Physical Retro Titles are Alive Once More
Recently, a pair of retro, horror-themed indie games—Creepy Brawlers by Mega Cat Studios and Haunted Halloween ’86 by Retrotainment Games—received the distinct honor of being some of the latest games to be released digitally on the Nintendo Switch. It is was more than just a timely release of two horror-themed games before Halloween though, as the two also share something else in common: They were both created specifically for the Nintendo Entertainment System first.
That’s right, a pair of games being released on the Switch, are also unofficial titles released specifically for the original NES, which stopped production in 1995.
The Love of Retro Gaming
The stories behind Creepy Brawlers and Haunted Halloween are not unusual. The past decade has seen great interest for games to play upon the nostalgic visuals or sounds of classic retro consoles. What has become unique is an increasing amount of those retro-styled games receiving physical releases for consoles long since dead. Going beyond the simple homebrew market or digital release, some developers have taken it to the next step, resurrecting retro consoles with new releases to satisfy the growing niche in the gaming world.
“Like many people who grew up in the '80s we were mesmerized by the NES; clearly it left a lasting impression on us that's lasted more than 30 years now,” recalls Greg Caldwell, the owner of Retrotainment. “We deliberated for years about our first game idea, but we only wanted to make it if we could release it on a NES cartridge... around 2014 we decided to really dig in. We stumbled across a forum thread online called Nerdy Nights about the basics of NES development and tried to learn everything we could. Over the course of that year we were fortunate to team up with some great people to create what is now Retrotainment Games. We released our first game in October of 2015 in honor of the 30th anniversary of the NES first hitting U.S. shores.”
Retrotainment is now one of several companies that have created games for retro-based consoles, with Haunted Halloween ’86 being the sequel to their original release in 2015, Haunted Halloween ’85. The smash success propelled Retrotainment to continue development for the NES.
“We had never made a game before, so we were completely flying by the seat of our pants from concept to creation to physical production,” Caldwell said. “We finished the game about a week before the convention, sent the ROM to INL and received the first 30 cartridges in the mail the same day we hopped on the plane to Portland. When we arrived, we ran to the nearest Goodwill, bought a CRT TV for the show, assembled those first 30 carts in the hotel room and were ready to roll. We were fully prepared for no one to give a shit and us to go home with all 30 carts, but to the contrary, we sold out!”
The Nostalgia Factor
Haunted Halloween ’85 is just one of many projects that have become well known amongst retro console enthusiasts. Some have had success on Kickstarter, such as the release of the platform puzzle game 40 Winks for the Nintendo 64, nearly 20 years after it was cancelled at the last minute. Others have been built from the ground up from leaked ROMs or source code, such as Nightmare Busters from Super Fighter Team.
Other companies, like Mega Cat Games, have used retro consoles to be a hook for some of their products.
“It's the era of games we grew up with, and the games that influenced a lot of us to find our way into the industry,” said Nate Flynn, an artist and developer at Mega Cat Studios. “It's the nostalgia for physicality, couch co-op, and a collectible paired with the opportunity to look through the lens of current generation game design (from achievements to character progression).”
Mega Cat Games has a very diverse portfolio of titles, with games being released on modern consoles, iOS and Android phones, and of course, retro consoles from the NES to the Sega Genesis. It is their retro-lines that seem to generate the most buzz, with titles like Creepy Brawlers, a Punch-Out style boxing game featuring tons of classic movie monsters, becoming a hit in the retro gaming community.
Flynn particularly points to the authentic feel of an old-school NES game as being an important aspect that all gamers can share. “Aside from giving your Nintendo something new to chew on, we all want the feeling of playing our favorites the first time again," he says. “These types of games give us that same feeling, from opening the package and leafing through the manual, to throwing our controllers at our television after a disgraceful rage quit. The entire experience of holding the cartridge is something that can't be replaced.”
“It's not just dads trying to relive their past, it's young people too,” said Caldwell. “We see it every convention where a new generation of cartridge gamers come by our booth to tell us how much they love what's happening in the community.”
A Dying Art
This love is part nostalgic, but also part historical relevance. Part of this is the dying process of making cartridge-based games in a digital age, which many developers struggle with due to the unique technology used to create it.
“We give our physical cartridges some meticulous attention, including the boards and components. We primarily use the MMC3 mapper, since it comes with some extra horsepower for anyone working on the games," stated Flynn. Sometimes other challenges also arise which are specific to the game being worked on.
Creepy Brawlers was created specifically by Mega Cat to be a game with big graphics and fast action. All of this leads to new quirks in the games design, such as transforming enemies that provide new pattern recognition and even fodder for speedrunners to enjoy. Flynn however, recalls how difficult it was to make this happen.
“The biggest challenge for Creepy Brawlers was adding some commits to the public ca65 repo on getting these giant-sized characters to load, and run at a fast-enough frame rate, given the size restrictions. The characters are actually rendered as background objects and have some neat tile optimizations applied to make everything fit and play fast.”
Modern techniques to game design do lead to some innovative choices on retro-styled games, despite major limitations to the bit size. Other limitations come into play as development begins, such as the limited color palette, a problem that Retrotainment faced for Haunted Halloween ‘86.
“Of the available 64 colors in the palette, several are duplicates or nearly identical, one has negative brightness and one is out of the NTSC's color gamut, so there's about 52 that are actually useful,” Caldwell said. “Most of those useful colors are bright or pastel, which just don't jive with spooky [aesthetics], so we're left with only a handful of colors to try to incorporate to make the game's aesthetic come to life.”
This attention to detail leads to good results, as seen in the final release versions despite the cost.
“A lot of variables go into production of new NES games from the cartridge shells to the PCBs to the artwork materials,” Caldwell noted. “Initially almost everything came from a different source but over the years we've been able to streamline things a bit and produce more of the materials ourselves. All told it still costs us around $30 to make physical versions.”
Caldwell admits there are cheaper options out there, but the quality of their overall package, he argues, should match the quality controls that were made standard by Nintendo itself back in the day.
Looking Back While Going Forward
Both companies are already planning on brand new titles for future release. Mega Cat is working on a retro-themed run-and-gun titled Bite the Bullet, which is scheduled for a 2020 release digitally on platforms like Steam. Retrotainment, however, is continuing to develop games solely for the NES with their third title Full Quiet, an ambitious, open-world NES game that had a successful Kickstarter campaign.
The challenges for developing something totally unique like Full Quiet are staggering, but the rewards, Caldwell admits, are certainly worth the effort.
“Since Full Quiet is an open-world game we had to start building the engine from scratch. It also has eight-way scrolling, mid-section warps, and guns that use hitscan so it's an entirely different monster,” said Caldwell. “For instance, instead of just using eight-pixel by eight-pixel tiles for building backgrounds, like we did in the Haunted games, we have a much heavier focus on metatiles (up to 64x64 pixels) in order to make the word feel large enough. We also must use new compression and tile-sharing techniques to pull this off all while still hiding the classic NES tile-grid look for the backgrounds. The upside to starting this game from scratch is learning all this new stuff, it's forcing us to hone our craft.”
Ultimately, the future of retro console games is a bright one. More and more games are being developed and released physically today, it has spawned a whole ecosystem of retro game enthusiasts willing to pay for these unofficial titles. Thus far, companies like Nintendo have not given any mind to this either, allowing developers to continue to release games on their long dead systems.
It is a trend that hopefully will never die out. “There has never been a more exciting time to be a retro gamer!” said Flynn. “The quality is always increasing, and the number of options has multiplied. It still takes months to years to make a commercial quality release for a dedicated team, but there's no end in sight for the retro renaissance.”