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What is the “right” approach to reviewing a retro game?


GPX
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Member · Posted

I don’t know about you guys, but I find myself constantly at war within myself when judging on a game of yesteryear..

If we take the approach of simply comparing the technical marvel of an old game compared with a modern game, then pretty much Pong and all the Atari games would score 1-2 out of 10, right?

If we’re judging simply on how much an old game makes us happy, then nostalgia would have a powerful influence on our judgments right?

If we’re judging on innovation, then most of the sequels of a series would be getting lower and lower scores, right? (Assuming they follow a similar sort of formula to the original)

If...I can probably dribble on a bit longer, but I shall end it here. 

How do you guys formulate the process of reviewing a retro game?

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I write shorthand reviews of every game I play on the backloggery.

I score them on the scale of 1-5 stars that's baked into the system, obviously taking "fun" into the account.

Then I just write short summations of both Pros and Cons, and add a Challenge rating from 1-5 at the end.

A good sequel being derivative doesn't bother me the slightest, as long as the level design and mechanics are sufficiently fleshed out, making each new entry at least as fun as the earlier titles in a series.

Case in point: The NES Mega Man games; I happen to think some of the later games are superior to the first few. The biggest letdown is the music, which saw a dramatic downhill slope after the incredible score of Mega Man 2.

Edited by ifightdragons
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Member · Posted
51 minutes ago, ifightdragons said:

I write shorthand reviews of every game I play on the backloggery.

I score them on the scale of 1-5 stars that's baked into the system, obviously taking "fun" into the account.

Then I just write short summations of both Pros and Cons, and add a Challenge rating from 1-5 at the end.

A good sequel being derivative doesn't bother me the slightest, as long as the level design and mechanics are sufficiently fleshed out, making each new entry at least as fun as the earlier titles in a series.

Case in point: The NES Mega Man games; I happen to think some of the later games are superior to the first few. The biggest letdown is the music, which saw a dramatic downhill slope after the incredible score of Mega Man 2.

What’s this “backloggery” you’re talking about?

Speaking of sequels, I find it difficult to give specific ratings for games in a lengthy series of 3 or more titles. The earlier titles usually get more credits for being the most innovative, and the latter titles get more credits for being (usually) more visually and technically superior. It’s hard to assess them on an individual rating, particularly where prequels and sequels exist. Or maybe that’s just me?

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Primarily, I would judge a game first and foremost against other games on the same system, and taking into account the technical limitations of that system. Part of the fun of playing old games is to see how they made the most of what they had to work with, even if it doesn't always result in a stellar gameplay experience.

I would also take account of notable innovations introduced by particular games, they definitely get credit for "doing it first" even if they don't necessarily do it the best.

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53 minutes ago, GPX said:

What’s this “backloggery” you’re talking about?

Speaking of sequels, I find it difficult to give specific ratings for games in a lengthy series of 3 or more titles. The earlier titles usually get more credits for being the most innovative, and the latter titles get more credits for being (usually) more visually and technically superior. It’s hard to assess them on an individual rating, particularly where prequels and sequels exist. Or maybe that’s just me?

The backloggery is a neat site for keeping track of your collection and gaming progress/backlog. Click on my signature if you want to check it out. Several VGS members are on there, already. I have no affiliation with the site.

I don't have any problems rating games, no matter how long a series is. As long as the games aren't exactly the same, I just view at as an independent game when deciding on whether I like it or not, and not as much a part of a series.

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It all depends on your goal. If you just want to let people know which games you enjoy, then put on your rose-colored glasses and let nostalgia rule. If you're taking retro game reviewing more seriously, you need to hunker down and treat each review like a research project. You need to understand the evolution of the genre and play other examples on similar consoles. You need to judge the game against its contemporaries and consider its place in history.

As mentioned above, fun factor is also worth considering and should probably be weighed even more heavily in classic games. Pong may be a 1 or 2 compared to GTA 5, but I'd rather play a couple games of Pong than slog through Red Dead's 60 hour story again. Doom 1993 was mind-blowing and revolutionary, but Doom 2016 is (arguably) better in every way. Yet most would agree that the original was WAY more influential and should score higher on a shared scale.

So in a lot of ways, retro game reviewing is more difficult than modern reviewing. You really have to dig deep and think about context that may not be obvious on first glance.

Good luck!

P.S. @Reed Rothchild can probably provide valuable insight here.

Edited by DoctorEncore
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Member · Posted

Well, yeah?  It is going to be a bit subjective.  Generalizations like saying an xbox is more advanced than an atari isn't really that helpful or informative.  Right?

Keep your expectations in check as far as technical limitations on older titles.  Lot of older titles still have great aesthetics, despite being limited in pixels.  Even a basic soundchip can make some real bangers in the right hands.

"Happy" is a bit too broad.  Does your heart race making that jump?  Do you feel cleaver solving that final puzzle all on your own?  Sadness when a party member dies?  The game should make you feel something, otherwise it is likely boring.

