Back when the Nintendo Wii first came out, I wrote about a hope for it, specifically for its Virtual Console feature. Here’s what I said:

Without exception, the Virtual Console has been touted as a digital distribution channel for new games and “classic” games from vintage consoles. But the Virtual Console suggests an application for serious and independent games that no one has yet discussed: independent publishing of new games on classic platforms.

Nostalgia has so strangled game developers and game consumers alike that we fail to recognize platforms like the NES and C64 as viable targets for new video games. So mired are we in technological progress that we quickly condemn earlier platforms to the status of cult relic. But just as the daguerreotype, the sonnet, the Super-8 film camera, and so many other constrained forms from other media remain valid modes of expression, so do games for the NES, the C64, the TurboGrafx. These computers enthralled millions of people, people who were not merely biding their time waiting for better technology.

At the CES this week, Microsoft announced their own take on the Virtual Console, the Game Room, offering arcade and classic console games. Among the 30 games announced for launch (to grow to over 1,000) are coin-op games, Intellivision games, and Atari 2600 games.

Given that I make new Atari 2600 games (including the recently announced IGF finalist A Slow Year), I find myself once again hoping that Microsoft might open this channel to sell new games made for old systems. I stand by what I said about the Wii three years ago:

Like all platforms, these classic consoles endured premature sunsets as they made way for their predecessors. The very idea that a platform like the SNES has been fully explored should make you bristle as much as the idea that the novel has been fully explored. Today, hindsight and historical distance can help us create experiences that went unexplored on these systems.

If nothing else, the addition of XBLA Achievements to the Game Room would offer new players a strong incentive to try unusual and creative new takes on old hardware. But I’d guess players would be interested in them for other reasons too.

published January 8, 2010


  1. Chris DeLeon

    Is there an important difference between designing according to the limitations and eccentricities of old hardware (developing with modern APIs/tech), vs. developing to that hardware (or a matching emulator)?

    In your DiGRA keynote, you referred to Jesper Juul’s reflecting on the Pac-Man ROM, asking whether the source was what the game “really is”. That post, to anyone who missed the link at the time, along with my reply (short version: I disagreed), is here:

    If we can speak of a videogame as not so much its particular implementation, but rather the resulting unit operations and presentation, it seems as though there’s a tradeoff between a slow method and a fast method to potentially identical results.

    Is it a matter of the system’s constraints being too difficult to account for fully, when we’re given the opportunity to cheat? (It looked to me like Mega Man 9 on Virtual Console did this in a few places, and certainly most “retro” flash games cheat liberally in this way.)

    If it’s possible to simulate or account for the constraints of old hardware, there seem to be advantages offered in development time (like rewriting the core of Bubble Bobble in 6 days – ), or expandability (like tacking time manipulation on, after finishing doubles mode from 2600 Super Breakout ).

    Is the underlying idea that the complexities and quirks involved in designing for history’s more limited platforms squeezes a different type of prioritization, creativity, and thus result, from creators? Does this at all parallel typesetting with a replica Gutenberg press, as opposed to using Illustrator while following conventions to simulate old press output, such that the real interest is in how the process complexities affect the outcome?

    While most “NES-style” games not developed for the actual hardwares pales in comparison to real NES games ( HomestarRunner’s Stinko Man gets credit for trying ), so do most homebrew NES games programmed for emulator (like one of the largest from scratch NES projects I’m aware of, Sack of Flour Heart of Gold Between the two, I can’t help but feel like much of the retro games made in Flash not only took less time to make, but they have a better shot at coming out closer to what a commercial team with resources might have accomplished in the hardware’s hay day, enabling a small team to do in their free time what once required a considerable budget.

  2. Ian Bogost

    Chris: it is possible to simulate older systems to a point, but what is not possible is the ability to simulate creating works for those systems. Virtual Console and Game Room offer an opportunity to contextualize such games in a productive way, just as one might put sonnets in a book of poetry, rather than as a still in front of a Michael Bay picture.

  3. Clayton Hughes

    I’d just like to clarify some points here with regards to Virtual Console (and WiiWare). I think this knowledge is present in the comments so far, but a cursory reading leaves it a little unclear.

    Virtual Console is an emulator for the older systems, and the original ROMs (I believe) are ran through that. WiiWare development is not emulated, and runs regular Wii code, and takes full advantage of the memory, storage, and processors of the Wii.

    MegaMan 9, which was mentioned, is not a Virtual Console game. I believe MM9 is in exactly the same boat as the retro-facade flash games. The difference between a C-lang and Flash at that point is very small when compared to the difference between the NES and a modern PC or Wii.

  4. Ian Bogost

    Clayton, yes, that’s indeed correct and worth a clarification. Thanks for it.

  5. Chris DeLeon

    Clayton – thanks! I’m in the unfortunate habit of using WiiWare and Virtual Console semi-interchangeably, although that was certainly a context where the difference was important.

    Ian – My impression of platform studies was that the process of development played an important role in how videogames have been (and continue to be) shaped – is this an intended message? What Chris Crawford once referred to as a need for game designers to “with with the grain” (drawing a metaphor to woodworking) seems to vary wildly by programming language, asset preparation/constraints, and their relationship to “hardware”, whether simulated or real.

    One curious affect of the ability for people to (potentially) commercially release new titles created by the process of making games for old hardware limitations is the change in historical context. I imagine A Slow Year would have been received very differently in the late 70’s, as opposed to when it was made in a post-Flower gaming market. A bit like Johnny Be Good in Back to the Future. 😉

    In perhaps too far of a tangent to treat properly here, I’m curious as to whether platform studies has either implications or at least parallels to aspects of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. What games were made for the Atari were clearly in part a product of what games it made possible, and the building blocks or means of manipulation if afforded. While modern hardware enables a wider technical variety there’s still certainly a difference between what current machines do efficiently and naturally vs simulating/tricking them into doing otherwise. Am I likely reading too much into things in this case?