Thursday, October 16, 2014

Retro Releases - Working within Limitations

When a home video game console is developed, often the designers could not predict how long the system would last.  The Atari 2600 was designed in 1976 and the last games were released for the system in 1990.  During the lifespan of a successful console, programmers would often push the hardware to limits well beyond what was thought possible when the system was designed.  

Console systems that relied on cartridges had one severe limitation, space.  The larger the ROM cartridge, the more costly it was for the publisher to make.  Adding special features like battery-backed save RAM or advanced functionality (like a MMC chip for a NES game, an MBC chip for a Gameboy/Color game, or a SARA chip for an Atari 2600 game) was even more expensive.  However, as manufacturing costs for cartridges decreased, larger games would become more economical.  Eventually, there came a point where space and functionality could, late in a console's life, only go so far to hide the age of the underlying hardware.

For an Atari 2600 game, 16KB was considered a large cartridge at the end of the console's life.  512KB would be about as large as most NES, SMS and non-color Gameboy games would get, 3MB for a Sega Genesis game and 4MB for a Super Nintendo game.  Even though most of those systems had larger games available, at those sizes the games were approaching the upper limits of what was feasible during the console's lifespan.  

Today, many, many programmers and developers make retro-themed games.  Often these games would have graphics that would hearken back to the 8-bit or 16-bit eras and have music to match.  Almost always, these games would be released for the Windows PC platform, the Intel-based Macs, or for Android or iOS mobile OSes.  Many would be available to download through a digital download source like Steam or an App store.  

These games lack at least two crucial features of real console games.  First, they have no permanent form, they exist entirely within the digital domain.  If your hard drive is wiped and your Steam account is deleted, there goes your game.  Sometimes they have DRM, so if Steam goes down then your access may be gone forever, despite having the program on your hard drive and backup.  By contrast, a cartridge (or a CD) has its own existence and the game's survival depends only on how well you treat the cartridge.  You can sell or trade or lend the cartridge as you please.  Licensing restrictions really never worked to keep people from doing any of these things.  

The second issue is that most of these games will never be remembered with the same fondness as Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog.  Those games were played by tens of millions of people, were ground breaking and state-of-the-art in their day, had significant cultural impact and historical significance.  A retro-style game may be very well received today, but its impact will probably pale in comparison to the giants that came before it.  

Retro-style games have a substantial advantage over the classic console games : they are run on vastly more powerful hardware.  Retro programmers tend not to have to worry about CPU cycle counting, assembler optimization, IRQ timing, sprite limitations and lack of sound channels.  By modern standards, it is a miracle that the NES and similar systems were able to run such games as they did.  No retro-style game need put up with these limitations, and even some that claim to do so (Mega Man 9 & 10) cheat when necessary.

Of course, with a game developed for a particular system, it must be contained on a cartridge if you want people to play it.  It simply was not feasible for most programmers to self-publish a cartridge in the 1980s or 1990s or even into the 21st Century.  Any such publishing was typically limited to Atari 2600 games, which are among the simplest cartridges to make.  

For more advanced systems, there are many difficulties in releasing a new game.  Burning EPROMS and soldering them onto donor carts to test games was not attractive to most people. Moreover, using donor carts is just not feasible for publishing a new game, new cartridge boards had to be produced. Unlike a pre-crash game, which could be programmed by one person, a complex game for the NES, SNES or Sega Genesis typically requires a team of several people.  Whatever price the game is sold for will not pay for the thousands of man-hours it took to create a game.  Game development must be balanced with real-life realities.  Also, there is a real probability that once your game is released, the ROM will be dumped and spread across the Internet.  

However, even though a game may be developed or ported to work on a real hardware system, there are examples when the hardware is simply way too advanced for the console.  At this point, the console becomes little more than a generic device that supplies power and inputs to the game.  The SNES MSU-1 is an example of too much hardware.  It can store and allow the SNES to access 4GB of data!  Not even if the canceled CD-ROM attachment came out could the SNES access so much storage space.  CD-ROM attachments were not seamless, players had to suffer load times, CD audio track reloading and the ever present drive noise.

