*In part one of this series, I discussed my love of JRPG’s, upgrading my retro systems for the new millennium and my desire for new games on defunct consoles. In part 2, I take a look at what makes physical hardware special as well as the retro homebrew scene.*
Why create a new game on a decades old console? Pixels can be replicated almost perfectly to emulate the “look” and “feel” of our most beloved classic games on a host of modern systems… Or can they? To many, these “pixels” simply don’t look quite the same on our giant, flat panel, high-def displays –emulated scan lines or not. And yes, while I may have spent part one of this series selling you on the idea of why you should “upgrade” your old consoles to work with new technology, I can still appreciate many people’s want for a truly authentic experience. Whether it be a classic game, or a new game on an old console. Sometimes there is just no replacement for that heavy ass CRT.
So what truly makes the authentic “retro” experience unique? Why is it so different to play the original Super Mario Bros on a NES emulator or the Virtual Console, as opposed to the actual NES hardware? Does it really matter what platform you play the game on? It’s still Super Mario Bros after all, original NES controller in hand or not. So who cares right?
Well, there are several ways to look at this. First, there are literally thousands of games that you can’t play (legally anyway) any other way but on original hardware. That alone is a massively compelling reason to pay the current $50 asking price for an original NES. But let’s be realistic here, anyone who is fluent in retro gaming has more than likely discovered the wonders of emulation. Many are only interested in classic games because of this hypothetical grey area. No matter how much of a purist you may claim to be, I can bet you’ve used emulation more than once in your retro gaming career. Not to mention, who the hell wants to pay $200+ for Earthbound?!?
There is also the collect-a-thon element. We humans are natural born collectors. We love to horde and we love to amass as much “stuff” as possible. There is just something about an actual “physical” copy that makes your spine tingle. It’s hard to describe, but I’m sure you know what I mean. Having a real game cartridge and plugging it into a working console adds a certain element that simply isn’t present in an all digital form (not to mention inaccuracies in emulation). The circuits of the NES come alive when you hit that power button, projecting in its original, unaltered form, the image of that classic game onto your TV screen. There is simply no replacement for that.
Those scanlines can be emulated, but not replaced.
There is also the idea of “ownership fatigue.” Think about it for a second. When you were a kid, how many games did you have? Five? Ten maybe? If you were lucky like me, maybe a couple dozen. You were forced to focus and spend time on each and every game, thus increasing each games value exponentially and creating the infamous “rose colored glasses” syndrome. Whether a game was good or not, you were stuck with it, and you played the hell out of it. With something like a digital list of games, you literally get lost in excess. You may scroll down the list, play a game for five minutes and move on to the next. Or you may be compelled to play nothing at all simply because the sheer magnitude of choice is overwhelming. Look no further than the modern graveyard of gaming lists: Steam. Fun fact: only 37% of games on a given users Steam list have actually been played. Imagine that.
A list of games on a screen can never replace a physical piece of media. Something is lost in translation.
And last, but perhaps most important; when you use an emulator to play a ROM image from a digital list, the soul of that game is lost. What you are playing is a copy of what once was. In a way, you could say that it’s equivalent to looking at a digitized photo of your old memories. Yes, you can reflect on these times and remember what happened, but the feelings are distant and detached because the medium itself makes it all seem anachronistic — like seeing shiny CGI creatures in a grainy science fiction movie from the 1970’s. It just doesn’t fit. Using the original hardware not only helps build a bridge with your past, but also allows you to live in the now AND then at the same time. It’s like a time machine that can only be created by the authenticity of the original hardware. No amount of code, no matter how accurate, can completely replicate that. Although the quickly approaching VR boom is surely going to try.
My point in all this: There is still a compelling reason to play physical games on original hardware. Yes, you can load up that list of 730 Super Nintendo games in Snes9x, but how many will you actually seek out and enjoy if all you have is a massive archive filled with unknowns? What reason do you have to commit to one game at a time when you have hundreds? Or even thousands? There is simply no substitute for a good old fashioned cartridge in your hands, plain and simple. Go to a flea market, or retro game store, find an old game, haggle, get it for a steal, bring it home and plug it in. I promise you the enjoyment you get from it will be tenfold what you’d get from a soulless list of text on a computer screen.
So what does it take to create a completely new game on a decades old console? Off the top of my head, several things come to mind; time, patience, commitment, passion, assembly language, the technical know-how and oh yeah, money. Everything always comes back to money in the end. Which of course is why we usually don’t see many “professional” games released on long dead gaming systems, especially completely new properties. There generally isn’t a large enough market to justify the time and expense required to bring these seeds to fruition on a mass market scale. However, there is a niche of mostly passion projects that continues to grow in size and scope with each passing year.
If you dig deep enough through the expansive corners of the world wide web, you will come across plenty of homebrew games and ROM hacks created for old systems, many that have even seen cartridge releases. Sites such as Flashback Entertainment and Game Reproductions will sell you homebrew and ROM hacked games on actual reproduced cartridges. That’s right, you CAN play a de-port of Sonic the Hedgehog on your actual NES! It exists!
Sonic isn’t too happy about being de-ported to the NES…
You can also pay $50 for “Real Shitty Batman”, a supposed Alpha version of an unreleased SNES game. *shudders*
Real Shitty Batman was worthy of a real shitty TV as well.
The supply of homebrew cartridge games really is astounding when you dig deep enough. There are complete translations of games never released in the West, unofficial sequels to beloved classics, collection carts with multiple games in a single genre, reimagining’s of your favorite games, and that is a mere glimpse of this expansive and growing world. Want to play a completely redesigned version of the original Metroid? (there are dozens) How about an unofficial sequel to Super Mario World? You can, and you can also get a cartridge of these games and play them on the actual, original hardware. The people who created these games (and the ones who ported them to cartridges) must be given credit where it is due. The tenacity and spirit of the community that is keeping these defunct systems alive should be commended for their work.
