Monday Tip-Off: Defining “Retro” in Retro Gaming

Monday Tip-Off: Defining Retro in Retro Gaming

We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Join me as I begin the week here at the NLSC with my opinions and commentary on basketball gaming topics, as well as tales of the fun I’ve been having on the virtual hardwood. This week, I’m tipping things off with some thoughts on the accuracy of the word “retro” when it comes to retro gaming, basketball or otherwise.

For a few years now, I’ve preferred playing old favourites and discovering new retro kicks to spending time with the latest NBA 2K. I do always want to give the newest release a chance, but beginning with NBA 2K21 – both versions, in fact – I’ve found more joy in revisiting older titles. It’s something that Dee enjoys as well, and we’ve often advocated for retro gaming on the NLSC Podcast, as well as through our other content. “Retro gaming” is the term that we often use, but considering the recency of some of the titles, it leads one to wonder: is “retro” really the right word?

Indeed, this is a question that goes beyond basketball gaming: how old does a game need to be to truly qualify as “retro”? Is there a generational cut-off? Is there a term that’s more appropriate, or less misleading? After all, “retro” means different things to different people. Depending on how old you are and when you started gaming, the primitive titles of your youth will seem like truly ancient history to some, while others remember them as landmark jumps and technological feats. While I’m generally fine with using “retro gaming” as a blanket term for the hobby and practice of playing older video games, there’s ambiguity to the term that invites a thoughtful discussion.

Perhaps we should begin by looking at the definition of the word “retro”. Merriam-Webster defines it as follows: “relating to, reviving, or being the styles and especially the fashions of the past; fashionably nostalgic or old-fashioned”. As an adjective, “retro” is widely used as both a description for something from a bygone, nostalgic time, as well as something new that mimics the style of such an era. To illustrate this using examples from basketball gaming, Double Dribble – released in the 80s – is absolutely a retro game as per that definition. However, Namo Gamo’s Basketball Classics – a 2019 release that is a throwback to Double Dribble in style – is also retro.

Double Dribble Reverse Dunk

To that end, playing Double Dribble and Basketball Classics could both feasibly be considered “retro gaming”. Of course, by the more common usage of the term among gamers, dusting off Double Dribble is a far more suitable example, whereas playing Basketball Classics would be more along the lines of “enjoying a game with a retro style”. The latter description isn’t as concise or catchy, but it demonstrates how we’ve moved beyond the more literal or dictionary definition of retro. Mind you, now that it’s going on five years since Basketball Classics’ V1.0 launch, one might consider it to be retro in both style and age. It’s an older release mimicking an even older title!

That brings us to the question of how old something must be to reasonably qualify as retro. Given the usual cycles of nostalgia, some might say that 15-20 years is a good rule of thumb. When it comes to games though, the word “retro” often conjures up images of the early, trailblazing days of gaming: Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Tetris, and so on. You might also picture 8-bit classics from the mid to late 80s, or perhaps the 16-bit consoles at the latest. The problem is that twenty years ago today, we had the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube. Shorten the window to 15 years, and we have the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and the Wii; consoles that feel too new to be “retro”.

There are two schools of thought here. The first is that any cut-off to be retro will constantly move forward as time progresses, meaning that everything becomes retro at some point. The second is that retro refers to a specific era in video games; that while newer games can absolutely become classics, they aren’t retro, and thus playing them technically isn’t retro gaming. I personally lean towards the first definition. It’s the approach that I take with my Wayback Wednesday features. I prefer not to get too recent with them, but to me a title is fair game once it’s a few years old. I do see the logic in the other view though, and there’s merit in keeping the cut-off further back.

Can NBA 2K14 PS4 Count As Retro Gaming?

So, let’s talk about where to set the cut-off. I’ve been referring to my NBA 2K14 MyCAREER as a retro kick, and have been doing so since before it turned ten years old. Considering the game was eight years old when I started that kick and a whole new generation of consoles had launched, it’s hardly inappropriate. At the same time, it may sound strange to refer to the eighth generation – PlayStation 4 and Xbox One – as “retro”. Again, with video games, the word “retro” conjures up images of primitive graphics, bleeps and bloops for audio, and far less sophistication overall. If it feels weird to call the PS3, 360, and Wii “retro”, then the PS4 and X1 are definitely out!

