Why Are Retro Style Graphics Still So Popular in Video Games?

There is no mistaking the incredible advances that have been made in video game graphics in recent years. When you consider the things that have been done in modern AAA titles for the current generation of consoles, we now have almost photo-realistic graphics that make even games from the last gen look like they star characters made from melted LEGO. We have virtual reality, 4K displays, and production values that can compare with the special effects in blockbuster movies.

And yet, you only need to take a quick look at indie games – whether those that you can play now or those currently trying to raise funds on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, to see those high-end graphics are not necessarily something everybody seems to want.

Retro Design in Indie Games

Retro style graphics reminiscent of those found in old school games for consoles like the Sega Genesis and SNES, or even their predecessors the NES and Master System, are found in a lot of popular indie games, from the highly acclaimed FTL (Faster Than Light) to recent fun releases like Crypt of the Necrodancer.

One of the biggest names in indie game development, Edmund Macmillan, even swapped out the graphics style of his cult classic game The Binding of Isaac for a more pixelated retro style in the remake, Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. Some fans were not on board with the change in look, so an optional filter was added to allow the player to make it look more like the original, and yet most reviewers agreed when the game was released that the new art style actually worked.

Easier To Do

Naturally, one of the reasons most people cite for the way this graphic style is often used with modern mechanics is that it is easier and cheaper for an indie developer to do. While this is, of course, true, there are other ways of doing graphics cheaply without referencing older games – for instance, keeping the game area small, like in the Five Nights At Freddy’s franchise, or having very little animation, like just about every Japanese interactive novel. Less pixelated, more cartoony styles like the original Binding of Isaac or Spelunky also manage to avoid AAA budget graphic complexity while still looking modern.

Generally, then, retro game styles are a design choice that is made for reasons beyond cost and difficulty.

The Nostalgia Market

The main reason these games look like this, and people love them, is that the indie game market is really a market for adults, and adults remember the old games. You only have to look at how much rare Sega Genesis games sell for to see just how passionate adults can be about the games from their youth. Games that combine modern mechanics and capabilities with the look and feel of old games effectively create games we wish we could have played when we were kids, and this is surely their appeal.

This does beg the question though – in 20 years’ time, will studios be putting out games designed to look like Assassin’s Creed to give the next generation their nostalgia fix?

Mars Cureg

Web designer by profession, photography hobbyist, T-shirt lover, design blog founder, gamer. Socially and physically awkward, lack of social skills, struggles to communicate with anyone who doesn't have a keyboard. Willing to walk to get to the promised land. Photo and video freelancer, SEO. Check out more on my Google+

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