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How one developer resurrected a long-dead iPhone classic

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Mobile games don’t just age — they often disappear

Rolando: Royal Edition - mustachioed character on a ramp
A scene from Rolando: Royal Edition.
HandCircus

The iOS App Store and mobile gaming in general have evolved significantly in the last decade — and many of the iPhone’s earliest classics have vanished along the way.

Developer HandCircus and publisher ngmoco released Rolando for the iPhone in late 2008, just months after the App Store first went live. Rolando was one of the rare original mobile experiences that felt designed for both the strengths and limitations of smartphones. It was an immediate favorite among players and critics.

Rolando and its sequel, Rolando 2: Quest for the Golden Orchid, have since been lost to time, like many other early iOS gems, including Flight Control and Space Invaders: Infinity Gene. The Rolando series no longer seemed to be a priority for original publisher ngmoco once it was acquired by DeNA in 2010, and an announced third game in the franchise was canceled. The first two Rolando titles disappeared from the App Store when Apple cut off access to older, non-updated 32-bit apps in 2017.

That might have been the end of the story, but developer HandCircus later regained the rights to the franchise, and has now released a fully rebuilt and remastered version of the game. Rolando: Royal Edition is a passion project for the team, as founder and CEO Simon Oliver explains, but it’s also an opportunity to fill in a missing gap in the studio’s timeline.

”It’s been really difficult that nobody’s really been able to play it for years,” Oliver tells Polygon. “It’s heartbreaking that it’s a big part of our history that hasn’t been available in the store. It’s been in the back of our minds, something that we’d really like to bring back, but it kind of got a little bit lost in the excitement of the early days of mobile.”

Rolando: Royal Edition is actually closer to the game that fans might picture in their minds, rather than a faithful re-release of the game as it existed a decade ago. That’s because, as Oliver describes it, the first game is kind of a mess today. You can watch the original trailer below:

”Nostalgia creates these rose-tinted memories. It’s a funny thing: the way you remember it doesn’t always match exactly how it used to be,” he recalls. “At first, it was quite jarring. It was like, ‘Oh my god, this looks old.’” Rolando had simple, flat-colored visuals, along with a low frame rate and no effects, and felt much slower than expected. Beyond that sensory shock, however, HandCircus quickly rediscovered why Rolando’s mix of 2D platforming and puzzle-solving elements resonated so strongly all those years ago.”

HandCircus rebuilt the game in Unity for Rolando: Royal Edition, converting the 2D components into 3D environments and redesigning everything else with modern lighting, shadows, and effects.

”We were so constricted back then in terms of what we could do, that we very much feel freed now,” Oliver says about the power of today’s iOS devices. HandCircus didn’t fuss with the original physics too much for the Royal Edition, but the overall experience is much smoother than before.

Monetization

Rolando: Royal Edition is a fully premium title, just like the original: It costs $2.99 at release, and there are no microtransactions.

Trying to find a workable free-to-play model crossed the minds of the people at HandCircus, Oliver admits, but there was no way to do so without significantly reworking the game’s design.

”Free-to-play is something that you can’t really shoehorn into an existing game design,” he says. “If you’re going to design something from the ground up that fits that model, I think that’s great. But if you end up trying to apply it to something that’s been designed as a premium experience, then you end up with a product that is good for no one. It ends up being a bit of a mess that tries to encourage certain play patterns that don’t fit what we originally designed for.”

Smartphone gaming is in a vastly different place than it was back in 2008. Oliver says that HandCircus launched Rolando into an App Store with about 500 games at the time, rather than the seemingly endless abyss we have today. Many games were also self-contained affairs back then, while the ongoing free-to-play push on mobile has resulted in service-style games that continually evolve and expand. Those games require a different kind of design mentality to do well, according to Oliver.

”You’re almost designing a theme park that you visit, or designing hobbies for people to enjoy,” he says. “It’s a very different way of thinking about things. That’s had a huge impact in terms of the types of games that people are making and the skill sets that you need as a creator to have in-house to make those games a success.”

Games as history

Game preservation is a growing topic of concern in the mobile space, as many older smartphone favorites have disappeared — most don’t get a second chance via a polished remaster. Between Apple’s continual standards revisions and software upgrades, some games are being lost forever to the ever-changing App Store.

Oliver points to the work of GameClub, an upstart developer created to help update and relaunch older mobile games, and says that it’s critical for mobile players to have access to the formative games that first defined the platform.

”It is a really important thing, and I think on iOS and mobile in general, it’s been very difficult to have those experiences again. Those early games, those early iOS classics that disappeared — it’s been a real shame that I can’t play games like Flight Control or Incoboto, classic games that I remember being really inspired by,” he says [Ed. note: GameClub has since confirmed plans to revive Incoboto]. “With Rolando, we felt very much the same mission of hoping to restore something that is a piece of our history, but obviously is a little bit of a piece of history of the App Store, as well.”

Flight Control - jolly good
Flight Control was another early iOS game that’s no longer available.
Firemint/Namco

The goal is for HandCircus to take “calculated risks” but not “crazily overstretch” itself, Oliver suggests, as the studio did with its 2011 PlayStation 3 game, Okabu. The project was too big for the studio, and it learned a hard lesson as it tried to get the game into good enough shape for release. Mobile development is a much better fit for the indie team.

HandCircus has been largely quiet since the release of 2014’s Seabeard on iOS, but the team has other upcoming projects in the works after exploring mobile prototypes for creation games, augmented reality experiences, and real-time multiplayer affairs.

Depending on the success of Rolando: Royal Edition, we could see HandCircus dig back into the franchise again soon. It’s been a decade since the last entry hit the App Store, but given the team’s excitement to have its original baby back, there could be much more ahead.

”We’d love to do more with the world. It’s been really fun going back in and sprucing the original game up,” says Oliver. “We’d love to do the same with the second game, Rolando 2, and we’ve got ideas for totally brand-new future titles. So yeah, for us, this is very much the first step in bringing the Rolando world back. We’d like to do loads more with it.”