Perhaps the most immediately obvious design philosophy of retro games is their intuitiveness. Once upon a time games lacked a tutorial mode or in-game instructions entirely, but gamers didn’t feel lost. While minimal instruction was provided in the game’s manual, many gamers simply popped the game into the console and worked out how to play through experimentation. Through virtue of controllers with fewer buttons and carefully crafted level design, players were rarely confused about how to play. And as the game progressed and new abilities were gained, players learned how to effectively use them organically through repeated use alone. Perhaps the most obvious example of this concept can be found in the two-dimensional Legend of Zelda games. In each dungeon, players attained a new item, but even without referring to the manual, the game made it clear how to use each one. Another famous example of this concept can be found in another Nintendo game,Super Mario Bros. In world 1-1, as the player moves across to the right, Mario encounters a walking mushroom (a goomba) right as he reaches a floating question block. Accustomed to avoiding enemy collisions, the player jumps, but as he does so the goomba keeps walking. If the player jumped straight up, Mario will land on top of the goomba, killing it, and possibly also hit the question block above him. In only a few seconds into the game, the player has already learned that Mario can kill enemies by stomping on them, that in doing so he will automatically be propelled upward again, and that a question block’s secrets can be attained by smashing them from below, all without the need for an in-game tutorial. Even if the player jumps forward instead, he still learns something about Mario’s jump mechanics, and there are ample opportunities within the first stage to learn about killing goombas and breaking blocks. The first stage in Super Mario Bros. also introduces players to the concepts of the mushroom, fire flower, starman, and 1-up mushroom power-ups, as well as breaking blocks only as big Mario, hidden coins in some blocks, and even invisible blocks. The two main enemies in the game, goombas and koopa troopas, are also introduced to the player. All the information the player needs to play the game exists in the first stage, with later stages offering greater challenges to test mastery of that understanding.
The biggest influence on the design philosophy of games in the NES era came not from earlier consoles but rather the thriving arcade scene. Arcade games were—and still are—designed to drop players immediately into the action with little, if any, exposition and to keep the action coming with only short breaks every now and again to let players catch their breath. Arcades, after all, provide short bursts of excitement coupled with punishing gameplay meant to get the player’s adrenaline pumping. Arcade game designers had to produce a near perfect difficulty curve to keep players consistently challenged yet never feeling cheated, or risk their game being pulled from the stores and replaced with a better performing cabinet. This style of frantic gameplay, the focus on action over exposition, may have been in part to keep players “feeding the machine” with their hard-earned quarters, but it also came to be the expected experience from a visit to the local arcade. Even today with narrative-driven adventure games and Japanese role-playing games thriving in the home market, it would be absurd to expect either style of game to be available on an arcade cabinet.
Despite technical limitations, the graphics in games of the 80s through mid-90s felt like living, breathing worlds. Developers took the time and effort to plan out each level and populate them with nuggets of insight that implied a richer narrative than was actually directly stated to the player during gameplay. Although old school games are sometimes derided for lacking a clear narrative, exposition was simply downplayed in favor of letting the world itself convey story information to the player. In short, games focused on the environmental narrative instead of telling their stories through cutscenes and dialog exchanges.
Despite the limited graphic and color palettes afforded by old school hardware, artists still produced fully realized concept art to represent the game’s world and characters. This art would then be abstracted into a simplified representation, with care taken to ensure the visuals would still read as intended. Players were meant to perceive more than just the simple, pixellated images when they played the games. Artists of this era had to be creative in choosing how to represent characters, objects, and environments to reflect the world as intended. Nowadays, with pixel art en vogue, some designers miss the mark and design their art backwards, trying to make the pixellated characters look like pixellated characters. It may seem like a subtle distinction, but recognizing that pixel art actually represented a hand-drawn concept really makes all the difference.