Since withdrawing from full-time games journalism in 2014, I've had a lot of time to revisit retro and modern classics rather than feeling the demand to hammer through new releases for review. As someone with a huge fondness of old-school gaming, this has been insanely refreshing and, in some ways, really addictive.
I've still got my childhood Mega Drive console, which sits proudly next to other timeless machines like a NES, SNES, Dreamcast, PlayStation 2 and others in our spare room. There's noting quite like coming home on a Friday night after a long week at work, blowing the dust out of my Streets of Rage 2 cartridge and locking myself away for a few hours of goon-smacking, neon-dripped '90s nostalgia. It's pure bliss.
In all honesty, retro fans haven't had it this good in years. Nintendo's Virtual Console, PSN, Xbox Live and Steam all boast decent collections of older titles at reasonable prices, while the emulation scene helps enthusiasts play the rarest games of all time without dropping a dime. If you want to play it, the internet can help you find and emulate it for free. That's a brilliant thing, indeed.
I'm not against emulation – I do it often, in fact – but nothing compares to having the actual game cartridge or disc in its original form, putting it into the classic machine, then taking those sturdy, simple controllers in hand to relive fond memories in their purest form. Without any obligation to devote my time to new games, I've been beefing up my retro collection over the past year, seeking out those missing games from my childhood so I could catch up on everything I had missed.
One game I never owned as a kid was the original Castlevania on NES, which is criminal seeing as its 16bit remake Super Castlevania IV, the DS masterpiece Dawn of Sorrow and PSone smash Symphony of the Night are treasured favourites of mine. Konami's 1986 original had always eluded me in cartridge form, so I went onto eBay with the hope of picking a copy up cheap, only to find the PAL cart has become quite rare and expensive.
You'd have to be very lucky to find someone selling Castlevania for less than £35, while sealed, pristine copies go for over £40. I wasn't prepared to pay the same as a new PS4 or Xbox One game for something released almost 30 years ago, but was sure if I simply stayed patient, someone who didn't really know what they were doing was bound to post a copy for a tenner or thereabouts. It's been a about a year and I still don't haven't found a copy available for anywhere close to that slight amount.
When I first started my quest to find a cheap copy of Castlevania, I set up countless eBay alerts and routinely searched through all the NES games on offer in the hope of finding other bargains. Whenever I'd come across games like the exemplary Gremlins 2, Chip 'n' Dale: Rescue Rangers or Star Wars for dirt cheap, I'd snap them up in an instant. Before long, I realised I had the makings of a decent collection brewing.
The same went for other formats as well. I've bought mint-condition Dreamcast discs without boxes for an absolute pittance – a double pack of Virtua Tennis and Ecco: The Tides of Time cost me just £7 on eBay – while classic Sega carts like Ristar, Decap Attack and Kid Chameleon came along as steals. Although it only feels like I've been spending a few quid here and there, I've now dropped well over the cost of a single Castlevania cart on the lot, but the nostalgia trip has been priceless.
I also get a bit excited when I come home from work to find a new parcel lying in my hall, housing another new-to-me cartridge to place proudly on my shelves (and into the console in question, of course). You simply don't get that same feeling when downloading a game digitally, but perhaps that's something lost on younger gamers these days. That's not a dig at all – it's just a different time nowadays, with gamers having a different view on content delivery. Some call it progress; I call it losing a part of gaming heritage. Sunrise, sunset.
Nowadays, I'd liken the experience of trawling through eBay search results and custom alerts, scrutinising prices and bidding carefully to browsing through stalls at a record fair for a rare find, or looking over shelves in one of the UK's near-extinct retro gaming shops. There's still an incredible rush to be had when you stumble across a key game missing from your collection at a bargain price, which is how I felt as a kid in the early '90s when rummaging through boxes of old carts in our local indie store.
It's 2015 now, and there's only one shop like this left in Edinburgh. It's called Game Masters, and it's round the corner from our flat. The store has been there for literally as long as I can remember, and while it's nice to see it surviving after all this time, I feel sadder every time I pop in to see what new retro arrivals the chap has, only to learn he's had nothing traded in for weeks. As much as I hate to admit it, I feel like the store's on life support now. It feels like the eleventh hour for shops like his.
I get why we've gotten to this point though, and appreciate that many gamers today likely have zero affinity towards playing retro games at all – or if they do, they'll likely try them in digital form instead. While I'd much rather pick up my classic NES controller and listen to the clacking of quaint buttons as I fire through another session of Ninja Gaiden or Punch-Out!!, even I can't deny there are some companies paying a great deal of respect to gaming's heritage.
Take Japanese firm M2 for example – the team behind 3DS re-releases of 3D After Burner II, 3D Fantasy Zone and its recently released sequel, 3D Out Run (read VICE's feature on that classic, here), and others. These are some of the finest treatments of classic gaming I've ever had the pleasure of playing, and not only are they arcade- or console-perfect ports, they also come with new modes, variable tweaks and features that don't impede on the bare-bones experience.
M2's sheer respect for the source material is admirable, and the same can be said for the Strider reboot from Double Helix, as well as Obsidian's crowdfunded title Pillars of Eternity (read VICE's review feature, here) for the way it immaculately encapsulates all that was right about mid-'90s RPG gaming. You also have new games that tap into the retro mindset, such as Team Meat's Zelda-like The Binding of Isaac, Roll7's 2D take on Tony Hawk's in OlliOlli, and the Metroidvania brilliance of Rogue Legacy.
The same can't be said for many modern reboots out there, however. While some really enjoyed the Starbreeze interpretation of Bullfrog's strategy title Syndicate, others found the first-person shooter presentation and accompanying Skrillex soundtrack harder to stomach than some next-morning leftover kebab.
Then there's EA's piss-poor Dungeon Keeper reboot on mobile, which embodied everything that's wrong with so called free-to-play gaming, alongside howlers like Sega's PS2-era Altered Beast and Shinobi reboots, followed by their Golden Axe retread that made critics sick up in their mouths. It's a shame that the good name of pure classics can be so brutally kerb-stomped by half-assed treatments like these, but some publishers will do anything to make a quick buck, right?
So there are great examples of retro experiences done justice in the modern age, and others that ride the coattails of a cherished IP only to miss the mark completely. Nostalgia sells and game publishers know the mere mention of a classic game or series will have many of us throwing money at our screens. There's no right or wrong way to enjoy the classics as it's purely subjective, but for this fan of pixels and Mode 7 there's only one way to fly, and that's playing on the original formats.
One day I probably should just bite the bullet and drop 40 sheets on Castlevania for NES but, truth be told, I'm having so much fun bidding for cheaper finds and searching eBay's treasure chest of retro gems that I can stand to wait a little longer in case someone posts a cheaper version. I also need a copy of the original Contra and its sequel, but don't even get me started on how much they're going for these days, seriously.
How do you prefer to enjoy the classics – carts, discs or digital?
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