Old-school video games are the new big thing. Entirely new titles like "Axiom Verge" emulate the style of Super Nintendo games, and most modern systems or smartphones let you purchase versions of classic titles to play whenever you want. Want "Galaga" on your iPhone? It's all yours.
But unless you're into vintage consoles and outdated televisions, it's not so easy to play genuinely old video games. Modern releases are usually cleaned up in some way, with glitches or graphical quirks removed, features added or controls changed. If those rough edges are smoothed over in a new release, then it could be argued that it's not a pure version of the game.
Enter Frank Cifaldi. He's the head of restoration for Digital Eclipse, a company devoted to accurate restorations of classic video games and developer of the upcoming "Mega Man Legacy Collection." That game includes new features, sure, but its main appeal is the reproduction of the six original "Mega Man" games, which you may remember from the Nintendo Entertainment System in the late '80s and early '90s.
The Huffington Post talked to Cifaldi about why old games are worth saving and what the future holds.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Gameplay in the original "Mega Man 3." (Source)
Tell me a little bit about what you're trying to do with video game restoration.
Frank Cifaldi: What I'm hoping to do at Digital Eclipse is commercialize video game restoration. Now that might sound kind of gross or nasty, because "commercialization" is kind of a weird word, but I think we can all agree that preserving video game history is important. It's an art form. It's something that's recognized by the Smithsonian and MoMA [Museum of Modern Art] now. I think we can finally stop the stupid "are video games art?" argument and move on, and figure out how do we properly preserve this art and make sure it's around.
When I say restoration, I mean that we want to restore these old games into a playable state that is, first, as accurate as we can get it to what the artists intended at the time, and second, into a state where it's not that difficult to keep it running on emerging platforms as they come out. Typically, when you port a game to a system, on a technical level, you've made the game run on that system, and if you want to do it on another system, you're starting over.
Tell me a little more about that.
FC: Every new hardware platform is completely different from anything before. You don't have that problem with any other medium. Film, it's audio and video. You scan that audio and video, and if you do it right, it's safe for any emerging platform, or any format. Even if we double the resolution of Blu-Ray someday, that film is safe. It's available and playable. Books are even easier. You're just scanning text.
There's no equivalent of scanning a video game.
What we're developing with the Eclipse Engine is a virtual environment where we get the game running in our core technology and put the porting not on the game side, but on the engine side. So, in theory, when PlayStation 5 comes out, we will get our tech running on PlayStation 5 by porting it over, and it won't be that difficult then to get "Mega Man Legacy Collection" running on that platform, if Capcom [the "Mega Man" games' original publisher] wants.
So, we're not talking about a new version of the game. You're really trying to restore that original video game -- it's not a rebuild or something like that.
FC: We're simulating the environment that it ran in at the time. It's kind of the George Lucas argument. Once a work has been established, can you go back and alter it and go to sleep at night? I think not.
Especially with something like "Mega Man" for us, we didn't create the original games. Our philosophy is, altering anything in the original games, even if it's a minor bug fix, that's not our place in this world. It's not for us to decide that. We can't decide if some slowdown was intentional, because a lot of that is programmed in. We can't decide if that bug fix that we could easily do is what they would have wanted. And even if it was what they wanted, I would argue that you can't fix it now. It was already out there. And if we're taking preserving games as art seriously, then we can't decide to change them to fix them.
Gameplay in the original "Mega Man" (Source)
So, we're talking about fundamentally different hardware than the game was originally released on. We're not talking about a cartridge, we're talking about a digital download or a disc. How does that affect what you do?
FC: There's always going to be compromises. That will be true of any medium that's being translated to something else. Our approach at Digital Eclipse is focus as much as we can on artistic intent.
For "Mega Man Legacy Collection" specifically, artistic intent with the pixel art itself: There are two arguments here. One, that the pixel art was meant to be seen as proper, sharp pixel art -- like razor-sharp, you're seeing every pixel and there's no color bleed. The other argument is that the artist drew these graphics with the limitations of CRT TVs in mind, knowing that that color bleed would happen and creating artistic effects by utilizing those limitations. In "Mega Man," if you switch from "filter off" to "filter television," you can see this subtle hue change and shadowing that happens in the characters' faces. Was that intended? We don't know. So we leave both in.
There's not an ultimate answer. So we have to interpret. And the best interpretation is, what did it look like at the time, and can we reproduce that?
We're making a statement with this game. We're saying, this is how you do this.
This is like a time capsule. I look at this and imagine the Oculus being able to recreate the experience of sitting in an old living room with the original "Mega Man" in front of you in virtual reality.
FC: I've seen at least one Oculus demo that lets you create your own virtual arcade basement. And you put in the original arcade cabinets, and there's a TV in there. You can pick a Game Boy up off of the table and play it. Do I think that's the future for games? Possibly! I could see us going in that direction.