Why "RETRO" is Cool
by Larry Anderson

The dictionary definition of the word “retro”:

retĚro (ret'rō)
adj. Involving, relating to, or reminiscent of things past; retrospective: “As is often the case in retro fashion, historical accuracy is somewhat beside the point” (New York Times).n., pl. retĚros. A fashion, decor, design, or style reminiscent of things past.

As has so often been the case during my tenure as a classic game collector, when trying to describe to the average Joe (not of the Santulli variety) what it is I collect, I often use the term “retrogames”. Seems like a pretty good way to describe the hobby… Retro implies old, games implies entertainment (we’ll save “waste of productive time” and “mind-numbing” for another article). Old entertainment?? Visions of nursing home residents trying to do the Limbo?? Screaming things about falling down and not being able to get up??

I certainly hope not!

To try and give some sense of a point to this discourse, let me first say that the inspiration for this story came from one of many discussions amongst my peers about terms used in the press/general public to label our collectibles. I disagree with the people who don’t think that the word “retro” is a cool way to describe classic games (you people know EXACTLY who you are). But, before I COMPLETELY destroy their point of view, I thought I’d be fair and give the opposing side some say as to what the term “retro” means to them, and explain a little bit about my own position… and perhaps, by the end of this article, you might agree with me. If not, well, I’ll still respect you in the morning (grin).

What does “retro” mean to everyone else?Let us first turn to the uneducated masses to get their opinion on this phenomenon… I mean uneducated in sense that they’re not as hip as we are by collecting old video games!! Here are some references to the word “retro” I’ve seen or heard in recent months:

“retro”-active, usually in reference to one’s paycheck, as in “where’s that raise you promised me 6 months ago??”“retro”-spective, as in “Why the heck did I pass up that $1 PC-Engine LT at the flea market??” or “Here’s an interesting article all about things retro, that really got me thinking about that old Cabbage Patch Kid I had…”“retro”-fit, i.e. “I retrofitted my PC to handle that new version of MAME that just came out…”

All of these descriptions/definitions refer to something that people are into or concerned about from a point in time that has already passed. Now you might say, “what’s wrong with the word “classic”?” Not a thing! I hear about classic cars, classic music, classic books, etc. all the time. But when I think classic, I don’t necessarily think cool; classic implies something a little more formal, a little more stately. “Retro” has a much more casual feel to it; casual like sitting in front of the TV playing a video game right after getting out of bed on a Saturday morning.

Simple enough; yet I still don’t understand why “retro” is so uncool! So forward we blaze towards the path of clarity…

What does “retro” mean to me?At about the same time I first got exposed to video games, my father was into drag racing and hopping up old cars (that passion certainly benefit me on my 17th birthday, but that’s the subject for yet ANOTHER article)... so the first thing that comes to my mind when I think retro is old cars. Intrinsically cool to look at, wonderful to hear as they rumble down the road, awe-inspiring as they lay rubber down on the pavement.I also think of retro as referring to a time when things were much simpler, much less complicated… when our youthful attention was easily captured by a small yellow dot gobbling ghosts, instead of a perfectly rendered polygonal Japanese samurai… a time when companies like Atari covered acres of Silicon Valley real estate… a time when a couple guys in their garage could start a major personal computer company… a time when neon lights and music by the likes of Journey, The Go-Go’s, Thomas Dolby and Oingo Boingo filled arcades… places where we willingly sank loads of quarters into machines to gobble yet one more ghost, rescue one more humanoid, blast one more asteroid. (I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking about all this stuff!)I also think that there’s a certain coolness associated to the word “retro”. Kinda like looking at Snoopy in his Joe Cool outfit; laid back, casual, caring not what’s going on around him, only into what’s happening in his own “scene”.

What’s so “retro” about our hobby?So how does all of this nonsense apply to us in the classic gaming community? We all share the same love of games and entertainment that was produced many years ago. Most of the collectors I know are in their late 20’s to early 30’s, and are just getting to the age when we tend to spend a little more time reflecting (being “retro”-spective) on our past. That’s the one fact that is inescapable; these games/systems were all produced 15+ years ago… maybe not quite “retro” by “retro” standards (“retro” is typically used to describe stuff from the 1950’s/1960’s), but older nonetheless.Besides that, I can’t think of any other word that better describes electronics clad in faux-woodgrain cabinets (ever see the “genuine simulated woodgrain” sticker on the side of an Atari Video Music?) than “retro”!

The Point (tm)In conclusion, I defend the use of the word “retro” in reference to early ‘80’s videogames. It’s not a bad word like “old”, it’s not a condescending word like “dumb”, it’s not an over-used word like “classic”… At worst, it could be said to be slightly inaccurate, but that’s an opinion, and I’m entitled to my own! Be that as it may, classic gamers everywhere should be encouraged to take up the banner, hear my call and spread the joy of RETRO-gaming to everyone! Grab one of your non RETRO game-collecting friends this weekend, sit them in front of your RETRO Atari 2600, and playing a one-on-one game of RETRO Combat (oh, wait, that game isn’t scheduled to come out until 2010)… and when they ask you what you call yourself, tell them that you’re a “RETRO-gamer”. When they raise their eyebrow at you in confusion, simply refer them to this article and I’ll set them straight.

Now THAT, is a very, very cool thing.

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Last updated: Thursday, May 27, 2004 01:58 PM