Back in 1995 and the Changing Face of "Retro"

Back in 1995 and the Changing Face of "Retro"

As early 3D games enter the world of retro, we have to ask ourselves: Is every era worth celebrating?

It's been long overdue, but today's Steam release of Back in 1995 has finally ushered clumsy 3D graphics into the realm of things we're supposed to be nostalgic for.

And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. Poring over the list of PlayStation classics on SEN for a comprehensive overview gave me a powerful ache for a generation best described as the medium's awkward adolescence. And Back in 1995 captures the spirit of early PlayStation games perfectly: Textures warp, polygons clip and tear, and every animation looks like it's taking place at the bottom of a swimming pool.

It's not just a cynical cash-in on nostalgia, though: Back in 1995 sets out to evoke the feeling early horror games that took advantage of the PlayStation's weaknesses by clouding everything in an eerie layer of abstraction--entirely out of necessity, mind you. Based on what I've played so far, Back in 1995 accomplishes its goals, and provides plenty of concessions for those of us spoiled by the kindness of modern games.

I do wonder, though, how much appeal experiments like Back in 1995 have compared to games attempting to capture the spirit of different eras. A kid born just ten years ago could pick up Shovel Knight and appreciate the graphics, music, and overall feel of the game--even if you haven't played what it's referencing, "8-bit" has become a style divorced from the machines that birthed it. And, given the timelessness of the form, it's easy to find games made upwards of twenty years ago with more work and artistry put into their 2D assets than a modern take on the style: We may have gorgeous games like Ori and the Blind Forest and Vanillaware's releases, but it's still difficult to find contemporary spritework on the level of something like Super Punch-Out!!, or basically all of Konami's efforts throughout the 16 and 32-bit eras. But the charms of PlayStation graphics are limited to the time they still managed to impress--after that, they were doomed to forever look old.

Most of my love for early 3D graphics definitely comes from a place of nostalgia. Even though I'm willing to admit most of the games I love in the 32-bit era are objectively pug-fugly, being alive during the slow transition from 2D to 3D games gives me a much better appreciation for what they were trying to do. As the '90s rolled on, developers slowly came to terms with the demands of polygonal graphics, and every release brought the chance to showcase some new technical trick scraping against the limits of the console's horsepower. These days, the advent of middleware has made this a non-issue, and even formerly reluctant Japanese devs now have no qualms about using something like Unreal Engine.

But development in an era without this solution meant that one game could look like nothing you've ever seen before--for better and for worse. Compare something like 1995's Jumping Flash! To 2000's Vagrant story, and you have two games on the same platform operating on completely different technical levels only five years apart in time. A 2011 PlayStation 3 game might look noticeably better than one published in 2006, but still, the difference isn't that drastic.

And I have noticed a bit of reluctance about accepting the PlayStation (and beyond) into the category of "retro," because what would a hobby be without gatekeepers? As one of the guys who helps put together USgamer's classic gaming podcast, I can't help but notice more than a little resistance whenever I choose a subject that might not seem old immediately. In many cases, it's understandable complaints from people who weren't necessarily young when the games in question released, but I've noticed many people adopt the philosophy that 3D games can't possibly be retro.

On a sociological level though, creations like Back in 1995 are simply following the nostalgia cycle: Just as Atari merchandise, compilations, and remakes surfaced towards the end of the 20th century, Back in 1995 looks back 20 years from our current point in time. And for the modern young person, it might be looking back a bit too far: The adults entering college this fall were likely potty training when Sony retired the PlayStation for the PlayStation 2.

2000's Vagrant Story. (Image courtesy of Hardcore Gaming 101.)

Ultimately, it's hard to say whether or not the wave of 32-bit nostalgia kicked off by Back in 1995 will persist. I love jumping back into old PlayStation games, if only to see how developers used technical tricks and clever abstraction to make the most out of their limited technology--like the smudgy-yet-evocative faces of Metal Gear Solid's characters. The appeal isn't quite the same with Back in 1995; seeing as I know its limitations are entirely self-imposed, it can't possibly carry the same charm as the product of developers overcoming the obstacles of a new medium to make something presentable.

Time will tell whether or not Back in 1995 inspires a new brand of retro throwbacks, but PlayStation throwbacks might be limited to those of us who knew 3D games back when they were squeaky-voiced, pockmarked, and intensely awkward. Until then, think of Back in 1995 as thumbing through polygonal graphics' embarrassing yearbook.

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