There’s been a surging in development of indie games in recent years. This isn’t really a surprise when you think about it. Technology has advanced quite a bit in the last decade. Being able to develop a video game out of your own home is easier than ever. Naturally, it follows that more people will do it.
A natural byproduct of this is the popularity of 8-bit games. These games have a particular retro style. They’re full of pixelated art and simple mechanics and stories. In a world where triple-A titles are throwing around blockbuster level CGI fiestas, it doesn’t feel like 8-bit games should have legs to stand on.
And yet they do, so why is that? The answer comes from a few different directions. As previously mentioned, the updates to technology help a lot. Another reason is the emphasis on mechanics the games have be default. A third reason is a general sense of fatigue the community has with larger developers. Lastly, to be blunt, we don’t like 8-bit games at all.
Let’s tackle these in order. As I said before, technology has advanced quite a bit. Two decades ago people’s home computers, if they had one, had trouble running paint. They certainly wouldn’t be able to create complex software.
Nowadays, however, the opposite is true. Anybody can open up their laptop and download free software such as Unity and begin making their own game in hours. These aren’t just simple, flimsy games either. Many of these can be technically quite impressive.
But not everyone has the immediate know-how to make immersive 3D games. They might still have great ideas, but that doesn’t mean they can immediately put pen to paper, so speak. So instead they take their idea and put it in the simplest style they can: 8-bit.
Such games don’t have nearly the same level of requirements for visuals and sounds. Creating a sprite for an 8-bit game can take minutes (though professional will still do it better) and the game will take no time at all rendering that kind of art. This means even people with access to game development software but lacking in the refined skill can still make an 8-bit game. Essentially, the ease of development for them has seen them flood the market.
That ease of development lends the style of game a second, somewhat surprising advantage as well; 8-bit games tend to have very tightly executed mechanics. With the freedom to focus on gameplay over aesthetic (which is not to say the art style doesn’t still have appeal, it just doesn’t take as much work) developers are able to take key gameplay mechanics and refine them.
Take the game No Time to Explain, for example. Right away the character is given laser cannon so powerful it propels them backwards. The player uses it not only to shoot at enemies, but as a sort of jetpack. By firing downward they can launch themselves up and over cliffs.
As the game progresses this is used in new and novel ways. Eventually new weapons are added to the mix that alter how the mechanic works. A shotgun, for example, fires only a brief but powerful blast, launching the character backwards more quickly but with no control.
This kind of finesse and tightness in gameplay is often overlooked in larger titles. Truly massive releases such as Overwatch or Uncharted usually hit the nail on the head, sure. But even titles that big can often miss the mark.
Those constant misses and near misses are part of why the community has been pulling back from triple-A games. People are growing more and more dissatisfied with blockbuster games, and the reason is simple.
These games, as grand as they are, have fallen into a dangerous habit. They provide immense spectacle to be sure, but they seldom manage to deliver on truly innovative and exciting mechanics. Many games, especially ones in long running series, take a simple formula and make minute changes to it.
This is rarely what gamers want. More of the same is all well in good when the same is great and still fairly new. But there reaches a point where it isn’t new anymore. Assassin’s Creed was the first of it’s kind, and the next several added enough that it stayed fresh. But after the sixth game in the franchise, people just weren’t wowed anymore.
Which is why 8-bit games, with their simple, straightforward styles, are such breaths of fresh air. They’re able to get away with things that might not otherwise make sense, and in doing so are able to try something new. A triple-A game built around a man made of meat running around a nonsensical obstacle course of machinery would be novel but wouldn’t have staying power. Yet nobody could argue that Super Meat Boy wasn’t an incredibly successful game.
All of which builds up to my last, and perhaps most important point. Why do we like 8-bit games? We don’t. Not really, anyway, not more than we like anything else. It’s just what we have to work with at the moment.
Think about it this way. The average gamer right now might be willing to admit that they’ve become jaded. Recent years haven’t seen the best game releases, and they’re losing faith in mainstream developers. They are, however, becoming fascinated with indie games, particularly 8-bit ones.
But if you asked the same person which they’d rather have access to forever, indie games or triple-A games, they would almost certainly pick the latter. That’s because gamers aren’t really enthralled with 8-bit games at all.
The crux of the matter is this: we like good games. We like games that are fun to look at and more fun to experience. We like games that have gameplay and mechanics that make us think but are easy and fun to use. We like games that are new and interesting and push the bounds of what a game even is. We like games that are tight and refined and just very well constructed.
Right now, triple-A games aren’t consistently proving themselves to be that. Indie games, particularly 8-bit ones, are.