Staying “Retro”

Things have changed.
The way we buy and play games has evolved and old aspects of gaming have been replaced by their modern equivalents. With the recent retro resurgence, things have changed again. Incorporating “retro” into games doesn’t mean that games are purchased from shops on cartridges as they once were, it’s more about implying retro through audio/visual aspects.

One of my objectives for this project is to recreate other aspects of “retro” as well as the graphical style I have chosen to use. I’ve mentioned this in my learning agreement but haven’t talked about how I’m going to do this much yet, so firstly here’s a little look into why

What I loved about old games…
…back when they were new games, of course!

1. Cover Art
The cover art of a game was often a selling point for me. Games were placed cover forward in shops and if a cover caught my eye, I would read the synopsis on the back of the case. I was always a fan of Japanese RPGs, so any anime character on a game box would usually get me interested… So, take Breath of Fire IV for Playstation as an example. This game had used a very striking anime art style on the cover to represent the game.


This image told the viewer a lot about what to expect from the game, even if they hadn’t played any of the previous Breath of Fire instalments (I hadn’t at the time!). But obviously, this said nothing about the actual in-game graphics, except that the characters were based on a similar anime style. The point of the “art” on the box was to sell the game in a way that the actual graphics couldn’t.


With the help of box art, I think developers could give a better impression of how they saw the game.

2. Game Manuals
I confess, I LOVE game manuals. When I was younger, I would read the entire manual before playing most games, simply because I loved getting to know the game world and back-story in a way that was often summarised in the manual. This seemed to shorten the length of time between Saturday shopping with my parents and finally getting home and actually playing the game!

As well as game info and instructions, the manual was normally very well designed and stylised, and also included bits of concept art. The Final Fantasy series was particularly good at showcasing its art, worlds and characters in the manual.


I especially loved reading pointless information about each character, including birthdays (which I remember marking on my calendar at one point :S), age and height. This sort of stuff was never mentioned in the game- probably because if was completely irrelevant… It just seemed like a bonus chunk of knowledge. Obviously, the main point of the manual was to relay instructions on how to play the game, which was obviously very useful…

3. The Game Disk
Or whatever storage your game happened to be on. I started gaming on PC and moved to console gaming via Playstation and didn’t actually acquire my SNES until after the PS2 was out! So to me, games generally came on CDs or the occasional floppy. In any case, the storage device containing the game was another piece of artwork…generally. And even if it wasn’t, the hard copy of the game to me was a testament to how much pride I had in owning a game. If I liked a game enough to part with my hard-earned pocket-money for it, it was worth keeping in good condition. This applied to the case and manual too. If I loved a game, I would keep it pristine. It was like a pet or a younger sibling, I felt a responsibility to make sure it was always comfortable.

What’s changed since then…

1. Cover Art
Obviously, games still have cover art. They still try to catch customers’ attention in shop displays etc. However, game graphics have improved immensely since I bought Breath of Fire IV. Not only game graphics, but the ability to create high quality 3D models in general has resulted in CG being used more and more in cover art on games. The point of the cover seems to emphasise the technological achievement of the game, rather than represent it through a piece of “art”. This is the game’s selling point, the game’s attention grabber.


Take Uncharted 3 as an example, which I bought last year. The cover art consists of a CG representation of a scene from the game. This scene was used as the main promotional image for the game as it separated this instalment from previous Uncharted titles, and emphasised its differences as well as a few similarities. It’s a good showcase of the in-game graphics and shows the potential buyer a little of what to expect from the game, but it’s not art. I rarely get excited because I may have found the next greatest undiscovered Japanese RPG when I see box art.

2. Game Manuals
It’s a common belief that the instruction manual has been replaced by lengthy tutorial levels in game. The player learns by doing, rather than reading through pages and pages and later trying to relate what they’ve learned to the game, so I guess this is understandable. People don’t expect to have to read instructions for games any more, and as a result, the instruction manual for most games has shrunk and decreased. One franchise notorious for its painstaking tutorial levels is the Call of Duty series. Here’s a section of a page of the CoD: Black Ops instruction manual (which is the most recent instalment that I’ve actually played…)


I haven’t cut anything off- the rest of the page is blank. There are no images, no extra bits of information… Nothing but instructions. It’s straight and to the point, but so, so very boring.

3. The Game Disk
Obviously, game distribution has been infinitely easier for developers as digital copies of games can be purchased via the internet. I’m not complaining about this at all, as this means that gamers have access to hundreds of game whenever they want them. If I am to be distributing my game, it will be digitally, as its convenient for me and whoever decides to download it. But this method of distributing and purchasing games means that none of the physical aspects mentioned above apply any more. At least this eliminates the possibility of poor design!

What can be done to stay true

1. Paper made of PDF…
When I looked into recent awesome game Out There Somewhere which keeps cropping up in my blog posts, I noticed that a lot of effort was put into portraying the game through digital artwork. This can be seen throughout the game’s Devlog and on the MiniBoss website.


Not only does the game contain a lot of assets based on digital concept art, but the same style has been used to create a retro cover for the game. The game will be distributed digitally only (as far as I’m aware), and so the cover is not necessary but is a nice finishing touch. The game uses a pixel-art style, and the cover gives the player a good impression of what is represented by the tiny pixel sprites. Little homages to retro have been dotted around, like the cover’s similarity to the box art for old Sega Master System games…


The pre-order version of the game also comes with a PDF hint manual, which to me sounds very intriguing!

2. Paper made of…paper
My old favourite Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP has recently re-marketed its soundtrack (and in a way, the game itself) by releasing a range of goodies for buyers. The soundtrack can be purchased digitally through Bandcamp, but buyers now have the option to also purchase a vinyl and cassette version of OST, in keeping with retro formats.


This to me is the ultimate revival of everything I loved about old games. It includes obsolete formats which need to be taken good care of and beautifully designed cover art and inlays, as well as a bonus poster designed by Pendleton Ward! Although the game itself has no cover art, manual or hard copy as it downloaded only, this is the perfect accompaniment for fans of the game and fans of “retro”. It’s something you can hold in your hand and love- something which just can’t be said about games any more.

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