaming thirdperson snake-kicking of Kung Fu Freon, the Contra-style multiplayer combat of Duck Tales Double Bounce, the incredibly crisp green murk of Ikari Warriors HD, the post-apocalyptic setting and cel-shaded art of Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers ReLoaDed, and the vastly expanded land of Sindarin in Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II: The Fabio X Chronicles. But it was only a matter of time before surefire winners ran thin, giving way to just-passable projects.
From Ice Climber Hyperdrive, Athena: The Lone Programmer’s Cut, and Altered Beast Komo-No-Tagi BeBeBe Phalanx, it was a slippery slope down to rock bottom, paved with the likes of Superer Pitfall and Renegade: Dawn Of Souls, Chubby Cherub Oxide and Bubsy 3HD. Waiting at the end were Custer’s Revenge: Uncut, Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties: Mega Slideshow, Zelda: The Wand Of Gamelon HD (with extended cutscenes), Shaq-Fu Re:Decodered, Catfight Classik, and others too unspeakable to mention.
Having run out of good vintage games to remake, publishers and players together were seized by collective panic – had we run out of past, with nothing but future left before us? This was the only possible explanation for the subsequent glut of HD remake remakes, such as Kung Fu Freon 10th Anniversary Dimensional Ascension and Ikari Warriors HD VR Edition. Of course, it wasn’t long then before publishers started remixing remakes of remakes, often blending the mechanics of several together. The mania for such titles drove the market towards producing fewer games, but with increasingly baffling playstyles and titles, such as Supererest Altered Duck Chubby BeBeBe Oxide Tales Revenger HD VR 4D Remix Cubed.
The trend continued until at last there was only one game left on the market. Its title contained every word in the English language and half of the Japanese language as well. It combined the mechanics and environments of every retro remake/remix, all behind an impenetrable array of brightly coloured energy and explosion effects, on a huge cartridge that you needed a custom-made Volkswagen-sized NES to play and an industrial fan to blow the dust out of. And that cartridge, my friends, is the exhibit we stand before now, at the conclusion of this tour of the retro videogame museum. As you are all aware, it killed the traditional videogame market, and everyone took up social and environmental activism, bringing real and lasting change to the world. I’m kidding, of course! We’ve all got holodecks now.
Illustration: Marsh Davies