Why Is Retro Gaming So Popular?

I’ve been on a massive retro gaming kick since we moved into our new house. Modern games simply haven’t had as much appeal for me recently! I’m finding so much to love about older titles. And I keep being delighted that classic games I play for the first time (like Rocket Knight Adventures on the Genesis) hold up astonishingly well. Which got me thinking: why is retro gaming so popular to this day?

Collage of retro game carts: Donkey Kong 64, Spider-Man for N64, Donkey Kong (Gameboy), Turtles in Time, Star Wars Jedi Power Battles, Rocket Knight Adventures, X-Men 2 Clone Wars for Genesis
A few retro games I’ve been playing recently. I recommend them all!

Of course, “childhood nostalgia” is a huge factor-recapturing the memories and sentiments of games we loved when we were younger. But I think the appeal of retro gaming goes beyond just nostalgia. As a gamer of more than 30 years, these are my thoughts and opinions on why I believe retro gaming will forever be popular. Please keep in mind that I’m *mostly* referring to cartridge-based retro games in this post!

The ritual of starting a game

I understand that digital games are easier to access and play, and in general a far more practical option. There’s certainly a case to be made for playing and preserving games that way! But with physical retro games, there’s so much “ritual” involved that’s really enjoyable. Opening the box (either the original or a repro from Custom Game Cases) and taking out the cart. Hearing the satisfying “pop” when you place the cartridge in the console. Clicking that power button on to immediately be taken to the game without a lot of fanfare or load screens. And playing it with an authentic (and often superior) controller!

Wave Race 64 cart, box, manual, operation card, and ice blue controller
Wave Race 64 in all its retro glory!

Just seeing the logo screen and chime come up (such as the “Capcom” logo when I boot up Mega Man X) gives me an instant rush of endorphins. So much joy over so small a thing!

Mega Man X iam8bit Anniversary Edition box, manual, and cart

I also like to display the box close by when playing a game (a ritual I stole from my good friend Kamal). I’m a huge fan of box art (especially from classic consoles like the N64) and it really adds to the experience. If it’s a game I haven’t played in some time (or at all!) I’ll flip through the manual as well. Manuals are often brilliant works of art, full of extra sketches and witty references relevant to their time. I really miss their inclusion in game boxes.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan Game Boy cart and manual
It really doesn’t get much more “90s” than the manual descriptions for old Turtles games.

Metroid II Metroid evolutions from manual
Just look at these glorious drawings of Metroid evolutions from the Metroid II manual. LOOK AT THEM.

As a bonus, the random inserts that often came with older games are a lot of fun to rediscover too!

Short and sweet

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that being an adult can be pretty rough. So many additional stresses, so little precious free time, and only a fraction of that to spend on gaming. So why is retro gaming especially popular with older gamers who have families? Because we can get a high quality gaming experience in a short period of time! I can pop in a game like Streets of Rage 2 or Super Mario World and tear through most of it in less than an hour, enjoying every second of it. All while experiencing those sweet old school graphics and soundtrack!

Chip'N Dale Rescue Rangers for NES box, cart, and manual
One of my favorite NES games to pop in and beat whenever I need a pick me up.

Of course, not all retro games are short. But on the whole they feel more “streamlined” and concise, even when it comes to classic RPGs like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI.

Those graphics!

There’s a hard-to-fully-describe charm to retro game graphics. Maybe it’s the simplicity. The colors. The care that went into them. They’re just lovely! I mean, the 16-bit era might be the most graphically beautiful era of gaming. Yeah, I said it! Just try playing the Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis using high quality component cables (such as HD Retrovision-use coupon code “THECHOZOPROJECT” and save 10%!) and tell me it’s not a religious experience.

Beautiful.

Sometimes I think older sprite graphics are only appealing to “grown up gamers”. But then I see the massive success of games like Stardew Valley and Hollow Knight across all age groups and think about how universal they really are!

Stardew Valley Collector's Edition for Nintendo Switch

Even early 3D games have their charm, crude and pointy as they are. I recently played through Parasite Eve on the PS1 for the first time and was blown away by the (concisely told) storyline, characters, and innovative battle system. The CGI cutscenes were still genuinely impressive-and horrifying.

Parasite Eve on PS1 case, disc, and strategy guide

No updates or downloads

Getting a modern game on launch day is much more tedious experience. You’ll often need to set aside several extra hours to allow day one patches to download to fix the multitude of bugs. I understand that’s often necessary with the insane complexity of big AAA titles, but it dampens the experience of first playing a bit. Games are sometimes even released in a fairly broken state with the promise of “fixes” to come. What the hell is this? With retro games, you bring a game home from the store, pop it in, turn on the power, and start your epic, well-crafted adventure!

Donkey Kong Country SNES cart, player's guide, Game Boy Color box, Super Nintendo controller, and bananas
Can you imagine having to wait hours for Donkey Kong Country to download back in 1994?

The simplicity of play with retro games is both very nostalgic and very soothing in the complexity of today’s world. I miss it.

