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Lara Croft in 1997 and 2015
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Retro-gaming boom during lockdown

Image credit: E&T

Long-forgotten games from the past are making a comeback for a generation of millennials under lockdown.

When I was nine, I sneaked out of the house without my parents’ knowledge and bought a game a nine-year-old shouldn’t buy: the infamous first game of the Tomb Raider series, featuring Lara Croft in her opening adventure. I wanted to play it like all the other boys at my school. I carried it home and hid it under my blanket. My mother found it and confronted me. With two fingers she held the game like a dirty washing cloth. The cover of the packaging showed the busty Lara Croft, skilfully handling her smoking Browning Hi-Power handgun. My parents’ verdict: banned from playing until further notice.

But I was stubborn. For weeks I tried to bargain and to perhaps play ‘under supervision’. Eventually they gave in. But then when my dad and I tried to install it on our Windows machine all I got was a nasty error message. Our old computer system set-up didn’t match the minimal gaming graphics requirements. What a disappointing episode that was until a long-​awaited hardware upgrade months later.

This short pre-teen episode changed me in two ways. First, I learnt that bartering with your parents is worth any child’s effort. Second, early games like this led me into programming and a gamified approach to life.

Many retro games come with baggage. A perfect example is the ’90s Tomb Raider with its blatant sexism. I didn’t notice it when I was nine, but I doubt I’ll be letting any kids of mine play it, due to its blatant objectification of women – especially the infamous ‘Nude Raider patch’. Moreover, though, I am fearful that as-yet-unborn teenage kids of mine will laugh at me and ask: “Dad, why is everything so pixellated and blurred?” or “where’s the VR plugin?”.

Lara Croft, 2015 and 1997

Image credit: E&T

Tomb Raider is still around, but Lara has changed. Noah Hughes, studio creative director at Crystal Dynamics, the producer of Tomb Raider games since 2004, says that for the reboot series it was important to establish Lara as a grounded, real, and accessible character and to update her appearance. The latest versions of Lara look more acceptable for today. “We looked to the original game and wanted to focus our depiction on Lara’s true strengths: her intelligence, her resourcefulness, her athleticism, and her unparalleled tenacity. We wanted players of all backgrounds to be able to relate to Lara and to experience her story”.

The first Tomb Raider did introduce some nifty innovations that influenced subsequent generations of 3D games. A new game engine developed from scratch was revolutionary. Its new level geometry grid system meant that the camera stayed behind the player. It allowed forward, backward, and side-​stepping movements in 3D. For nerds like me, this stuff is like a museum visit.

I’m nostalgic for more than Tomb Raider. There were the wild years of unforgettable times playing with siblings and friends behind 1990s Nintendo 64 screens, attending late night LAN parties and so on. But there are also the added problem-solving skills – like those you need when you are caught in a sealed tomb and you are attacked by wolves and tigers (it’s maybe not a typical everyday scenario, but should this ever happen I want you, Mum, to know I am well prepared).

Now, 20 years later, I have given up gaming. Or at least I thought I had until the lockdown came. In a previous piece I moaned about coronavirus destroying my social life. Since I rediscovered those old classic console and computer games online, my social malaise lifted. I am not the only one who’s retro-gaming. Others in my age bracket, 30+ or so older millennials, seem to rediscover it to combat pandemic-related frustrations.

Demand for retro-games has been rising – at least according to the people who make a business out of them. Jason Moore, who runs Retrogames.co.uk, a website that sells and trades them, told me that after an initial dip when the crisis began he saw a record spike in sales, “going up around 30 per cent over the past few weeks,” he says. 

Nintendo Switch with SNES games

Image credit: E&T

Now classic games are being remade. One fan-made remake version of the original 1997 Tomb Raider 2, called ‘Tomb Raider The Dagger Of Xian’, just ups the graphics and style of the original game and it looks stunning. Nintendo published a game called Animal Crossing in 2001. In 2020, it’s now a social simulation video game series played by millions under lockdown. The graphics are a bit sharper but otherwise the interface really only differs from previous versions in the fact that swathes of new players explore it while moaning about Zoom call interruptions from work.

