When is a Game Considered Retro?

What defines a “retro” video game? This question has been debated as game hardware has progressed over decades. While no consensus exists, some general guidelines help identify which games fall under the retro umbrella based on age and technology. Let’s explore the various perspectives on classifying retro games.


On the surface, “retro” implies old – but how old? Some proposed definitions:

  • Anything pre-2000s or before 128-bit generation consoles.
  • Games played on CRT televisions and arcade cabinets.
  • 8-bit and 16-bit era games (NES, Super NES, Genesis).
  • Fixed pixel 2D graphics and chiptune audio.

But counterexamples challenge any single clear cutoff. Ultimately “retro” is subjective and nostalgic. Still, frameworks help organize generations of game history. Let’s break down the eras and discuss where retro boundaries might reasonably fall.

Key Takeaways

  • The 128-bit era (Dreamcast, PS2, GameCube) circa 2000 offers a technical dividing line.
  • Cultural nostalgia tends to focus on the 8-bit and 16-bit console generations.
  • Early 3D polygonal graphics are often considered retro once two generations removed.
  • Retro gaming heavily ties to youth experiences playing on CRT televisions.
  • Indie games intentionally using limited color pallets, chiptunes, and pixel art strike a retro aesthetic.

Generational Console Divides

Console power jumps make logical breaking points:

8-bit (NES, Master System) – 2D sprite-based graphics and chiptune music define this era starting in the mid 80s.

16-bit (SNES, Genesis) – More detailed pixel art, expanded color palettes, and stereo music pushed experiences starting around 1990.

32-bit (PS1, Saturn, N64) – The move to 3D polygonal graphics and CD-quality sound in the mid-90s.

128-bit (Dreamcast, PS2, GameCube) – Higher fidelity 3D visuals, richer textures, and 5.1 surround sound immersion.

HD (Xbox 360, PS3) – 720p displays and online multiplayer dominated the 2000s.

From a technical standpoint, the 128-bit generation offers a clean “retro” dividing line. Games before then relied on 2D or more primitive 3D capabilities. The 2000s brought gaming firmly into the online HD era.

Cultural Nostalgia Bias

Individual nostalgia plays a major role in defining retro. Those who grew up in the 1980s and 90s consider 8-bit and 16-bit games retro, while newer generations have different perceptions.

Key nostalgia factors:

  • Personal nostalgia – Games you experienced as a child feel most “retro.”
  • Music and visuals – Chiptunes and low-poly graphics feel dated.
  • Gameplay innovations – New genres and mechanics older games lack.
  • Technology culture – CRT televisions and cartridge-based hardware.

Someone who grew up with PS2 as their first console will feel more nostalgia towards GameCube, while N64 feels ancient to them. Perceptions vary based on individual backgrounds.

Online Multiplayer as a Milestone

The addition of online console gaming and communities provides another possible milestone. Titles reliant purely on local multiplayer start feeling dated and retro compared to modern online experiences.

Key online transitions:

  • Dreamcast – First console with built-in modem for online play in 1999.
  • PlayStation 2 – Mass market online adoption begins through broadband internet.
  • Xbox 360 – Online gaming becomes a major component rather than novelty.
  • Xbox One/PS4 – Online multiplayer fully matures into the dominant form of gaming.

Once gaming generations after your own youth exposure utilized extensive online connectivity, it becomes harder to relate to offline limitations. This technological shift can delineate eras.

Indie Games Capture a Retro Aesthetic

The indie games boom has heavily embraced retro visuals and gameplay:

  • Pixel art – Limited color and resolution echo graphics of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras.
  • Chiptune music – Synthesized electronic sound channels recreate vintage game music.
  • 2D focus – Reference 1980s and 90s genres like sidescrollers and platformers.
  • Difficulty – Often emphasize challenge reflective of unforgiving early game design.
  • Couch co-op – Local multiplayer recalling living room experiences before online gaming.

Deliberately evoking technical and style limitations of earlier eras allows indie games to strike a nostalgic retro tone. This demonstrates how “retro” connects more to cultural feelings than fixed dates.