Right to the action

One could argue that some old school games were punishingly difficult and didn’t bother to teach you mechanics. I completely understand that, and it holds true for many titles. But now a lot of game design has overcorrected. Too many games have bloated and tedious tutorials that often take hours (and hours!) to complete before getting to “the good stuff”. Not the case with the best retro games! Stellar game design teaches you the mechanics using the gameplay itself, like the early parts of Mega Man X and Link to the Past.

Zelda Link to the Past SNES cart, box, manual, and Game Boy Advance version
The early Zelda games do a fantastic job of teaching you mechanics as you play.

Some of the best indie titles today take the same approach, and it’s a big reason they have such acclaim. Hopefully we’ll see the scene continue to thrive and keep the retro vibe alive!

Kaze and the Wild Masks level 1-3
Check out Kaze and the Wild Masks if you want an excellent modern platformer that FEELS delightfully old school.

It’s not all retro

It might sound like I loathe all modern games. I truly don’t. I love my Nintendo Switch and quite a few series on both Playstation and XBox. But modern games just aren’t quite the same, and probably never will be. Why is retro gaming so popular? Because it offers a unique, nostalgic, comforting, simple, and most importantly, joyous experience that’s tough to replicate.

In your opinion, why is retro gaming so popular? Or do you disagree and think it’s just a matter of time before this bubble “bursts”? Let me know in the comments below!

6 thoughts on “Why Is Retro Gaming So Popular?”

  1. My world got flipped upside down, so I didn’t get to check here. But now that I’m working odd jobs (cutting limbs, fixing fences, yard work,) I’m able to get my own money. Hopefully I can get my own ps1 and Final Fantasy VII. Hope you’re doing good with moving. Also sometimes for example, Silent Hill, the bad graphics make it better, because you can’t see this monster trying to kill you clearly. And then for 16 bit and 8 bit games in, they have their own little charm. And when you see all the hard work the developers put into with only what they had, it just blows your mind. Also you don’t need Internet for everything, just pop in a cart, and boom. There it is. Unless you’re me, then you need to download roms to play them. Still works though. But back to subject, if you’re 15 like me, and you have no idea how it works, you learn something new, and their stories inspire other stories. And it’s better than nearlly setting the house on fire because your PS5 overheated. And I know it’s June, but hopefully you’re settling in. I have school in a month… I just moved in with my best freind, because of personal problems, so I can kinda see how it is. But hopefully you can post more, you make my days seem easier sometimes.

    1. Zach Lindemann

      Good to hear from you, my friend! I hope things are settling down for you too-sending all the good vibes that everything is calmer and that the jobs you’re picking up are going well. We’ve been all moved in for quite some over here, but I’ve largely been absent from posting because I started a new graduate program to become a mental health counselor! It’s something I have been interested in for quite some time and I’m really enjoying it so far, but I’m finding it takes a lot more energy to do academic work when you’re older and have two kids.

      I totally agree on the Silent Hill example! The graphics are a big part of the season it’s so unsettling. The indie game “Sagebrush” uses the same style of graphics and is about a woman exploring an abandoned cult compound-really creepy. And FFVII is a great choice for a next game-it still holds up so well!

  2. Also, the HD Retrovision cables are 100% worth it. Can vouch it’s beautiful to see your Genesis or SNES model 1 in full RGB glory (through component).

    I admit I was used to seeing my SNES in over saturated, bright colors over composite (or even RF honestly). But now with the color correction I can actually see the games as they were intended. And that’s pretty neat.

    1. There’s really no going back once you’ve seen these retro consoles displayed the way they were meant to look! Even younger family members I’ve shown retro games to for the first time are really impressed by how vibrant the graphics are.

  3. Always brightens my morning to see a new post.

    Maybe another factor in the appeal of retro gaming, or any hobby which looks to the past, is that we’re taking the “best of the best” experiences determined by gaming consensus or which resonated with us originally. You don’t have to seek out the compelling experience, because you discovered it long ago.

    I know we’ve discussed how gaming time can be considered meditation and thoughtful reflection. The Sim City series (PC, SNES, etc) definitely come to mind. By the same token, playing Streets of Rage, a TMNT game or Golden Axe gives me a similar “gaming zone” where you can tune out and just focus. And that focus is relaxing and helpful as you say.

    Holding the cartridge and feeling the actual controller in your hands is a big deal for me. You game anyway you can, including grabbing a generic usb controller and emulate games on a PC, but nothing beats the original hardware for me.

    I laugh every time I turn on my Xbox One (thanks Daniel!) and see the plethora of updates. While the Xbox is updating I usually go play Sega Genesis instead 😂

    1. Beautifully said, Kamal. I definitely feel that meditative “gaming zone” playing some of my favorite classic platformers like Donkey Kong Country, Mega Man X, and Sonic 2, even though they can be difficult. It reminds me of how I feel (mentally) when running long distances! I also find the soundtracks incredibly soothing, regardless if they’re calming or rockin’ 90s beats.

      That’s a really interesting point about the “best of the best” largely being decided, and thus not needing to expend energy thinking about it. I have SO MUCH decision fatigue between the parenting and all the crazy events of the past few years, so that’s certainly a huge bonus to retro gaming. It’s also so cool that I keep finding “new old” games that I missed the first time around but someone passionate about it suggests, and I end up loving it!

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