What is retro? For some, the idea of a turn-based battle system is retro. It is old, slow, and not very active gameplay. Players tolerated it, so the thinking goes, only because of the cursed limitations of early technology. Our disc drives spin faster now. Why would we want to ever go slow? Modern games are fast. At least that’s what some people would say.
What is retro? For some, the idea of stories involving quests to save the world is retro. These stories are simple and uncomplicated. We tolerated them only because we did not have the ability to tell more “mature” and complex stories. Why would we ever want things to be earnest? Modern games are gritty. At least that’s what some people would say.
What is retro? For some, the idea of fantastical settings is retro. We played in dreamworld with dragons and abstract magicks because we hadn’t developed the good sense to create worlds that better aligned with our own. Games are simulation and the best games are filled with bullets and blood, not crystals and spells. Modern games happen here and now. At least that’s what some people would say.
When I was approached by Aidan to talk about “the appeal of retro JRPGs,” I admit that I shivered a little. Largely because of what I’ve outlined above. Video games, more than any other space, is one where looking backwards is sinful. Look back even for a moment and, like Orpheus, you will lose everything. We must always be looking forwards. To the next big console, the next big (AAA) release, and the next big mature story where a middle-aged man does a morally dubious thing because, well, that’s how you know games are just as good as movies now. This framework misunderstands the nature of stories; it deems something “good” only if it happens to be new. That’s it. The bare minimum you need to be a huge and important game is to be expensive and released in the last six months. It’s that simple! Gamers will eat it up!
I like looking backwards. Not merely because of nostalgia but because of the fact that if “retro” can be reclaimed in a positivistic light, it marks distance from where we are now. From the late-capitalist hell-hole that has choked creativity, consolidated studios across mediums, and confused thousands of people into thinking that everything that matters happens “now.” I have traced and retraced paths through older games—Lunar, Skies of Arcadia, Final Fantasy IV, Suikoden III, and more—because I would much rather trek through the lands of dragons and crystals than be forced to slit another throat in whatever this year’s “important” AAA game is.