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Why Retro-Style RPGs are so Appealing

If I were trying to explain to an outsider the particular genius and downfall of the video game industry, the best metaphor might well be the mind of a four-year-old. Sometimes that fertile little brain will exercise combinatorial creativity to soar imaginatively, making proud parents coo in wonder and delight.

And sometimes it will demand to rewatch the same Doc McStuffins episode twenty times a day.

In the AAA realm, there are not many genuinely new releases each year, but rather franchises that continue to iterate. This year we’ve seen Uncharted 4, Dark Souls 3, Civilization VI, Gears of War 4, more Doom…

And indie developers often aren’t doing much better.

Because for every Firewatch that reminds us of how games can be good play and good storytelling, there are ten management/strategy sims that are essentially the same games with different skins, fifteen new space strategy games, a score of zombie games, thirty adventure games about the apocalypse and/or its dystopic aftermath, a hundred survival games, and probably yet another hundred and fifty zombie apocalypse survival sims.

Given all the things it is possible to do in games, this sameness can feel both exhausting and bewildering. You had enough money to make a game and apocalypse survival really felt like the freshest thing you could do with it?

Kid, I don’t want to watch Doc McStuffins again.

That’s why retro-style games can feel so appealing, like putting on a pair of favorite slippers or popping in an old Katherine Hepburn movie. You know there’s nothing new here, that’s not even the point of it. The point is to escape out of the repetitive tics of our current moment back into a simpler time.

Take Hyper Light Drifter, a lovely game that’s very much an homage to classic Zelda games. The visual style is consciously retro without feeling lazy or sacrificing the need for aesthetic decisions, and the gameplay is simple, challenging, and addictive.

Hyper Light Drifter

It feels very pure, very much like the devs at Heart Machine took advantage of hindsight’s 20/20 vision to get to the heart of what makes a particular type of action RPG so extremely appealing, and it’s executed in a way that really deserves to be called classic more than retro.

Meanwhile, other studios have been honing the satisfaction of Metroidvania-style games, creating 2-D action platformers that harken back to classic platformers while incorporating RPG elements in narrative and world-building. Ori and the Blind Forest was released from Moon Studios in 2015 and gathered critical acclaim for its  beautiful game design in their self-described “love letter to 2-D games.”

Ori and the Blind Forest

In an interview with Polygon, Insomniac Games’ Chief Creative Officer, Bill Hastings, called their 2016 project Song of the Deep strongly rooted in the devs’ fond memories of Metroidvania games past: “Everyone on the team has grown up on these [kinds of] games,” Hastings said. “They were a part of our childhood. It’s just something we’ve never done and we wanted to.”

Song of the Deep

And the classic swords and quests fantasy RPG is reappearing too. Ember, N-Fusion Interactive’s old-school RPG released September 9, 2016 from 505 Games. It stands out as a rarity in the 2016 season of mid-tier indie offerings because it was not released into Early Access, but rather as a normal, complete game—which is increasingly not the norm.

Ember

Ember plays like extracted essence of the classic RPG, with a solid story that hits a lot of formulaic points, but in a highly pleasurable way. There’s an untrustworthy quest-giver, gold coins and rubies lying about, and precious health-giving life potions—all the good stuff.

And Ember, like Hyperlight Drifter or a classic Metroidvania-style release, handles combat remarkably well. Instead of skill-less “action-based” click-bashing, Ember encourages players to pause gameplay during combat so that they can strategize the actions of each party member they control. Unpausing lets you watch your clever plan play out, and the action/strategy combination is incredibly appealing—like being allowed to micro-manage the instant replay on a sports channel.

Ember

The difficulty level of combat action is nicely balanced, moreover. Players can choose between an easy mode that is focused on story-telling and where combat is more of an afterthought; a normal mode balanced between questing and story and action-based combat; and difficult, which will require significant focus on combat to be successful. The calibrations seemed right on, in line with the game’s classic feel. It’s like seeing a bridge built with harmonious classic proportions: it just feels good.

All these classically-styled games are informed by years of video-game playing that allows developers to identify where the specific pleasure is in a different genre and then evoke it in a really effective way. The zombie apocalypse can wait a while—there are some magnificent worlds with time-polished combat waiting to be explored.

Sophie Weeks
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Sophie Weeks received a Masters degree in English Literature from Mills College in 2006 and completed her PhD in Victorian Literature at Rice University in 2013. She is the author of Outside the Spotlight, Unsettled Spirits, and The Soured Earth.
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Sophie Weeks
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Sophie Weeks received a Masters degree in English Literature from Mills College in 2006 and completed her PhD in Victorian Literature at Rice University in 2013. She is the author of Outside the Spotlight, Unsettled Spirits, and The Soured Earth.

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