It’s official: the retro gaming craze is an economic juggernaut. Case in point: while the video game industry as a whole hauls in around 100 billion annually, the used video game market brings in about a billion on its own. Not too shabby considering these products are often decades old. (Images used are of Super Potato Arcade)
A global reach
And the trend is constant throughout the world. According to this article from Bloomberg, Tokyo retro video game retailer Super Potato owes half of its revenue to foreign tourists. These twenty, thirty, and forty-something gamers make the pilgrimage to Japan from such far-flung locales as Italy to browse for retro video games and gaming consoles. Why Japan? Because gaming powerhouse Nintendo dominated the console market as far back as the 1980s. That makes it Mecca for retro game enthusiasts across the globe.
The roots of retro-game enthusiasm
But the real questions are the hows and whys. How did something previously regarded as a hobby among regional niche collectors morph into an industry that generates over a billion dollars a year? And why, in the most technologically advanced video gaming era in the history of the world, do people still long for the classic 16-bit heyday of decades past? Here are some attempts to explain the retro video game phenomenon that, by all accounts, is only getting bigger and more popular.
Read any article, think piece, or analysis of retro gaming’s popularity, and inevitably the most common word thrown around is “nostalgia.” Those of us of a certain age, before bills and mortgages and dead-end jobs—you know, life stuff—defined our adulthood, had retro games and consoles help define our childhoods. We can remember the long weekend days lying on the carpet a couple inches in front of the TV screen and inputting the “Contra” cheat code, or finally figuring out Tyson’s weakness on “Punch-Out,” or hose “Tecmo Bowl”and “Zelda” marathons, or any number of iconic moments delivered by the old-school Nintendo/Sega/Atari/Sony machines.
But you don’t even need to read an article to understand how nostalgia drives the retro video game market. Ask any enthusiast why they love old classic games, and you’re likely to hear some version of the following sentiment: “I feel like a kid again.”
It’s the ultimate “origin story”
It’s not just that retro gamers love games of a certain era—they love the classic games of the very first era, the one that started it all. Before the Atari 2600 and the NES there was no home video game console market, just like before “Star Wars” there was no “Star Wars.” They could make 100 more movies in the series (and the trend suggests they likely will), but there will always be that certain audience who loves the original trilogy the most. You can say the exact same thing about Nintendo/Sega/Playstation fans.
Young gamers get it too.
Sure, there are plenty of older gamers who pine for their long-lost youth, but that doesn’t explain all of it. If retro video games only appealed to those of a certain age, it wouldn’t be as massive an industry as it is today. Ironically, retro video games appeal to today’s kids as well. This was evidenced when Nintendo released its iconic NES console in mini form as gambit to promote the release of the Switch console in 2017. The result is that people of all ages flocked to the machine, so much so that it crashed a few vendor websites and Nintendo had to issue an apology for the shortage.
This tells us that certain video game companies that got their start last century are almost as much a part of the global consciousness as heavyweight brands like Disney and Coca Cola. That means retro video games likely will never die; instead it will continue to be passed down from generation, and generate many more billions along the way.