The limitations of old gaming platforms are the things that make them most interesting

Back In The Day, as we like to say, gaming on home computers and consoles often involved a fair amount of compromise, since there wasn’t really a single “perfect” system. The inherent limitations of each and every platform meant that there wasn’t a “one size fits all” approach to development — and in many cases, we saw that having the “best” (i.e. most powerful) hardware wasn’t necessarily a guarantee you’d get the best game.

This could, of course, be a tad frustrating at the time, particularly when it came to arcade conversions, or home computer versions of console classics. Amiga owners could be all smug about how many layers of parallax scrolling they had in Shadow of the Beast, for example, but all you had to do if you wanted to make them squirm was bring up their version of OutRun. Likewise, I doubt my school’s playground was the only place where people came to blows over whether the gory Mega Drive version of Mortal Kombat was indeed superior to its bloodless Super NES counterpart.

Mortal Kombat and the limitations of the SNES
Mortal Kombat (SNES) – note the “sweat”

Looking back now, though, the differences between all these platforms are the things that make them endlessly interesting — particularly as today’s computer and console platforms are all largely interchangeable in terms of capabilities, with their main differences coming in performance. Arguably the system that stands out the most today is Nintendo’s Switch — because it’s the least powerful of all the platforms, and thus it’s arguably all the more impressive when a dev manages to put out something that runs super-smoothly and still looks great.

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It’s still not really distinct, though. There’s nothing especially unique about the Switch when compared to its rivals — aside from its form factor and hybrid functionality, and that’s not really what we’re talking about today. No; instead I’m talking about retro gaming platforms that had limitations on resolution, number of colours, number of sprites on screen, number of sound channels and all that sort of thing. Because the further into “the future” we go, the more we forget about how amazing it actually was that some programmers managed to make these devices truly sing.

The other thing that each piece of hardware’s unique limitations brought to the table was the knowledge that every platform’s version of a particular game would be very different. Pac-Man is a perfect example of this, since despite the game’s inherent simplicity, no one platform in the ’80s really managed a truly “arcade perfect” version of the game — they were all kind of interpretations of the game at best.

Pac-Man and the limitations of the Atari 2600
Pac-Man (Atari 2600) – not great, no, but definitely interesting!

The Famicom/NES version came pretty close, with a very authentic look and feel, right down to using the correct fonts — but the sounds didn’t have the same bassy “oomph” as the arcade machine did. The Atari 8-bit and Atari 5200 versions looked, sounded and played great, but the screen’s aspect ratio was wrong, since Pac-Man was a vertically oriented arcade game, while these Atari versions stretched the maze to a full 4:3 screen width. And, of course, the notorious Atari 2600 version may have been legendarily awful — but it’s instantly recognisable, too.

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The same is true for countless other games, too. The aforementioned Shadow of the Beast was a technical tour-de-force on the Amiga, but a janky mess on the Atari ST — a fact which helped many people realise that without the super-slick parallax scrolling and beautiful colours, the game wasn’t all that fun.

Likewise, the aforementioned OutRun suffered greatly on its 16-bit home computer ports, but actually did rather well in its 8-bit incarnations — because in those cases the programmers bore the platforms’ inherent limitations in mind and designed the game around them, rather than trying to get as close as possible to the arcade machine in terms of static appearance, but being unable to squeeze out the performance required for a truly authentic-feeling port. And then, of course, there are the console versions of OutRun, too, which likewise each had their own distinct quirks.

Video by Zeusdaz – The Unemulated Retro Gaming Channel

We take the ability to emulate pretty much perfect arcade experiences for granted these days — but I’ve found in more recent years that I actually prefer going back and exploring the various interpretations that home ports brought to the table — particularly when said home ports took the opportunity to tweak a few things about the arcade version or even fix bugs.

Jaleco’s Rod Land is an interesting example of this; when developing the excellent Atari ST, Amiga, Game Boy and NES ports, the developers were provided with little other than a garbled sprite sheet from Jaleco and some video footage of what it was supposed to look like, and thus they pretty much had to rebuild the game from scratch for each platform. It came out pretty damn well considering — with each platform’s version being noticeably distinct — though one constant is that a continue feature would have been nice.

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The other thing worth bearing in mind is that home ports of arcade games in particular tend to be better balanced for play in the home. While “NES Hard” is definitely a thing, you can generally count on a home port of a quarter-munching beat ’em up to treat you a little more fairly than its arcade counterpart — even more so if said beat ’em up was originally designed for the home, such as in the case of Sega’s Streets of Rage series.

Rod Land and the limitations of the Game Boy
Rod Land (Game Boy) – the low resolution small screen meant this single-screen platformer became a scrolling one

I think what has become abundantly clear as time has gone on is that unlike “present-day” gaming, which is, for many people, about the pursuit of perfect performance, retro gaming is much more about embracing and celebrating the inherent limitations of the various classic platforms we love to explore. Because it’s those limitations that make those platforms interesting — and those limitations that make each and every platform unique.

Now I’m off to go play Rod Land on the Game Boy. Because I think that might actually be my favourite version.

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