Alt+Home: Everything New is old again
The game industry is no stranger to this phenomena; major publishers and even hobbyists constantly give older games a fresh coat of paint using the latest and greatest tools, while still attempting to capture the essence of what made the originals so memorable in the first place. Some succeed spectacularly at this, such as this year’s blockbuster remake of Doom or 2003’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. It’s tough to distill exactly which elements need to be carried over to the new version, which is why a lot of remakes fail to impress their target audience.
In the opposite direction, sometimes developers aim to simplify modern games, usually trying to emulate how they would have looked decades ago when the available resources were much more primitive. The goal when creating one of these “demakes” is to discern the most important elements from a game, and then take away all the fancy technological polish and budget. The idea has been around for a while now; entire game jams have been focused on this idea, participants crunching their favorite games into colorful and compact 8-bit tributes. You’ve probably seen a few yourself if you’ve spent any amount of time on the Internet in the last six years or so. Sometimes they are really just quick, fun exercises for their developers, or practice for pixel artists, and are quickly forgotten after the initial obligatory moment in the social media spotlight, ending up on the virtual shelves of indie publishers like itch.io. I’d like to focus for a moment on some of the outliers, demakes that have proven themselves to be so much more than minimalist shadows of their forebearers.
If you want to reconstruct an entire game in the style of the classic Nintendo Entertainment System and you happen to know how to code in Assembly, you can’t get more authentic than building something that can be played from an actual game cartridge. While hobbyists have been capable of creating unique programs for the Nintendo hardware for years, Dustin Long (aka Dustmop) raised the bar by translating an existing contemporary game, Thekla Inc’s The Witness, into this format. You can play it in any old emulator, but if you’ve got the hardware and the know-how, you can fire the thing into a blank cartridge & play it right through your NES console, provided you’ve managed to keep yours alive and kicking for the last three decades!
In The Witness, players explore an island filled with puzzles that have to be solved in order to progress to new parts of the island and move the story along. All of the puzzles have the same grid format, with solutions that often require inspecting the environments for clues. What makes this particular demake work so well is that while the original is presented as a 3D experience, the primary interaction players have with it is through its two-dimensional puzzles. Wit.nes simplifies the experience to its core “hook;” just as in the forerunning game, most of your time will be spent solving mazes on a puzzle grid. The island setpiece is still there, but it’s even more of a backdrop because of the simplicity mandated by the game’s format.
Besides the novelty of its physical manifestation, there’s a slightly more obscure reason The Wit.nes is in this list. The designer of The Witness, Jonathan Blow, made a name for himself in 2008 with Braid, a game rife with references and nods to classic games. Rolling his latest project back to an 8-bit framework is only fitting!
When ID Software released Wolfenstein 3D in 1992, it paved the way for modern first-person shooter games as we know them. There weren’t many games using 3D graphics technology at the time (and the ones that did were largely flight simulation games like Wing Commander), so ID’s gory remake of the two-dimensional Castle Wolfenstein games was the closest players of the time had ever felt to actually being behind the barrel of a machine gun, spraying pixelated death at endless waves of bad guys. It goes without saying that the rest is history.
On the surface, Mike Lacher’s Wolfenstein 1-D is a parody of the 3D craze that followed Wolfenstein 3D; instead of putting the player in an elaborate maze filled with enemies, ammo, and helpful items, the entire game plays out on a single, 1-pixel horizontal line, from left to right. The sounds from the preceding game are all there, but the player, enemies, doors, and helpful items are all represented by tiny little lines of various colors. When the bullets start flying, rather than ducking around a corner & outmaneuvering your enemies, all you can do is fire a volley of single-pixel bullets at them & hope for the best. Surprisingly, it’s actually a playable game, though most of the strategy involves killing everything in front of you as fast as possible before you get mowed down, because there’s nowhere to seek cover.
This type of deconstruction is also a surprisingly effective experiment in simplicity at its most extreme. How does gameplay have to change when you remove two entire dimensions from its structure? Is it possible to make it actually fun to play? Obviously nostalgia factors heavily into this one for a lot of people, but Lacher has objectively succeeded here in creating the most distilled Wolfenstein experience possible, even if you have no knowledge whatsoever of the original game.
American McGee’s Alice, which came out in 2000, is everything you would not expect an Alice in Wonderland game to be. It was a dark reimagining of the Alice universe, the premise being that Alice herself had undergone a horrible trauma, and as a result, the Wonderland inside her head became a place of gore and nightmares. The game itself was action-oriented and involved collecting an array of weaponry themed after objects in Lewis Carroll’s books, and using them to mow down hordes of enemies like corrupt anthropomorphic playing cards, insects, and lumbering Chess pieces.
