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The Value of Retrogames

Bob Rehak
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Existing in dialectical tension with contemporary games which trumpet their photorealistic graphics, sprawling storyworlds, and intricate, extended, networked play, retrogames preserve and celebrate a prior era of gaming often referred to as a “golden age” of arcade standards (such as Asteroids, Tempest, and Donkey Kong) from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Increasingly, the category also covers the decade that followed the industry crash of 1983, when the locus of gaming shifted to home consoles such as the Nintendo and Super Nintendo Entertainment Systems (NES and SNES), the Sega Genesis and Dreamcast, and home microcomputers such as the Commodore 64 and Amiga, as well as the first generation of PCs and Macintoshes. Compared with games for contemporary consoles such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 that occupy gigabytes of memory, resurrections of 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit video and computer games look like the mathematically downscaled primitives they are: their blocky resolutions, limited color palettes, and blip-bleep-bloop sound reproduction are matched by equally simple and repetitive gameplay. However, retrogames are not hopelessly antiquated museum pieces lacking the good sense to stay buried in gaming history. Their continued presence complicates easy (and industry-friendly) conceptions of technological and aesthetic progress, in which the newest equals the best equals the most expensive.

Older games thrive alongside their more sophisticated descendants, gaining popularity and influence with each passing year. Retrogames continue to be played in both authorized and unauthorized forms. Their minuscule memory footprint, easily grasped rules, and convenient fit within the interstices of daily routine make them ideal content for mobile devices. For instance, the App stores for iTunes and Google Android phones devote sections to retrogames. The Xbox Live Arcade markets “updated retro classics” alongside its “newest hits,” while the Wii Virtual Console sells downloads from “the greatest video game archive in history”—actually licenses owned by Nintendo. These monetized properties coexist uneasily with the thriving emulator scene, where every conceivable old game has its software simulacrum and renegade read-only memories (ROMs)—files containing data images copied from memory chips, computer firmware, or the circuit boards of arcade machines—circulate beyond the bounds of copyright. For both legal and illegal purposes, the Internet functions as both archive and distribution network, supporting the sharing, spreading, and mutation of content.

Video games by their very nature—endlessly iterable, contagiously copyable—have always “spread.” Often referred to as the first video game, Spacewar, developed by hackers at MIT in 1962, was effectively an open-source project, the paper tapes containing its instructions freely available in a box of other Programmed Data Processor-1 (PDP-1) programs to any passing programmer who wished to debug, tweak, or expand the game’s features (Levy 1984, 61–65). Throughout the 1960s, Spacewar spread through the nascent Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), an early network created by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which formed the base for the eventual development of what is now known as the Internet. Spacewar even spawned regional variations such as “Minnesota Hyperspace.” By 1972, graphical user interface (GUI) pioneer Alan Kay could assert that “the game of Spacewar blossoms wherever there is a graphics display connected to a computer” (quoted in Brand 1972). Ports and clones of the earliest games traveled from one computer language and college mainframe to another, colonizing an emerging base of personal home computers such as the Altair 8800 (1975), Apple II (1977), and TRS-80 (1977). The games also spread via program listings in magazines such as Creative Computing (whose first issue appeared in 1974) and Dr. Dobbs Journal (1976) and in collections such as David H. Ahl’s Basic Computer Games (1978).

Lest such an account place too much emphasis on technological determinism, it is just as important to consider the cultural and economic dimensions of early gaming. The baby boom generation and Gen-Xers came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, coinciding with the rising popularity and accessibility of computer hardware. Suddenly, computers were within reach of intelligent, motivated, adaptive communities—kids, students, nerds—who pursued the games they loved from one motley social location to another. Radio Shack outlets and appliance stores, high school math and science labs lucky enough to possess their own computers or a dial-up connection to the local university, and underground piracy clubs (whose membership often blended prepubescents and teens with adults) all provided rich beds for the swapping and sharing of cassette tapes and floppy disks. The rise of game arcades coexisted with the emergence of home systems, with popular arcade hits Pac-Man, Missile Command, and Space Invaders repackaged for domestic consumption, becoming early successes for these platforms (Buchanan 2008).

The continued value of early video games to the generation that initially encountered them hinges, according to Sean Fenty, on “a desire to recapture the mind-altering experience of being in a game for the first time” (2008, 23). Retrogames return to us “the sheer joy of beginning to know another world and the contrast between that world and the one in which we normally reside” (23). For Fenty, arcade- and home-computer-era games secured an additional hold on players’ emotions and imaginations by virtue of the cognitive labor it took to master the game in the first place: “It is the effort involved—the struggle to learn and overcome—that makes the games memorable, and these memories feed into the process where earlier games are idealized and game-play operates nostalgically for players” (2008, 25).

Collectors and connoisseurs of computer culture drive a lively trade of vintage computer equipment and arcade-machine reconstructions on eBay: these hardcore retrogamers most resemble music fans who insist on hearing orchestral pieces performed on the original instrumentation (or historically accurate reconstructions of it). For players less insistent on purity, old games are available online in Flash versions or Java applets on websites such as 2600online.com and Virtual Apple. Finally, following the inexorable logic of brand extension, there are 3-D updates: for instance, Frogger 3D (1997) was released by Hasbro Interactive sixteen years after the Konami original.