Just before Covid-19 struck, the Nintendo Switch online universe aptly added retro Nintendo games. Last year, the company launched a number of SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) and NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) games accessible for its Nintendo Switch users. Nintendo 64 games are expected to be added later in the year.

Amazon prices for various retro-gaming consoles

Image credit: Keepa.com

For me this all is very exciting. I have fond memories of playing Nintendo games with my brother as we grew up. We played Mario Kart 64, Diddy Kong Racing and other Nintendo 64 multi-player games to the bitter end, which came when my mother pulled the plug from the console or when I lost so badly that I attacked my brother with the controller (he was laughing: I had to do something).

Jason Moore adds that retro-gaming really begins with nostalgia: “Finding the games you enjoyed when you were younger. Then before you know it, you’re collecting games you wanted to have at the time but never got”.

Access to old Nintendo games grew sharply three years ago when the first ‘mini’ retro consoles came out. Nintendo must have got a pretty sweet deal out if it because after the NES Classic Edition the Super NES Classic Edition followed. These can run a number of retro games with a simple plug-and-play device, a mini console. We millennials love plug-and-play. Ever since their release in 2016 and 2017, I have been trying to get my hands on one at a reasonable price, especially for Christmas when I see my brother, but so far in vain as they sell like hot cakes. The latest incarnation of such mini retro consoles is Konami’s TurboGrafx-16 Mini with a cache of new old retro-games. That they keep on launching shows demand remains high.

How much has lockdown really driven up demand for retro-gaming? Prices of famous mini consoles and their games has gone up by as much as half since April, according to Keepa.com, a system that keeps tabs on variable pricing of used and new items on Amazon. Prices for the NES Classic and Super NES Classic Edition spiralled, as did those for original editions of the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation One platforms.

If you have little disposable income and don’t want to squander your savings on retro-gaming platforms there might be a third option. Emulators for old retro-console games are already ubiquitous on the web. Emulators are little programming shells that run these games and operate even on your smartphones, or online in your browser as well as offline. I don’t recommend them as they’re a bit of grey area legally. And they could introduce security gaps, according to Aaron Lint at cyber-security firm Arxan.

Anyway, the real retro-gamer wants the original, physical product, Moore argues. His customers, “the aspiring collectors, the hoarders, they need the authenticity of owning the real thing,” he says. They may well play games through emulation but it’s a separate pastime to their collection.

Moore is not a big fan of emulators as “playing an old game on the wrong hardware just never feels the same”. I have to agree. Something just doesn’t feel right playing any ’90s console game on a trackpad. It’s like driving a Ferrari with a Fiat shift stick.  

Does my rediscovery of games go deeper than nostalgia? We know games can relieve stress during crises. One 19th-century French sociologist believed games help with human bonding. Although bonding with my games characters instead of my wife is probably not what Émile Durkheim had in mind. Furthermore, games are said to distract us and help us ease our thoughts from the troubles we face. That sounds about right. When I am frustrated to the bone for hitting low scores in Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 for the PlayStation One – give me a break, I am out of practice – for a moment I lose all worries about the UK government’s failure to provide sufficient PPE and Covid-19 tests.

Stress relief can also come from extending your physical horizon – useful when your horizon ends at the doormat. Retro-games can provide virtual extended spaces without us having to invest huge amount of money. Barred from travelling, Tomb Raider’s Peruvian jungle level can help to put me at ease with some virtual wanderlust.

There is one serious danger to this retro trend, which Moore warns against: “If you’re not careful, you end up collecting every game for a specific format, and other formats, then you end up shelving your third bedroom and calling it a games room, much to your significant other’s annoyance.” 

The 1990s belonged to 3D console games. New gaming engines provided fully-fledged 3D graphics never seen before and a new generation of consoles helped to attract a new generation of gamers. Our list of some of the most successful 1990s video games includes many that are being rediscovered and widely played once more.

Before you could fight dragons, sail the seven seas, experience war or transport yourself to another world, all from the comfort of your living room, there were amusement arcade games - one of the biggest successes in 1970s and 1980s pop culture. 

E&T revisited this golden age of gaming - from the decades before home entertainment consoles really made it big - in our top 10 of the best retro-vintage arcade classics.

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