Retro gaming is a slippery term. For some, it means Pong and the glory days of Atari. To others, it's the first Super Mario Bros. and the triumph of the NES. Even the original PlayStation and the Nintendo 64 are old enough to be considered 'classics' in the eyes of many of today's gamers.
In practical terms, retro is basically shorthand for the culture of your childhood and anything that came before it. To that end, the games industry is still a few years away from classifying the Xbox and PS2 as retro systems—and yet, there's already a dedicated community that considers the 15-year-old generation one of the best in gaming's history, refusing to unplug their aging consoles even as Sony and Microsoft abandoned them to focus on newer, shinier systems.
They are XLink Kai.
Born during the earliest days of online console gaming, back when most people were still beeping and booping to the tune of 56K modems, XLink was originally a small hack created by TheDaddy and TeXLink, two programmers who wanted to play Xbox games against each other without jumping through the hoops of Xbox Live.
They accomplished that and much more, garnering plenty of interest from other members of the Xbox modding scene fed up with the limitations of Microsoft's official service. Spurred on by this popularity, TheDaddy and TeXLink fleshed out XLink's rudimentary systems into an entire network solution they dubbed XLink Kai. Kai supported not just Xbox, but GameCube, PS2, and eventually Xbox 360 and PS3 as well, serving as a free, private gaming network still in active use today.
While some platforms are less active than others, the original Xbox community maintains a strong presence, with game nights every Saturday and dedicated Discord channels for organizing pick-up-and-play sessions.
In this age of 4K graphics and massively-single-player virtual galaxies, you might be wondering what appeal there could be in playing fuzzy, standard-definition games that often lack even basic leaderboard functions. What is it about playing the original Halo against fellow Kai players that makes it preferable to the Anniversary Edition on Xbox 360 or Xbox One? What advantages does the muddy-looking Timesplitters 2 have over something like Titanfall 2?
Who better to answer these questions than the Kai community itself?
"I found out about [Kai], like a lot of people, from a comment on a YouTube video," says John, also known as Demon27248. "I downloaded the program mainly because I wanted to play Rainbow Six 3 online again after the Xbox Live shutdown and it sort of grew from there."
For the next 2 years, Kai became John's go-to destination for multiplayer gaming. Despite an active subscription to Xbox Live on Xbox 360, the time he spent on Kai felt far richer and more fulfilling. In 2014, he let his subscription lapse, and has since split his online gaming between Kai and PC. His reasoning for this is fairly simple.
"Due to the much lower player count, everyone knows each other," he explains. "You just start Kai up and you instantly see everyone who is playing on it, and can chat with them, meet in an arena, and get a game or two going. Xbox Live doesn't provide the same experience."
Kai's close-knit community is a big part of its appeal. Despite being significantly smaller nowadays than its peak of 13,000 concurrent players back in 2008, there's always somebody online, and John never feels reluctant about jumping into a match with a stranger. Unlike on PC, where he tends to stick to games and genres he's familiar with, on Kai he's more willing to branch out into games he wouldn't normally be interested in because he knows his fellow XLinkers will make the experience fun, no matter what.
"Games that I don't love—or even like to be honest—I would be willing to play with others, just because they're playing them."
SgtLegend is equally appreciative of the camaraderie within the Kai community. He stumbled upon Kai back in 2005 and it immediately cemented itself as a part of his life. For the next five years, he would come home from school, do a little homework, then jump on Kai and play with strangers-turned-friends from all over the world. His dedication to the community saw him rise from player to moderator, then to technical support, and eventually to take over the role of hosting and maintaining the XLink community on his private server. He's now part of the team responsible for keeping Kai up and running at all times.
Over his years with Kai, SgtLegend has helped the community retain its intimacy even as its numbers grew. Nowhere else could he imagine pouring 10,000 hours into Halo 2 with his fellow XLinkers, making friends who taught him how to mod the game and create custom campaigns that kept Halo feeling fresh for nearly a decade.
"XLink Kai is sort of like a social network for gaming," as he puts it. "It doesn't matter if you know someone for a day, a month or a year, we come back because the vibes are great, the banter is friendly, and I've personally met a lot of people who I've stayed in touch with for almost 10 years now."
For as compelling as Kai's community is, the games themselves are a strong selling point, too. The Xbox/PS2 era produced a lot of middle-tier experimental titles—the so-called AA games that we so rarely see these days.