That’s right, you can play an entirely redesigned version of the original Metroid on your actual NES console. Complete with cartridge.
If you aren’t into homebrew, there are of course other great reasons to purchase “Repro Carts”, as they are called. With the increasing popularity of classic games reaching delirious heights, the prices have hit an all time high. Games like Eliminate Down, released only in Japan on the Sega Mega Drive, go for literally thousands of dollars on eBay. Most casual collectors like myself could never fathom spending that sort of cash for a single game, be it great or not. But websites like the ones mentioned above give hardcore fans the ability to play these games on the actual system without spending half a month’s pay, there is a lot of merit in that.
An original copy of Eliminate Down can be yours for only $1530! Or you can pick up a repro cart for around $50…
So, while I believe the world of homebrew games and repro carts is great, that isn’t precisely what I am referring to when I talk about wanting a “new” gaming experience on an old system. Porting homebrew games created by a guy in his basement, or putting a ROM image of a rare game onto a new cart, aren’t the same as creating fully realized, completely fleshed out gaming experiences created by a team of people. Truly professional games for retro consoles are few and far between in the 21st century. Although if you want a pretty remarkable example, take a look at Gunlord:
GunLord! One of the most bad ass run n’ guns you will ever play. ONLY available in physical form on the Neo Geo and Sega Dreamcast.
Gunlord was developed for the now (mostly) defunct Neo Geo hardware by German indie developer NG:DEV.TEAM and released in 2012, a full eight years after the last official Neo Geo game was produced (it was also ported to the Sega Dreamcast, more on that later). Gunlord is a run n’ gun action game that looks and sounds about as professional as any game of the 16-bit era possibly could. It was built and designed completely within the limitations of the Neo Geo hardware and released on an actual 624 megabit Neo Geo cartridge (for both the arcade and home versions of the console). At the time of release, the game retailed for between $400-$500 per cartridge, and the run sold out! Although if you want it now, like most retro items in limited quantity, it will set you back a pretty penny:
If you happen to own a Neo Geo console, a physical copy of GunLord can be yours for the low price of $1400! Might I suggest buying the Dreamcast version which is much more reasonable at around $60.
NG:DEV.TEAM has also released several other games for the Neo Geo/Dreamcast since 2009 with another scheduled for a 2016 release. And speaking of the Dreamcast, there are few consoles as active in the homebrew scene as Sega’s defunct darling. Since its demise in 2001, there have been roughly three dozen independently produced or ported games released on the console, with five more scheduled for 2016. Part of the reason for this Dreamcast renaissance is the systems friendly architecture, making it easy to port games developed on the PC over to the system. The results are quite a few professionally produced games such as the shoot em’ up, Sturmwind:
Sturmwind, by indie studio RedSpotGames is quite frankly one of the most amazing SHMUPs you will ever play, on any system. It can also be played in beautiful wide screen mode on more modern TV’s by using the VGA port on the Dreamcast.
But what about the Sega Genesis? Well, until 2010, the most recent “official” game released for the system in North America was Frogger in 1998, but even this was a port of a much older game. If we are talking about a completely “new” gaming experience, then The Lost World: Jurassic Park, released in 1997, is likely the last truly original game that wasn’t some kind of port of an older title.
However, there have been games released on the Genesis after the year 2000. If you want to be “politically correct” about it, you can include the localization of the game Beggar Prince, an exclusive to China, originally released in 1996 and then re-released worldwide in 2006 by Super Fighter Team. Although the reason I generally don’t consider Beggar Prince a new release is because it wasn’t, the game was a decade old when it was translated and localized. It was still a game developed back in the mid 1990’s. But don’t get me wrong here, I applaud Super Fighter Team. Frankly, I applaud ANY company that wants to re-release games in the modern era that never made it to this side of the world, especially in cartridge format! But again, to me, this isn’t the same as a completely new, original game for a 16-bit system.
Beggar Prince was notable for being the first physical release for the Genesis/Megadrive post 2000. It’s a pretty standard fare JRPG, but I’ll take what I can get.
Super Fighter Team is worth more than a casual mention however. They technically were the first company to release a “new” Sega Genesis/Mega Drive game on an actual cartridge in the new millennium. And since then, they have managed to release another dozen or so games, including a cancelled Super Nintendo game originally from 1998 called “Nightmare Busters.” The others consist mostly of localized ports (many from China) for games that never made it to the West. Whether any of these games are considered “new” is up for debate, but either way it’s a win for old consoles.
Nightmare Busters, a run n’ gun style game, got a second life on the Super Nintendo thanks to Super Fighter Team.
I have a deep respect for homebrew and Indie developers, on any platform. Much to their credit, they have helped bring about the current retro gaming revolution. They have proven, through their work, that there is still a demand for classic style gameplay and games. And while I feel much of the homebrew scene lacks the skillful polish of a game created by an entire team for a professional studio, there are still many fascinating projects being developed, some even with that elusive “professional” polish. Without ROM hacks and homebrew console developers, the current “retro style” indie craze we now enjoy would likely have never come about. Many of these games may not be the type of “new” games I am looking for exactly, but I can’t fault much of the amazing work that has been done.
So, that leaves us once again with my ultimate wish: A brand new, expansive, completely original, fully fleshed out, professionally produced game on a 16- bit retro console (or in my case, the Sega Genesis). Well, little did I realize that in 2003, the Genesis of my dream was beginning to take flight on a little Sega fan site called Eidolon’s Inn…