People have come to know me as a lover of retro games. Though I may not have grown up in the era of the NES, only beginning to explore digital worlds towards the end of the N64’s lifecycle, I have grown a particular fondness for an era of gaming that is now considered a far simpler time. A time when you had to call a hint line or subscribe to Nintendo Power to figure out how to get past Deborah’s Cliff in Castlevania II. Obviously, I’m not the only one who appreciates this moment in gaming history. Many game designers look back to that time for inspiration as well. Some more than others.
I’m talking about a development trend that goes beyond the pixelated look or purposefully-outdated mechanics many modern retro-style games employ. From Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril to Paprium, there are a slew of games being made specifically for retro consoles. There’s even a new NES game that celebrates Finland’s centennial anniversary. Why has there been a sudden, if small, emergence of homebrew games for systems now decades old?
There are many modern conveniences that make creating new retro games far easier than it used to be. Processes like dithering and raycasting vastly expand the kinds of graphics that can be displayed without causing flickering or slowing down gameplay, while newly designed firmware can skirt around copy protection mechanisms which prevent games from working altogether. Nevertheless, limitations from processor speeds, memory, and file size meant that small fixes and features added in one part of the code would mean careful surgery in other parts to clear up space.
It’s a technical challenge to make these games, to say the least. Not to say that modern games don’t require effort or skill to make, but tools like UDK and Unity on modern rigs are far more attractive and powerful than handwriting and hardcoding in 6502 Assembly. Developers lose out on the extra power of modern game development, intentionally hamstringing their games potential. And that’s precisely the point. The NES is limited, but simple enough for a single developer to craft a complete experience while full teams of programmers, designers, and artists can produce games like Unholy Night: The Darkness Hunter for the more complicated SNES. Every game in this movement, however, is made to take those limitations and turn them into strengths.
Despite all of the issues that come with making these kinds of games, this movement is motivated by a passion for the era. It is far simpler to make a retro-style game for the PC without having to learn all of the code architecture of a thirty year old system. Games like Shovel Knight and Retro City Rampage capture some essence of that time, but it requires a certain level of admiration and respect to preserve the original form. These developers aren’t looking to exploit nostalgia for profit. Star Versus and Tanglewood are products of love, allowing their creators to fulfill lifelong dreams, to learn and adapt from lessons from the past, and to promote the notion of creativity from constraints. It’s about figuring out how to take your modern gaming sensibilities and grand designs and cram them into 512 kilobytes of memory.
In a time when vinyl records and brick and mortar stores are coming back into fashion, it makes sense to see a return to cartridge-based games. With this shift comes even more features innovating on the ways we play on retro consoles. Developer Kevin Hanley is creating an external adapter for the NES that will enable online play for his RPG Unicorn. You read that correctly; there’s going to be an online RPG for the NES. Even though these systems seem to be relics of the past, they continue to be a part of our lives beyond the influence they’ve left. In time, as technology catches up with ambition, endless possibilities await those who want to make games for the consoles they grew up with.