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Why are younger generations embracing the retro game revival?

by Elijah
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Why are younger generations embracing the retro game revival?

TThe bouncy, midi melody of Nintendo’s Wii theme descends into a drill beat. A Game Boy Color opens into a lip gloss case. Rocky goes as fast as possible “full Minecraft” in a pixelated hoodie, and a panting man bobs up and down his arm was stuck in a bush. This is not a malfunction. Both online and IRL, pop culture is embracing the aesthetic of retro gaming.

On TikTok, #retrogaming videos have collected more than 6 billion views. On YouTubethe number of uploads has increased a thousandfold. Spotify users are creating 50% more retro gaming-themed playlists than this time last year, and livestreamers are taking advantage of the repetitive catchphrases and mechanical movements of NPCs (non-player characters). So why, in this age of hyper-realistic graphics and ever-expanding technological capabilities, are younger generations fascinated by an age of technological limitations?

For Kingsley Ellis, a millennial who grew up on the beeps and bloops of Sega Mega Drives and N64 cartridges, the appeal of retro gaming is simple. “It’s all about the nostalgia,” says Ellis, whose TikTok account, Unpacked, has 1.5 million followers. He says his main interest is in old gaming hardware. His most-watched videos revisit the gloriously bizarre world of retro peripherals – those often ridiculous attachments designed to enhance (or overengineer) the gaming experience, like screen magnifiers and fold-out speakers clipped to consoles.

Younger gamers discover retro accessories such as the Wii Fit Balance Board via TikTok. Photo: Itsuo Inouye/Associated Press

“Some of the attachments I wasn’t even aware of as a child amaze me,” he says, for example the PediSedate snorkel, which allowed pediatric dentists to administer doses of nitrous oxide to their patients while they played games, or the Game Boy-controlled sewing machine. Ellis’ content offers a winning combination of innovation, discovery, novelty and nostalgia. “I think the current wave of technology will almost be ignored in the future,” he says. “I don’t feel like the nostalgic qualities are there.”

This sentiment also seems to resonate with a growing segment of Generation Z and Generation Alpha. The popularity of channels like Ellis’s reflects a broader fascination with retro technology, evident in the rise of reaction videosthe revival of the web 1.0 era Frutiger Aero aesthetics (think futuristic optimism, shiny buttons, gradients and Windows XP screensavers), a filter that people transform into PS2 characters, and the increasing adoption of Y2K-era devices by young consumers. Last year, Urban Outfitters sold out of its stock of refurbished iPod Minis, and a 20-year-old Olympus digital camera became the “most popular Gen Z gadget”. Amid the ubiquity and instant gratification of technology today, Ellis suggests that the charming limitations of retro devices promote a “hack and discover” mentality that leads to longer-term satisfaction.

Thanks to the memetic nature of the modern internet, this sensation of discovery extends beyond gameplay, as video game soundtracks and graphics increasingly come to life in new contexts. Gaming has long been a source of inspiration for artists – think of Jay-Z’s Golden Ax example Money, cash, hoes; Lil B‘s use of Masashi Hamauzu’s Final Fantasy score; and D Double E’s Street fighter Riddim. On the independent online radio platform NTS, which has a dedicated audience of millions, video game music is part of the regular programming. NTS’s monthly Otaku show delves into specific games or themes, from iconic franchises like The Legend of Zelda to the history of video game sampling in rap.

The show’s curator, Thierry Phung, says: “Our passion comes from the belief that video game and anime music often doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.” For him, and other kids of the 1990s, video games were a gateway to musical discovery. Many children encountered genres such as jungle and breakbeat for the first time while battling virtual enemies. The viral hit from PinkPantheress Boy is a liar Pt. 2suggests Phung, sounding like something straight out of a PlayStation ad, and Charli XCX soundtracked a commercial for Universal Studios’ Super Nintendo World with producer Galantis.

Earlier gaming electronics are also experiencing a revival through YouTube DJs such as Ryland Kurshenoff – whose PlayStation jungle mix has racked up more than 2.4 million plays in the past year – and Slowerpace 音楽 (Slowerface Music), which devises vapor jazz soundtracks for fictional games. Creative retrospectives like these put gaming—an activity often dismissed by boomer parents as a frivolous waste of time—in a positive context and appreciated.

And many artists and content creators are taking familiar retro game elements and turning them into something new. On TikTok, the flute synths of the G-funk-inspired Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas theme and the whimsical Mii Channel music are now the soundtrack to thousands of videos – some gaming-related, but many not.

There has also been an increase in the number of actors and dancers acting as NPCs, such as Pinkydoll, with its 1.7 million followers, and Gen Z choreographers @dem_bruddaz, who are embracing this trend and transforming it into a kind of urban cosplay, performing as NPCs on the street. parking garages and other public areas. “They take slow, redundant and unimportant (pedestrians) that no one pays attention to, and transform them into front-and-center characters,” says gamer and esports talent agent Britt Rivera, who works for the Pinkydoll agency. “She’s on this futuristic platform and she’s acting like she’s in the past, and it’s such an unexpected marriage… it’s in a really strong position because it’s the pioneering style of gaming. There’s something cool about bringing this world into a contemporary context.”

‘It’s like comfort food’… TikTok star Babesgabe regularly plays the Game Boy Advance, first launched in 2001. Photo: Martin Godwin/the Guardian

But for Gabi, 27, (known on TikTok as @babesgabe), and a growing community of so-called fun gamers, the appeal of older games lies not in their modern interpretations, but in the comfort and simplicity of the past. While fun gaming can also include recent titles (“It’s like comfort food – different for everyone,” says Gabi), the crossover is common. “I game for nostalgia,” she says. “(It) eases my mind and lets me escape to another world. (It’s) an excellent stress and anxiety reliever. A 2022 study found that half of Generation Z said gaming improves their mental health.

In a world of relentless technological advancement and increasing AI anxiety, Rivera wonders whether Gen Z’s affinity for retro gaming is tied to its stability. “It provides a constant; it won’t turn into something else tomorrow,” she says. Given the perpetually disrupted times this generation has grown up in, it’s not hard to see why younger players can find something comforting and non-threatening in pixelated graphics, the whimsical character animations of an early Grand Theft Auto, or ever-predictable NPC sound bites.

And while technology fixates on the latest and greatest, retro gaming offers a refreshing break, perhaps a comforting idealization of simpler times. But more than that: the games from the 80s and 90s form the foundation on which today’s gaming giants are built. “The music, the graphics, the dialogue, the clothes – it’s quite an experience,” says Gabi. “There is a deeper cultural meaning. It’s a piece of history.”

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