I have been playing retro games for decades at this point and during that time I have met with many who shared this interest. Years of interacting with and observing their tastes, along with self-reflection into why I play these games myself, have led me to conclude that there exist several different kinds of retro gamers who each have their own reasons for revisiting the past. I have identified 4 general archetypes of retro gamers, an analysis of which can grant greater insight into the appeal that old-school games can have for different sorts of people. It can be difficult for many to consider why someone would want to go back to these older titles, and hopefully this article can allow for greater understanding. It should be noted that that these are not mutually exclusive as many gamers can fall into more than one category, nor are they fully exhaustive as there will inevitably exist exceptions that do not fall into any of these categories.
The Nostalgia Gamer
The majority of retro gamers can be classified as nostalgia gamers. This type of player primarily plays games that they have formed strong emotional attachments to as a child or those of a similar style. Playing these games creates a pleasant experience that reminds them of a simpler time in their lives. As such they will tend to stick with the type of game that is similar to what they remember from when they were young and will rarely venture outside of that particular comfort zone. For example, someone who grew up with an NES is unlikely to explore the ZX Spectrum’s library even though they both existed at the same time. Likewise, they are unlikely to seek out games from before their time, ie a nostalgia gamer who grew up with the Gamecube is unlikely to want to play Atari 2600 games.
Gamer Out of Time
For most people, the type of media that is popular in their formative years more or less informs their tastes, which is why older people often struggle to appreciate more modern art. There are exceptions to this general rule wherein a person’s taste does not align with contemporary dispositions. This phenomenon also affects gamers as well and, as a result, it is not uncommon for some to take a liking to an older style of game despite having no prior experience with it. For whatever reason these games simply speak to this particular type of gamer in spite of their age. Often this type of gamer will enjoy a type of game for the very reason that most other people feel that it is outdated. Perhaps the player in question really likes having to draw their own maps or enjoy key card hunts in shooters, or they feel that lack of quality-of-life features helps them immerse themselves into the game. Quite simply put this is a gamer whose taste in games is not aligned with those of most of their generation.
Modern Retro Gamer
This type of retro gamer is someone who, while willing to play retro games, does so with heavily modern sensibilities. In effect, they only want to play older games that conform to modern standards. This type of gamer is often heavily concerned with how well a game has “aged,” they also often will insist on making heavy use of modern quality-of-life changes and will only seek out the most modern version of a particular title. In particular, the modern retro gamer will often feel that a more recent remake or remaster effectively replaces the original title. Players of this sort are often unwilling to adapt to the idiosyncrasies of older titles, typically dismissing them if they are not immediately easy to play with very little to no learning curve. For example, they will often consider a game with tank controls to be completely unplayable. In effect this type of retro gamer approaches playing older games from a somewhat casual standpoint; they want to have fun but do not want to have to put forth much effort to adapt to outdated design.
The final and rarest breed of retro gamer is what I like to call the Historian. This is a player who possesses a keen interest in video game history and wishes to experience the games of the past. The historian is perhaps most willing of any of the types of retro gamer to play poorly aged and antiquated games, even if they are not fun. This is because the historian derives enjoyment not only from playing the game but also from experiencing a piece of history. This is because the historian wishes to experience the evolution of the medium. All art is iterative, with each building off of what came before. By playing older games it is possible to better contextualize what came after, as well as admire how such experiences were created despite often extreme technical limitations. They will often insist on experiencing a game in as historically authentic a manner as possible. Whenever possible, they prefer to play games on original hardware and collect physical media. The historian commonly seeks out strange or obscure games from all eras and corners of the globe. They can be identified in the wild by their proclivity for geeking out about obscure bits of gaming history and bemoaning the current state of games preservation.
There are many reasons why people might choose to play old-school video games. Far too often this hobby is dismissed as nothing more than nostalgia, and while there is nothing wrong with nostalgia, this notion typically leads to the frankly ludicrous assumption that the only way that one can enjoy an older game is if you grew up with it. It is my hope that this article can help people understand why certain retro games might appeal to some and not others.