Thought the SNES was dead? It’s anything but: Get inside the industry that keeps cranking out games for long gone consoles.
For many gamers, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was the 1990s. The Japanese gaming giant sold almost 50 million of the 16-bit consoles through the decade, and even now, games like Super Mario Kart, Star Fox and Street Fighter 2 are still fondly remembered, and sometimes even dusted down and played.
Technology marches on though: the SNES was replaced by the N64 console in 1996, and the GameCube in 2001. Two generations later, and Nintendo is focusing all its efforts on the Wii U, its first ever HD games machine. The last SNES rolled off the factory line in 1999: it’s history, surely?
Guess again: There’s a growing industry of hardcore fans and developers making games for the console, and it’s not the only abandoned machine still enjoying new releases courtesy of the community. Sega’s Mega Drive and Dreamcast consoles ended their commercial lives more than ten years ago, but are seeing a revival today as well.
2D’s back, Jack
Brandon Cobb is the president of Super Fighter Team, a company dedicated to releasing new games on classic consoles. Earlier this year, the team released Nightmare Busters, a 2D platformer starring two leprechauns and is the first new SNES game in fifteen years, complete with cartridge, box and even instructions.
“Everything goes back to Super Fighter, a fighting game from 1993 that I enjoyed as a child,” Cobb tells Red Bull UK. “I wanted to locate C&E, the company that produced the game, so I could thank them. Eight years later I got the chance. Moved by my dedication, the company's president offered me the legal rights to Super Fighter.”
Super Fighter Team are far from alone in their effort to resurrect old consoles. There have been a steady trickle of Dreamcast games since Sega gave up on making its own hardware in 2001, many of them R-Type style space shooters, as well as games for the older Mega Drive (or Genesis, as it was known outside Europe).
WaterMelon Corp’s Pier Solar And The Great Architects, first released in 2010, was an entirely original game developed for Sega’s classic console, lovingly put together in the same style as old school roleplaying games like Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star. We expect a lot more from new consoles like the Sony PS4, but even now there’s more than a bit of charm in the 2D sprites you guide around: in fact, they’re almost beautiful.
The game, and the business model, were born out of nothing but a passion for old games, says WaterMelon Corp’s Gwénaël Godde.
“It was because of genuine passion for retro games,” he says. “When we first started to talk about developing a game for the Mega Drive we had no intentions of turning it into a hit. When the group of developers and designers first gathered after talking on forums about retro games, we simply took the idea seriously and began to work. It felt like being twelve years old and the boss of the arcade game room.”
Retro game development’s certainly not a full time job for many involved, or even a paid one at all, just one they love.
“All of our team members have jobs that have little to do with games,” says Roel van Mastbergen of Dutch indie studio Senile Team, which released Rush Rush Rally Racing for the Dreamcast to celebrate its tenth anniversary in 2009. “Game development is just something we love to do in our spare time - if we have any.”
Cobb meanwhile says he doesn’t even take a salary. “It's what I love. I can't put my whole heart into my work unless I enjoy what I'm doing,” he says.
UWOL, one of the homebrew SNES games Navarro hopes to ship on a cartridge for the very first time.
“I think it’s just the 16-bit graphics, they just have an appeal to my that I cannot explain,” says Eleazar Galindo Navarro, who is working on a 4-in-1 SNES cartridge packed with new indie games for the console.
“Maybe it’s nostalgia - I used to play it all the time as a kid. But as a collector, having a new game to add to my collection is awesome, so part of that is what makes me want to release more and more games for it.”
There’s a higher calling, too, says Cobb. “It's not just making games, it's making art. Something you can be proud of, not just something you half-heartedly chuck in a box and sell for a premium.”
A growing market
That makes sense. You wouldn’t expect defunct consoles to have big, buying audiences any more, and yet they still sell. Mastbergen even says that the Dreamcast version of Rush Rush Rally outsold its Nintendo Wii counterpart - not bad when you consider that Nintendo’s sold 100 million of the little white boxes since 2006.
“It’s true that the audience is quite small, but on the other hand we've found out the hard way that more recent consoles aren't necessarily any better. The Dreamcast version of Rush Rush Rally Racing outsold the WiiWare port several times,” he says.
It didn’t help that Mastbergen’s experience porting the game to the Wii was an unpleasant one. “Making a game for the Wii was exhausting and frustrating,” he says, hinting at problems in the approval process for Nintendo’s online store. “I can't be very specific about it, but it involved a fair share of mind-numbing, time-consuming and expensive aspects which benefited neither developers nor players.”
Not that making a game for an ancient console is always easy. You don’t need to hire teams of dozens just to work on the background lighting like you would for a next-gen console, but having no documentation, no developer kit to work with, and no-one at Nintendo or Sega to call is more than a bit tricky.
Then there’s actually making the games. Literally. Until Sony’s CD-spinning PlayStation came along, games shipped in cartridges that you’d slot into the console, and recreating that process today, then printing the circuit boards inside each one, is a challenge in tiself.
Some indie developers actually use old “donor” cartridges for their games, ripping out their innards and replacing them, and effectively destroying one game to make another. WaterMelon Corp decided to go a different route for PierSolar, setting up an entire production process and sourcing all the materials, but it’s one they can use again for future projects.
Nightmare Busters in all its pixellated glory.
“Releasing a full package with cartridge is ten times more than the cost of a regular DVD release, but it's part of the idea of releasing retro games - it has to be a full release in physical format,” says Gonçalve.
“We had to develop the manufacturing process from the ground up for Pier Solar, from the plastic parts down to the screws. Now we can use the same process for our next releases so it's a bit of a relief.”
Even printing CDs has its problems: the Dreamcast might be easy to code for, but if your bulk older goes even slightly wrong, you’re left with junk, says Mastbergen. “If the CD factory makes any changes to the data, you'll end up with a couple thousand coasters.”
Back to the future
Not every retro game maker is stuck in the past: some are embracing new platforms too. Mastbergen says that the Senile Team is “thinking about doing HD projects in the future. PC, PS4 and Ouya [The tiny Android-powered console that stormed Kickstarter] seem the most likely target platforms for such a project.”
WaterMelon meanwhile are already porting Pier Solar over to modern consoles, including PS3, Nintendo Wii U, Xbox 360 and PC and Mac - there are no “concrete” plans for a mobile port just yet.
“We actually do enjoy modern consoles as gamers, but the market seems to be oversaturated with so many games, often are great games, but that become totally unknown to the general public,” says Godde.
WaterMelon are updating the game to take advantage of features we take for granted in modern consoles, but didn’t exist in the Mega Drive heyday, including online play.
“This is happening right now. Pier Solar will soon be in HD, players will be able to play online with their friends, and we are working on awesome features for the HD version.”
The retro gaming audience is growing up, but it’s not going away. Navarro’s Kickstarter campaign for his 4-in-1 game still has 44 days to go, but has already cleared its funding goal of $10,000 (£6,600).
While you can now play many classic games on your phone, there’s growing demand for new hardware that plays your original cartridges. Take Hyperkin’s RetroN console, which lets you play NES, SNES and Mega Drive cartridges on a modern digital TV, all from one box - the next version will also add Game Boy Advance.
“The fan base is out there and dedicated; it just depends on how good the software is,” says Cobb. “Ten years ago there just wasn't anything worth buying in the retro market. We've changed that. And with each new product we announce, the orders come in quicker and the fan base becomes more devoted.”
Even if they stopped tomorrow, the games will still keep coming. “I wager I'd have to be dead, or suffering from a severe case of amnesia, to ever give this up completely,” says Cobb.
The SNES is dead: long live the SNES.
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