For fans of retro and classic gaming, the word “obsolete” is meaningless. Buoyed by a mix of nostalgia and some examples of truly creative game design, a lot of players consider games that came out even two decades ago as viable today as they were back then.
But for all their devotion to classic titles, there’s one major obstacle for players to overcome: the hardware itself. Laserdisc players in video arcades, floppy disk drives and keyboards on the Commodore 64, joysticks on the Atari 2600 – sooner or later, all of them begin to sputter and die under the strain of years of abuse. Some people continue to maintain these antique machines, but with years passing and no new models being produced, this becomes an increasingly difficult and expensive proposition.
Beyond keeping a vintage machine in museum quality, what’s the best way to preserve these older games? For many developers, the answer is literally in the palm of their hands: the iPhone.
It’s an odd marriage – the sleek, polished smartphone with the gaming libraries of systems not even a hundredth as complex – but the platform is proving surprisingly versatile for retro fans. Emulators, remakes and direct ports have been flooding the iPhone App Store in recent months, giving a new lease on life to games that would otherwise be close to extinction.
“It puts a smile on my face to think that we’ve moved from a 1,000-pound arcade machine to a device of only a few ounces,” says Paul Gold, Supervising Producer at Digital Leisure, a company that remasters older video-intensive titles for newer platforms. Digital Leisure entered the iPhone field in May with a complete port of Space Ace.
Porting older games to newer systems has been popular for years among fans, and the internet is full of emulators for vintage systems. More recently, developers have awakened to the potential of cashing in on nostalgia and branched out to offer a sizable catalogue of titles in original and remade form through services like the Xbox Live Arcade.
So why do developers think the iPhone can offer a home for these classics? George Broussard, Lead Designer at 3D Realms and co-creator of Duke Nukem 3D, says the iPhone lets developers make games “without the same publishing hassles and costs that come with larger consoles.” Broussard says the decision to create an iPhone version of Duke in collaboration with MachineWorks Northwest was made easier by its development and reception on the XBLA.
Other established developers are just as enthusiastic about the iPhone. After Wolfenstein 3D and Doom creator id Software established an iPhone division, Technical Director John Carmack decided to experiment with those earlier titles as a trial run for the platform. Using the original code of Wolfenstein 3D with a few tweaks, like removing the status bar and inserting an automap, he wound up with a fully functional game that compared favorably to the original release. “Simplicity plays well on the iPhone,” Carmack said in his development notes.
Carmack has clearly indicated his support of the iPhone in recent interviews, and he’s also said there will be much more professional efforts made on older titles – Doom is currently in development, with Quake and Quake II to follow. Retro games will be one of three “prongs” for id’s iPhone department, along with “from-scratch” games like Doom Resurrection and traditional games such as Wolfenstein RPG.
Professional game developers aren’t the only ones flocking to Apple’s handheld; the platform offers plenty of opportunities for independent developers as well. Among them is Christian Whitehead, a programmer who developed the iPhone Retro Engine and Retro Software Development Kit for the purpose of more easily converting older games to run natively on the iPhone. Using the engine – and years of experience playing Sonic the Hedgehog titles – Whitehead was able to program a full port of Sonic CD using the iPhone’s software to clean up the graphics and display the game in widescreen format.
Whitehead says he has been in talks with Sega regarding making the port available on the App Store, adding the experience has driven his interest for future retro games. “This is the style of game development I love, where small, even one-man teams work hard to produce stuff ranging from old school to outright experimental,” Whitehead says.
Other independent developers have gone a bit further, replicating not just retro games but entire systems. After creating a successful port of the Amiga game Flashback, developer Manomio programmed an iPhone emulator for the Commodore 64 that simulates the original Commodore experience by using the original graphics and sound and incorporating the options to switch between “red ball” joystick and keyboard. The program is currently in App Store limbo after Apple learned of a hack that allowed users to access the emulator’s BASIC programming language, but Manomio has submitted a new version that it expects Apple to approve shortly.
