Adjusting my rose colored glasses.
When approaching a retro review, it’s important to recognize the baggage that comes with it. Unlike a current review, retro reviews evaluate beloved games of old to see if they hold up to their more modern descendants. As a result, retro reviews are sometimes colored by happy memories of the past or differing criteria based on the time they were made. In this article, I address some of the flaws I see in retro reviews and the flaws I hope to avoid in my upcoming review of Starcraft.
One of the most common flaws in retro reviews is the idea that some aspect of a game is “good for its time.” This most often comes up in the context of outdated graphics, but can also apply to story, controls, or any other mechanic. The idea is that problems in a game are somehow mitigated because they weren’t so bad when the game came out. The issue with this argument is that it excuses unfavorable comparisons while ignoring the fundamental fact that some aspects of older games don’t age well. It assumes the player is operating under the prevailing standard of the game’s origin year rather than the present. This is obviously false. For a game to be good, it ought not require that gamers forget all that came out between the game’s launch date and today. If an older game truly is to claim the title “classic” (or even just “good”), then it must compete against the current standards.
In addition to creating outdated standards, the “good for its time“ argument suffers from the fact that the reviewer is never in “its time.” While most retro reviewers were alive during the launch of these games, they are still years, if not decades, removed from the gaming scene that existed during the release date. Unless the reviewer is going to replay games from that era, it is difficult to recollect what the prevailing standards of the time were. “Good for its time” relies on understanding enough of the period to compare the game to. Without actually having those games on hand, the reviewer is relying on old memories likely colored by happy recollections.
Alternatively, it’s important to recognize that lacking modernity does not mean lacking quality. While some concepts and mechanics are no longer used in current games, they still may represent sources of fun and entertainment. The game Painkiller is a perfect example. Lacking a strong story or RPG elements, Painkiller was a throwback to the simpler run-and-gun style FPS game that faded with the rise of System Shock and Half Life. Despite focusing on an out of favor style of FPS, Painkiller was rightly lauded for its fun, arcade gameplay with clever settings and weaponry. Developers move away from game mechanics for any number of reasons besides the fun derived from the mechanic. The fact that they aren’t using a particular mechanic now does not necessarily reflect the quality of the mechanic.
The opposite is also true. Nostalgia is real and many gamers have fond memories of older games played in a different time. Some reviewers have a tendency to favor games from an earlier period precisely because that was a time when they really connected with the games. While there is nothing wrong with enjoying, or even preferring, old games, reviewers should be wary of approving of games simply because of their age and associated memories. A game should be reviewed based on the current experience it provides rather than the happy memories it recalls. Readers of a retro review cannot download old memories, only old games.
The key with a retro review is to remember that the reviewer should evaluate the game as if it were released today. Understand that many players are coming to the game fresh without the attending memories and knowledge that older players may have. While all reviews are ultimately a reflection of the reviewer, reviews should only address what the player can access.