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The unlikely but very real resurgence of video game cartridges

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Jun 28, 2018, 2:00 PM EDT

Although Nintendo's release of the SNES and NES minis created a surge for retro gaming in the mainstream, appreciation for gaming's history has long existed in various forms. YouTubers have cultivated huge followings through videos analyzing, and often angrily tearing apart, classic titles, and for years now indie developers have been turning to the more cost-and-time-effective toolbox of 16-bit graphics and sound for their projects. Nostalgia for and fascination with old-school gaming is something that's gradually become less and less niche, to the point that in 2018, a small gaggle of creators is making new games for the NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, and others that you can actually play on your old hardware.

"We've all been collecting and playing for 30 years, and doing contract work for 10," Zack Manko, co-founder of Mega Cat Games, told SYFY WIRE. "And now [we've been] doing our own work the last three."

Mega Cat Games is a studio dedicated to bringing new games to market for old systems. Their titles, such as Coffee Crisis and the upcoming Little Medusa, are developed specifically for early generations of console hardware. Once finished, each one is sold both digitally on PC and as a fully-boxed cartridge for the corresponding system; the case, cartridge, and instruction booklet all adhere to the team's high standard as retro collectors.

Mega Cat was founded so that, in addition to doing contract work, the now 20-strong team can create projects they really cared about. As followers of retro trading, they knew the interest was there for new, 2D games riffing on that classic Sega and Nintendo style so, they decided to step in and give it a try. New ventures are decided diplomatically, with the team coming together to have a group discussion about new ideas. "The way we decide what we're doing internally is a little bit of a round-table for team-members," Manko explained. "Then we split up lanes, so there'll be a technical leader and an art leader." After major roles have been decided, the rest of the team are delegated tasks, such as boss mechanics or level design. Everyone works on something slightly different each game, with multiple on the go at any one time, making each development cycle a distinct challenge for each person.

Across the pond, UK creator Matt Phillips was bitten by a similar bug. Having spent years working in the industry on various big-studio games, including several entries in the LEGO franchise, Phillips started researching how to make his childhood dream of making a Genesis game into a reality. After one well-made demo, things quickly snowballed. "Tanglewood itself started out as a small 2D platformer demo around five years back when I was learning to code in assembly language for the Genesis," Phillips told SYFY WIRE over email. "Things got a bit out of hand and I ended up with one complete chapter of the game, and some friends of mine egged me on to fund the rest of its development via Kickstarter."

That Kickstarter was successful and then some. Making £55,000 (about $72,000), he was able to quit his job, found his own studio — Big Evil Corporation Ltd. — and dedicate himself to Tanglewood full-time for two years. Like Mega Cat, he knew there was some audience, but he was pleasantly surprised at just how many.

"I'd always intended to get my game — whatever it was going to be — onto cartridge from the start, at the very least to say that I'd done it and fulfilled my childhood dream," he says. "What I didn't bank on was just how popular the idea was with gamers and collectors around the world, and I've ended up running a batch of over a thousand carts, rather than the small handful I had in mind just for my friends and I."

High demand is a strong booster, but it doesn't change the inherent challenges of making a game for a niche format that's been out-moded for decades. When it comes to manufacturing, both parties speak to major design hurdles, particularly space, that are what make the whole process worthwhile. "The restrictions are both what makes it fun and forces your creative troubleshooting," Manko says. "And also, where those limitations are kind of help decision fatigue, where people are wide open and just circling how to make things cohesive."

Something on cartridge can only be so big and so long, so everything has to be that much more immediate. Coffee Crisis and Tanglewood need to get players into the action as quick as possible make that action as fluid as feasible because there's no room to do anything that isn't in service to these principles.

Both lament the content that needs to be shaved off to fit into the tiny memory of a cartridge. Manko discusses the nightmarish bug-fixing on their latest release, Little Medusa, and wrestling all the mechanics and attributes into a state that would run smoothly on an NES. For Matt, getting his game into a cartridge-able state was one of the biggest hurdles: "We've crammed the whole game into just 4MB, and that took many sessions of shuffling, researching compression techniques, rewriting entire chunks of the game to fit into smaller space, and yes, unfortunately, cutting some parts altogether. We've not had to cut a lot, thankfully, but every slice taken still hurt."

Beyond the development, there's the small matter of putting together the cartridges. Molds have been available for decades thanks to bootlegging and home-brew game-making, but finding good quality cases and parts can be tough. Generally speaking, the cheaper you go the worse the build but many providers cut corners for screws, adhesives, and plastic regardless. Research is key, trying out different manufacturers until you find a combination that works. Matt is using authentic '90s boards for the internal bits, while the outer shell is one he had custom designed to closely resemble the weight and sheen of the era. Mega Cat have a set of suppliers they've grown to rely on for each release, allowing them to get more experimental for their handmade limited editions and take on larger releases — they're working with Devolver Digital on their first SNES game, fork Parker's Crunch Out, with all Devolver's profits going to mental health advocacy group Take This.

As the studio grows, Manko is keen to get their games on as many shelves as possible. From working events and watching the online community around Mega Cat's games, it's obvious there's a demand for new retro-themed titles, but convincing the standard supply chain of that isn't easy. A deal with GameStop fell through due to uncertainty at a corporate level that anyone actually wants these things. As disappointing as that is, Mega Cat has gotten this far with grassroots love for classic gaming, and they aren't about to sell that out for a wider audience. "Partnerships that would fit well with that retro ethos and where we want to be are always welcome," Manko said. "I think there's more value for the retro movement in finding other people that have the same voice and the same space that can help keep those physical things closer to mainstream."

Ultimately, for both parties, that's what it comes down to — preserving the look, sound, and feel of early Sega and Nintendo games in physical form. Challenging what can be done within those early restraints and keeping that "retro ethos" alive with a contemporary flavor. It's something that is spreading throughout the industry: UFO 50, a compilation of NES-style games headed up by Derek Yu of Spelunky fame, is due out at some point this year. When asked about their work causing a vinyl-esque resurgence of retro games and cartridges, Manko believes this is something that could benefit creators in general. "There's some creative fulfillment, from a game design perspective, working with different limitations," Manko mused. "And working with different player feel and looks, there's so much that can be learned.

Matt has a similar response, stating how the hardware side deepened his perspective on development, before ending with an invocation: "Going back to basics — learning how CPUs work, coding to-the-metal, and understanding the subtleties of performance — has massively helped me to write better high-level code on modern platforms."

"I'd recommend every developer make something for a restricted platform, just once!"