It's almost summertime, and as is tradition, I'm getting in the mood for some retro gaming. I dust off my old game collection, turn on my CRT TV with that satisfying "whrrr" sound, plug my RCA cables in, and get ready for a nice retro gaming session of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.
...Wait, what do you mean the GameCube is two decades old?
Yep, I'm not much older than the GameCube: we both turn 21 this year. When the Super Nintendo turned 21 years old in 2012, it was regarded as an ancient piece of technology that was most definitely retro. So why is it, after the same amount of time, are we so hesitant to say the same thing about the GameCube, and later systems?
First, Some History
Retro, as defined by the dictionary, is imitative of a design or style from the recent past. Retro gaming as a concept really took off in the mid-2000s, with nostalgic gamers dusting off their NES and Genesis consoles to relive games from a bygone era. This was when James Rolfe started uploading game reviews, when Capcom made Mega Man 9 to appeal to 8-bit nostalgia, when retro-styled indie games rose to prominence. Gaming is a very young medium, and saw a ton of technological progress in a very short period of time. So in these early days, defining retro was easy. Chrono Trigger? Retro. Super Mario Bros 3? Even more retro. The Magnavox Odyssey?
But then we get to the 5th gen of game consoles. Believe it or not, in the early 2010s, there was quite a bit of debate as to whether or not they were retro. 4chan's retro gaming board for instance initially refused to accept anything beyond the 4th gen as retro. 3D was simply too modern they said, and these systems had far too much in common with modern gaming, what with their CD disc drives and duelshock controllers. But as time passed, more and more people began to agree that early 3D gaming was quite the odd beast, and deserving of the retro moniker.
And that brings us to the 6th generation: the Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube. This is the current battleground nowadays, the one that'll spark debates over their retro credentials. The pro-retro crowd will say they're over 2 decades old, very different from modern games, and should be grouped in with the first 5 gens. The not-retro crowd will insist they're still too similar to the modern consoles, and shouldn't be grouped together. It's a legitimate debate with valid points on both sides. So where do I stand?
Is the 6th Generation Retro?
In my opinion, unequivocally YES. I believe these consoles have more than earned their retro badge.
Their age alone is a huge qualifier. They're well over 2 decades old, and from a very different era of technology. Everyone used CRT TVs, tons of Americans were still using dial-up internet, and there was no modern social media. This is reflected in the console architecture. The Dreamcast is a late 90s machine and uses CD technology, DVDs were too expensive at the time. It had internet, but a 56k modem isn't exactly modern. The PS2 was a little more modern, but lacked any of the online features so commonplace on new systems. The GameCube is a straight up old-school "turn the game on and it starts" console, the most basic of all of them. The Xbox, with its ethernet cable, hard drive, and 720p support is by far the most contemporary of the 4. But I guess its retroness depends on how much you value these things, very few games could do 720p and Nintendo consoles never had hard drives.
Let's discuss their game library. The not-retro crowd believe that game design hasn't evolved too much since these days, and that the games of nowadays are just more refined versions of games made back then. I'd like to contest this statement. Different genres evolved at different rates. First person shooters did become fairly modern with Halo, a kid nowadays who loves Infinite can jump into Combat Evolved with no problems. But only the Xbox and PS2 had duel-stick setups. The Dreamcast had only one stick, and the GameCube had an unorthodox C-stick that didn't lend itself well to shooters. Metroid Prime's control scheme is as far from modern as you can get, I'll be shocked if it returns in Metroid Prime 4.
What about 2D platformers? Those matured in the third gen, how much has the genre actually evolved since Kirby's Adventure? 12-year old me could seamlessly transition from Super Mario Bros 3 to New Super Mario Bros U, I actually felt the latter game took some steps backwards in its game design. Other genres have seen HUGE advancements in the 7th gen onward, like open world games. The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind is a goddamn fossil at this point, there was nothing on these consoles on the scale of Mass Effect. Musou games didn't really come into their own until the jump to HD, when we could finally have literally hundreds of NPCs on screen. An 8-player online multiplayer game like Splatoon, heavily reliant on ink physics, simply wasn't possible on the old tech. Battle Royales are huge nowadays, and those didn't really exist until the 8th gen! Neither did Games As A Service, which as much as they may kinda suck, are still a huge part of the modern gaming landscape. My point is, I don't agree that the 6th gen is too similar to modern-day, I feel there are very obvious differences that make it more retro-feeling.
I consider the 6th gen the last gaming generation with a distinct "look." Second generation 3D, a huge leap from low-poly 3D but so, so far from modern 3D. Character models were rounded but not particularly detailed. Textures could mostly convey intended information, but were too low-res for finer details. Most importantly, the modern post-processing effects necessary to imitate real life like global illumination, bump-mapping, advanced particle physics, etc, were either non-existent or existed only in a very early, primitive state. In my opinion, this was the last generation where graphics looked undeniably "video-gamey."