"Innovation" is prob not the best thing to focus on, considering how formula based a lot of games and their improved sequels and similar titles can be.  A title can be generic to a fault though.  Maybe look at how "unique" a title is.

Edited by fox
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7 minutes ago, GPX said:

@DoctorEncore, @fox

the intro was my attempt at being thought-provoking. Trying to get viewpoints on how people reach an overall score conclusion, rather than hoping anyone here can fully resolve my cognitive dissonance. 🙂

And I certainly didn't mean to imply there is a right way to approach retro reviews. I guess that's why it's such an interesting question. The answer boils down to both author intent and audience desire. Are we writing to educate? Or for people who want their biases confirmed? Or for people who want to know what they should still play in 2021? Or for people who want some historical perspective?

It's definitely a great topic for discussion.

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Member · Posted
10 minutes ago, GPX said:

@DoctorEncore, @fox

the intro was my attempt at being thought-provoking. Trying to get viewpoints on how people reach an overall score conclusion, rather than hoping anyone here can fully resolve my cognitive dissonance. 🙂

I get that.  Spitballin' ideas on how you can approach critique on another level.  You know what I mean?

Edited by fox
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Just give your honest, objective and unbiased thoughts on what you like about the game and what you don't while describing what type of game it is and how it's played.  Give people the information they need to make up their own mind if they should try it or not.  Don't think you need to pick games for people.  Let them do that, and if they're too dumb to figure it out, then that's their problem.  When you're done, go back and delete your first paragraph.  You'll be amazed to find how often it's completely pointless and unnecessary.

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For me personally I think the best way to tackle this is to decide:

Is this game fun?

Why or why not?

I see a lot of reviews where they look at one aspect at a time and categorize everything, like music is 4 out of 5, graphics is 3 out of 5, etc. But to me that doesn't really say much. The game should be looked at as a whole, if it is fun you should be able to explain why it is fun in a succinct but well thought out manner.

A lot of the time I see reviewers just explain what the game does. "So its a side scroller, you jump on enemies, you get power ups, then there's a boss." That's great they can regurgitate what they see happening on the screen, so can anyone else. I want to know why these aspects of the game are fun. I dont need the whole game explained to me from start to end.

Another thing to consider is we all have our preferences. If someone doesn't like a genre of game, their opinion of that game won't have any meaning to someone who does enjoy that genre of game.

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I'm generally against having to apply handicaps to a product for its qualities to have any relevance. If you're telling me something is good "for 1986", I don't care. I'm not in 1986. What I need to know is whether it's good now.

That's not saying you shouldn't judge a video game based on its own context, but in generally I'd try to be as unbiased as possible. And if there's a bias I can't deny or ignore, at least come clean about it. But identifying the qualities of a game doesn't have to rely on direct comparison.

You could say Witcher 3 looks much better than the NES version of Contra, but what's even the point on that? They are so different it doesn't really matter. What matters is whether you think Contra looks good or not.
You could say Contra takes 20 minutes to beat, and Witcher 3 takes over 50 hours to beat, so how can it even compare to such a large game? Well, again, what matters is how fun those 20 minutes are, and at least in my opinion I think few games offer 20 minutes as entertaining as Contra 1 on NES does. No matter if they're from 1986 or 2020. The game doesn't need that handicap, because, well, it's a good game, and in a review that's usually what you want to determine, right?

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1 hour ago, Sumez said:

I'm generally against having to apply handicaps to a product for its qualities to have any relevance. If you're telling me something is good "for 1986", I don't care. I'm not in 1986. What I need to know is whether it's good now.

Yeah, this is my biggest pet peeve with reviews.  I can't count how many hundreds of times I've read the caveat "for its time" in a review of an older game.  I am soooo sick of it.  Just tell me what you thought of the game: was it fun?  Challenging?  Boring?  Good/bad play control?  ET CETERA!  A good game is a good game and a bad game is a bad game; Mega Man 2 didn't have a bunch of great qualities for 1989, Mega Man 2 is great - period!

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First rule, don't buy into that whole "hasn't aged well" crap.  It's still the same game now as it was then.  Reviewing or not, and I'm saying this from personal experience, it's best to try to imagine what it was like when the game first came out...when there were no crystal balls or Delorans telling you what the future would be like.  How do the game's graphics/sound/gameplay/experience/etc stack up to what came up to that point and what the machine was reasonable capable of up to that point in time?  That's precisely what I did when I finally into doing turn based RPGs starting in 2013 (that's by far my biggest regret as a gamer is putting off the idea of "sitting there punching commands" kinds of battles/games).  I did the Julie Andrews rule and started at the very beginning...the first Dragon Quest (and of course the next three) and the first Final Fantasy on NES, then the Golden Age 16-bit era ones, and so on.  Not just to  make up for lost time but I wanted to try my best to experience it like gamers originally did....except with the now added benefit of being able to have maps/PDF guide/etc on my 42" flat screen monitor right next to my retro gaming monitor (20" CRT)!!! 😄   Hey it was either that or you had to draw your own maps and make your own notes as you went along!!!

