Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.
Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation contends that one half of all films made before 1950 are lost forever. Four fifths of those made before 1929 are gone as well. Video games have only been around for a few decades, but what’s to stop them from suffering the same fate? Thankfully, already there are those working to ensure that no games are lost to time.
But while these museums and cultural havens for games are welcome and much appreciated, they’re still few and far between. And although they’re doing the job of saving physical copies of games, that’s not ideal for making sure those old games are still accessible to new players. HD Remasters, “Definitive Editions” and retro game compilations are doing a serviceable job of keeping games from previous generations playable on the latest platforms, but it’s a financial and risky business for most companies to try and balance consistently releasing new titles and keeping the old ones on the market in one shape or another.
One such retro compilation, the recently released Mega Man Legacy Collection, is an experiment in finding the answer to this conundrum. Published by Capcom, Legacy Collection includes the first six Mega Man games, re-released for PS4, Xbox One, PC and Nintendo 3DS, but with a twist. Developer Digital Eclipse has painstakingly recreated the original six titles in such a way that they look, sound and play exactly as they did when they were all first released for the Nintendo Entertainment System, for better or worse.
“The idea here is not to just re-publish the games but to put them out in a premium package that celebrates the legacy of this franchise,” Frank Cifaldi, Head of Restoration at Digital Eclipse, told me. “Digital Eclipse’s current focus is on presenting classic games in a way that we feel that they hadn’t been previously, which is basically warts n’ all, as originally intended and playing exactly as they were.”
Cifaldi, a long-standing advocate and defender of video games as an art form with historical value, is a journalist-turned-historian-turned-developer who, with Digital Eclipse, is attempting to prove the viability of selling these old games as they were commercially. “The focus of this game is to let people know that this is sort of an archival work as opposed to an HD remastering,” He explains.
One problem is that the original assets—the game’s visual art—don’t exist in hi-res for the games that Cifaldi and co. are focused on. These six Mega Man games all came out between 1987 and 1993, at a very different time and space for video games, both in the industry and culturally. Changing these games artistically by creating new, HD art isn’t an option, as Cifaldi puts it: “I don’t think these are games you change and then feel good about at night.”
So the “Eclipse” engine was born. The idea behind the Digital Eclipse approach is simple: take on classic games as for-hire developers and then retool them for modern technology, keeping the original experience exactly intact. This is what the Eclipse engine is fundamentally designed to do. It allows players to choose whether to view the game in modern crystal clear graphics, or to view it like it would’ve looked 25 years ago, playing from a cartridge on a bulky old TV.
Retro gamers themselves, Digital Eclipse developed the collection to meet the standards they use at home for their own old school gaming. “Like, we identified there’s an audience that plays classic games that way because duh, I am one, right?” Cifaldi said.
PLAY IT LIKE YOU MEAN IT
After shopping the engine around and settling on a deal with Capcom to try it out on the Mega Man games, Cifaldi and Digital Eclipse President Andrew Ayer and Head of Development Mike Mika got to work sourcing every last scrap of information and promotional material of the time they could get their hands on to really complete the experience.
“I think that it’s important to contextualize art that’s passed a certain threshold in order to really understand it so this was our first attempt at doing that,” Cifaldi explained. “I think that Mega Man wasn’t just a binary game that ran; I think the marketing behind it was part of it. I think, myself, as someone who grew up in the ‘80s, I had the first Mega Man game (well, the first one I got was [Mega Man 3] but I went back for the first one), and that was informed by Capcom USA marketing of the time. That to me was part of the Mega Man experience and you should try and put as much of that into your packaging as you can.”
Being a digital-only release, the true test of Mega Man Legacy Collection, and indeed the viability of what Digital Eclipse is doing here, is the test of time. Making the games available to new players on current platforms in as authentic a manner as possible is really one half of what Digital Eclipse have planned. They also want to bear these games into the future. Re-building the games in their own engine means that, hopefully, when and if the next PlayStation and Xbox consoles come out, they can transfer the collection over relatively painlessly, keeping the games on a steady lease of life, or so Cifaldi hopes.
“I think that as an industry we’re going to have to start thinking about future-proofing our source code in order to keep games in print. It’s not like companies don’t want to put their games out there and sell 'em, for the most part, it’s just that there are hurdles, and often those hurdles are technological. It’s just, y'know, it doesn’t make financial sense to port this over to Steam or whatever because they just don’t see the numbers, they don’t make sense, they’d lose money doing that,” he said. “So the hope is that solutions like the Eclipse engine can reduce that trend and help keep games in print.”
For now, Digital Eclipse has proven the concept is a viable one in practice for at least one gaming legend, but they had a relatively easy ride compared to the potential pitfalls outside of the technological. Copyright and legal hurdles forever surround the re-release of older media and often companies that set out to reprint classic works find themselves facing legal troubles in addition to the expected financial ones. Cifaldi cites Shout! Factory and Rhino Records, companies that specialize in niche film and music releases, respectively, as comparable examples.
“It gets really tricky and I do think that we need a company to basically step up and start basically having lawyers on staff to figure out this mess and I don’t think we get there until we prove the commercial viability of doing that and that’s what we’re trying to do here,” he sighs, before adding confidently, “I think what we’re doing with Digital Eclipse right now with Mega Man Legacy Collection is what I hope to be a first step toward that, and if it ends up that I spend the rest of my life being that sort of Shout! Factory legal wrangler and re-publisher, that’s what I want to be doing with my life. So let’s hope I get there.”
Let’s hope so indeed. For now, you can check out the Mega Man Legacy Collection in the digital stores on Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC and Nintendo 3DS.
Anthony McGlynn is a freelance writer by night and a sleepy freelance writer by day. He’s also a firm believer in the zombie apocalypse. Yell at him to stop procrastinating on Twitter @AntoMcG
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