I respect any game developer who is willing to work within reasonable constraints and able to produce memorable games.  Pier Solar is an example of a game that, while it pushes the limits of a Sega Genesis a bit (8MB cart), is still an original game that fits within the Genesis RPG library.  Battle Kid 1 & 2 for the NES are excellent games that would not have seemed out of place during the NES's heyday.  However, the number of new, substantial (not puzzle games) cartridge games for home consoles is still very few in number.

One last comment on homebrew games is that I cannot feel that a game is fully legitimate unless it is released on a cartridge.  ROMs are nice, and if they run on a flash cart that is great, but to have a unique cartridge, preferably with a box and manual, truly confirms a game as legitimate and tends to avoid issues with them being lost to time.

A related issue is the release of "VGA upgrades" to old adventure games like King's Quest I, II & III, Space Quest II, Quest for Glory II.  The trouble I have with them, besides the inconsistent quality of the updated graphics, is that while they purport to look like an SCI1-1.1. game, underneath they are anything but.  They do not use Sierra's SCI engine but Adventure Game Studio.  While they do nothing that would push a 486, they are meant to run on nothing less than a Pentium II and create 100MB save games.  Totally inefficient and wasteful.

As of June 13, 2015, here are the NES Homebrew carts that you can buy.  Items in yellow are currently out of stock.

Title Company/Developer Includes Optional Ordering Site
2 in 1 Geminim/Siamond Sivak Dust Sleeve
Armed for Battle Rizz Dust Sleeve Box & Manual
Battle Kid 2: Mountain of Torment Sivak Manual, Dust Sleeve Box & Art Book
Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril Sivak Manual, Dust Sleeve
Beerslinger Greetings Carts
Blow 'em out Greetings Carts
Box & Manual, Personalized Cart
Chunkout 2 James Todd Dust Sleeve
GemVenture Tom Livak
Glider RetroZone Manual, Dust Sleeve, Box, Insert
Homebrew World Championships (HBWC) 2012 Multiple Dust Sleeve
Larry & the Long Look For a Luscious Lover KHAN Games Manual, Dust Sleeve, Box, Insert
Mad Wizard, The Sly Dog Studios
Mystic Pillars Sivak Dust Sleeve
Nighttime Bastards One Bit Games Manual, Dust Sleeve Box
Nomolos: Storming the Catsle (Re-release) Gradual Games Manual, Dust Sleeve Box
Star Versus Studio Dustmop Manual
Study Hall KHAN Games Dust Sleeve Box & Manual
Super NeSnake 2 Matrixz Dust Sleeve

1 comment:

  1. I'm not bothered on most todays retro games not having physical form, but that's me, coming from Central European PC background. Most of us didn't used cartridge systems, and mostly pirated our games and apps. The rare occasion I stumbled on a legit boxed copy, I was less than impressed.

    And yes, most retro games are much bigger than the original counterparts because they're programmed in some kind of game creator toolchain, or C(++), plus they're make use a lot of third party libraries like SDL, various implementations of OpenGL and audio libraries, which combined size are as large (or even larger) than most of the cartridge games.

    Aside from programming "shortcuts", these retro-esque game creators are also flexible on game data types: they use 8-bit or truecolor palette on all sprites despite most of them only has 4-8 colors, or store the chiptune music in an mp3 (or ogg if they're paranoid about the licenses), and sfx in wav files. Yes it's a waste of space, but it's easier to program that way.

    And that's fine. Those remakes aren't made for hardware enthusiasts like you, but for the occasional player who want a (fake?) nostalgia by playing them, and their file size usually doesn't bother them (although 100 megs for a saved game seems absurd for me too), since they have terabytes at their disposal.

    And you can easily back up these games, and in my opinion, bitrot or DRM isn't the biggest threat for these, but the ever changing APIs of popular operating systems and hardware (the remake of Head Over Heels has a garbled palette on my Intel Graphics system, thus unplayable to me).

    And lastly, the real old games are remembered more fondly because as a wide-eyed innocent kid it was new to you. For me, it was the VGA shareware games era for 286-386 PCs, and I'm mostly indifferent for anything that came before it (I don't care, for example, about text-adventure games)