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I don't want to get ideas so I didn't read others posts or much of yours beyond like that first question bringing up Pong.

Personally I find it to be a balancing act and there's really I guess for me a black and white approach to it.  You either stay within the scope of the system, its total library, and the hardware capabilities.  Or, you can do this, but then you are compelled to reflect upon the modern era and if it has aged well enough to still be worth bothering, but that can get into the slippery slope of how do you grade something from 1991 vs 2011 and how much would that instantly potentially give the old game some negative points towards it being crap compared to industry changes over the decades.

For me I ignore the present, I stick to the platform, the games it had, perhaps the games other systems of the style had on the market at the same time (GB vs Lynx vs GG for example.)  That would be as far as I'd go into the compare and contrast unless perhaps it was like a GB game that was a conversion/port of a NES title, then comparing the two is totally fair game.

When I used to do reviews of games on my own around the later 90s into the early 00s for the GB and GBC I had my own system I kind of aped/tweaked from the Nintendo Power style of things.  When I ended up doing it officially online for a few years doing GBA and DS stuff, I took a more unique approach because I didn't want another me-too trash bomb or ass kiss thing all the sites basically did.  My reviews were longer than most, but I broke down the games mostly emotion detached and went into the good, bad, the averageness of things the game presented.  If I felt to get personal, I'd straight up say I'm putting opinion here so someone could feel free to discount it.  I did that very well on some GBA Final Fantasy reviews such as #4 a it was my favorite, broke it down well keeping the feels in one place, but didn't let it infect the rest.  I typically did get good feedback in email or usually more on the forums I'd also admin and it was appreciated because no one ever felt like I was manipulating them to buy stuff sucking up to developers.

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1 hour ago, Estil said:

First rule, don't buy into that whole "hasn't aged well" crap.  It's still the same game now as it was then. 

This is a peeve of mine, even though I don't really like getting into discussions about it. I can probably be convinced that the term has some merit given the right context, but as a general rule I'd never accept it as a way to describe anything.

Whenever I do hear someone claiming that something "hasn't aged well", I just see that as them being somewhat reluctant to admit that they used to be wrong about it. If it's not good now, it wasn't then. And conversely if something had blinded you to that, allowing you to get enjoyment out of it anyway, then maybe it does have some qualities that are worth highlighting.

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Editorials Team · Posted
3 hours ago, BortLicensePlate said:

For me personally I think the best way to tackle this is to decide:

Is this game fun?

Why or why not?

I see a lot of reviews where they look at one aspect at a time and categorize everything, like music is 4 out of 5, graphics is 3 out of 5, etc. But to me that doesn't really say much. The game should be looked at as a whole, if it is fun you should be able to explain why it is fun in a succinct but well thought out manner.

A lot of the time I see reviewers just explain what the game does. "So its a side scroller, you jump on enemies, you get power ups, then there's a boss." That's great they can regurgitate what they see happening on the screen, so can anyone else. I want to know why these aspects of the game are fun. I dont need the whole game explained to me from start to end.

Another thing to consider is we all have our preferences. If someone doesn't like a genre of game, their opinion of that game won't have any meaning to someone who does enjoy that genre of game.

Those reviews are the worst

"Replay value and music are both low-scoring, so we end up with a calculated score of 6/10"

Uh, what?  

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29 minutes ago, Sumez said:

Whenever I do hear someone claiming that something "hasn't aged well", I just see that as them being somewhat reluctant to admit that they used to be wrong about it. If it's not good now, it wasn't then. And conversely if something had blinded you to that, allowing you to get enjoyment out of it anyway, then maybe it does have some qualities that are worth highlighting.

The phrase usually means that something was awesome for the time, given the limited tech, but has been superseded by games since. It could very well mean the game was flawed, but we put up with it as it was all we had.

A modern 2D platformer might not improve over Super Mario Bros 3 that much, so SMB 3 has aged well. A primitive FPS might have been the best of its era, but FPS today have exceeded it.

Then it comes down to how much lasting charm the game has. Some have it, some don't. The ones that don't "haven't aged well."

That's all it means.

Edited by Tulpa
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44 minutes ago, Reed Rothchild said:

Those reviews are the worst

"Replay value and music are both low-scoring, so we end up with a calculated score of 6/10"

Uh, what?  

I think it just boils down to trying to get a formula thats easy to replicate so they can churn out more content. But to me that kinda stuff has little substance

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34 minutes ago, Tulpa said:

The phrase usually means that something was awesome for the time, given the limited tech, but has been superseded by games since. It could very well mean the game was flawed, but we put up with it as it was all we had.

A modern 2D platformer might not improve over Super Mario Bros 3 that much, so SMB 3 has aged well. A primitive FPS might have been the best of its era, but FPS today have exceeded it.

Then it comes down to how much lasting charm the game has. Some have it, some don't. The ones that don't "haven't aged well."

That's all it means.

aaaand this is exactly why I stand by everything I said in the exact post that you quoted. 🙂 

Edited by Sumez
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