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Passion for pixels: Retro gaming hits Berlin

At Berlin's Computer Games museum and indie studio Kraken Academy, Berliners are finding joy in 16-bit masterpieces.

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Kraken Academy’s creators were inspired by Zelda’s pixel art

Two adolescent boys take turns dodging barrels thrown by Donkey Kong under a dim red light, surrounded by bleeping arcade machines. In the next room, a young woman with bleached blond hair, jean jacket sleeves rolled up, dodges obstacles in the classic 90s racer Wipeout. A brother and sister giggle as they run past, looking for clues to open a treasure chest guarded over by Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft. This is 2021 at Berlin’s Computerspielemuseum, and a testament to the lasting power of retro gaming.

Founded in 1997 by a pair of enthusiasts collecting relics of video game history, the museum was a first-of-its-kind ‘digital entertainment’ exhibition, but remained for a long time a travelling exhibit until it found its current home in 2011, in a former GDR restaurant on Karl-Marx-Allee. On top of displaying info about the scene’s history and the development of consoles, it provides a place for fans of retro video games to come together and enjoy their passion.

For Benjamin Drexler, a tour guide at the museum, it gives him with a chance to rediscover the community-building power of the medium “again and again in new ways, because all visitors have different stories and memories”. He also gets a kick out of seeing these gaming connections happen in real life, when for example a young person comes in with an elderly relative and they have to figure out the history and mechanics of gaming. “All of a sudden they end up in a situation where they are gaming together and explaining to each other how the games work.”

Like so many lifelong gamers, Drexler’s early bonding experiences with friends were the start of his journey – even if it wasn’t exactly encouraged. Growing up in a small town in northern Germany in the 1990s, Drexler says people were particularly suspicious of the value of computer time. “My parents had strict rules about me needing to spend as much time outside playing, so sometimes I’d literally just go stand outside for an hour, or I’d go to a friend to play video games there, then after we’d go back to mine to play more.”

Time-travelling consoles

Taking a quick look around, it’s no wonder the museum stirs up a sense of nostalgia. In the exhibition’s interactive intro section, ‘the Digital Kitchen’, visitors can play collector’s items, such as early Japanese Puck-Man Atari arcade consoles (before the name was later changed to Pac-Man in the West, out of fear it could be too easily twisted into something obscene), as well as more modern classics such as the 2000s-era Nintendo Wii game Cooking Mama, where players take turns helping ‘Mama’ prepare food by cutting vegetables or flipping plates in quick-fire rounds.

The break-off rooms around the main exhibition feel like the biggest time-warp, recreating important spaces where video games were played. There is a 1980s-style arcade, where visitors can play Donkey Kong and Space Invaders, and a bedroom console set-up, complete with wood-panelled walls, where gamers can sit in front of an old cathode ray television hooked up to a NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) and play Super Mario Brothers.

But retro isn’t just confined to museum exhibits. In fact, many contemporary indie video game creators draw their inspiration from retro games. A quick search through online gaming marketplace Steam, which since its launch in 2003 has become an industry behemoth for indie games, will come up with countless examples of games with ‘retro’ graphics, inspired by home video game consoles from the 1980s and 1990s.

But what exactly does ‘retro’ mean in the gaming context? “Retro is where you intentionally reference the graphics of a video game that were determined by the limits of the hardware at the time,” says Ashley Ruglys, a 23-year-old gaming enthusiast, who in her spare time makes free ‘open-source’ (copyright-free and with editable programming code) graphics engines for indie games.

In decades past, textures and colours available to developers were limited by how much could be displayed by the ‘bit’ limit of the graphics card in a console. For example, the NES was first released in 1983 with an 8-bit processor and featured classic titles like Super Mario Brothers. Because of the storage capabilities, only 54 colours were available to the developer, giving these games a unique look and feel. For instance, Mario’s bright red cap and jumpsuit originally helped to distinguish him from the solid blue-sky background, the simple-shaped green turtle and his brown mushroom enemies.

Kraken out the influences

One modern game with clear retro influences is Kraken Academy!!, created by Happy Broccoli Games, a small Berlin-based indie games studio. Developed by the studio’s founder, 30-year-old Annika Maar, Kraken Academy!! is described as a “technicolour fever dream” in which players “join forces with a magical kraken to manipulate a time loop and save the world”. Last year it was nominated for the Humble New Talent award at the A Maze./Berlin games festival, and was released on Steam in September this year.

In a sign of how the games and animations the developers grew up have inspired these new creations, the run-down academy featured in the game, a high school full of broken-down cars and boarded-up buildings where objects are prone to spontaneously combust, is drawn in muted shades using 16-bit graphics, while the irreverent students and teachers are lovingly brought to life in brightly coloured anime-style overlay animations.

“We’re big fans of the pixel art of the Zelda games, the music is inspired by Pokémon and the anime by Sailor Moon,” says Barcelona native Irene Preuss, Happy Broccoli’s marketing manager. This nostalgia helps drive the story too, with a Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney-style court case at the end of the art club game chapter, complete with characters yelling “OBJECTION!” at each other and presenting seemingly random objects, like a bucket of red paint, as evidence.

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Happy Broccoli Games: a small indie studio from Berlin

There are also recognisably Berlin elements, such as the Pfand system. Players collect bottles, either by smashing lockers or trash cans, which can be turned into currency. The game features a rather aptly named “broccoli girl”, literally a sentient broccoli, who greets the character at the school gates and introduces the gameplay, which is heavy on sharply written dialogue and mini-quests (like procuring sleeping pills for an insomniac, goth music teacher).

The DIY appeal

While the use of old-school graphics and storylines might appeal to those with a penchant for retro games, Preuss says that practical considerations, such as the simplicity of developing the games, also make the style appealing.

“It makes games easy to create with a small team,” she says, noting that people can jump into different roles if needed. Preuss, for example, does some scripting as well as marketing. “There are even games that are quite popular in Berlin that were made by just one person!”

In fact, on top of being easier to work with, the DIY aesthetic associated with retro graphics even has an increased appeal for some gamers. “You can really feel a connection to the artist, because there’s a feeling like, ‘Oh, I can make something like that,’” says Ruglys, who, just like Drexler, made deep connections with some of her closest childhood friends while playing video games.

Despite being a predominantly virtual pursuit, physically meeting up with others to catch up, exchange ideas or simply whack on the console and have some fun is key to the development of Berlin’s gaming community – and something that has been often not been possible due to corona.

While a temporary setback, the pandemic hasn’t been enough to dampen the interest in indie games and their retro graphics, which has exploded so much that the Computerspielemuseum is currently rebuilding and expanding the exhibition to include “a new indie station with interviews, games and videos with indie game developers based in Berlin,” according to marketing director Nicole Hanisch.

All of which goes to show that even though original versions of games like Puck-Man and Donkey Kong might look like relics compared to what’s possible with modern graphics, retro gaming remains alive and well in Berlin.


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