Somewhere in the middle of this continuum is the community devoted to Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME), an application introduced in 1997 that replicates in software the architecture of obsolete chip sets, enabling users to play near-exact simulacra of more than 4,000 games ranging from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. While ownership and distribution of MAME is legal, the ROM images that provide actual content are often protected by copyright, so players must obtain them through means that evade the law: torrents, newsgroups, and anonymous downloads from file-sharing sites such as Rapidshare. Matthew Payne reminds us that MAME’s creator, Nicola Salmoria, intended the virtual machine primarily to document gaming’s past through re-creations of its hardware and software; the ability to play the games is “just a nice side-effect” (2008, 56). From this perspective, Payne argues, the MAME community can be interpreted as something of a grassroots archival movement, hence an activist response to commercial territorialization of video game history:

MAME software politicizes video game play, shifting the focus of activity from playing alone with classic properties to becoming amateur archivists. With MAME technologies, gamers preserve and curate their own collections and need not depend on profit-driven firms to decide what constitutes an authentic and sanctioned canon of classic games and, by implication, the classic gaming experience. (56)

He contrasts the game-emulator scene with a new generation of devices that connect directly to televisions and allow users to play a fixed menu of (licensed) video game titles. These “plug-in-and-play” toys take the form of joysticks, paddles, and other classic controllers and greatly simplify the retrogame experience, bringing it out of the realm of skilled computer users and back into the living rooms—and presumably to the young users at whom the first home video games were aimed.

This tug-of-war between the free proliferation of retrogames and their regulation by legal owners has been complicated in recent years by the kinds of resource sharing, collective intelligence, and subcultural intermingling enabled by social network and video-sharing sites. On YouTube, users enshrine and deconstruct retrogames through videos that range from the nostalgic to the pragmatic, such as “best of” compilations and play-throughs making ample use of screen captures and motion graphics recorded from MAME or from kludged versions of the original cabinets and consoles. Users also share video tours of their classic gaming setups and inventories of their collections.

Networked exchanges have also led to the refashioning of game history into artwork. Mash-ups and remixes provide ironic deconstructions of game genres and tropes, such as the piece Mortal Kombat vs. Donkey Kong, in which the Mortal Kombat character Scorpion uses his rope weapon to topple Nintendo’s sneering gorilla from the top of the screen and then decapitates the rescued princess in a bloody “Fatality” combo. The digital artist Cory Arcangel takes machinima a step further, using old game cartridges to generate works such as Super Mario Clouds and Super Mario Movie, which finds Nintendo’s mascot plumber in a metacrisis of existential angst. “Chiptunes” generate music using the sound-synthesis components from video game consoles, blending the aesthetics of Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach (1968) with the tones and melodies of the Commodore 64’s SID chip. And the collection i am 8-bit (Gibson 2006) features artwork inspired by retrogames: pop-art prettifications and molten Daliesque nightmares based on Defender, Tetris, and Metroid, showcasing the way these retrogames have become indissoluble from a specific generation’s subjectivity. “In one sense, they are adaptations of cultural artifacts,” writes Chuck Klosterman in the foreword to Gibson’s book, “but they’re mainly just self-portraits” (2006, 9).

When viewing early cinema of the 1890s or TV shows from the 1950s and 1960s, we do not speak of “retrowatching”; when reading old novels, we do not call it “retroreading.” The seamless carryover of verbs for engaging with media other than video games suggests that, while content has certainly evolved, delivery mechanisms remain relatively neutral as an element of our engagement with them. By contrast, video games have always depended profoundly on their underlying technological base, their forms and meanings arising as much from specifics of software and hardware as from timeless verities of aporia and epiphany. Preserving a previous era in gaming’s evolution means rejecting, if only temporarily, the pleasures offered by contemporary video games, whose steep learning curves can make them seem impenetrable and whose elaborate mechanisms of persistence can paradoxically limit the sense of frictionless freedom at the core of imaginative play.

Yet the hinged dialectic swings both ways. Racking focus from gaming’s ancestry to its modern forms also becomes a way of apprehending anew the wonders of current technology. The state of the art has never been a state of amnesia: just as retrogames were cutting-edge achievements in their time, today’s games will come to seem quaint and rudimentary in comparison to innovations around the corner. The dizzying sweep of Moore’s Law, paired with the theses of computer science that undergird emulation (such as the Church-Turing thesis), suggest a future in which our most advanced game systems will fit into trivially tiny and inexpensive spaces, the primitive and the advanced continuing their scalar and counterintuitive interaction—a dynamic that, then as now, drives the spread of retrogames as technology, history, and culture.



Ahl, David H, ed. 1978. Basic Computer Games: Microcomputer Edition. Morris Plains, NJ: Creative Computing.

Brand, Stewart. 1972. “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death among the Computer Bums.” Rolling Stone, Dec. 7. Available at http://www.wheels.org/spacewar/stone/rolling_stone.html.

Buchanan, Levi. 2008. “Top 10 Best-Selling Atari 2600 Games.” IGN, Aug. 26. http://retro.ign.com/articles/903/903024p1.html.

Fenty, Sean. 2008. “Why Old School Is ‘Cool’: A Brief Analysis of Classic Video Game Nostalgia.” In Zach Whalen and Laurie N. Taylor (eds.), Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, 19–31. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

Gibson, Jon M. 2006. i am 8-bit: Art Inspired by Classic Videogames of the ’80s. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Klosterman, Chuck. 2006. Foreword to Jon M. Gibson, i am 8-bit: Art Inspired by Classic Videogames of the ’80s, 8–9. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Levy, Steven. 1984. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York: Penguin.

Payne, Matthew Thomas. 2008. “Playing the Deja-New: ‘Plug It In and Play TV Games’ and the Cultural Politics of Classic Gaming.” In Zach Whalen and Laurie N. Taylor (eds.), Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, 51–68. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.


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