In 2016 an anonymous Reddit user known only as The-King-of-Spain said they’d developed a way to play Virtual Boy games using newly released VR technology from Google and Samsung. Using an emulator – software enabling older operating systems to run on modern devices – the Redditor was able to play 20-year-old games with Google’s “Cardboard” and the Samsung Gear VR headset.

Virtual Boy, a failed experiment in virtual reality from Japanese outfit Nintendo, was a commercial flop and shelved less than 12 months after its unveiling in 1995. But despite its failure, it was ahead of its time. The technology just wasn’t there to really make it work.

By adapting today’s equipment to play yesterday’s games, Nintendo’s vision for the VR platform comes into stark focus. As The-King-of-Spain commented, it’s great to see these games in “their full stereoscopic glory”. And it also confirms why gamers – and the industry itself – are still fascinated by the past.

Retro games aren’t niche, they’re mainstream

Emulation has, in the past, helped bridge the gap between retro enthusiasts and those contemporary gamers casually interested in old platforms. It was the difference between painstakingly keeping your Sega Mega Drive or SNES in working order, and the fleeting appeal of reliving the 2D adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario. But if this was a craze in the 2000s, it’s become mainstream in the 2010s with developers actively seeking ways to relive the past in a modern gaming environment.

Indeed, we’ve witnessed licenses picked up for discontinued brands by new developers while Nintendo recently renewed 40 of its old licenses including Eternal Darkness which hasn’t been seen since the GameCube. It’s a sign of championing the past, bringing a retro aesthetic to today’s cutting-edge tech, from 3D to augmented and virtual reality.

Popular modern games sporting retro styles

iOS and Android users will already know all about retro games. Developers have sensed the commercial potential through modern smartphones with classic Sega titles (Sonic, Kid Chameleon) and Square Enix releases (Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy) re-imagined with old school graphics for the “small screen” connected generation. Simple PC games and the once much-loved GameBoy have also been celebrated with smartphone versions of Minesweeper and Tetris.

But it isn’t just about dusting off old games for a contemporary audience. Brand new releases are being inspired by retro styles. Enter the Gungeon: A Farewell to Arms, a new PS4 game unveiled in 2016, eschews digital realism for a 2D, top-down pixelated aesthetic akin to the Nintendo Entertainment System of the early 1990s. However, its gameplay mechanics and story depth are a product of modern gaming.

Similarly, Microgaming’s Attack on Retro gives the modern video slot a 1980s-style arcade aesthetic with neon graphics and depiction of throwback fashion and hairstyles. It takes a modern iGaming platform to return players to a bygone era. Coincidentally, the Tetris Effect, a PS4 release in 2018, updates a favorite once enjoyed on an 8-bit handheld console with high-definition graphics and the immersion of the console’s VR capability. Both reveal the popular appeal of juxtaposing today’s formats with the styles and gameplay of yesteryear.

The appeal of a bygone era

The appeal of retro games has influenced every aspect of the gaming market. Pokemon Go, for example, saw an uptake in the sales of Pokemon cards. Meanwhile, well-established brands have released hardware to capture this thriving market like the Atari Flashback and its collection of long-lost games.

We’ve seen a similar attraction to older formats in other markets such as music where vinyl has made a comeback and even cassettes are selling again. It is clear, nostalgia is a big seller. The SNES Mini and its retro plug-and-play rival from SEGA have jumped on this appeal, putting the attraction of 16-bit graphics on screens boasting 4K capability.

There’s a multitude of reasons why we crave retro games, and indeed, why they’re able to compete with the advanced performance of today’s releases. But nostalgia comes with a sense of familiarity that’s comforting. That could be an iconic character, the mechanics of gameplay, or visuals that recall a time and place. What’s clear is that there’s a market for it, and video game developers are more than willing to satisfy that desire.

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