Blast From The Past: Nostalgia Abounds At E3

The future of game design is drawing inspiration from the past.

Videogame History Museum

On the surface, this year's E3 was all about the so-called war of the consoles, but there was a much more interesting phenomenon at play beside the long lines for hands-on gaming opportunities and underwhelming swag. While E3 is best known as an event when exhibitors, media professionals, and other industry experts have the opportunity to check out the latest video games, consoles, and related accessories, each edition has a perceptible zeitgeist that becomes one of the recurring themes of the convention, and this year, it was nostalgia for the past.

Amid the show's characteristic sensory overload and overwhelming floor plan, visitors were treated to an unexpected surprise with an ad-hoc exhibition from the Videogame History Museum (above). The nonprofit organization started back in 1999 during the inaugural Classic Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. That's when John Hardie, Sean Kelly, and Joe Santulli set out to collect, catalog, and preserve classic consoles, vintage video games, and outdated accessories in order to establish a brick-and-mortar outpost chronicling the history of a business that's since grown to compete with the music, TV, and film industries combined—at least, in terms of sales. While there's still no physical Videogame History Museum, it definitely had a highly visible presence at this year's E3 with a carefully curated pop-up showcase of videogame ephemera.

Vintage consoles at the Videogame History Museum

The exhibit included the original Atari Video Computer System from 1977, which effectively ignited the home-based videogame frenzy, along with a ColecoVision unit and expansion module from 1982, which aimed to compete with Atari—and thanks to the new console's comparatively sophisticated graphics, it did... for a while. ColecoVision's single-game, mini-arcade units were even more popular back in the day, presaging the portable gaming craze that would eventually sweep the nation—and the exhibit had dozens of those, too.

Also on display was yet another system that competed with Atari and ColecoVision: the Commodore 64, which was semi-responsible for the temporary decline in sales of home-gaming consoles due to its groundbreaking personal-computing capabilities and whopping 64 kilobytes of RAM. Meanwhile, the exhibit's Nintendo Entertainment System from 1985 demonstrated how the dormant home-console market came back to life with now-legendary games such as Super Mario Bros, Legend of Zelda, and many others. These were just a few of the hundreds of items that not only provided an interactive timeline of the history of videogames, but also managed to get visitors excited enough to check-out samples of obsolete artifacts from the past. Even people who weren't old enough to remember them were amazed.

But this was just one example of the fascination with the recent past at E3 2013. As hordes of badge-holders navigated the labyrinthine aisles of the massive Los Angeles Convention Center, they came across retro-inspired products that included accessories, video games, and even consoles. Among the plethora of nostalgia-inspired devices, a few that stood out included a product from Hyperkin Inc.'s retro gaming line. SupaBoy (above) is a portable pocket-sized console that enables players to dust off their original Super Nintendo cartridges and play them once again. 

Similarly, Innex Inc.'s RetroBit gaming products include the Retrolink RetroPort adapter, which allows people to play old-timey NES games on any 8-bit capable device. Also from Retrolink, there's a classic NES controller (above) that looks just like the ones of yore, only these have USB outputs that connect to PCs.

E3's retro-craze didn't end there. The vintage gaming sensation extended to many of the newer games as well. Nintendo's forthcoming titles such as Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Super Mario 3D World, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, and Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U—and the high-def remake of Disney's DuckTales: Remastered for PlayStation 3, Wii U, Xbox 360, and PC, all bring a new spin to the now-classic videogames early players knew and loved.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Speaking of DuckTales: Remastered, a huge, 100-square-foot replica of Uncle Scrooge McDuck's Money Bin is just one of the attractions at an E3-related exhibition happening through June 30 at iam8bit Gallery in Los Angeles, where 80 international artists indulge in retro-gaming flights of fancy. The star of the show is the iam8bit Entertainment System (below), a hand-assembled gaming console from LA-based artist Travis Chen that effectively bridges the gap between art and technology.

Right now, it's too soon to tell whether the retro-inspired console, gaming accessories, and the games themselves will take off, but in the meantime, why all this excitement about retro gaming in an industry that's all about innovation? Perhaps the reason lies in the design. As opposed to the bland, utilitarian consoles and gaming accessories of today, the vintage styles were colorful creations that merged form and function for a "look" that mirrored the playfulness of the objects themselves. Plus, there's an inherent kind of innovation in the practice of drawing from the past. Rather than just simply being forced to adapt to new technology and leaving their favorite games behind in the process, maybe technology is finally giving players an opportunity to rediscover the reason that made them fall in love with gaming in the first place.