Thursday, December 10, 2015

Retro Kickstarters - Modest Goals Rewarded

I have been fascinated by the concept of Kickstarters geared to classic video game consoles and home computers.  That many have been successful indicates that there are needs that are waiting to be fulfilled.  However, most retro video game Kickstarter campaigns have had reasonable goals.  Few that have required over $100,000 to be funded have been successful.  In this blog entry I will talk about some of the campaigns and give my thoughts on their significance.

First, Kickstarter campaigns with lofty goals targeting the retro video game market will almost certainly fail.  The Retro VGS is a perfect example of a campaign so wrong headed and just plain bizarre that it justifies the trope "truth is stranger than fiction:".  They wanted $2,950,000 to fund a new retro-style cartridge only console built from a plastic mold for the Atari Jaguar shell.  Oh, it may have had an FPGA that could recreate consoles like the NES or the 2600 in hardware.  The Retro VGS campaign's risible failure has been commented to death and has really given far too much attention.

People may be more hesitant to spend their money for big ticket video game projects thanks to the failure of the Ouya console.  The Ouya raised over $8 million on Kickstarter for a $99 game console (the controller was quite a bit extra) that would play games easily ported from Android.  Despite the massive success of the crowdfunding campaign, the Ouya was sold off to Razer and discontinued within two years of its release.

There have been successes with sequels to classic games.  Wasteland 2, Dreamfall Chapters, Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded (a remake), Shadowrun Hong Kong and Shenmue III may never had been possible without crowdfunding.  Also, some designers with classics to their name like Richard Garriott,  Chris Roberts, Tim Shafer, Kenji Inafune and Koji Igarashi have found the resources to back new projects in the vein of their earlier work but which is owned by a large corporation that has turned its back on them.  (Hideo Kojima may be joining them soon.)  These games of course are designed to play on current platforms.

Crowdfunding true retro games designed to be played on classic consoles is a far greater challenge.  Similarly, while there have been successful crowdfunding campaigns for books, documentaries and music albums related to classic video game consoles or home computers, crowdfunding useful hardware for those computers and consoles has been a task that has been a success only to a few.

The NES has had a quite a few successful hardware and software kickstarters.  Hardware successes include the Blinking Light Win : https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/113891498/blinking-light-win-resurrecting-your-nes?ref=discovery  For $20 you bought a quality NES cartridge connector replacement that, eleven months after the campaign has ended, they are still having trouble stocking.  It has fulfilled a need for a reasonably priced, quality connector from people who are passionate about what they are doing, not just some Chinese manufacturer endlessly recycling second-rate parts.

There has also been the Chip Maestro, a MIDI synthesizer device that uses the audio channels of the NES' 2A03 APU : https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jarek/chip-maestro-an-nes-midi-synthesizer-cartridge?ref=discovery  This is not the first cartridge to allow for the NES audio channels to be controlled via MIDI, the MIDINES was available years earlier, but may no longer be available for purchase.

While you may ask why you need a MIDI controller for the NES when you have FamiTracker and other musical composition programs that allow for full register access to the APU, if you want to use a keyboard directly with the NES in a live performance, you need something that will respond to key presses in real time, hence these MIDI controllers.

Cheetamen II: The Lost Levels (essentially a fixed version of Cheetamen II on a cartridge) is the most successful NES-based hardware Kickstarter I know of : https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/343248998/cheetahmen-ii-the-lost-levels?ref=discovery   There is a patch available for the game here : http://www.romhacking.net/hacks/778/ that allows you to complete the game and you can play it on an NES PowerPak and an EverDrive N8 with the MMC1 patch.

Despite the full ALL CAPS and somewhat discursive presentation, the Kickstarter was a huge success.  This must have been helped by the large number of NES collectors who wanted to fill a hole in their collection for $60 instead of $1,000, which is what the original Cheetamen II cartridge was going for at the time.  The promotional video with James Rofle in his Angry Video Game Nerd persona (and his 1.95 million subscribers) must have helped enormously.

Another modestly successful piece of NES software is the retroplayer.nl Championships 2015, which recreates the Nintendo World Championships 1990 cartridge and competition : https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1348643050/nintendo-nes-retroplayernl-championship-2015?ref=discovery  Frankly I do not know how this got through Kickstarter because it uses Chip 'N Dale's Rescue Rangers II, Tetris and Excitebike and no authorization from any of those rights holders seemed forthcoming.  Considering that it flew well under the radar, no one may have brought it to their attention.

