NES console in use

It’s nearly 30 years old, but the Nintendo Entertainment System is not just a platform for fueling misty-eyed nostalgia. Savvy gamers are also embracing a growing homebrew scene that’s resulting in new physical releases for the aging, but far-from-dead, gray box.

“[Nintendo] would never acknowledge these kind of games exist,” says contemporary NES developer Sivak (he asks to go by this moniker). But they do, and they’re getting a great reception from gamers who still have their NES plugged into an aerial socket.

The World’s No. 1 Game System

Nintendo Power magazine NESFirst released as the Famicon in Japan in 1983, the NES came to North America two years later. It was Nintendo’s first venture away from home soil, and it was a move that set the company up as a market leader in the video game industry.

With thoughts of the great video game crash of 1983 still fresh in its mind, Nintendo took a firm approach to licensing on its home console. Any third-party titles needed Nintendo’s approval before being released on the NES, which, along with first-party exclusives such as The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario Bros., ensured the system had a killer software lineup. Some of the best-loved gaming properties around today, such as Final Fantasy, Castlevania, and Metroid, all made their debut on the NES.

As IGN said when naming the NES as the greatest console of all time, “Nintendo’s quality first-party efforts as well as the incredibly powerful third-party support resurged and revived the home video game industry. If Nintendo didn’t step up to the plate, the industry as a whole may have turned out entirely different.”

The NES continues to endure to this day. Not just from the lasting impression left by NES debuts such as Final Fantasy, Mega Man, and Castlevania, but from the creative possibilities it continues to offer developers.

The Battle Kid phenomenon

Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril released in 2010. It was the first major platform release for the NES since 1995, and the homebrew title has received a great deal of critical acclaim. “Battle Kid is nothing short of genius,” said retro gaming website Retro Collect. Impressive stuff, particularly for a relative newcomer to NES programming.

“I’ve always wanted to makBattle Kid 2 NES Cover Arte games,” says Battle Kid developer Sivak. “The NES was something I had dreams of, ever since I was young, to make something for.  Obviously back then it wasn’t doable. Yet in 2007, when I found out it was, I started researching and doing some things.  I made three simple games to get accustomed to programming for the system and finally did the first Battle Kid game after feeling confident in programming.”

Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril was 18 months in the making, but Sivak didn’t wait long before following it up. The sequel to Battle Kid, Battle Kid 2: Mountain of Torment, released in December following a development cycle of nearly two years

Sivak wanted to build on his first major release, taking feedback from the playing community, allowing him to “improve aspects that may have been lacking,” in the first title. This resulted in what he describes as “a much bigger game” featuring 650 rooms, 25 types of enemies, and 13 boss battles.

Fan response to both games has been “mostly positive,” says Sivak, but he acknowledges that the difficulty level is too much for some.

“These are hard games, so I know they aren’t for everyone,” he says. “But people know they’re getting into a hard game when they play it, so those who want a challenge get one and they enjoy it.” With notoriously tricky indie platform game I Wanna Be The Guy (PC) one of the main inspirations behind the Battle Kid series, this focus on pixel-perfect jumps and multiples deaths is hardly surprising.

Sivak himself doesn’t get involved in the production process of the cartridge, which publisher RetroZone handles. “I laid out the label and the manual and the box for Battle Kid 2, but none of the actual circuit board or plastic work is me. RetroZone gets the parts, and as far as the plastic goes, it has a mold that mostly matches the shape of the licensed games.”

Battle Kid NES Cover ArtNeither Battle Kid title is available to download and play on an NES emulator, so the only option available is to play the physical releases. Demand for these has been “somewhat reasonable,” says Sivak. “Obviously, it’s no modern system, but many collectors are out there and there even people who are discovering the older systems [for the first time]. As long as a game looks interesting and fun to players, there will be buyers.

“Most of the games have runs of a few hundred initially, but they get restocked. Demand is highest when something is new, but since there’s still some demand, [there’s] no reason to discontinue.”

Today’s NES gamer

Matt McIntyre is a game collector and NES aficionado based in Nova Scotia, Canada, who regularly blogs about his gaming experiences. He’s been blown away by the quality of the Battle Kid series.

“It holds up amazingly well against the original [NES] library,” says McIntyre, “and that’s even considering the pedestals we place our favorites upon. I think people try to think about these games in terms of what has come before; ‘it’s like Mega Man,’ or ‘it’s like Metroid.’ But these games offer something that may have been missing from the NES library; they fill their own niche.

“When a new title for an old console releases, it’s fine if it pays homage to the classics. But it can’t lose its own identity. These titles bring something to the table that is both exciting and polished.”

For McIntyre, the joy of NES gaming lies partly in recapturing the joys of childhood. “People certainly get attached to what they grew up with,” he says. “Part of what keeps me playing the NES is trying to recapture this nascent sense of discovery and wonder: to discover or rediscover games that pushed the envelope of hardware limitations, or offered a truly unique experience on the platform.

Duck Tales NES cart“NES games are close to pure, often spinning out of a concept defined by something as simple as a piece of equipment or particular mechanic. There are lemons, sure. All consoles have them. But sometimes you strike gold and you’re transported back 30 years — sometimes surprised by the elegance, often engrossed in the adventure.”

Like most gamers, McIntyre understands the visceral thrill of opening a new game for the first time. When it’s a cartridge game for a console like the NES, that thrill increases.

