• Pix Liz

What is Considered a Retro Game?

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

There are three types of games defined in this article: retro games, retro styled games and retrograde games.

At the time of this publication, I consider retro games to be games that were published on consoles released in 2002 and earlier.

The reason being is because games at the time and earlier were limited by the technologies available.

Retro styled games are games that replicate the overall feel of the game, but ignore the technical limitations retro games had.

Retrograde games are games that uphold the technical limitations of a retro game and doesn’t use modern technology to solve those types of problems.

In this article, we are going to go over and define three types of games that fall under the retro category: retro games, retro styled games and retrograde games.

We'll also be discussing the differences between how different audiences views the retro genre versus how a game developer should perceive it.

How Do People Define a Retro Game?

In a world of indie games, it’s important to define what the general population considers a retro game and how developers may want to define a retro game.

The reason we want to understand what people believe to be a retro game is so that we can meet their expectations.

And, avoid misrepresenting games which could attract the wrong audiences.

On the other hand, game developers should define for themselves what constitutes as a retro game from a technical standpoint.

This is so that game developers can fully understand the technical limitations of older games in their genre and how incorporating modern practices can improve the overall game quality.

What is Retro?

Retro is an adjective that describes something as being a similar aesthetic to the past such as fashion or music.

And this is how the general populace views video games, by their aesthetic packaging.

However, retro is also a prefix that means “backward” or “situated behind.”

Therefore, as of the time of publishing this article, we’ll consider retro games to be anything published on consoles with limited technologies that were released in 2002 or earlier.

It includes consoles like the PS2, Microsoft Xbox, Sega Dreamcast and Gameboy Advance.

However, as technology in the gaming industry advances at an increased rate, the time period for considering what is retro will change over time.

A retrograde game, on the other hand, is a game that is made in modern times using the limited technologies of a retro console.

What’s the Difference Between Retro and Retro Styled?

Modern retro styled games do not have nor stick to the technical limitations that retro games had.

For example, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) could only display about 25 colors out of a specific 64 color palette.

Although the limited color palette is a technical limitation, games that only use the color palette restriction should be considered a retro styled game rather than a retro game.

A retro game should include other technical limitations in accordance to the console the developer is using for reference.

For instance, NES games would freeze or glitch as the games got more complex over time, usually due to too many sprites occupying a horizontal scanline.

The reason why NES games flicker is actually caused by programmers slowing down and splitting the calculations between successful frames to prevent the freezing and glitching.

Technical limitations such as this are what shaped games on the console from their gameplay to their artistic choices.

Upholding the technical limitations dictates the game to be a truly retro or retrograde game.

Drawing inspiration from the overall feel of older games, while ignoring or overcoming the technical limitations due to modern technology, would make the game a retro styled game.

How Do People See Retro Games?

The general populace initially decides whether or not a game is retro based on their appearance.

It creates a first impression and that impression can stick hard.

How General Audiences Interpret Retro Games

The general populace (not necessarily the target audience) typically considers older looking games to be retro games.

We'll discuss some of the reasons why and look at pixel art as an example.

Let’s begin by understanding that the established expectations in the general population have been created by pop cultures, marketing and a sense of nostalgia.

Think about it.

Even non-gamers in America recognize iconic, retro, pixel game characters like Sonic and Mario due to the previously mentioned reasons.

And those iconic games created a standard of expectations in their consumers, especially in the way similarly associated games should look and act.

However, due to the low barrier to entry, there have been a flood of pixel art games on the indie market.

Some are well made and have even broken expectations to elevate the pixel art game genre.

But, a large portion of pixel games on the market, and that are easy to access, are buggy or don’t meet the expectations of the general audience.

And these negative experiences can reinforce the negative associations to retro games.

Note: I’m not saying that inexperienced game developers shouldn’t publish pixel art styled games. It’s important to understand the publishing process, get critiques and gain the overall hands on experience. But, this is a factor to consider when publishing games.

How Target Audiences Interpret Retro Games

There are groups of people that like retro and retro styled games.

People that play retro games specifically want that feel of gameplay and experience replicated.

Although, some modern tweaks are allowed to help improve the intended experience of the retro game.

So long as the developer stayed true to the original feel and atmosphere of the game.

However, people that like retro styled games have a different set of expectations.

For instance, I love pixel art styled games.

I appreciate the art and the modernized music that tends to come with them.

But, I want a game that’s easy to approach and feels fun to play.

It doesn’t have to look or feel like a retro game at all.

For example, I’m never going to play Duck Tales which is renowned for being one of the most difficult NES games ever created.

And based on that reputation, I’m not going to play the remake either.

However, I like playing the game Coromon which is inspired by the Pokemon games, but elevates the experience by not restricting itself to the limitations found in Pokemon.

If you’re curious about other reasons why some people play pixel art styled games skim the article Why Do Indie Games Use Pixel Art?

How Should Game Developers Define a Retro Game?

After picking a specific gaming console, there are about five things game devs should examine when defining a retro game:

  1. Technical Limitations

  2. Gameplay

  3. Mechanics

  4. Art Style

  5. Music / Sound

When reviewing these characteristics ask the following questions:

  1. What was used?

  2. Why was it used?

  3. How was it implemented?

  4. What limitations were there?

  5. What tricks did people use to get around technical limitations?

Understanding these in-depth will help developers to analyze what people liked about the games at the time.

And, what modern technology can do to improve these experiences as needed.


There are three types of games defined in this article: retro games, retro styled games and retrograde games.

Retro games are games made on consoles in 2002 or earlier.

Retro styled games are modern day games that draws inspiration and recreates the overall feel of a retro game.

Retrograde games are made in modern day using older technologies and practices to create a game.

However, different groups of people interpret retro games differently.

General audiences interpret games by their aesthetic packaging based on the audiences previous experiences and experience of pop culture.

Target audiences interpret games based on their previous experiences with gaming and their desired gameplay.

Considering a pixel art styled game? Read Why Do Indie Games use Pixel Art?

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