Grand Idea Studio

Game Informer

Classic GI: Retrogaming
Sunday, Dec 1st, 2002   |  Issue: 116   |  Volume: 1   |  Read the Full Article

The very concept of Classic GI is based on the assumptions that the old consoles are history; that their stories have ended, and thus can be dissected and retold in these pages. However, assumptions are frequently wrong – none more so than the one that suggests that the systems of yesterday are dead. In fact, in the last few years, there has been a steady stream of new and previously unreleased titles published for consoles, ranging from the legendary Atari 2600 to the all but forgotten Phillips CD-i. While industry giants like Electronic Arts and Square Soft labor to pull off even more graphically complex feats on the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and Gamecube, a devoted and growing subculture of “homebrew” developers are spearheading a revival in old-school gaming.

The retrogaming movement (as it is called by many of its enthusiasts) is gaining momentum, as evidenced by the 20 new titles that made their debut at the recently held Classic Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. Like many grass-roots pop culture phenomena, it is a subculture based not on the profit motive that fuels the mainstream game industry, but a genuine love of the art and craft of video games. In many ways, it is a throwback to the early days of gaming, when all it took to create a groundbreaking title was a little ingenuity, a little imagination, and a lot of hard work. This “Do-It-Yourself” ethic is really a return to the era when a few California hackers turned the world on its ear.

As you might expect, publishing a game without the benefit of millions of dollars and the aid of a huge staff is a mammoth undertaking. R.W. Bivens, co-founder of OlderGames – a company that has published a slate of previously unreleased Phillips CD-i games like Jack Sprite vs. The Crimson Ghost and Plunderball – comments that securing the rights to long-lost titles requires some ace detective work to track down the copyright holder. “A lot of the stuff we do doesn’t rely as much on our business skills as our investigative skills. When you’re talking about stuff this old, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.” Still, companies like OlderGames (and their partner Good Deal Games) have been successful in rescuing many forgotten prototypes from the dustbin of history.

For homebrew enthusiasts intent on creating their own original titles, the challenges are even greater. Some systems, like the Atari 2600, are supported by relatively stable PC emulators. Other more obscure systems, like the Sega CD, require the home developer to track down an original development kit. Even more daunting is the task of overcoming the myriad vagaries and bugs embedded in the hardware of the systems themselves. with no technical support from the original console manufacturers, problems must be solved with a combination of ingenuity and advice from fellow amateur developers. Carl Forham, the owner of Songbird Productions who has programmed several Atari Lynx and Jaguar games commented, “The Jaguar had some very well known bugs in its architecture. So, sometimes we run into things that I don’t understand, and there are very few people to go ask anymore, when you don’t know what the answer is.”

R.W. Bivens concurs, “Not only is it next to impossible to find a Sega CD original dev kit, but, even worse than that, you try to find some really in-depth documentation and it’s almost non-existent. It’s not just the tools, it’s the knowledge.”

Once completed, getting the game into a playable form in another laborious step in the process, especially for cartridge based systems like the Lynx or Atari 2600. “It’s fairly easy, it’s just time consuming,” observes Joe Grand, programmer of the homebrew classic SCSIcide. “If you use old cartridges, you can strip the old labels using a heat gun and paint stripper, then, you put on a new label.” Modifications must also be made to the original circuit boards. In hopes of making things easier for fellow home developers, Grand is now marketing his own line of 2600 circuit boards which are available online at, and plans to debut a line of custom colored cartridge casings in the next year.

This laundry list of developmental hurdles begs the question: Why are so many people willing to sacrifice so much of their time and personal resources to create titles for systems that most Americans have long since filed away in some dusty corner of their closets? For most of the homebrew developers we talked to, this hobby is simply an outgrowth of a lifelong love of games and programming. “I came from a background where i was a huge fan of games. but at the same time I could turn around and do something that I really enjoy,” reminisces Bivens. “Plus, I get to be a part of that whole process of creating and putting them out. That’s priceless to me; it’s really a dream job.”

Joe Grand, an electrical engineer by trade, attributes his love of classic development to the challenge inherent in overcoming the technical constraints of these now primitive systems. “The constraints are what makes the Atari so great, and it’s what makes the games and programming the games a challenge. It’s a puzzle…If you’re given the latest and greatest hardware with the best hardware accelerators, a gig of RAM, and unlimited ROM size, where’s the fun?”

Talking to the leading lights of the retrogaming scene, it’s also obvious that the movement is tied together by a very real sense of community, inspired by a mutual love and admiration for the early days of video games. “The classic gaming community seems to be a real genuine group of individuals,” said Michael Thomasson of Good Deal Games. “We are a fairly close group and our love of the hobby makes us pretty aware of what is happening in the retro scene…Over the years, I have met some absolutely fantastic individuals, all with unique stories to tell. Just walk around with an Atari shirt on for a single day, and you’ll be surprised how many individuals approach you and tell you of their fond times with their VCS just like it was yesterday.

Interest in the homebrew development, and classic gaming in general, is growing with each successive year. It’s tempting to wonder if this garage industry might soon grow into a money-making enterprise in its own right. On this issue, the people we talked to were somewhat divided. “It would be nice to make a little bit of money, but I’m not expecting to,” says Joe Grand, “I think that this community is fairly small, as far as classic games go. There are a lot of collectors, but even that number is fairly small. The amount of developers is even smaller. If that’s my target audience, then there are only so many people that are going to buy my circuit board or buy my cartridge casings.”

R.W. Bivens is more optimistic, and feels that the retrogaming scene will one day rival even the current systems in popularity. “I definitely guarantee that it’s going to both [profitable and a labor of love], because of the way our business has become. It started off as fun, but we’ve received a million page views our first month, so there is definitely a lot of consumer interest out there. One thing to think about is this: How many 8-bit Nintendos, how many Super Nintendos, how many Sega Genesis units are out there? How many units of those systems were sold worldwide? When you think about it, we, in all actuality, have the largest market share in the game industry; it’s just about that people don’t know about it yet.”

Even if retrogaming never becomes a force in the marketplace, it is already a success, if only for the fact that it shows that there is still a place for the dedicated hobbyist who wants to bring his vision to life. “I think that’s the appeal here; You can take a system and pretty much do it from start to finish yourself, or maybe just you and an artist. It’s not at all like a Playstation 2 or Gamecube budget where you need all the full motion video, thousands of hours of gameplay, or a massive fantasy world,” observes Carl Forhan.

For Joe Grand, the reward is in the process itself, and the appreciation of the devoted video game collectors out there. “It’s rewarding to release a game, to sell a game to people – to have people actually play your piece of work. So, I think [retro gaming is] partly nostalgia, and partly just wanting to provide something new to people and your fellow collectors.” This simple urge to create, to conceive unique and fun gameplay experiences, is certainly the most admirable part of the homebrew movement, and something that today’s market-driven video game industry would be wise to learn from.



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