Retro Rebound: A Resurgence of Simplicity in Game Design

In Features by Byron2 Comments

Most games that have come out in recent years have been products of a natural evolution in game design. The industry has gone from two simple bars bouncing a 1×1 pixel ball across a screen, to sprawling worlds with expansive lore motivating your character’s actions and the game world’s reactions. Whether these games are linear or choice based, shooters or RPGs, most of them have one thing in common: They’re complex, and I can’t help but want for a simpler experience.

Now, this is not to say that complexity is a bad thing, or that I don’t enjoy it. It can be, and is, in most cases, an incredible experience. I’ve found myself lost in the vast universe of Mass Effect, spent hours trying to untangle all the threads and nuances in the stories of Metal Gear Solid. It’s the natural route that art and entertainment takes: growing bigger, bolder and more complicated as technology evolves and consumer’s follow suit.

The straightforward designs of yesteryear created some of the most iconic, well-loved characters and games that are still talked about today. While, yes, there is the element of nostalgia when looking back, there’s also a reason those games sparked that passion in so many of today’s gamers. It was the plain, simple, 2 or 4 button fun. There were no branching dialogue trees, no side quests. Just Mario vs. Bowser or Sonic vs. Eggman. I feel that going back to a simplistic approach, whether based in story or game mechanics, can benefit many of today’s games, and it seems like many developers are feeling the same way.

You can see those inspirations with the recent release of Cuphead, a deceptively simple game that utilizes 6 buttons and a thumbstick. Cuphead is a game in the same vein as retro classics like Contra or MegaMan, with the same difficulty to boot. While the game may feel overwhelming and complicated at times, at it’s core it’s just learning patterns and finding what weapons and abilities work best in what situation. The simplistic style and gameplay allow for a lot of experimentation on the player’s part, and the amount of trial and error required due to the high difficulty only makes your victories that much more satisfying.

Aside from Cuphead, if you take the time to give the Xbox store, PSN, or Steam a browse, you’ll notice a resurgence of 8 or 16-bit style games, point and click adventures, 2D platformers, and any number of games inspired by classic design. With games like Thimbleweed Park, Tower of Guns, and A Hat in Time, the inspiration is clear. While a lot of these games may fly under the radar, they are all incredibly fun experiences that I and many others have enjoyed playing, and I feel it’s because of their simple design inspired by classic games.

However, I don’t think a full 180 is needed in today’s games. While it’s nice to have a game like Tower of Guns channel the high-octane power-up based FPS games of the 90s, I think the best course of action is bringing simplicity to complicated games. Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen is a great example of what I mean. With Dragon’s Dogma, the gameplay is complex. With nine classes, an extensive companion system with learning AI, and multiple monsters with their own individual weaknesses, the learning curve can be a bit steep. The story, however, is very simple, allowing for the player’s to use their imagination and invent their own story — something many of us did when we played the simple games of the past. Moreover, a simple story draws more attention to the gameplay (and vice versa).

Oxenfree is a good example of the opposite, with very simple, choice based gameplay and a story that gets more complex the more you progress. The bare-bones gameplay allows nearly all of your attention to be focused on the intriguing story of Alex and her friends. There are no fights, no platforming sequences, and so on to distract you from considering the weight your choices may carry and how you’re affecting the characters around you.

I feel this “half-and-half” approach is what many gamers such as myself need. That said, I don’t feel the industry as a whole will move towards this, instead moving in favor of increasingly elaborate experiences, especially with the growing popularity of VR. While I’m excited for these complex games, I just can’t help but have an itch that those games cannot scratch.

I hope that with the resurgence of these retro-style games, developers and consumers alike can recapture that lightning in a bottle that got most of us so invested in this industry in the first place. Defining fun is subjective — again, this is not to say that complexity in any medium automatically demerits your product — but sometimes even the most hardcore gamers like a bit of casual fun.

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A 20-year-old gamer and boxer based out of Albuquerque, NM. Also a fan of comic books, pro wrestling, and martial arts. I spend a lot of time hanging around retro game stores, and taking pictures wearing various video game related hats.

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Expertly written. I’ve never thought about how we don’t have a lot of games that are like the ones that hooked us in the first place. You may be on to something here.