(6th gen graphics are best graphics)
The early 2000s were still very much the era of CRTs, and developers took advantage of this all the time. Dithering, used to create color depth, is imperceptible on a CRT but painfully obvious on HDTVs. The mirror effects in Luigi's Mansion break in progressive scan, and so do the heat wave effects in Paper Mario: TTYD. All things considered, 6th gen graphics had more in common with the 5th gen than the 7th.
So yeah. Retro-feeling games, retro console design, retro graphics, I think 6th gen as a whole is fully retro.
Is the 7th Gen Retro?
This is where I feel the concept of grouping every console in a generation together truly falls apart. You had the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 which brought the industry to HD, the Wii and PSP which were very much in the vein of 6th gen consoles, and the DS which was imitating the early 3D era of the 5th gen. So I'm gonna post a very spicy take and say this on the subject: the DS is indusputably retro, the Wii and PSP are borderline leaning towards retro, and the PS360 are modern.
I won't waste much time explaining the DS, any game system that can't handle a Super Mario 64 remake without compromises is retro. Even the PS1 eventually got an analog stick.
The Wii is literally just an overclocked GameCube. Game design was very similar besides motion controls, and so were the graphics. It's less obviously a CRT console, several games from 2009 onwards like New Super Mario Bros Wii and Skyward Sword were widescreen only. But the fact that it only outputs anamorphic 640x480 means that 16:9 mode has much worse image quality than 4:3, so I'd say it still looks nicer on CRTs overall. In December 2010 I actually remember begging my parents not to get me an HDTV, even back then I was aware of how badly they added input lag and destroyed the image quality of SD consoles. If refusing current technology to enhance my Wii experience isn't retro, I don't know what is. I'll throw in the PSP there as well. Graphics are very similar, UMDs are 2005 as fuck and that weird analog nub is no replacement for a true circle pad like the 3DS had.
The jump to 7th-gen HD technology was HUGE. Devs could finally make pretty much anything they wanted. DLC became common, you could download whole games digitally, developers could continue updating their game with patches, achievements got their start, wireless controllers became standard, I could go on. 3D graphics truly matured. Games like Bayonetta, The Last of Us, Mario Kart 8, and Sonic Generations still look phenomenal to this day. But once you get to this level of graphical fidelity, improvements start to slow down. I remember watching the PS4 and XBO reveals, hearing all about how much better they were than Nintendo's underpowered Wii U, and being...underwhelmed. They just looked like Wii U games in 1080p with a few added effects like PBR. That's not to say there's no difference betweeen Red Dead Redemption 1 and 2, but comparing them is like comparing a Dreamcast game to a Wii game, it doesn't FEEL like a generational leap.
To put it another way, I could see a 3D-savvy indie dev making a GameCube throwback, or a PS2 throwback, or even a 3DS throwback. Will PS3 throwbacks ever become in vogue though? Not only do they look very similar to modern games, trying to create graphics at that high of a fidelty kinda defeats the purpose of indie games: that they're cheaper to develop. I think this price point in particular is a relevant point to bring up when we get to the only 8th gen console that I feel is somewhat retro.
Is the 3DS Retro? (Has Scootaluigi lost his goddamn mind?)
OK, I'm a bit hesitant to go THAT far. I'll be honest, I mainly brought this up due to its graphics, which are very similar to the 6th gen. But I don't think this point is as arbitrary as it seems.
Due to their limited graphics, the 6th gen was the last console generation before AAA game costs and development times truly skyrocketed into Hollywood-tier investments, which I believe has a big impact on their libraries. Game developers could afford to take risks and publish niche experimental titles, while the AAA studios could make sequels to their popular hits much faster. Smaller companies like Atlus thrived in this gen, Nintendo wasn't afraid to innovate with their franchises, and Rockstar could make 3 full-fledged GTA games in 4 years (could you fucking imagine that nowadays?). I consider this the common thread that links the first 6 gens, the Wii/PSP, and the 3DS all together. Looking at the 3DS for instance, you had titles like Etrian Odyssey, Codename STEAM, Zero Time Dillema, etc, all get physical releases. On the Switch, they likely would've been digital-only, and could NEVER have been sold at full price.
I also feel this was the last console where games were designed with a handheld "pick-up-and-play" philosophy. The Vita tried its best to emulate PS3-styled experiences, and Switch games just feel like console games with a convenient sleep mode function. So while I wouldn't say the 3DS is quite retro yet, I feel it has way more credentials than the PS360. It'll be a few more years before I can make a more confident judgement call.
The Ever-Changing Gaming Landscape
Of course, gaming as a medium is evolving all the time. My opinion isn't the authority, and is subject to change. While gaming hasn't seen a lot of true breakthroughs in recent years, who's to say it'll stay that way forever? Maybe gaming continues in its current state. Maybe we see some crazy new VR innovations that redefine how we see the medium. Maybe gaming becomes a hellscape where no one buys anything and we instead stream our games off the servers of a wealthy megacorporation. Who knows? I'll either be balking at the idea of The Last of Us 2 being retro, or joining right in with my buddies for a nice retro gaming session of Elden Ring.