“Many of these games are still incredibly playable today,” says Stuart Carnie, Chief Technology Officer of Manomio. “They are easy to pick up, with relatively simple controls and provide the user with instant gratification.”
From Stick to Screen
For all developers’ success at porting retro titles to the iPhone, there are intrinsic limitations to the platform. While services like XBLA or Steam can usually employ a game’s original input device, the iPhone must rely on its touchscreen and accelerometer. As a result, developers have to tackle issues like providing the player adequate input feedback and ensuring touchscreen commands don’t obstruct players’ view of the action.
“It’s difficult to please everybody with standard touchscreen D-pad controls, so it’s important to have several control schemes on offer,” Whitehead says.
In some cases, the simplicity of older titles works in the iPhone’s favor. For example, in its original form, Space Ace‘s gameplay was a string of quick-time events that required the player to move the joystick or press buttons at the exact moment when items lit up. The iPhone port includes a D-pad in the right corner and joystick button on the left; tapping them at the right time moves the gameplay forward. The 1993 adventure game Myst‘s iPhone port is similarly seamless, with the game’s original point-and-click interface replaced by touching the screen instead of a mouse.
Others, like Manomio’s C64 emulator, attempt to mimic more complicated control schemes. The emulator displays a traditional Commodore 64 controller when the player holds the iPhone vertically, but when the player tilts the phone horizontally, the joystick moves in response to where the player’s fingers are. Carnie said incorporating this functionality was one of the more difficult parts of creating the port, particularly with the lack of tactile feedback. “You must constantly be aware of your fingers and the location of the buttons, taking your concentration away from the gameplay,” Carnie said. “I’m sure muscle memory will eventually help, but it’s different for every game.”
Porting first-person shooter controls to the iPhone is a little more complicated, and developers have continued to experiment with control schemes. The iPhone version of Wolfenstein 3D incorporates left and right virtual analog sticks in the lower corners to control movement and aiming, while also using tilt controls to allow the player to move forward and backward. This layout has been well received, and there are indications id may use it again in future releases.
In the case of Duke Nukem 3D, you move and aim using a similar control scheme, while you simply tap on monsters to shoot and tap at the bottom of the screen to switch between weapons. Players have had some difficulty adjusting to these controls – for example, the stick needs to be tapped rather than dragged to get any real reaction – but Broussard says an update should be coming soon to correct these flaws.
Ask the Audience
Since the majority of retro games being ported to the iPhone have survived chiefly due to a devoted fan base, it should come as no surprise that fans remain vocal and involved on these titles, ranging from feedback on the App Store to Twitter messages and forum discussions. Many developers even solicit these suggestions; both Carmack and Broussard have posted direct questions on forums such as Touch Arcade.
The format of the App Store allows developers to respond to these requests more quickly and offer updates for customers almost immediately. Carnie says that when Manomio released their first game, the feedback they received not only shaped updates, such as the inclusion of a help overlay and level access codes, but also factored into the development of the C64 emulator’s joystick. “We spent hours using all the tools at our disposal to gather feedback and then spoke about the issues on our blog so users knew we were listening,” Carnie says.
The positive feedback from players and critics alike has been enough to encourage programmers to continue adapting retro games for the iPhone. Gold has said that Digital Leisure will be following up the success of Space Ace – a top-30 app a few days after release – with a port of the popular Dragon’s Lair in the next few months, and Broussard says 3D Realms is looking into possibilities for following Duke Nukem 3D. All indications are that developers enjoy working with the platform, and classic gaming fans are reaping the benefits.
“I think the design of the iPhone and its limitations is actually a big strength in keeping indie development alive on the iPhone,” Whitehead says. “A simple and cleverly designed game will always trump the eye candy.”
Les Chappell is a freelance writer based in Portland, OR. He has written for publications including Beer Northwest, WTN Media and The Daily Cardinal, and operates the literature blog The Lesser of Two Equals when not digging up classic games.