Vintage & Modern Tech Blog

Why Big Name Game Companies Ought To Get Fully On The Retro Bandwagon

October 19, 2016

When I first got into retro gaming and computing, I was startled at how organised World of Spectrum, the premier ZX Spectrum archive were with details like, permissions from game authors, their fair-use policy, and indicating those games that were 'distribution denied' (for example Codemasters games, currently) and maintaining thorough details of those titles just like the other games, whilst not going against the rights holder's wishes and actually hosting the denied software.

The same cannot be said of the big name console companies - their platforms being closed. The likes of SEGA and Nintendo only allowing those with official permission to develop for their consoles has, in part, been blamed for many British game developers, who developed third party games for open platforms such as the Spectrum and C64 disappearing towards the end of the 1980's and throughout the 1990's.

Their retro policy has traditionally been equally restrictive. A common quote I come across on retro websites goes something like "They [The big name console company], don't want you to play retro games because it will damage sales of their new games."

It's a good point but, equally so - some people really want to play retro games, and explore the old hardware, and when they do, those with less of a conscience will find other ways, let's face it - that basically means piracy, which has been around since the early days of computer games, whether it be schoolboys copying Hewson Consultants tapes for their friends, clone games trying to look like the arcade originals (check out The Spectrum Show's arcade clone shootouts - sometimes they take up the larger part of the show, there are so many for each title), or more professional efforts that are near-identical to tape or cartridge sold in the shops.

For those who don't have enormous room-sized collections of retro game carts, tapes, and/or discs and who don't want to go down the shady route of exchanging pirate copies, this leaves a huge gap - that's called a market.

There have been plug and plays around for years - Funstock Retro are one company that sells these but, just look at the NES Mini, it has no SD-slot, no removable media of any description, leaving the player with only the games that are built-in. It appears to be a good selection but, it's comparable to someone else choosing how you have your steak (a quick route to losing on Channel 4's Come Dine With Me), or showing you a shelf full of music albums in a store and then saying you can only have the ones they want you to have.

ZX Spectrum enthusiasts are VERY lucky in just how many permissions have been obtained compared to rivals like Commodore or SEGA. Lemon 64 is a detailed archive but, hosts no downloads. Cloanto own the rights to the C64 and Amiga Operating System ROMs and sell the high quality C64 and Amiga Forever emulators but, only with 100 games and 100 demoscene titles bundled with each. 100 is a lot, don't get me wrong but, there are many others which surely have not been included.


World of Spectrum is maintained by volunteers in their spare time, and recently was brought back from the brink of oblivion. At a time when two new devices - the Vega and The Recreated ZX Spectrum - were being distributed commercially, the actual servers which had been hosting WoS since the 1990s were on the brink of catastrophic failure before volunteers worked on bringing them back. On a side note, there's a lesson to be learned - the existing infrastructure should not be taken for granted.

Where are the other games companies on this obvious business opportunity? 

Well, they ARE starting to embrace it. Steam is hosting SEGA games. Collections of selected games have been around for ages on DVD-ROM, for example - Midway Arcade Classics, Sonic Mega Collection, and Konami Classics.

But, they could do more - what about a retro store on the internet? An equivalent of World of Spectrum but, for profit - if they can't bear to give their titles away for free? Of course, there are complications in the fact some of these companies - such as Atari do not exist in the form they used to, some are just names on legal documents belonging to new owners, and no longer actively making and selling products.


For those not so hampered, each company could have a retro store on their official site. Owners of retro plug-and-play's could pay for a game, download to their SD-card, and plug it into, say - their NES Mini 2(At the time of writing I am only aware of the SD-less first NES Mini, recently announced).

Something similar was promised with the SEGA Megadrive Handheld (Genesis - yes, handheld). The SD card slot is present but, the download site appeared a little underwhelming to say the least, with only something like 3 or 4 downloads, last time I looked in on it. Another machine is the Atari Flashback, which has gone through numerous versions but, again - no official, legal download site even though it has a removable media slot for 'homebrew titles' (well we know almost for sure that there will be more than homebrew on some people's SD-cards). Is there a problem with licences? If so, do the rights owners know that they could earn royalties?

Another factor is creativity - where there are gamers, there are also budding, and often talented programmers. ZX Spectrum fans are spoilt for choice with new implementations of BASIC (like Boriel Compiler), C (Z88DK), Arcade Gamer Designer, Shoot 'Em Up Designer, and old classics like Graphic Adventure Creator, The Quill, Professional Adventure Writer, and 3D Construction Kit.

Of all those rival machines, particularly for the Japanese consoles, there are perhaps only the routes of programming in C or the so-called 'dark art' of assembly language.

Nintendo has gotten very close to what the retro fans want with it's Super Mario Maker. From what I've seen, it's basically a level designer, and you can share your levels. But, is it enough? The world has many gamers but, even when I was a teenager in the 1990's, I was wondering where all the programmers had gone. 

What if Super Mario Maker was available with an advanced mode for scripting - wouldn't the fun element of playing and sharing games make education in programming also seem fun?


What if SEGA released an equivalent editor, perhaps featuring Sonic? The same for Sony, whoever owns Atari now, etc?

Pointing and clicking, dragging and dropping, as is done in Scratch, C2 etc. is nice and an excellent way of teaching kids and new starters to program but, for every frontend in which you point and click, the instructions compile to a backend which - ultimately is zeroes and ones, the true language of computers - officially known as binary.


To simplify - the drag and drop system is protecting the programmer from the true complexity of machine language, which someone has taken care of, providing the programmer with a more friendly, less harrowing environment - but, that environment is still there, hidden. 


A fundamental question I often consider is - where are the next generation of assembly language programmers going to come from (I am not currently claiming to even be one myself)?

Not everyone can program for various reasons but, were the option there, more people would try (In defence of C2, it does have an advanced Javascript mode).


If you ever get a chance, take a look at Jonathan Cauldwell's SEUD, versus his other engine AGD (both excellent programs in their own right) on the ZX Spectrum. SEUD is a block-based affair, with no scripting and it makes, well - Shoot 'Em Ups, and that's about it.


AGD, on the other hand, has a BASIC-like dialect, and the variety of games created with it, is far greater (admittedly, AGD is actually three engines in one, another important factor in this). Mr Cauldwell himself states in the instruction manual that the limit with AGD is the game maker's imagination (as well as the fact it's running on a 35 year old, 8-bit computer with 48kb - barely enough RAM to hold a small .txt document - running at only 3.5MHz, with negligible internet capabilities. Well, someone did hook one up to Twitter.)

I'm semi-borrowing this quote from a Python programming book but, games are a great way to learn a lot of the most important aspects of programming, and if you do make a game, you might go on to make other things (I often think a demoscene production would be the ultimate learning experience - one of my own dreams).

Maybe my suggestion is coming a little late - as I've already stated. SEGA and Nintendo are onboard already but, they - and the other companies that haven't 'got on the retro bandwagon' yet shouldn't overlook retro, considering it as just a novelty for a few seasonal stocking-filler devices with a pre-determined games selection.


By the way, if you're going out in the snow this Christmas, you might want to un-fill your stockings before you put them on. Walking in the snow is difficult enough already without candy canes and novelty plastic objects sticking in your thigh

Retro gaming is so much bigger than that, and - if it creates interest in the newer titles in well established franchises, then that can't be bad either.

Thanks for reading.



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