Subjective Nature of Retro

Given how many factors feed into perceptions of retro appeal, it remains a loose subjective descriptor. Some guidelines help, but exceptions exist.

For example, Wolfenstein 3D first-person shooting from 1992 feels retro, but text-based Zork adventures from the late 70s and early 80s come across timeless or hopelessly archaic depending on your viewpoint.

Similarly, cute styled games age differently than those pushing technical graphical limits. Nintendo 64 Mario looks more retro than the cel-shaded Jet Set Radio Dreamcast game, despite releasing on the same console generation.

Ultimately retro classification relies on the eye of the beholder. Some universality exists around 8-bit and 16-bit games considered vintage. But viewpoints vary across individuals, eras, and genres.

Retro in Relation to Game History Timeline

One helpful framework thinks of retro in relation to broader game history:<img src=”https://i.postimg.cc/c4C2zXm8/game-history-timeline.png” width=”500″ alt=”Game History Timeline”>

  • Ancient era – Pre-80s electromechanical games (Pong) and text-based adventures.
  • Retro era – 8-bit to 128-bit consoles up until 2000.
  • Modern era – 2000’s onwards led by online and mobile gaming.
  • Future era – VR, blockchain, AI, and technologies still in infancy.

Viewing retro gaming as a bridge from the hobbyist beginnings to today’s mainstream gaming models provides perspective on how it represents a distinct time capsule in history.

Signs a Game Feels Non-Retro

As a counterpoint, some qualities make a game feel too modern to qualify as retro:

  • Extensive online multiplayer functionality
  • Immersive 3D environments and physics
  • Cinematic realism and historical accuracy
  • Complex QTEs and multiple control schemes
  • Elaborately choreographed quick-time events and set pieces

While innovations even from decades back can become dated, these higher production value traits remind you how much farther gaming has come since the early generations.

Certain genres also have too little vintage history to feel retro despite simplistic graphics. For example, battle royale didn’t exist until recently. So a pixelart take on that concept would feel stylized rather than true retro.


Does retro gaming require playing on a CRT?

Not necessarily, but CRT televisions help capture an authentic retro experience. Their display characteristics like scanlines, limited resolution, and visible overscan help approximate graphics as originally intended. Playing retro games on modern HD displays can negatively impact aesthetics. But using a CRT isn’t mandatory for enjoyment.

How does retrogaming relate to nostalgia?

They are heavily intertwined. The nostalgia effect creates instinctive feelings of retro appeal based on someone’s age and gaming background. Games from your childhood invoke retro nostalgia more easily than historically older titles you missed. This subjectivity makes “retro” a moving target tied to generations aging.

Are remasters and remakes retro?

Usually not – updated graphics, controls, and quality of life enhancements detach a remaster or remake from feeling truly retro even if based on a vintage title. However, some remasters do provide an option to toggle “retro” visual filters or gameplay modes to try to better evoke earlier eras.

Can retro games still be made today?

Absolutely – an active indie scene intentionally develops new games using retro aesthetics and technology limitations. Modern titles capturing 8-bit pixel art and chiptunes styles can definitely still deliver that vintage feel. The technology creation date matters less than the style choices.

Does retro gaming only apply to consoles?

Not at all – arcade games, homeland computer platforms, and even early mobile games can very much deliver a retro gaming experience today. While consoles tend to dominate the retro conversation, the full history of gaming has loads of platforms with strong retro appeal.


Defining retro gaming remains challenging due to its blend of technical specs and nostalgic perceptions. But looking at major generational divides in console history along with cultural nostalgia factors helps categorize eras.

Games from the 8-bit NES to the 5th generation PlayStation/Nintendo 64 era tend to qualify based on both technical aspects and retro appeal. Evolutions like 3D graphics and online connectivity are frequent milestones as well.

Ultimately “retro” connects more to gaming culture than fixed dates. But frameworks give some method to thinking of game history in stages. As time marches on, new generations will form their own perceptions of retro gaming reflecting the experiences that defined their youth.

At the end of the day, retro gaming represents revisiting historic games still appreciated today. Their ability to bring joy long after other technologies fade qualifies them as classics worthy of the retro designation. Now get out there and enjoy some pixelated or polygonal goodness!

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