Everyone has their own take on what makes a game retro – some say it’s stark, it describes the NES generation and that generation alone, some say it’s an aesthetic like indie games using pixel art, and others treat it more fluidly, as a natural progression that happens every 15 years or so. I’m leaning on the latter, which unfortunately means Skyrim is up for debate. It’s an uncomfortable and boring thought, but an interesting insight into how the term retro has changed and adapted as gaming has developed.
RetroGames was the first to use the term in 1997. At the time, it applied to the NES, Turbografx-16, and Sega Master System, meaning retro described consoles between the ages of seven and 14 years old. Given the linguistic origins of retro gaming and using the idea that it’s a fluctuating term, we can safely say that Skyrim is retro. Bethesda’s RPG launched in 2011 – 11 years ago – putting it in that retro bracket, while its launch consoles – the PS3 and Xbox 360 – are now 16-17 years old. They’re not even up for debate, but Skyrim also fits the bill.
Rubbing even more salt in the wound is that Skyrim is now available on the GOG showcase – GOG for Good Old Games. It mostly features retro classics, although it does have some modern versions. However, Skyrim’s debut in time for its 11th anniversary feels less like catching up with the most popular releases and more like celebrating a game finally going retro. But that seems wrong. When you look at Skyrim, it doesn’t seem that old, as the game’s exponential growth has slowed down a plot. We went from text adventures to side-scrollers to 3D graphics in a very short time, while leaps in the same series like Silent Hill to Silent Hill 2 and Half-Life to Half-Life 2 in just a few years highlighted how quickly technology was improving.
Retro is hard to pin down. Outside of video games, that means emulating a style from the recent past. The rigid boundaries that spawned the term in-game don’t really work anymore. Yes, Skyrim is retro if we use the original definition of seven to 14, but the game isn’t what it was back then. The jump between PS4 and PS5 isn’t as big as expected, but that’s because there’s so little room to move forward right now. We perfect and refine hyperrealism with visible pores in people’s skin and real-time reflections and lighting. These are slight increases in visual fidelity, nothing to do with the jump between Super Mario Bros and Super Mario 64.
Even looking back 11 years, the games hold up remarkably well. Skyrim still handles perfectly and its age doesn’t really show, and the same goes for many titles from the PS3 and Xbox 360 era. to be done with it, but that fluidity also applies to how the game has changed as well. The rule of seven to 14 years is no longer suitable, because the jump from then to now is hardly comparable to that first jump of 11 years. Even the PS2 and GameCube eras haven’t aged this a lot. So to answer the question – in the strictest terms, Skyrim is retro, but it shouldn’t be thought of as such. It’s as old as the NES when the term was first used, and its console generation even older, but that doesn’t matter when the game’s growth has slowed.