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Pittsburgh Retro Gaming Expo celebrates a renaissance of old-school video-game design

Independent game studios over the past few years have drawn the industry back toward old-school, traditional game play

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In the Nintendo game Haunted Halloween ’85, 10-year-old Donny Johnstown oversleeps after a night spent playing NES, Nintendo’s first gaming console that debuted in the ’80s. When he gets to school, he discovers his entire town of Possum Hollow has been taken over by an army of aliens, ghosts and zombies. In his Pirates cap and matching jersey, Donny must rid the town of the evil spirits before it’s too late.

You don’t remember this game from your childhood because it’s only two years old. The Pittsburgh-based Retrotainment, which specializes in retro-game design, released Haunted — on an actual NES cartridge — in 2015 to wide acclaim, and this year, it followed up with a sequel called Haunted Halloween ’86. 

At the Pittsburgh Retro Gaming Expo, at the Ace Hotel on Sat., March 25, attendees get a chance to demo Halloween ’86, as well as play, sell, trade and buy other old-school games on consoles ranging from Atari to Dreamcast (sorry, no ColecoVision as of print date). While this isn’t the first similarly focused event to hit the Pittsburgh region, this year marks the biggest iteration, featuring vendor booths from studios including Nintendo, Windy Gaming, Tiltcycle and Stone Age Gamer, as well as tournaments for Super Smash Bros. and Street Fighter IV. 

“Retro” is a subjective term, depending on your age and when you stopped playing video games.

“Everybody’s kind of got their own definition for it,” says Brian Wissner of Pittsburgh Retro Gaming, which organized the expo alongside the Pittsburgh-based video-game developer Mega Cat Studios. 

PRG co-founder Colt Dalmaso describes it as “anything that gives you nostalgia.” 

“For more of a preservationist standpoint, which I consider myself, I view it as anything that’s two generations old,” says Wissner. By that definition, that means Game Cube, Playstation 2 and Dreamcast now fall under the “retro” umbrella. 

Wissner and Dalmaso founded Pittsburgh Retro Gaming, in 2013, as a Facebook group to bring together like-minded gamers and provide a network for trading and selling old cartridges. Around the same time, Mega Cat Studios started organizing events also called Pittsburgh Retro Gaming, though it focused more on conventions and expos. The two entities co-existed for a few years before recognizing that it made more sense to join forces and collaborate under one name. This month’s expo marks the first event organized by the united group.  

In an age saturated by 1990s nostalgia and rebootery, it’s not all that surprising that retro gaming has made a comeback. But Wissner says it’s not just about nostalgia.  

“I think the key to it is the simplicity of play, and not necessarily that the game is simple, but that the mechanics are simple and therefore, you don’t spend an hour when you sit down to play the game for the first time in a tutorial,” says Wissner. 

Big studios in modern gaming seem to put a priority on complexity, whether in graphics, plotline or game play. Iconic games from the early 2000s, like the Grand Theft Auto franchise, led to a focus on open-world, free-roaming game play, where players can explore vast spaces without time constraints or specific achievements. But independent studios in the past decade have drawn the industry back toward old-school, traditional game play. 

“I’ve heard it described by artists that sometimes being limited in what you can do in a game is actually more stimulating creatively than being told you can do whatever you want,” says Wissner. 

“If I sit down in front of a game that’s open-world, I get bored very quickly. … But something like Shovel Knight or Mario Brothers that’s on a 2-D plane, it’s very clear what your goals are, but it’s not necessarily clear how you accomplish them. You’ve got to figure it out for yourself.”


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