At Retro World Expo 2018 (RWX 2018), there’s obviously a lot of love to be had for retro video games. However, new-release video games have increasingly been trying to recapture that retro feel for older audiences.

In their panel “What’s Old is New Again: Developing Retro Games with Modern Tools,” two members of Bomb Shelter Games took a look at the challenges of creating a “modern retro game,” based on their own experiences creating similarly styled games.

The team laid out three points they would discuss right away: technological considerations, design decisions, and modern expectations and responsibilities.

RWX 2018: What’s Old is New Again - n3rdabl3

The first decision–after you’ve sussed out your story and characters–you have is to decide if you’re going to be using a commercial or custom engine. It was pointed out that all retro games–at least, arcade and early console games–were made with custom engines. But after Doom, commercial engines started forming and can be easier for beginning programmers to work with. However, the commercial engines often require a lot of modding to get what you want it to do. For example, their game Ballistick appears to take place on flat planes, but every stage is a 3D model viewed at a very specific angle.

Technological aspects outside of the programmer’s control also exist. Televisions are getting bigger, and pixels are getting minimized, which can muddy up the look of a game with visible pixels. However, programs exist to help this look work even with changing hardware.

An important point was to not get blinded by “nostalgia goggles.” Detracting from gameplay for retro appeal isn’t worth it, because oftentimes without the nostalgia holding problematic gameplay up, the game becomes a hard sell.

What was suggested instead was to pay attention to the mechanics in games you like that do work. Games they looked at when working include Blaster MasterCastlevaniaProject Neptune, and Metroid. Their goal is always “capturing the positive without keeping the negative.”

Some of these positive mechanics that they have noticed gaining popularity in recent years is a return in “crushing difficulty” which moves away from hand-holding in games, time to slow down and breathe, trust in the player that they can explore and problem solve, and varied gameplay.

Of course, there are negatives too, and the negatives outlined at the panel are close cousins to the positives: unforgiving “crushing difficulty” is no good. If you’re the only one that can beat the game you’re developing, you may have to tweak some things! Strict time limits can be troublesome, as well. In the arcade era, these limits raked in the quarters. Strict, inflexible time limits don’t have that same function anymore.

Absolute loss conditions” are when you can’t beat a game because you missed one thing in a level that you can’t get back to, so you lose hours and hours of game play. That’s a frustrating element that could go without many tears shed, too. Extensive memory challenges also made the list. We’re long past the era of text adventures and hand-drawn maps, and it’s pretty much expected that games will catalog important information for the player somehow. Finally, “illogical spaces” like the Lost Woods in Ocarina of Time round out the list. Although a short challenge is okay, a whole game with such logic just doesn’t pass the smell test as it might have with, say, text adventures.

Of course, gamers’ expectations have changed as well. These can affect the immersion of the game, as you get a little notification about a trophy, or a friend signing on, or anything like that.

RWX 2018: What’s Old is New Again - n3rdabl3
‘Adventure,’ 1979-1980.

Accessibility expectations have also changed. Many older games didn’t address audience needs. A text adventure to a person with dyslexia or Adventure for the Atari 2600 to someone that’s colorblind would be challenging, to say the least. Those games didn’t have the capability, and it’s very likely differing audiences weren’t considered. Bomb Shelter Games has worked with such challenges by creating games with voiceover systems and “colorblind modes” where the color pallet gets swapped. Font sizes and types can be customized as well.

Of course, there are other things to be left behind as well, such as stereotypes–even when done without ill will–and rewarding players for nasty behavior. Of course, that’s a gray area, but let’s put it this way: Custer’s Revenge was used as an example for this slide. The point of the game is approaching a trussed up, nude, Native American woman and raping her. There wasn’t really ever any need for something like that at all.

The panel ended with suggestions to help audience members interested in creating their own games start out. Research and design were emphasized, as well as networking. Sites like Meetup and Develteam were suggested, though there are in-person meetup events all over the country, with the team suggesting the Boston and New York areas, though there are groups in Connecticut as well.

If you’re interested in seeing more of Bomb Shelter Games’ work, please check out their site here. Their most recent game is Depths of Insanity, which will be out in 2019, though the demo is available right now on Steam. And don’t forget to continue checking N3rdabl3 as the week continues for more updates on and coverage of events at Retro World Expo 2018!

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