What is retro gaming?

What is retro gaming? The specifics depend on your age, but it generally means playing vintage (retro) video or computer games today. The part people argue about is what constitutes retro.

There isn’t a lot of agreement or consensus about that, and I have some ideas why.

Maybe age matters

What is retro gaming? Something like this Nintendo NES.
To a Gen Xer like me, a Nintendo NES is retro. And you’d have to be pretty hard core to say this is too new to call retro.

Where you draw the line seems to depend on your age. To a Gen Xer, the PS2 doesn’t seem very retro. The people of my generation, who invented retro gaming, often draw the line at the Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast, and the original Playstation. You know, the stuff the PS2 made look quaint.

One quirk of Gen X is that in our minds, the 90s just happened. I still don’t think the B-52s belong on the local oldies station. Someone from the Millennial or Homeland generation will probably have a different opinion about all that.

It’s perfectly understandable if a teenager considers the PS2 retro, however. After all, the PS2 is 17 years old now. That’s older than the Atari 2600 was when people started collecting Atari stuff and calling it retro gaming. Gen X grew up playing Atari, but there’s a generation alive today that grew up playing PS2.

The line is fuzzy with computers, too. Some people still don’t like calling first-generation Pentiums retro. I’m OK with that, but the Pentium II doesn’t seem very retro to me. Others see it differently. I have less trouble seeing PPC-based Macintoshes as retro, even though some of those are a lot newer than Pentium IIs. Maybe it’s because new software won’t run on those old Macs. I can get new software to run on a Pentium II. It’ll be slow and painful, but I can make it work as long as I can stuff enough memory into the box.

Defining “retro”

Out of curiosity, I looked up definitions of the word “retro.” All it said was “from the past.” That doesn’t help much. I generally take retro to mean newer than vintage, and vintage to mean newer than antique. Antique is the only one of those words with a formal meaning. Antique means it’s 100 years old, unless it’s a car. Then it means 25 years old.

I have a hard time saying a 1992 Dodge Viper is an antique but a 1992 Dell Precision 386sx/25 or Nintendo Super NES isn’t an antique. But nobody’s defined “antique” for computers and game consoles yet, so I guess “retro” has to do.

When I was in college in the early 90s, we called anything from the early 80s retro. If we were to play by those rules now, even the PS3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii are retro. I think it’s too soon. But I’m not the only one who gets a vote.

Maybe we ought to consider appropriating the word “antique.” Then we could think of 8- and 16-bit systems as antiques and quit arguing about retro. Or maybe we’d just end up arguing about where to draw that line between antique and retro when the time comes to move it.

Retro gaming via emulation vs the real thing

While we’re arguing, we can argue about whether emulation counts as retro gaming, or if you have to use real hardware. I fall on the side of the argument that emulation counts. And maybe that provides a little more guidance on the whole retro argument.

What is retro gaming? I think a Commodore 64 counts.
I remember emulating a Commodore 64 like this bad boy on my Compaq 486. Now that Compaq is retro to most people.

Hear me out. In the early ’90s, I could (and did) emulate Atari, Coleco, and Commodore systems on the PCs I had at the time. My 66 MHz 486 could emulate all of those systems at full speed. It couldn’t emulate a Sega Genesis. The Genesis was still too new.

In 2017, a reasonably current PC can emulate the Nintendo Gamecube and Sony PS2. The Xbox isn’t as far along but that’s due more to lack of interest than inability to emulate it.

So maybe we can draw the line at what’s retro by saying what you can emulate.

Using the real hardware does give a more true to life experience. Emulation eliminates the old practice of blowing into Nintendo cartridges, and the slow and noisy Commodore 1541 drive. I’m not saying that waiting three minutes for your game to load was pleasant. Even waiting 30 seconds with a fast load cartridge and listening to that 1541 rattle and knock isn’t the best part of the experience. But it’s part of it.

But keeping older hardware running can be a challenge. Emulation lets you re-experience the past even if your old gear is broken, or if you don’t have room to keep it set up all the time. Admittedly, those old systems can take up an awful lot of space, and most people probably don’t have enough room to set up everything they would like to set up. A laptop with a terabyte of storage can emulate a gymnasium full of old systems and software. Even a cheap, diminutive Raspberry Pi can emulate a surprising amount of stuff. That’s awfully convenient.

So what is retro gaming?

To some extent, you have to decide for yourself. It’s a hobby and it’s supposed to be fun. Not only that, no one can collect everything. If you draw the line at 1985, and someone else draws the line at 2005, it’s OK. If nothing else, it means you have someone to trade that post-1985 stuff to. Even if collectively we all draw the line at a more recent year than you would, that doesn’t mean you have to collect it.

I think the most important thing to remember is, in a way, we’re family. We have our differences, certainly. We all have our preferred eras and manufacturers. I always was and always will be a Commodore fan, myself. But I can still have fun talking with Atari and Nintendo and Radio Shack fans.

2 thoughts on “What is retro gaming?

  • June 30, 2017 at 7:37 am
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    I’m inclined to start calling machines as old as my Pentium II retro because it is pretty much unusable with modern web browsers, and vintage web browsers are no longer effective on the modern script & css- infested web.

    My interest in running this machine at this point is purely for running DOS, pre-XP windows, or Linux old enough that it’s web browser is obsolete. These machines still very much have RAM measured in MB rather than GB. Mine has been upgraded, I think it has 288MB, it probably had 32 or 64 at time of purchase in 1995.

    The argument against a Pentium 2 is that it will generally have USB ports (few & slow). They also represent the dawn of the designed for Win95 plug & play era, and accelerated graphics of some form were becoming the norm. I can see how one might draw the line at Win95 or NT4 as the beginning of what we might call a modern OS.

    On the other hand these were still machines including floppy drives, and often ISA slots, generally lacked built-in networking — clearly of the pre-broadband dialup era. So I’m inclined to lump these in with Pentium I and 486’s — as ‘suitable for running vintage software only’. Maybe this criterion is my line?

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  • July 2, 2017 at 3:28 am
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    For computers, I’m inclined to label things retro by OS. If it requires DOS or 16 bit windows, or classic Mac OS, that’s retro, because it more likely than not will not run properly on a modern machine and will require you to use an old computer or use emulation. If it runs OK on a modern system, then it may be old, but it’s not retro.

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