For a medium that’s just over 40 years old (give or take), it’s unbelievable how many truly classic video games have completely sold out. Yes, there are a relatively handful of random games available for download via Nintendo’s Virtual Console, Sony’s PlayStation Network or Microsoft’s new Xbox 360 backward compatibility. There is an even smaller subset of games that have come in the full “HD remake” treatment in recent years, making them available again on a new generation of consoles.
For the vast majority of video games out there, the only way to legally obtain a copy is to track down original hardware and used software that may not have been produced for decades. Digital Eclipse aims to change that by using a mix of technology and attention to historical detail to ensure that gaming’s classics continue to circulate in a cost-effective, accurate and respectful manner.
“Classic games are devalued by the way they are released,” Frank Cifaldi, Digital Eclipse’s head of restoration, told Ars in an interview (note: Cifaldi and I used to work together at Gamasutra). “The Virtual Console is a great platform to just buy and play a game, [but] I feel like a consumer when I download something like, ‘OK, you sold me a ROM and an emulator. Is that all you got for me?’”
For Cifaldi, spending a few bucks on an old game should be about more than just the “convenience factor” of having the game on current hardware; “You have to offer added value.” This week’s edition of Mega Man Legacy Collectionon Xbox One, PS4, Windows and Nintendo 3DS, packaged in the six original NES Mega man games with the usual extras and more. The pack comes with a full soundtrack, 800 pieces of concept art, a database of character information translated from the original Japanese development notes, and a new “challenge mode” that takes players through a grab bag of tough Mega man moments.
Cifaldi compared the company’s efforts to The Criterion Collection, which takes final remastered prints of hundreds of classic movies, loads them with additional historical content, and keeps them in circulation through Blu-Ray and DVD sales. “We wanted to make this kind of time capsule of contemporary classics Mega man in the NES era,” Cifaldi said.
Capturing a faithful experience of an old game on new hardware means paying close attention to small, almost pedantic details. First, games originally designed for a cathode ray tube (CRT) can look very different when viewed on a modern flat-panel LCD TV or monitor. Simply using the same raw pixels on newer screen technology creates a blocky image that becomes unnaturally sharp and jagged compared to the faint, interlaced glow of a CRT.
Emulator makers have already put a lot of effort into solving this problem. Mega Man Legacy Collection builds on those efforts, offering a classic TV mode that attempts to recreate the look and feel of an old composite cable running through those old TVs, as well as a “monitor mode” that emulates a high-quality RGB broadcast monitor.
The team seems to have gone to a somewhat ridiculous amount of effort to ensure that CRT recreation is aligned with what the developers at Capcom would have remembered. “We’ve more or less referenced the screenshots provided in the Rockmann 3 manual [in Japan], those seem to me to be pictures of the television that Capcom had in 1991 or whenever it was,” Cifaldi said. “We’ve gone this far.”
“A lot of the decisions we made were based on what the artistic intent of these games was,” Cifaldi continued. “The TV modes are there because artistic intent for the pixel art, there’s no definitive answer to that. I don’t think these games were ever meant to look completely pixel perfect… but who knows, maybe [the developers] would you prefer that?”
Then there’s the issue of aspect ratio Mega Man Legacy Collection can display its games as they were originally shown on the NES, but also in a distorted, stretched mode that fills an entire HDTV screen. “As a fan of those games, I’d rather no one play it [stretched]but if you’re the kind of person who can’t stand not having your screen full, we’ve got you covered,” Cifaldi said.
But even at the smaller size, the team’s attention to detail means they weren’t satisfied with the usual square pixels used in emulated versions of NES games. “That’s not how that game would look on a CRT television,” said Cifaldi. “It would have been a bit wider” because of the way the NES converts its video signal into horizontal scan lines. “If you were to actually measure the pixels on a CRT television from an NES output, it’s not one to one, it’s more like 8 to 7. So [our images are] kind of stretched horizontally, which I don’t think has ever been done in a commercial emulation project.”
After capturing historical context and artistic accuracy, the third pillar of Digital Eclipse’s preservation efforts is ensuring that the games will still be playable if the console’s hardware changes in the future. The Eclipse Engine is at the center of that effort, a proprietary piece of code scaffolding designed to easily port their games to any system possible.
“Every time you transfer it to a new system, you’re basically starting over,” Cifaldi said. “We made it [the Eclipse Engine] with that in mind. How do we make this engine very easily portable so that once we get a game running on it, we just have to port the engine and run the game on the next platform for the most part, we just have to fix it up…. It’s designed with that functionality in mind, with all the basic processes being easily portable, so the idea is that once something is running on it, it should run wherever Eclipse is.”
Basically, Digital Eclipse wants its new engine to be the middle format that can help easily translate any classic game to modern hardware. “The idea is that when PlayStation 5 comes out, Capcom can call us about Mega Man and we can do it in a month or two,” said Cifaldi. “It wouldn’t be nearly as expensive as starting over.”
Sometimes emulating the original hardware means getting a game into the Eclipse Engine. Other games will have to be transferred more directly by hand or decompiled and rebuilt for the new engine (as was the case with the NES Mega man titles, due to publisher concerns about direct emulation).
However, once these games are in Eclipse’s engine, they can be ported en masse to any new platform in one fell swoop, with minimal work, regardless of where they originally came from. While still in its infancy, Digital Eclipse hopes to build a library of titles it can convert to the Eclipse Engine, either by buying the rights or by working with the original publishers.
“The thinking is that the more of these releases we do, the cheaper it becomes for us to put other games on them,” Cifaldi said. “The idea is ultimately to get to the point where you can go to a customer who has old games and come to them with a very compelling argument that it’s stupid not to keep putting it out in print, because it’s basically free money… We [want to] get to the point where it’s a no-brainer to keep older games pressed.”