Honestly, I'm not thinking that far back but for me 2D has always been about the "arcade" feel. With that in mind, my artistic abilities don't necessarily lend themselves to that look because to pull it off you need to be a decent sprite artist. Thus my current dilemma.
Personally, I would like to find a synergy between old school and new school for the artistic vision of any 2D game that I decide to embark upon. So, I began to question what that something was that I couldn't put my finger on which made 2D game graphics have that arcade appeal, well for me at least.
It's weird but the biggest factor turned out to be the "sprite" artwork and I had already decided I wasn't going to go that route. Yet, I could accept dismissing that aspect of it because even if I could pull off sprites, there would still be a lot of things missing. So again, I begin to ask myself what were "those" things.
After studying tons of images that I've collected over the years and even more recently, I began to see it. It took for me to play a lot of arcade style games to confirm it but there was no denying it. It was the text, sounds crazy huh? Not really. These old school retro games have text everywhere and for everything. It's not really about the type or style of text but the function that it serves and screen location.
From how many lives you have left, to power-ups and current level status indicators. These small details for me at least seem to carry a 2D game and give it that kind of old school feel. With all the newer games of today were so used to an almost cinematic type of experience. It's as if we don't want to feel like were playing a "game" but playing a type of sureal reality.
I don't want to risk getting off topic by discussing the evolution of the in game GUI's and how information is now presented to the player....so I'll end that here.
Since my desire right now is to develop 2D games, I just needed to research what the definition of 2D arcade was for me. Now armed with this "revelation" I will begin to design my game with these and other ideas in mind. I plan on taking my 3D abilities and creating a rich set of characters and levels that are on par (fingers crossed) with mainstream games of today. Yet, maintain the arcade feel of the past via the GUI and how the information is being presented.
A good example of what I'm babbling about would be, when a player runs over an item that causes him/her to recieve an extra life, the 1up icon would rise out of the top of the character. It is stuff like that, which is neccessary to bridge the old with new, in my case at least.
Trying to pull this off will probably be just as demanding, challenging and fun as developing the 2D engine from scratch.
Note: I realize that there are ton of things that makeup for the aracde look and feel such as gameplay, music and whatnot. The text aspect of it is just one of the many things that stood out to me.