Things were simpler back in the day just as a function of systems complexity -- The simple microcontrollers you might find in a modern games controller or running the front blinkenlights/disc-eject panel on the console itself is orders of magnitude more capable and complex than, say, an Atari 2600. What once the whole, is now relagated to a fractional measure of a tiny percentage of the system's overall complexity. Back in the day, you read a 200 page paberback book that described literally every last detail of a system -- today, that's the chapter on GPU register usage.
No one human being today can master an entire modern system, let alone also wearing the artist, designer, producer, audio engineer, and marketer hats. Back in the day, the entire company was not uncommonly one dude in his bedroom, part-time.
On one hand, the limitations they faced were increadibly limiting, but on the other, there's something freeing about it. You knew with certainty what the hard limits of the system were, and that with skilled programming could achieve them exactly. Today, we have a good idea on the upper bound, but other considerations bottleneck peak theoretical performance, and we spin round and round figuring out how to make the bottleneck just a little bit wider, moving our own goalpost. The sky is the limit these days, and the sheer number of options can be paralyzing -- back in the day, with relatively limited options, you just figured out a creative solution and got on with it.
But the thing is, the details we have today are more-or-less the same details we had to deal with back then -- how can I shed a few more cycles? How can I best allocate my registers? How can I squeeze more information into the same amount of memory? These are questions modern and old-school engineers both recognize. The only thing that's changed, really, is the sheer number of details that have to be considered in concert.