March 8, 2011— -- Like Hollywood and the recording industry, the video game business enjoys a proud and time-honored tradition of recycling yesterday's top hits. But as a growing range of recent updates and remakes of classic franchises -- from "Bionic Commando" to "Contra" -- prove, retro gaming has never been bigger.
Forget fancy graphics, sprawling 3-D worlds and endless online connectivity. As underscored by recent Facebook updates of "The Oregon Trail" and "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego," all today's gamer apparently wants is to party like it's 1989.
Savor the irony. Previously, software makers were content to let classics like "Zork" and "Gabriel Knight" rot in obscurity, consigned to suspect "abandonware" sites, where doting fans made discontinued titles available for free download.
But suddenly, in an age where players have so many gaming choices available and so little time to choose between them, they're finding solid gold in yesteryear's hits.
Credit technical and budget constraints, which often made retro games much shorter, less complex and easier to put down than today's rambling 60-hour epics, and frequently rendered audiovisual wizardry secondary to ingenious play.
Ironically, these same qualities make them cheaper to buy, and more instantly gratifying and disposable than modern-day digital diversions -- a perfect attraction for today's increasingly mobile and commitment-phobic gaming enthusiast.
According to a recent Nielsen study, game buyers are spending more time and money on general leisure activities, including smartphone gaming. They're spending less time on pricey, time-consuming set-top gaming epics.
Paired with the rise of digital distribution, which lets players purchase smaller titles on-demand from PCs, smartphones or gaming consoles (via services such as PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare, etc.), it's a match made in virtual heaven.
For software publishers, popular existing franchises are easier to convert, update and retail through downloadable platforms than original titles, with savings frequently passed on to nostalgic shoppers. They also guarantee instant recognition on gaming services where the best form of marketing is often a catchy title or positive customer reviews.
Recycled Games Offer Walk Down Memory Lane
For video game aficionados looking to spend as little money as possible, but enjoyably waste 15 minutes idling at work or waiting for the bus, such games aren't just a good deal and instant stress reliever.
They're also a second chance to explore a fantasy world that players never found time for during adolescence, a good excuse to take a happy waltz down memory lane or a perfect opportunity to rewrite history outright.
Many online services, such as GoodOldGames.com, GamersGate and Steam, now make it easy to download and enjoy gaming classics. A growing number of fan-made series remakes ("King's Quest III: Redux"), software emulators ("C64 Forever") and long-overdue director's cuts ("Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror – Remastered") are becoming increasingly available as well.
Of course, retro compilations and budget-priced collectible rehashes have been a part of gaming's cultural fabric since day one.
But when even "Choose Your Own Adventure" books suddenly start resurfacing on tablet PCs after 20 years and new text adventures are being funded by fans' philanthropic efforts, it's obvious that something big is brewing.
Never missing a good opportunity, game publishers are lining up in growing numbers to retread old ground on home, and even handheld, consoles.
Thought last year was a banner one for retro gaming, between high-profile PlayStation 3, Wii and Xbox 360 releases like "Donkey Kong Country," "Splatterhouse" and "NBA Jam"?
Check out store shelves in 2011, soon to be choked with familiar names like "Mortal Kombat," "Jagged Alliance: Back in Action" and "Tomb Raider."
In the downloadable space, new offers range from unlikely updates of popular Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) titles, such as "Rush 'N Attack: Ex-Patriot," to unexpected re-imaginings of long-lost Atari 2600 favorites, like "Yars' Revenge."
Shockingly, despite a legendarily troubled, 10-year-plus development schedule, they've even manage to resurrect "Duke Nukem Forever" for a May 3 release.
Don't be surprised if the upcoming lineup for the new Nintendo 3DS handheld console with glasses-free 3D looks familiar either. Rather than launch with a glittering range of original titles designed to illustrate its features, developers are, instead, mostly turning to new installments of trusted historical franchises to provide a showcase for its technology.
Experiencing Déjà Vu? You're Not the Only One
From "Kid Icarus" and "Pilotwings" to "Bust-a-Move" and "Resident Evil," countless NES, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64 and PlayStation favorites are all making a comeback.
Between new versions of "Ridge Racer," "Rayman" and even "Pac-Man" and "Galaga," you'd be excused for experiencing a sudden overwhelming wave of deja vu.
But it's easy to see why new iPhone games that conjure pleasant childhood memories, like "The 7th Guest" or episodic games like "Back to the Future: The Game," are enjoying the spotlight again.
Harkening back to a simpler gaming era for both fans and publishers alike, these titles prove a simple point that today's designers and fans would both do well to recall: The more things change, the more they play the same. Timeless designs are readily capable of captivating and entertaining, no matter the technology behind them.
In gaming -- as with films, TV shows and other forms of entertainment -- sheer creative genius, not technical gimmicks or fancy production values, trumps all.
Scott Steinberg (@GadgetExpert on Twitter) is the head of technology and video game consulting firm TechSavvy Global, and creator and host of online video series Game Theory. He frequently appears as a high-tech analyst for ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and CNN.