Whilst taking a stroll through Cologne's fair halls during this year's Gamescom, TechEye was rather happy to stumble across a small retro gaming section dedicated to times gone by, a time when people spent hours in front of pale plastic boxes with keys bearing the Commodore logo, watching cave drawings wander to and fro on a monitor.
Joyous times, these, and it was a very pleasant surprise to see a print magazine had popped up in Germany totally dedicated to 8-bit machines, games and the demo scene that comes with it.
Reason enough for an interview with Boris Kretzinger of Return Magazin.
TechEye It came as quite a surprise to see a print magazine dedicated to 8-bit gaming set up a booth at this year's Gamescom fair. When did you decide to launch Return Magazin and what kind of feedback have you had so far?
Kretzinger Most of our editorial staff have been in the retro computing and gaming scene for quite a while now, and we observed that there is so much going on that this vibrant scene just deserves something that monitors the interesting stuff. In 2005, Michael Kraemer and I decided to launch a pdf zine called "Cevi Aktuell", dedicated to the c64 community, as this was the one machine we were used to and had grown up with, and there were still some nice games being developed, music being composed and demos being coded for it.
We did this on a monthly basis and the mag just looked quite odd, I have to say now looking back. But it was okay, people liked it, so we got more sceners writing for the mag, we improved the layout - especially with Frank Erstling's very nice work since 2008 - and finally got to the point where we put so much energy and effort into this project, that we had to make a decision: cancel it or do the next step.
So it was in 2009 that we finally made the decision to skip the c64-only pdf zine and go into print with a project that would attract a broader audience, keeping the 8-bit spirit we wanted to maintain.
We sat together and thought about names for the mag and finally came up with "Return", as it combined our perspective with an implication of something coming back that was new. The Feedback we've gotten so far confirms our idea that there is an interest for 8-bit out there, because people have fond memories about their first steps into gaming and computing.
However, we want to show them that there is still something going on in the scene, new games are released for the Commodore, Atari, Sinclairs and many more. And many people didn't notice that, of course, because no large publications are covering this.
At the Gamescom fair, you could watch the grin of people grow bigger as you told them that there is a game for the Atari 7800 for example that was released this year. Peolple like the idea that something they grew up with isn't gone by now, but instead is still living on in some way.
We've just published our fourth issue and we have an ever growing number of readers, so we seem to be doing something right. And this is very nice to know as it is still very much work not only writing the articles, but also layout of the magazine in an appealing way, and all of us do this in our spare time.
TechEye Basically Return Magazin started out as a magazine for the 8 bit scene which is still in existence. Did attending Gamescom and the appearance on German computing show "Neues" also garner new readers for the magazine, who had no idea that 8 bit games are still in development?
Kretzinger Yes, indeed. Since the Gamescom fair we keep receiving mails from people who are curious about our magazine, so we really can call that a successful first fair. But we also get mails from people who more or less stumbled over our website by accident, so we still have a whole lot of work to do in this regard.
TechEye Do people play the games on native machines or are they using emulators? How big is the 8-bit games scene? Is it a cult phenomenon or more mainstream than that? If I remember correctly from Gamescom, some enthusiasts have developed and are selling hardware...
Kretzinger Many people use emulators to see if they like a game or a demo and if they do they transfer the software onto their classic machines. The same applies to programmers: because working with cross-development tools is more comfortable to them, they often use emulators to code for the original hardware, which - by the way - is nothing extraordinarily new, as some C64 games of the 80s for example also were coded on more powerful machines and then have been transferred.
Our readers mostly use their old computers or game consoles, because they want to experience the original feeling. It's like reading a hard cover book if you could also read an ebook: it's a multi-sensual experience.
The 8-bit scene is rather large, but it is difficult to estimate an exact number. One reason is that there many different things one can do and count himself to the scene, maybe even without knowing that he could count himself to the scene: you can code demos, pixel pictures, code sound routines, but you can also collect games or machines, spare parts, offer repair services or compose music using 8-bit consoles or computers.
Or you can just still use your Atari, C64, Sinclair etc. from time to time and are happy that there are still new releases for them, hardware- and software-wise: You can connect your C64 to the internet or use SD cards as mass storage device. You can buy new joysticks with 9-pin connectors, and many more things. It's just amazing what sceners do and how much time and passion they put into their hobby and what fascinating things they create by this.
I would not say that the 8-bit scene is a plain cult phenomenon. There is definately something more to it; it has become a kind of art, a kind of pop culture. 8-bit graphics and sounds do have a certain touch that makes them unique, and musicians for example are using this for new mainstream songs.
But also the videogame industry has discovered it's own past. Capcom for example released Mega Man 9 + 10 which look, sound and feel completely like they've been made for the NES, but of course they aren't. That is something they would never have considered ten years ago, but as people showed a strong passion for vintage gaming, they gave it a try.
TechEye Do you think the large trend for casual gaming has something to do with the renaissance of 8-bit gaming, or is it simply because thirty-somethings are feeling a tad nostalgic? Or could it be both? Have young kids also discovered the joys of the Giana Sisters?
Kretzinger Kids have a very tolerant approach to everything that might be able to entertain them.
They don't care for MHz, RAM, operating systems or years of production. They want to play and have fun. Their imagination helps them a lot in letting rather simple things look astonishing, and that applies to video games, too. A classic NES or C64 game can be as much fun for children as a Wii or DS game.
What is called casual gaming today is really a step back towards what gaming originally was about: not the fancy graphics or 5.1 sounds, but the fun. Nolan Bushnell has lauded Nintendo for the Wii and its concept of games, because it managed to widen the audience, and with that, the acceptance of video games. Which is a good thing for all gamers.
But I would not go so far to say that this has something to do with the renaissance of 8-bit gaming. The other way around, I would say that the trend for casual games has paved the way for a broader audience of 8-bit gamers. And among them are thrirty-somethings that might feel nostalgic, but also younger gamers who play some of "the old stuff" for the first time.
TechEye So a lot of people can enjoy a fun game with very simple graphics - not just an FPS graphics monster like Crysis. How do you see the future of the 8-bit scene? Will people keep on coding new demos and creating new games, or will the scene eventually fade away?
Kretzinger The only thing that might slowly fade away is the hardware, but the old consoles and home computers are quite well emulated already. I do not think that the 8-bit scene will die. There are too many enthusiastic people out there putting so much effort into their hobby, and they pass their spirit to a younger generation.
It's not only the people who grew up with an Atari or Commdoore any more that play and code on and for them. This scene is a bit like other vintage scenes, be it old cars, bicycles, and many more.
But it has one important advantage: old computers and consoles can be used to produce something new, but of course within the limits given by the hardware. So as time will pass by, there will be two kinds of "sceners", if you will: those who only collect the hardware regardless of if it will be functional just because it looks nice. Or maybe to play something on it from time to time. That is close to what other vintage scenes do. But others will use the technology as a kind of canvas for their imagination. For them, it will not be as important to own the old hardware, but to create something that stays within the technical "frame" of that machine. Creating new games, demos, and music is already considered a digital art form, and this will evolve - and vintage computing is and will be part of it.
Personally, I can see myself sitting in front of my C64 when I'm 64 ...