Games like Katamari Damacy, Ghost Recon, and Phantom Dust targeted audiences most modern publishers would consider far too small to be viable, but back then, lower development costs meant companies could afford to take greater risks. And while the smaller, independent games of the modern era fill some of the gap left by the absence of the AA tier, the likes of Star Wars: Republic Commando and Full Spectrum Warrior just don't exist in the same numbers they used to. For gamers tired of the rote left-trigger, right-trigger FPS and the checklist open-world games, going back to the Xbox/PS2 era can be a much-needed breath of fresh air.
"Honestly, I have a better time playing [Kai] games than I do with newer games online or couch multiplayer," says NoSideZero, another Kai regular. "I'm a big fan of shooters, and I played a good amount on both 7/8th gen, and their library of shooters seems pretty over-saturated with shooters that are very similar with how they function. On the other hand, I found shooters on 6th gen [the Xbox generation] to be more colorful and varied."
NoSideZero emphasises another aspect of the Xbox/PS2 generation that many gamers will undoubtedly empathise with: the simplicity.
"With the press of a button, I can get to the main menu in under a minute," he says. He recalls one of the most irritating gaming experiences he's ever had, attempting to play MLB 14: The Show on his cousin's PS4. After putting the disc in, he had to wait nearly an hour for it to install before he could even pick up his digital bat.
Downloading large patches has proved similarly infuriating, especially on low-speed internet. Sometimes it's quicker for NoSideZero to get a friend to download the patch, put it on a USB drive, and install it manually instead. When all you want to do is blow off some steam, the immediacy of games of the Xbox/PS2 generation makes Kai a welcome alternative.
This growing nostalgia for the Xbox/PS2 era hasn't gone unnoticed by the folks at Microsoft and Sony. Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, has made it clear that he'd like to investigate bringing original Xbox games to the Xbox One, but for the time being, that's still a pipe dream. Sony, on the other hand, has re-released quite a number of PS2 games for PS4, with the catch being that you're paying $15 - $20 to buy them again, even if you still have the original disc.
This alone makes them a hard sell for anyone with access to a PS2 or Xbox, since you can often snap up used games for a couple of dollars a pop from your local game store. You're likely to have a much greater range to choose from, too, though you may have to sift through a stack of dusty cases of Hot Wheels: Stunt Track Challenge and BMX XXX to get to the good stuff. Still, if you're trying to save money, it's by far the better option.
More importantly, though, Sony's re-released PS2 games have no online functionality, so even if you are happy dropping $15 on Twisted Metal: Black, you'll have to invite some mates over if you want to get your competitive car combat on.
While it's technically possible Sony could resurrect the PS2 network infrastructure or even rebuild multiplayer functionality on a game-by-game basis, it's highly unlikely given the amount of work that would involve. With no official means of playing Xbox and PS2 games online, then, it's no surprise that Kai has attracted such a dedicated community of nostalgia-driven players.
Nostalgia, though, is just the gateway drug. In XLinker John's experience, while halcyon memories are the reason many gamers come to XLink Kai, they're not the reason they stay.
"I think for many, nostalgia would be the main reason they would get Kai in the first place," he says, "but I don't really see any active players actively playing due to that reason. A lot of people I have met on Kai hop in and leave after a few days or 2 weeks at most, after getting their nostalgia fix. The ones that stay play for the games, and the community."
Kai might be first and foremost about its players, but it provides a vital service to the industry at large, too. Game preservation has only gotten trickier with the rise of online multiplayer. Just last year, Sony shut down its Dynamic Network Authentication System for PS2, making it impossible to play PS2 games online through official channels. Xbox Live didn't even last that long, with Microsoft discontinuing original Xbox support back in 2010.
Without official servers, not only are gamers denied the chance to relive their glory days playing SOCOM or Star Wars: Battlefront, the industry is deprived of an important part of its history. The early days of online multiplayer were formative for the networks we have today, and being able to go back and study those origins is vital to remember just how far video games have come. Since Sony and Microsoft aren't keeping these networks alive, groups like XLink Kai have stepped up to take the reins, preserving the history so critical to gaming's role as a legitimate art form.
NoSideZero offers a prime example of how Kai has granted him perspective on a whole era of games he would have otherwise missed.
"I grew up with the 6th generation of consoles, but I had no internet," he explains. "Now that I do, I get to have the experience I've never had. I'm planning on re-buying games from my childhood that I lost and buying new games to see how they're like on Xlink."
The games played on XLink Kai might not look as sharp or run as smoothly as the best of the current generation, but that doesn't make them any less valuable. As CrunchBite, one of Kai's administrators, puts it: "Graphics [aren't] everything! Fun games + good community >>> graphics any day."