Patrick Gann
RPG Buffet: Room Enough For Neo and Retro RPGs
The August 2010 editorial, wherein we take the food metaphor a little too far.
08.31.10 - 7:00 PM

'Go analog baby!'
'You're so postmodern!'
You're diving face forward into a antiquated past! It's disgusting! It's offensive! Don't stick your nose up at me!

- Say Anything, "Admit It!!!"

One of my favorite songs during my college years (2002-2005) was Say Anything's lengthy rant, alternating spoken word, screaming, and singing, against the "hipster" crowd. I thought it was timely, poignant, and downright hilarious.

But then, I saw how this critique played into my own love of all things "retro" later down the line. As more and more readers began to peg me and some of my like-minded friends as "nostalgia whores," I had to stop and think about what all this meant.

I've written on nostalgia, and plenty of related topics (remakes, the "Wii Virtual Console" service, etc) as past editorials. Today I'd like to take a different approach to the whole topic. And it is simply this:

"If it's good, enjoy it."

For those that don't mind me getting biblical, I might rephrase it in terms of the oft-quoted verse from the apostle Paul: "Test everything; hold to what is good." (1 Thes. 5:21)

I think that's what we do at RPGFan. We "test" (review) a boatload of role-playing games for PC, consoles, and handhelds, and tell you what nuggets of goodness we find and what should be, simply put, tossed out the window. Or, at least, shelved for a rainy day.

In today's gaming market, there's been a healthy resurgence of intentionally retro games, especially among RPGs. 3D Dot Game Heroes, Cladun, Etrian Odyssey, The Dark Spire, or even that XBLA indie game Breath of Death VII (shout-out to Robert Boyd!). All of these games are designed with the mighty power of "oldschool" in mind. And let's not forget the Dragon Quest series. Even with its many enhancements over the years, the core gameplay is still as "traditional" (i.e. - retro) as ever.

One thread that holds many of these retro games together is the music. The "chiptunes" scene is growing each year. One need only look to the recent PSN downloadable game based on the comic book (and movie), Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World to see this. People love chiptunes. Using the actual hardware, or emulated forms of the hardware, of NES's, PC Engines, Game Boys, etc, seems to be the cool new thing to do. And let's face it: it sounds totally awesome.

The great thing about the revival of "retro" is that you can do "old" stuff with the newer technology, so you can actually get away with more stuff. In the case of music, think about the Game Boy, which limited you to 3 channels of audio. Now you can have as many as you want. You can layer all the chiptunes together; you can use chiptunes from multiple hardware sources. And, to top it all off, you can use all the modern pre- and post-production effects you'd like to make a new sound using an old tool. It's like a 21st century architect building a structure entirely out of granite or marble, but using the techniques and the machinery of today to do something that people 2000 years ago could never have done.

At the same time, we have games that intentionally move away from the tried and true formulae of the past. Persona 4, Resonance of Fate, Nier, The World Ends With You, and Mass Effect (1 and 2) are all good examples of my favorite gaming genre evolving. They use the best visuals and audio possible for their platforms, and they move the gameplay paradigms forward in ways that could not have been predicted 15 to 20 years ago.

When you look at the shelves of the game store (or, for more of us, the online store's browsing menus), you can feel overwhelmed. It's just like an international buffet line. There are fruits and vegetables, all manner of meats, pastas, soups and salads, breads, desserts, and all of these things prepared in different styles, with different ethnic traditions. In any one trip to this ideal buffet, you're not going to eat everything, even if you took small portions. The danger, and the tragedy, of course, is having access to all this stuff and beginning to settle for the same dish (in my case, macaroni and cheese with green beans) day in and day out for a full decade. What's the point? And why pay the price for the same thing over and over?

Here's what I'm trying to get at. I know I'm obsessed with gaming's origins and the old-timey stuff. I have a soft spot for it. But as new games are being developed, even new games with that retro flair, there are subtle differences. So to you who says "I like the new Western RPGs, but I hate this retro junk." Have you even tried it? Like mama always said, "how do you know you don't like brussel sprouts?" And if you haven't had brussel sprouts in five years, and you've only tried then plain with butter, and your friend serves them to you in an Indian curry, maybe it's worth testing the sprouts out again eh? And maybe it's worth trying Etrian Odyssey even though you hated the Wizardry series.

The inverse is also true. You have told yourself you don't like fancy gourmet foods, but have you tried the new restaurant downtown? And have you tried playing Mass Effect 2? If not, how can you really say it doesn't suit you? Just from the marketing ads and (gasp) RPGFan's reviews? Don't presume to know yourself so well that your preferences will never change. If RPGs are your hobby, I would urge you to intentionally diversify from time to time and see if, hey, maybe you like the food over in that other line, even though you thought it looked or smelled a little strange from a distance.

In the last year I've applied this "buffet" style metaphor to my gaming habits, both inside and outside RPGs, and I've been a much happier gamer for it. I also, for what it's worth, recently developed an affection for okra, a vegetable I was sure I would always hate.