If you want to play Dustin Long’s most recent game, you’ll need a console that was first released more than 30 years ago. As a young musician in New York, Long found himself drawn to the chiptune scene, where artists craft sounds using classic gaming hardware. He would go to shows like Blip Festival and Pulsewave, where he saw artists coaxing music from old Game Boys and a Sega Genesis. But he went a step further and decided to design a game that could only be played on an obsolete console. “Seeing their work made a huge impression on me,” he says. “It inspired me to create something of my own, as a way to contribute back.” In 2014 he released Star Versus, an 8-bit space shooter that was only available to purchase on an NES cartridge.
Long isn’t alone. Over the last few years a number of game developers, both hobbyists and professionals, have crafted brand-new games that you can only play on old hardware. Several are coming later this year. September will see the launch of cyberpunk beat ‘em up Paprium on the Sega Genesis, while vampire-themed fighter Unholy Night: The Darkness Hunter is expected to release on the SNES in June. They follow the likes of recently released Kira Kira Star Night DX and 8-bit Music Power, released for the Famicom — the Japanese version of the NES released in 1983.
Homebrew games are essentially unlicensed titles designed with the limitations of a particular console in mind. For some, it’s a hobby, a fun way to experiment with programming and design techniques. For others, it’s a way to pay homage to game experiences that have long gone out of fashion. Sometimes it’s a little of both. In 2010 Xbox co-founder Ed Fries created a stripped-down version of Halo designed for the Atari 2600, while Paul Koller has made a name porting modern indie games to the Commodore 64. Most of these games are released for free, and playable through an emulator on a PC.
For Long, the decision to not only create a retro homebrew game, but release it on a cartridge, was made because he wanted to embrace the limitations of a device like the NES. “The goal was to craft a tightly controlled experience,” he explains. While Star Versus is a decidedly 8-bit game, as a competitive shooter it also pulls from modern game design techniques. Long was also interested in restricting himself to the NES controller, something that wouldn’t be possible if people played the game through a PC emulator. “There were obvious downsides to only being on cartridge, such as limited exposure and difficulty in demoing,” he says. “But I’m happy with the choice I made, at least for this game.”
Releasing a title on 30-year-old hardware comes with more challenges than just a limited audience. (Star Versus has sold around 300 copies to date.) For one, there is the audience’s expectations of what can be accomplished by a small team on a dated machine. “Our fans expect something better than the AAA games of the time, where teams at the peak of their career were supported by multi-million dollar companies,” explains pixel artist Gwenael Godde, founder of Paprium developer Watermelon Games. Because of this, the team spent a great deal of time researching the technical aspects of the hardware, like the optimal sizes for in-game characters, or the best way to make the screen scroll from scene-to-scene.
Paprium is actually the second Genesis game released by Watermelon, following the 2010 role-playing game Pier Solar and the Great Architects. Work on Pier Solar began in 2004, when it started as a small project among like-minded members of the Sega homebrew community. Eventually it expanded in scope to become a commercial project. Development took a lot longer than anticipated, thanks to a combination of the limited capabilities of Sega’s 16-bit systems and the challenges inherent with a mostly volunteer-led project. Pier Solar was originally scheduled to launch in 2008, but didn’t ship until two years later. Afterward, the team created a Kickstarter-funded “HD” version of the game, which launched on more modern platforms like the PS3, Wii U, and… the Sega Dreamcast.
However, the many years spent creating Pier Solar didn’t mean it was any easier developing the follow-up. “None of the tools or code used for Pier Solar have been re-used in Paprium,” explains Godde. “The main reason is that, because of the hardware constraints, every single tool or code must be designed to be a perfect fit for the game. Totally different games, totally different requirements.”
Technical constraints might be the biggest challenge of developing for these platforms. “The hardest part by far was having to juggle multiple kinds of restrictions simultaneously,” explains Long. “Limited processor speed, limited memory, and limited file sizes meant that fixing a problem in one area often caused issues somewhere else. The worst was during late development, where having an idea for a small fix or feature would often mean having to work around the system’s limitations first to clear up memory or space to make room.”
It’s also tough deciding what platform to develop on. Each console has its own quirks, whether it’s hardware capabilities or the difficulties in producing new cartridges. Developers may also have a particular fondness for one console over another, depending on childhood experiences. For Long, who also looked at systems like the SNES and Atari 2600, the appeal of the NES was more practical than sentimental. For one, it was already popular among the homebrew community, which meant he could find help if he came up against a technical hurdle. It also had the power to create the game he had in mind, while still being simple enough that it wasn’t especially daunting. “The NES was a nice sweet spot,” he says.
In an age when you can buy 8-bit game soundtracks on vinyl and spend $449 on a high-end aluminum NES, the resurgence of cartridge games makes a certain kind of sense. For the creators, there are many unique challenges inherent to building these retro games. But, for the most part, these difficulties are offset by the satisfaction that comes from being able to play a game on a system they grew up with. “We are big Mega Drive fans,” says Godde. “The 16-bit era is a good challenge for us.”