“There’s something special about getting a brand-new cartridge that just brings you back,” he says. “I would still love these games were they released purely in digital format, but there’s a certain level of excitement that comes with a physical cart. Taking into account the NES enthusiast’s mentality, there’s the thrill of owning a new cart for one of your favorite consoles. And in terms of the NES library, it canonizes the release. It puts the game up to all of the scrutiny and accolades and consideration that every other title in the library receives. It doesn’t necessarily legitimize a game — the quality of the title regardless of downloadable or cartridge does that. But it makes us think of it clearly as an NES game, because it has arrived.”NES console

Living out a dream

Software engineer Derek Andrews is also harking back to memories of youth. His development team, Gradual Games, is working on a game that Andrews first envisaged making as a child.

An early screen from The Legends of Owlia.

Titled The Legends of Owlia, it’s an action-adventure game for the NES. “This project is very special to me because I came up with the idea with some friends when I was about 11,” says Andrews. “As I grew older and dabbled in game programming, I made several attempts at creating the game. Then game programming went sour for me for a few years, and I sort of went on hiatus. Now I’m back and I’m going to finish this game unless I die first.

“I’m happy to say one of the original friends, Daniel Hwozdek, is still involved to this day, providing invaluable feedback on gameplay mechanics, layout, and writing for our games.”

The Gradual Games Team at MagFest X NES

Above: The Gradual Games team: [from left] artist Laurie Andrews, programmer Derek Andrews, and chief beta tester Daniel Hwozdek. Also pictured is fellow NES programmer John White, creator of homebrew game Assimilate.

Andrews has already released one title for the NES. Action platformer Nomolos: Storming the Catsle came out last year, with RetroZone again handling the cartridge production. He explains how he chose to develop on such an unlikely platform. “Firstly, I loved games on the NES, SNES, and Game Boy growing up,” he says. “Above all, I loved the music. On top of the challenge of playing games on these older platforms, really good music helped create an engaging feeling to gameplay that is altogether missing from most modern video games that I have played.

Nomolos NES Screen“Secondly, my first exposure to game programming was back in the late ’90s, in QBasic, C, and assembly language in a DOS environment. When I reached the level of maturity required to commit to developing a game, I not only wanted to make a retro game but also to experience the enjoyment of writing code for an old computer.”

For Andrews, writing code for the NES juxtaposes well with his day job. “Being employed as a software engineer, NES development provides a refreshing contrast to the enormous mess of third-party operating systems and libraries with which one must contend,” he says. “Writing code for the NES is equally enjoyable to me as DOS was. Perhaps more so.”

Andrews developed his NES programming skills with the help of a guide created by computer scientist Michael Martin, then of Stanford University. NES 101, as it is known, helped Andrews develop his own NES graphics and level editors, which he explains in more detail in a three-part series of YouTube videos, the first of which is below.

Nomolos was very much a labor of love for Andrews, and his wife, Laurie, worked alongside him on the project. She is the artist at Gradual Games and provided the in-game art for Nomolos, along with its box, label, and manual. Andrews entrusted the printing of these items to a company called Uncle Tusk, a specialist at providing custom boxes for vintage systems.

Nomolos NES Cover Art

Andrews then sent the finished ROM to RetroZone, “who burn the game to EEPROM chips that go inside a brand new cartridge, made physically identical to the NES cartridges produced in the ’80s and ’90s.”

Player feedback for Nomolos has been very positive. “Most people who have played it have enjoyed it and find it challenging and charming,” says Andrews. “It’s really great to see fellow retro gaming fans genuinely enjoy something we’ve created.”

Can homebrew be a business success?

Derek Andrews is refreshingly candid about his sales figures. “I won’t lie; it is a niche market,” he says. “I can’t speak for Sivak’s Battle Kid, which to my knowledge is the most successful NES homebrew to date, but Nomolos has sold close to 250 copies, I believe.

NES controller

“I’m sincerely hoping to do a little, or maybe even a lot, better with The Legends of Owlia. But I never got into this to make money. I didn’t even know it was possible to put my game on a cartridge when I started. I thought I’d just have a free ROM when I was done. When I realized it was possible, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a hard copy produced.”

“I think that there is a sizeable market for retro games on digital distribution platforms such as iOS, Android, and Steam,” says Andrews. “We are in the preliminary stages of possibly porting and releasing Nomolos on iPhone. [But] I believe that physical cartridges will probably remain a hobbyist market.”

Sivak agrees with Andrews’ assessment. “For actual games that really run on the old system, I believe it is and always will be a hobbyist endeavor.  Now, for something that emulates the presentation of a retro game, like Mega Man 9 or 10, there can certainly be appeal there.”

Will we be seeing any further titles in the Battle Kid series from Sivak? “A third Battle Kid game would be fun,” he says. “But perhaps looking into another style  of game might also be fun.  It’s really rough starting and committing to a project.”

Sivak hints that Battle Kid may also find its way to other systems. “If possible, I’d like to try and port the games to some newer platforms,” he says. “Only time will tell.”

Duck Tales cart image via waitscm/Flickr , NES controller and console images via Mark Ramsay/flickr,  Giant NES controller image via Pop Culture Geek/flickr, Nintendo Power image via bochalla/flickr, NES console in use image via crazyoctopus/flickr, Battle Kid screens and box art via Sivak Games, Nomolos and Owlia images via Gradual Games.