There are a pair of NES books on Kickstarter, the first is called the Complete NES by Jeffrey Wittenhagen :  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/thesubcon3/the-complete-nes-collectors-book-physical-nes-rpg?ref=discovery
The book is being published alongside a game exclusive to the kickstarter called Jeffrey Wittenhagen's Black Box Challenge.  It is being programmed by Sly Dog Studios, no stranger to NES homebrew.  Whether their games are any good I cannot say but graphically they look pretty dull.  This game is an RPG centered around the quest to acquire all NES black-box games.  This campaign requested $15,000 and took in $24,455.  If you wanted a physical paperback copy of the book and the game on cartridge without box or manual, you would have to pledge $90.  For a more impressive hardcover copy of the book and a game with box and manual, the price increases to $170.

Perhaps the price seemed a bit steep to attract more donors.  The second book, the Ultimate Guide to the NES Library by Pat Contri, https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/560468638/nintendo-nes-library-guide-and-review-book-of-750?ref=nav_search gets you a physical hardcover copy of the book for $60. Normally I do not mention books without something else, but this book is the most funded NES project ever, expecting to hit the $100,000 mark.  Pat has also had three successful Indiegoogo campaigns for his annual NES charity marathons and has also successfully raised money for four DVD volumes of his Pat the NES Punk series.

There is also documentary called The New 8-bit Heroes with a new NES game called Mystic Searches :  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1316851183/the-new-8-bit-heroes-new-nes-game-and-creation-doc?ref=discovery  The documentary is focused on the homebrew scene and the game will be an adventure game that appears to play in the Zelda vein.  Also, accessible from the cartridge via a USB port will be a modern version of the game and the NES game and the PC game can talk to each other.  Perhaps a bit too ambitious, and the $54,381 pledged is not sufficient for the modern game.

Another gentleman was able to get his NES homebrew game, Lizard, funded : https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1101008925/lizard?ref=discovery  There is a homebrew game for the SNES called Syndey Hunter and the Caverns of Death.  A stretch goal enabled it to be ported to the NES : https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/439982171/new-snes-game-sydney-hunter-and-the-caverns-of-dea?ref=discovery  It is the only non-NES and non-2600 homebrew game that seems to be crowdfunded.  The only other homebrew game I could find that was funded through kickstarter was Star Castle for the Atari 2600.  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/698159145/atari-2600-star-castle?ref=discovery

The Commodore 64 has seen some hardware kickstarter success.  One gentleman was able to secure the case molds for the C64c and was able to offer new cases with different colors instead of the boring beige of the original :
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1670214687/original-commodore-64c-computer-housing-in-new-coo?ref=nav_search
Unfortunately, the project manager was required to remove all references to Commodore from his campaign because the entity that holds the Commodore trademark threatened to sue for trademark violation.  Fortunately they did not catch it until late in the campaign, so there was sufficient advertisement for the kickstarter to be successful.  I understand it is compatible with any C64 motherboard with proper keyboard support mounts, and I have a nice C64 motherboard that works with a brittle, post-retr0bright failure case. Considering that the creator only wanted a modest $10K, obtaining over nine times that amount was pretty impressive!

The Commodore Amiga has seen similar success with a project (with their second attempt) to make new A1200 molds :  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/a1200housing/new-amiga-1200-cases-made-from-new-molds?ref=nav_search You will note that the name Commodore is not present when describing the project.  Of all the projects discussed here, this one is the only one which has passed the $100K mark.  However, the project managers needed to make new molds, which is incredibly expensive.  I cannot say I am incredibly familiar with the late model Amiga scene (not a lot of gaming potential there), but boy there had to be a need for these cases.  They also have room for a Raspberry Pi or a MiST FPGA board, which would not have been the case with the original cases.

Of course, I cannot leave out a mention of HD Retrovision's Component Video cables for the SNES and Genesis : https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hdretrovision/sega-genesis-and-super-nintendo-component-cables?ref=discovery  Even though component video is not the best way to connect a SNES or Genesis to a modern LCD or to stream footage from one, it is still useful for those of us with big screen CRTs with component video inputs.  A hardware project I would have liked to see succeed was the hdmyboy, https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/507669971/hdmyboy-a-full-hd-power-up-for-your-game-boy-class?ref=nav_search
which is a HDMI adapter/converter for the original Game Boy.  Unfortunately, 65,000 Euro is an ambitious goal and I believe that people were really expecting not just original Game Boy, but Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance support, especially with the Retron 5 out there.  How much more processing power would have been required to convert 15-bit color instead of 2-bit monochrome?  Also, the hdmyboy lacked stereo output support.

As you can see, this is a very small number of successful projects (14).  Most people who have a product usually rely on pre-orders from internet forums like AtariAge, NintendoAge, VOGONS, Vintage Computing Forums, Sega-16, PCenginefx forums or assemblerforums.  AtariAge has been extremely successful in allowing developers to publish new games for the Atari 2600 in cartridge form.  On the other end of the spectrum, kevtris had to fund development of the Hi Def NES Mod out of his own pocket, for example.  Currently, retro console and computer related kickstarters that keep their funding goals within the five figure mark stand a good chance of success.  Six figures is most likely poison to just about any campaign.

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