How Do We Define “Retro?”

The word “retro” is defined by the dictionary as “imitative of style or fashion of the recent past.”

Problem solved!

Well, not so much. When you look at retro-related Steam tags (as a random sample), you don’t see games imitative of style or fashion of the recent past. Few people consider Resident Evil 4, Kingdom Hearts, or Final Fantasy X retro games, even though they were all released more than a decade ago. Instead, the “Retro” tag gets placed on games with 8-bit style graphics, platformers, and games that play like graphical flash cards.

Final Fantasy X

It becomes apparent — at least to me — that “Retro” means “games that remind me of my childhood,” where “me” is “gamers in their late-20s to mid-30s who grew up playing the Atari and the original Nintendo Entertainment System.”

I don’t actually have a problem with this. Cultures often create their own terminology, and gaming culture is no different. It helps that it stays steady, so that when I see “retro-style,” I know that the game is probably going to be filled with pixels and/or punishing difficulty levels.

The problem is that words mean things to other cultures, and when only a specific kind of game gets labeled as “retro,” it makes it more difficult to communicate.

Am I arguing for a different word to describe what we currently call “retro”? Not as such. I have, however, had people argue with me that games like Kingdom Hearts don’t count as retro, and I have to disagree. For my son, who’s currently 17, Kingdom Hearts is more reminiscent of his childhood than Mega Man is.

Mega Man 2

We — those of us pushing into our middle ages — don’t own gaming, is what I’m getting at. It’s good to keep this in mind so that gaming can grow and evolve without making us cranky about it.

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