Millennials’ obsession with nostalgia is fueling the rise of vintage video games, and experts say we’re only going to see more revivals in the future

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Super NES Classic Edition (SNES)
The SNES Classic.

Ben Gilbert/Business Insider

  • There's been a resurgence of interest in vintage video games in the last few years, from remakes of retro consoles to reboots of popular franchises from the 1990s.
  • Experts say interest in older video games isn't going away anytime soon, and we can probably expect to see more revivals in the future.
  • Interest in retro games seemingly hit a fever pitch in 2017 with the launch of Nintendo's SNES Classic, and there's a simple reason why: The fans who grew up playing those games now have the means to invest in them as adults. They also may be sharing them with their own kids.
  • Even younger generations that didn't grow up with these titles are developing an interest in them by learning about them on YouTube.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Back in 2017, Nintendo launched a console that was incredibly difficult to find following its release. Retailers sold out of preorders almost immediately and struggled to stock their shelves to keep up with demand.

No, I'm not talking about the Nintendo Switch, the company's handheld device that doubles as a home console when hooked up to its dock. I'm referring to the SNES Classic, a miniaturized replica of the popular Super Nintendo Entertainment System from the early 1990s that comes packed with hits like "Super Mario World," "The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past," and "Super Metroid."  

Sales of the SNES Classic and the NES Classic, its predecessor that launched in late 2016, surpassed 10 million units in late 2018. That's almost a third of the Nintendo's Switch sales to date, which have exceeded 36 million units. 

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The success of Nintendo's revived retro consoles is just one of several indications that vintage video games are as popular as ever. Game publisher Activision also released the "Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy" in 2017, a revival of the platformer saga that game studio Naughty Dog originally launched in 1996, which also went on to sell more than 10 million units. Following in Nintendo's footsteps, Sony and Sega have also launched revivals of their own vintage game systems. 

While the enthusiasm around older video games isn't necessarily new — after all, Nintendo has been selling classic games through its e-Shop for years — experts say there's only more to come.

super mario world gameplay
"Super Mario World."

SNES

Vintage games could be a key part of where the industry is headed

In fact, they could even provide an important building block for video game subscription services in the future, according to Frank Cifaldi, founder and director of the Video Game History Foundation

Major industry players — from Microsoft to Electronic Arts and even Apple — are now offering services that let subscribers access a catalogue of games for a monthly fee. There's a chance vintage games could help bolster those content libraries, according to Cifaldi.

"I don't know for how much longer it's going to make sense to buy video games," says Cifaldi. "I think that in the next five years buying a video game is going to feel as weird as buying an album … I suspect video games are going the same way and that vintage games are going to be a part of that deep back catalogue."

The appeal of gaming subscription services is only expected to grow this year, with NPD Group's Mat Piscatella predicting that spending on such services in 2019 could increase by more than 40%.

Michael Pachter, a managing director of equity research for Wedbush Securities who frequently covers the gaming industry, is more skeptical about the notion that vintage games will be used to fuel subscription services.

That's partially because he thinks it will be difficult to convince the games' rights holders to license the content to companies operating such services. A more likely scenario for platform holders like Sony would be to roll out these retro titles one at a time, like it has done with its "Crash" and "Spyro" reboots, he says. 

Regardless of  how they're sold, Pachter says he believes there are likely many more remakes to come.

"I think you'll see Konami, Capcom, and Sega bring back old stuff," he says. "I mean why not? There is demand for that."

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Why people still love old games

It's also no coincidence that we're seeing revivals of game franchises that debuted around the same time period during the mid-to-late 1990s, like "Crash Bandicoot," "Spyro the Dragon," and "Resident Evil 2." 

During that era — the height of the original PlayStation's life cycle —  games became less pixelated and are therefore easier to remake today in a way that works well visually, according to Pachter.

And, of course, the games also happen to be really good. "It's a testament to the game design," says Pachter.

There's also a reason remakes and retro consoles from the 1980s and 1990s have proven to be a hit within the last two years specifically: The people who grew up playing these games, who may have been in their teenage years in the mid-1990s, are probably now sharing them with their own kids, according to Pachter.

"That nostalgia, it really works," he says. "You buy it, play it with your kids, and share it."

That age group in general now has disposable income to spend on indulging in games from their childhood, whether they're sharing them with their children or not, says Joe Tartaglia, owner of New York City-based retro video game shop 8bit and Up. Tartaglia says his customers generally fall into two categories: vintage game collectors and players who grew up with these games and want to re-create some aspect of their childhood.

But there's also a third category that's emerged in recent years: young gamers that grew up with the internet and developed an interest in old games through watching YouTube videos. Tartaglia says he sometimes sees customers between the ages of 6 and 13.

"So there is an up and coming generation it seems of kids that are really enthusiastic about vintage games," he says. "Which is good because it means there will be another generation of people interested in these old things." 

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Crash N' Sane Trilogy 3d Screenshot
A still from the "Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy" released in 2017.

Activision

Like other forms of media such as music, movies, and TV, digital storefronts are increasingly becoming the preferred means of purchasing games. 

Figures released by the Entertainment Retailers Association from earlier this year indicate that digital sales accounted for 80% of games revenue in the United Kingdom in 2018.

This trend isn't lost on Tartaglia, who describes his store as being "kind of like an antique shop," adding that he believes the gaming industry will likely meet the same fate as Blockbuster.

But despite how the industry changes, interest in classic games that are well-made will stand the test of time, according to Pachter.

"If you've ever played a Mario game, you can pick up a brand-new one and you know exactly what to do," says Pachter. "I consider that a real skill, something others don't have."

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