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The Retro Video Games System Reminds Us Why It’s Acceptable For Gaming To Evolve
Here’s an interesting one. Mike Kennedy, publisher of Retro Magazine, has a new pet project: the Retro Video Games System (Retro VGS), a new console that hearkens back to the early days of cartridges by…well, supporting cartridges instead of discs or digital downloads. It’s bizarre, sure, but it’s not stopping Kennedy from attempting to fund it through Kickstarter this summer.
The big question is whether the console will succeed at all, but I’d like to pose a more abstract question: is it even a good idea? Sure, those of us who are old enough to remember the days of jamming clunky plastic into bigger, clunkier plastic think back on those days with a nostalgic sigh—but as has been proven time and again, just because something gives us the warm fuzzies inside doesn’t mean it was actually good.
Let’s take a second to look at the practicality of reintroducing cartridge-based consoles to the market. It’s been thirteen years since we last saw a console game released on cartridge, and a lot has changed since then. Developers have adapted quickly to the world of downloadable content and downloadable updates/patches. (Some have even criticized developers for growing too reliant on these.) Even the retro games the Retro VGS will be designed to support sometimes need downloadable updates to fix glitches here and there. Cartridges make this impossible and will force developers to ensure their games are perfected out of the gate or else the consumers will have to live with bugs. Sure, developers need more discipline in this regard anyway, but without cartridges being the status quo, good luck finding developers who are willing to make those adjustments for one console.
Another factor (perhaps the biggest, in fact) to consider is the cost of mass producing cartridges. Ever notice how many indie developers—who are largely responsible for the resurgence of retro games in the industry—only release their titles as digital downloads? A big reason is the production cost for physical releases. It’s the same principle as self-published authors opting for eBook-exclusive releases. Like indie developers, they don’t have the funding to mass produce physical copies of their product. Manufacturing a system specifically catered to developers who can’t afford to develop for your console is not a sensible business decision, and if nothing else, this could be the factor that crushes the Retro VGS quickly.
Practicality notwithstanding, who aside from people suffering severe bouts of nostalgia is going to opt for a console where probably 99% of the games developed for it are available on other consoles for less? And assume a developer does release a game with a crippling bug as previously discussed. Those who play the game on PlayStation 4 or Xbox One can wait until the developer releases a patch to fix the bug, but those poor Retro VGS gamers are stuck with a broken product. Sure, the idea is kind of neat and appeals to our inner desires to return to our simpler childhood days, but in practice it falls apart quickly, and the concept is so niche it may not even make it through Kickstarter funding.
Really, though, the Retro VGS could serve as a case study for a much larger issue: the perennial debate of whether we should leave our roots in the dust or return to them. Whether it’s Final Fantasy returning to the Active Time Battle system or developers opting for pixel art instead of photorealistic graphics, there’s always going to be an outcry for the old-school. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either, until it begins impeding on necessary and natural progression.
Technology is advancing. Everything is going digital. To fight it at this point is silly, especially since we’re almost a full decade into taking advantage of its benefits. Yes, there are benefits, as much as people love to complain about the pitfalls. While I have a soft spot for modern 2D platformers and would desperately love to experience a new Final Fantasy game in the vein of its early incarnations (that’s not a crappy mobile cash-grab, mind you), cartridges are a thing of the past, and for good reason. They are limited in data, have no update capabilities, and, let’s face it, they take up a lot precious shelf space.
This is not meant to crap on Kennedy’s idea. On the contrary, the idea of a modern console that doesn’t require 90 minutes of updates every time you turn it on or buy a new game is incredibly appealing. The fact remains that this is a niche idea relying on antiquated technology and, like the Ouya before it, will likely be catered to a far-too-specific audience to ever gain noticeable traction.
In the end, it all comes down to the evolution of gaming and technology beyond what non-upgradable consoles and cartridges can offer, and it’s time we stop treating that as a bad thing.