What Makes Retro Games So Reliably Successful?

May 21, 2024

There’s no doubting the spectacular visuals and worlds made possible by modern AAA gaming. Super-fast tech and budgets often over $100 million naturally lead to impressive-looking results. Then, looks aren’t everything. AAA gaming in the last few years has been moving towards becoming an amorphous mess, where safe and broad design try desperately to recuperate costs. Market research ostensibly shows this is the way forward, but as retro gaming demonstrates, it’s only one part of the gaming spectrum.

To many of us, the games that have left the biggest marks in the last few years have been retro and retro-inspired titles. The comparatively low-budget games avoid the pitfalls of AAA gaming, and in doing so can better capture the spirit of what makes gaming great. So, how do they succeed despite a fraction of the budget of big titles, and why do they inspire hope for the future of the gaming industry?

Enjoyment in Purity

While we as humans do enjoy new things, there are also forms of entertainment that don’t need to change to keep us entertained. Some of the most reliable illustrations of this idea come from the casino market. The Rainbow Riches slots available in modern online casinos are extremely similar to the classic physical machines of a hundred years ago, for example. They look better and play digitally, but the core concept of luck remains appealing, and this purity hasn’t needed to change. This is the same with retro video games, and it’s an element modern gaming often overlooks.

Zpz_tetris_vb” (Public Domain) by gvgoebel

In video gaming, Tetris is perhaps the best example. The game is as basic as it gets, but almost 40 years after its original release, it’s just as fun as ever. It doesn’t require setup, it doesn’t require sitting through a narrative, it’s just about jumping in and clearing lines without AAA hurdles. Even in more complex modern retro-inspired games like the Chained Echos RPG, there is a focus on reducing the bloat increasingly endemic to big-budget gaming.

The Return on Investment

Discussions on ROI are huge and necessary in big business, and therein lies a trap. The more expensive a game is, the safer you need to be to ensure sales, and this can strip titles of what makes them unique. God of War Ragnarok reportedly cost $200 million to make for the PS5. While this cost was reflected in super-high-quality visuals, it also meant the gameplay system couldn’t afford to do anything too outrageous. To many long-time fans of the series from the PS2 days, this makes the actual gameplay in the video game the most uninteresting part.

Retro and retro-inspired games don’t have this issue. Stardew Valley is a prime example of a retro-inspired game developed nearly single-handedly by Eric Barone. Developed in his free time, Barone didn’t really have a budget for the game. Having made $34 million from the project already in 2017, this kind of return is almost easy when keeping titles simple. Without a threat of total failure and hundreds of people losing their jobs, retro games have more space to explore and thus can present more unique and captivating experiences.

Doom Install Disks” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Matt Schilder

While we might seem a little biased from this article, we also have to mention that the quantity of modern retro titles produced plays a big part in their success. While we might only see a couple of dozen big-budget games in a year, we’ll see thousands of smaller games. This means more opportunities to hit the mark, and more accepted losses when they fail.

Ultimately, the truth is that smaller retro and retro-inspired games act as necessary partners to the larger market. They fill in the gaps, inspire the big players, and help keep the cost of being a gamer low. Plus, at the end of the day, doesn’t the gaming world need more Doom clones anyway?