Super Win The Game from Minor Key Games' co-founder J. Kyle Pittman is a hymn to all things NES.
But to call it yet another exercise in childhood nostalgia would be to sell the project short. It's not just about recreating videogaming's past, so much as understanding what made those years so special and so influential on game design today.
Pittman previously created You Have to Win the Game, a side-project that celebrated the very early years of PC gaming. He and brother David make up Minor Key Games, which scored a critical hit last year with Eldritch. Super Win the Game will be available Oct. 1, on Steam for Windows, Mac, and Linux priced at $12.99.
Anyone who played NES games will immediately feel at home with Super Win; its colors, sounds and feel. Pittman is trying to make a game that could have existed a quarter of a century ago. Obviously, there are some very clear inspirations.
"In terms of art design, Zelda II is the most apparent, but I've also tried to adapt some elements of Super Mario Bros. 3, Metroid, Kid Icarus, Kirby's Adventure, and others," he told Polygon. "I hesitate to call Super Win a 'Metroidvania' because those labels carry a lot of baggage with them, but it does have that open-ended sense of exploration where you'll see places you can't reach at the start of the game. As you advance and acquire new abilities, you'll be able to revisit those locations and overcome those obstacles.
"The flipside of that is that this isn't a parody game or a game of 'spot the references,' and I've tried to walk that line carefully. There are a few deliberate homages to specific titles, but my hope is that those are perceived as reverent and not as a tacky attempt to cash in on nostalgia. I want this game to stand on its own and be a complete, meaningful experience in its own right, but it does owe a great deal to the NES classics, and it would be disingenuous to try to completely decouple the two."
The idea of creating an NES-inspired game came to Pittman while he was knocking around some notions for a sequel to You Have to Win the Game. "I had toyed with ideas for a sequel that would more drastically change the core mechanics, such as introducing a second player, but the idea of jumping to a different era of retro gaming hadn't yet occurred to me. As soon as it did, everything clicked. I could do away with the flip-screen rooms and introduce scrolling. I could split the world out into a number of smaller dungeons connected via a top-down overworld map. I could have towns with NPCs and dialog boxes. It was the most excited I'd been about a game concept in a while."
He cast his mind back to the excitement he felt as a small boy visiting the video games aisles at Toys R US. "In 1990, our parents bought us our first home console, an NES. By that time, many of the great classic NES games had already been available for a few years, and Super Mario Bros. 3 was just around the corner, so there was this vast catalog of amazing games.
"I remember going to Toys R Us, and they would have this massive wall of NES box covers with the paper slips underneath that you'd redeem at the counter, and I remember feeling overwhelmed by choice. To my six-year-old mind, every one of those games was a winner. Sometimes it was the games I didn't play that stuck with me the longest. In my imagination, they were perfect and sublime."
But a more modern video game forum supplied much of his research. "To get myself into the right headspace for making Super Win, I started watching long-plays of NES games on YouTube," he said. "I watched through literally hundreds of videos, and I was once again struck by how extensive the catalog of NES games had been. What impressed me even more was that there were still a few hidden gems I hadn't uncovered.
"I began to think of Super Win not as a 2014 indie game glomming on to a passing sense of retro nostalgia, but as an actual thing that could have existed in 1990. That mentality drove many of the aesthetic and design choices I made over the course of the game's development."
Pittman is working with tools and perspectives unavailable to the people who created those 8-bit games. How does he go about making use of today's technology while sticking to the authentic NES experience? "Memory is essentially unlimited on modern PC platforms, and performance nearly so. I've found it to be a challenge to find ways to deliberately constrain myself to the limitations of the NES hardware simply because modern graphics technology doesn't want work that way," he said.
"This isn't an NES homebrew game; I'm not emulating NES hardware under the hood. It's a PC game at heart, and every element that's recognizable as a part of the NES experience is the product of a conscious decision.
"There are a few aspects of the original hardware that I've made no attempt to recreate. Sprite flicker when many sprites are arranged in a row is one of these; limiting the number of colors on the screen is another. I am adhering strictly to the NES color palette, however, and sprites and tiles are limited to four colors each, or typically three colors and a transparent key.
"I synthesize sounds at runtime based on the audio capabilities of the NES, and I've even gone so far as to allow sound effects to stomp over background music exactly as they would on the NES. I've disabled this option by default, however. Like sprite flicker, I don't feel as if it's a memorable or desirable aspect of the games I'm paying homage to, but merely an unfortunate artifact of the hardware. Finding the right balance on those sorts of issues has been interesting because it's a highly subjective matter, and that's why I'm making an effort to provide options for these features wherever possible."
The ultimate goal is the same as that of the designers back in the 1980s; to create a game that feels right and is fun to play. "Good, solid game feel can make a world of difference in subtly affecting a player's impressions of a game, " he said. "For a platforming game like Super Win, my goals are that simply traversing the environment should feel satisfying and rewarding, and that players should never feel like they failed a skill test because the game cheated them in some way."
But for those expecting a straight retread of NES-era gaming styles, there are surprises. "I've mostly spoken about Super Win in terms of being an attempt to recreate the experience of playing classic NES games, and it is that, but it's also a highly personal game for me," said Pittman. "Amidst the superficial video game narrative of collecting artifacts for NPCs and trying to restore a fallen kingdom, there's a thread of something darker.
"Super Win occasionally deviates from its bright and colorful norms to drop into black-and-white dream sequences. These segments are where I've allowed myself to run a little more free with the weirdness and where I've also more explicitly delved into some of the underlying themes of the game, themes of anxiety, self-doubt, and the creative process."
"These bits are completely optional, and I don't necessarily expect that every player will enjoy them, but they've been one of the most rewarding parts of the game for me to work on. I think that gets to the heart of what I love about indie game development, that I have an opportunity to try things that don't necessarily make sense on paper or have obvious mass appeal. If even one person gets it and goes, 'Wow, that was cool,' then I'm happy."