Having owned a Nintendo Game Boy for around a year now, my favourite game has been one I bought a few months ago. “Alleyway,” a clone of the arcade game “Breakout,” was part of the console’s launch line-up in 1989, and was designed by the console’s creator, Gunpei Yakoi. Having since played “Super Breakout” for the Game Boy Advance, I can appreciate the variations made on the original game, rearranging the blocks, adding bonus levels, and increasing the angles at which you can hit the ball.
When I have mentioned this to someone, either in passing at work or elsewhere, the terms “retro” or “old school” will be included amongst the reminiscing about when they owned a Game Boy, or from when they were a child. Having never been interested at the time, nothing about my playing “Alleyway” now has any level of nostalgia or irony to it. For my small collection of game cartridges, including “Tetris,” “Space Invaders” and “Game & Watch Gallery” – my small collection favours straightforward games that take little time – I am playing them in the best possible manner, on the proper hardware, with the proper controls. I am merely being sensible, as far as I know.
Can something be considered “retro” if I am still using it now? The word “retro,” describing something imitative of the recent past, led me to think it was related to going backwards, as in the word “retrograde,” instead of simply looking back, as in “retrospective” – in fact, I was right the first time, if you count things that imitate obsolete objects, like Nintendo’s NES Classic Mini. For something to be “retro,” it should appear to have been replaced, or overcome, by new ways of working, or thinking, but it is not affected by the longing for something lost that characterises nostalgia, because there has to be some level of irony for returning back to the object. No exaggeration of the obsolete object’s importance should have to be made, but there must some knowing reason for bringing it up.
If I was deliberately using a Game Boy to make some statement about how much better playing one is over using your phone, the Game Boy would be rendered as retro. I guess it could still be a retro item by my having chosen it over all the options available to me, having never owned a game console before, but having made my choice, I didn’t think anything more of it – I just put my money down.
The same reasoning appears to be behind the Evercade, a new portable games console launching in May 2020. It is similar in form to the Game Boy Advance, and uses cartridges that hold multiple games, but they add more modern innovations like an LED screen, and HDMI connection to your TV. However, they know their target audience: the cartridges will feature collections of games from Atari, Namco and Interplay, and their promotional Twitter handle is @evercaderetro, but it is hard to be cynical with another way to play “old school” arcade games.