For better or worse, the appearance of Steam Greenlight nearly five years ago placed retro genres firmly back in the spotlight. While modern gamers might veer towards 3D titles like Doom (2016) and Titan Fall 2, creatively, the complexities of first person shooters means that most bedroom developers are confined to classic genres, Castlevania-style platformers and topdown shooters (“shmups”) like 1942 and Xenon 2 Megablast.
Making it So…
Similarly, fresh support for virtual reality (VR) development in Unity, inclusive of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift devices and the two most popular mobile VR units, Samsung Gear and Google Cardboard, has taken the technology mainstream; creating games in VR is now more a question of patience rather than resources. Almost 50% of mobile and 70% of AR and VR content on the market is now built in Unity, a statistic that recently earned the firm $400m in funding from tech sugar daddy Silver Lake.
But can that kind of access to VR help retro genres stake a claim in the modern world the same way Greenlight did? It all depends on your definition of VR; while games like Star Trek: Bridge Crew and Elite: Dangerous are still time and skill-intensive, there are a growing number of developers leaning on VR as a cinematic experience and as a way to play 2D games within a 3D virtual space. It’s the video game arcade most us under thirty missed out on.
One obvious example of traditional games involves casino games. The industry has a tradition of platform ports going back to 1977 when blackjack became a launch title for the Atari 2600 but the online brand Bet Way Casino has games playable on mobile, tablet, and PC, and there’s even a poker game available for the PlayStation 4. The idea of placing casino games in a VR environment isn’t a new one though, as evidenced by NetEnt’s virtual slot machine. A variant of the popular Gonzo’s Quest game, NetEnt’s first foray into VR offers a more immersive experience to the casino gamer while retaining the same pick-up-and-play mechanics. It’s ostensibly part of a future that could see websites and mobile apps supplanted by virtual worlds – imagine walking to and from the blackjack table with the avatars of other gamers – but, at present, Gonzo’s Quest VR is more of a proof of concept than a full product.
Oculus Arcade offers a similar experience to some of the more sophisticated VR casinos, placing games like Streets of Rage, Gauntlet, Pac-Man, and Galaga in virtual cabinets within an equally virtual space. Unfortunately, the similarity to real-world arcades includes the nickel and diming; the player has to pay to play each game once an initial 20-minute trial is up. The good news is that it’s technically possible to speed-run the Sega classic Sonic the Hedgehog in 13.
A second title, New Retro Arcade, is a similar VR gaming space, this time complete with a kitsch carpet and a moody lighting scheme. Offering classic Nintendo fodder like 1991’s The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Street Fighter (also 1991), and the comparatively ancient Out Run (1986), New Retro Arcade runs on emulation software like MAME. The game earns extra nostalgia points for including a playable model of the SNES
VR is unlikely to result in the same boom in retro gaming that Steam Greenlight produced (more than 120 games have cleared the service so far, of all genres) simply because worlds in virtual reality are 3D by definition; retro games are almost exclusively built with 2D sprites. With that in mind, experiences like Oculus Arcade tend to offer a setting in which to play games rather than a chance to loop-the-loop as Sonic the Hedgehog.
One aspect of retro gaming continues to influence VR though – headset design. The Mattel View-Master, a device that once let us view a slideshow of images from a circular reel, has been given a facelift for the 21st century, as an entry-level VR headset in a similar guise to Google Cardboard. It’s still great, made from chunky red plastic like the original, and has National Geographic-branded experiences available to download and play.
It’s almost inevitable that retro franchises will join the world of virtual reality experiences in the future – there’s obvious potential in a VR Mario Kart game for example – but Nintendo and Sega, the companies most commonly associated with classic gaming, have shown little interest in virtual reality to date. For a long time, the former was actually cited as the reason developers were so afraid of VR; its 1995 Virtual Boy console was a disaster.
For now, titles like New Retro Arcade are a welcome stopgap if not the harbinger of a second retro revolution.
(Editor’s Note: This is a paid article from an advertiser.)