Heidelberg Castle has suffered more than its fair share of disaster over the centuries. Partially destroyed by lightning in 1537, it was twice sacked by the French during the Nine Years’ War before lightning struck again in 1764 and it was ravaged by the resulting fire. By the time Mark Twain came to it in the 1870s, it was “deserted, discrowned, beaten by the storms, but royal still, and beautiful”.
It is a fitting place, then, to hold a tournament for Age of Empires II, a game in which battles rage and castles fall with alarming regularity — but one that continues to stand the test of time. When the 16 players competing in the sixth edition of Red Bull Wololo: Legacy enter the castle in October, they will be hoping to sustain rather less damage to their own defences than Heidelberg has.
That a medieval real-time strategy game first released in 1999 can still attract a tournament with a $200,000 prize pool speaks to its timelessness: the game was so beloved for its easy-to-pick-up but fiendishly-hard-to-master mechanics that it spawned first an HD Edition in 2013, then a Definitive Edition in 2019, not to mention numerous expansions, the most recent of which was released in April this year.
“Age of Empires II just struck the perfect balance,” says professional player Ørjan Larsen, better known to the community as “TheViper”, who will be hoping to defend his Red Bull Wololo title. “Even if the game from 1999 was released now, it would still be a decent game, which is the most impressive thing.”
Age of Empires II is far from the only title to attract both love and money long after it first hit the shelves. Its continued success speaks to a certain nostalgia among gamers, or perhaps simply to the fact that a winning formula cannot easily be improved upon. Of the 10 most played games on the PC platform Steam in the past week, half were first released in 2013 or before, including the top two.
We live in an age of rose-tinted remasters, and such is the apparent appetite for old favourites that we’re seeing the release of updates to titles that are newer than the classics we’re still playing. The two most recent Uncharted titles, released in 2016 and 2017, have already been enhanced and repackaged for PlayStation 5. The Last of Us (2013) has been remastered twice, first for the PS4 in 2014 and then again for the PS5 this month, while open-world epic The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, released seven years ago, is set for a next-generation re-release later this year.
And it is, by and large, older titles — those that have had longer to build a competitive scene and tweak their game mechanics accordingly — that dominate the most lucrative tournament rosters. Dota 2 continues to top the table for e-sports prize money, with about $48mn up for grabs in 2021, eight years after its initial release. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012) and League of Legends (2009), meanwhile, earned players $21mn and $8mn respectively. That’s nearly a third of all 2021’s prize money coming from just three titles.
As a franchise, however, Age of Empires speaks particularly well to the penchant for nostalgia. Although the series has spawned four games in total, with Age of Empires IV released last year, the second game still boasts the higher player count on Steam. Still, the success of both says more than any competition between the two, argues Will McCahill of World’s Edge, the Microsoft studio behind the franchise.
“The vision for AoE II Definitive Edition was to make Age II as people remembered it, not the way that it actually was,” he says. “The goal of Age of Empires IV was to build a modern take on the classic [formula].”
Heidelberg Castle is no stranger to rebuilds, having been partially restored at the end of the 19th century; empty windows remain on the upper facade of the Ottheinrich Building, a windy reminder of what once stood behind. Gaming’s own history is somewhat shorter, but those competing in Heidelberg will still be hoping to prove that while most empires rise and fall, some are eternal.
Red Bull Wololo: Legacy takes place October 21-30, redbull.com