With that in mind, it’s worth considering how other communities define the term. The Retro Gaming subreddit‘s rules – which also use the term “vintage gaming” – sets the cut-off at the fifth generation, plus the Dreamcast given its late 90s release and early sunset compared to the rest of the sixth generation consoles. Newer platforms are welcome to be mentioned in the course of discussion, but top level posts can only be about the fifth generation or earlier, establishing a definition of retro. The rules also state that modern games with a throwback style don’t count as retro gaming, and I’d agree with that. Labels such as retro-style or retro-inspired are far more fitting here.

While I do use the term “retro gaming” more loosely, fifth gen or earlier is a fair line, and a logical definition. Support ended for those platforms in the late 90s/early 2000s, and they haven’t seen a new release from a Triple-A developer in over twenty years. Conversely, the PlayStation 2’s last release came in 2013, with repair services ceasing in 2018. As much as I’m inclined to refer to Dee and me playing the PS2 version of NBA Live 2004 as retro gaming, it’s fair to say that the PS2 isn’t as retro as it might initially seem. It’s also worth noting that r/retrogaming classifies the sixth generation and subs dedicated to it as “Not Quite Retro”, so in a sense, retro adjacent at least.

Scottie Pippen Celebrates in NBA Live 18 Ultimate Team

Alright, so although I believe we can use the term “retro gaming” more liberally – and I’m apt to keep doing so – I see the logic in r/retrogaming’s rules. To that point though, if we were to abide by that definition, then what would be a suitable term for going back and playing games – basketball or otherwise – from the sixth generation onwards, and does that have a cut-off? I’d suggest that “vintage gaming” is already out, since it’s basically synonymous with the stricter definition of retro gaming. A term such as “classic gaming” runs into the same problem, which is why I tend to just refer to my habits as retro gaming, even for an eighth generation release like NBA 2K14 on PS4.

If I had to devise an alternative label for the practice though, I’d suggest “nostalgic gaming”. Granted, the word “nostalgic” is often associated with “old” and “outdated” – and arguably thus a synonym for “retro” at the end of the day – but I believe there’s greater flexibility there. It isn’t necessarily tied to a specific era, and perhaps most importantly, welcomes individual preferences and sentimentality. It’s not about a broad definition based on console generations or a set year, but rather your own fondness for an older release, or older games in general. It’s about going back to or sticking with an old favourite, or seeking out brand new favourites from yesteryear.

Now, even if we were to redefine the broad definition of retro gaming as nostalgic gaming, there would need to be a cut-off. I mean, it would be silly to suggest that anyone who has stuck with NBA 2K23 instead of moving on to NBA 2K24 is retro or nostalgic gaming! Active online support could reasonably disqualify a game from such a classification, but then again, NBA 2K22’s servers were only shut down last year, while NBA Live 18’s online modes are still accessible. Thus, I’d suggest it’d have to be a combination of factors: discontinued online support, possibly no longer in digital stores, from the prior gen or earlier, and preferably at least five years old.

Allen Iverson on All-Time Georgetown in NBA 2K17

In my opinion, that should account for pretty much any game that we can feasibly describe as retro or nostalgic; especially in series that have traditionally had annual releases. If NBA 2K17 and NBA Live 18 are too recent to be retro, they’re certainly old enough to be nostalgic at this point. Playing them in lieu of NBA 2K24 is doing something out of the norm, or at least, not what publishers are hoping. It’s helpful to have a term for doing that, and if retro gaming doesn’t quite fit, then nostalgic gaming surely does. “Throwback gaming” is another alternative, and one that’s quite fitting for sports titles, lining up with both the concept of, and common slang for, retro uniforms.

Whatever the label, it’s vital that we continue to normalise retro gaming. There’s less stigma to it than there once was, but it still draws sneering questions about how we can possibly enjoy something so old, as well as accusations of nostalgic bias when we dare to criticise a new release. With all due respect, when an old game holds up, and the latest release is less fun on the sticks and riddled with microtransactions, opting for the latter just because it’s new is a far more baffling choice! I’d rather be seen as out of touch for liking what I like, rather than try to deceive myself into enjoying something just to be trendy. In time, most people do come around to that mindset.

As for the terminology, it’ll no doubt remain an interesting and sometimes contentious issue in gaming discourse. There’s merit in a definitive cut-off point that won’t change over time because it refers to a specific era, but I personally favour the more fluid, colloquial usage of retro gaming to describe the act of, and preference for, playing games that aren’t recent releases. There are obviously some interchangeable terms here – retro, vintage, classic, nostalgic, throwback, etc. – and perhaps in time, they’ll each come to refer to different eras and preferences. Until then, you can always just say that you like sticking with, or going back to, old favourites. I know I certainly do!

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