Why are younger generations embracing the retro game revival?

The bouncy, midi melody of Nintendo’s Wii theme descends into a drill beat. A Game Boy Colour opens up into a lip gloss case. ASAP Rocky goes “full Minecraft” in a pixelated hoodie, and a panting man bobs up and down with his arm stuck in a bush. This is not a glitch. Both online and IRL, pop culture is embracing the aesthetics of retro gaming.

On TikTok, #retrogaming videos have amassed over 6bn views. On YouTube, uploads have increased 1,000-fold. Spotify users are creating 50% more retro-gaming-themed playlists than they were at this time last year, and live streamers are cashing in on the repetitive catchphrases and mechanical movements of NPCs (non-player characters). So why, in this age of hyperrealistic graphics and ever-expanding technological possibility, are younger generations captivated by an era of technological limitation?

For Kingsley Ellis, a millennial raised on the bleeps and bloops of Sega Mega Drives and N64 cartridges, the allure 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 interest lies mostly 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, such as screen magnifiers and foldout speakers clipped on to consoles.

Younger gamers are discovering retro accessories such as the Wii Fit Balance Board through TikTok. Photograph: Itsuo Inouye/Associated Press

“Some of the attachments I wasn’t even aware of as a child blow my mind,” he says – for example the PediSedate snorkel, which allowed paediatric dentists to deliver doses of nitrous oxide to their patients while they played games, or the Game Boy-controlled sewing machine. Ellis’s content offers a winning combination of innovation, discovery, novelty and nostalgia. “I think the current wave of tech will almost be disregarded in the future,” he says. “I don’t feel the nostalgic properties are there.”

This sentiment seems to resonate with a growing segment of gen Z and gen Alpha, too. The popularity of channels such as Ellis’s reflect a broader fascination with retro tech that’s evident in the rise of reaction videos, the resurgence of web 1.0-era Frutiger Aero aesthetics (think futuristic optimism, glossy buttons, gradients and Windows XP screensavers), a filter transforming people into PS2 characters, and the increasing adoption of Y2K-era devices by young consumers. Last year, Urban Outfitters sold out stock of refurbished iPod Minis, and a 20-year-old Olympus digital camera was dubbed the “hottest gen Z gadget”. Among the ubiquity and instant gratification of tech today, Ellis suggests that the charming limitations of retro devices foster a “hack and discover” mentality that leads to a longer-term satisfaction.

Thanks to the memetic nature of the modern internet, this thrill of discovery extends beyond gameplay, as video game soundtracks and graphics increasingly find life in new contexts. Gaming has long been a source of inspiration for artists – think Jay-Z’s Golden Axe sample on 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 boasts a dedicated audience of millions, video game music is part of regular programming. NTS’s monthly Otaku show dives into specific games or themes, from iconic franchises such as The Legend of Zelda to the history of video game sampling in rap.

The show’s curator, Thierry Phung, says: “Our passion stems from the belief that video game and anime music often doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves.” For him, and other children of the 90s, video games were a gateway to musical discovery. Genres such as jungle and breakbeat were first encountered by many kids while battling virtual foes. PinkPantheress’s viral hit Boy’s a Liar Pt. 2, Phung suggests, sounds like something straight out of a PlayStation ad, and Charli XCX soundtracked a commercial for Universal Studios’s Super Nintendo World with producer Galantis.

Earlier gaming electronica is also experiencing a revival via YouTube DJs such as Ryland Kurshenoff – whose PlayStation jungle mix has garnered over 2.4m plays in the past year – and Slowerpace 音楽 (Slowerpace Music), who imagines vaporjazz soundtracks to fictional games. Through these kinds of creative retrospectives, gaming – an activity often dismissed as a frivolous waste of time by boomer parents – is being positively recontextualised and appreciated.

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

There’s also been an uptick in actors and dancers behaving like NPCs, such as Pinkydoll, with her 1.7 million followers, and gen Z choreographers @dem_bruddaz, who take this trend and transform it into a kind of urban cosplay, acting as NPCs in streets, carparks and other public spaces. “They take slow-moving, superfluous and unimportant [pedestrians] that no one’s paying attention to, and transform them into front-and-centre characters,” says gamer and esports talent agent Britt Rivera, who works for Pinkydoll’s agency. “She’s on this futuristic platform, acting like she’s in the past, and it’s such an unexpected marriage … it has a really strong foothold because it’s the pioneer style of gaming. There’s something cool about this world being brought into a contemporary context.”

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

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

In a world of relentless technological advances and increasing AI anxiety, Rivera wonders whether gen Z’s affinity for retro gaming is connected to its stability. “It provides a constant – it’s not going to morph into something else tomorrow,” she says. Given the continually disrupted times that this generation has grown up in, it’s not hard to see why younger players might find something comforting and unthreatening in pixelated graphics, the janky character animations of an early Grand Theft Auto, or ever-predictable NPC soundbites.

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

The Guardian

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