Erin Robinson’s rendition of this game is just as absurd: The backstory reveals that an undisclosed number of years ago, Soviet scientists discovered a copy of Alice, and through a similarly undisclosed series of events, produced their own variation for Russian audiences. This rendition is done in the style of 90s two-dimensional adventures, with a seemingly intentional nod to the whimsical style of classic Theresa Duncan CD-ROM games, seemingly with an array of colorful characters to converse with and convoluted puzzles to solve. However, the only means you seem to have as far as interaction with other characters is to stab them repeatedly until they keel over cartoonishly and allow you to pass. The thin plot revolves around Alice fighting her way through a series of enemies who all represent Capitalism in some way, struggling to escape from Underland and back to her tragic reality. The characters and dialogue are all intentionally goofy, awkward and stilted, which blend perfectly with the goofy hand-drawn graphics and groanworthy puns. Little Girl in Underland is half parody, half homage, and all heart. (That actually was not an Alice reference)
In 2008, a Swedish student named Kian Bashiri released a short Flash game titled You Have to Burn the Rope. The solution for completing the game is in the title, as beating your only enemy is as simple as grabbing a torch and setting fire to a rope that holds a chandelier above the creature’s head. Roll credits. It seems to be a parody of video games that spoonfeed instructions to the player, patronizing and railroading them all the way to the end. It’s a tongue-in-cheek, minimalist joke.
That same year, TIGSource hosted a “Bootleg Demake” competition, challenging competitors to come up with a way to simplify an existing game, while changing or adding to the core mechanics in an interesting way. Fabresoft (going by the name “Blueberry”) accepted the challenge, and hammered out a rendition of You Have to Burn the Rope in the style of an Intellivision game. The twist, as mandated by the challenge? Download the game and find out! I’ll say this much, the key change Fabresoft made to the requirement for completing the game (and the reason I find it so interesting) seems to refer to the often obtuse solutions demanded by early 8-bit games. I refuse to spoil the fun, but I hope everyone who plays it flails around exactly as much as I did trying to figure out how to set the rope on fire.
Blending the open-world sandbox style and decaying post-apocalyptic atmosphere of Fallout 3 with the gripping, visceral terror of the survival horror genre, the personality of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series of shooter games would be difficult to emulate in a more primitive style. However, that’s not what Neil Thapen was aiming for with his puzzle-oriented demake. In the precursor, as in a lot of other games of this variety, you’re required to do a lot of inventory management. Every item you acquire has a specific shape and takes up a certain amount of space, so you’re going to end up spending a lot of time shifting your collection around on the 2-dimensional grid that represents your carrying capacity. It’s almost like a puzzle, which is why Thapen’s version is a Tetris clone with some very creative twists.
While the core gameplay functions just like Tetris, you also have meters for things like health and radiation levels. The blocks that drop in all represent items you are collecting in the wasteland, and completing a line sells them for cash. You’ll also pick up weapons, armor, and other useful supplies which can be kept intact in your inventory by flipping them to the bottom of the screen and stashing them there. As long as you don’t complete any of the lines they occupy, they’ll help you stay alive with various effects like reducing your radiation level, boosting your health, or shielding you from taking damage from the enemies who randomly attack as you play (which include wild dogs that appear as 2x6 block pieces and fall wriggling into your playing field to be dealt with). Each level is a balance between completing enough lines to earn cash, and stashing the items that will keep you alive long enough to enjoy it. With its genuinely addictive gameplay that doesn’t require any knowledge of the source material to enjoy, S.T.A.C.K.E.R is, by far, the most unparalleled Tetris variation I’ve ever played.
A lot of demakes are brought to life because of the aforementioned nostalgia factor. It’s fun to think about what popular contemporary games like Dark Souls or Halo would look like in 8-bit, their sound effects scaled down to beeps and crackles, their musical scores reduced to shrill chiptune jams. Some of these reductive reimaginings, however, are more notable because of an interesting gameplay or design twist. Others are presented as gentle parody, often referencing some aspect of a more modern game, or the culture surrounding it.
As one might expect, there are exceptional pieces such as the ones above that are particularly subversive and clever, taking off in a direction its predecessor’s designers never intended. They’re not crafted from the trappings of the past purely for the aesthetic; they are carefully modeled by their creators to offer a unique perspective, to say something profound about the game they reference or to draw attention to some unexplored avenue within it. They’re fun on a purely nostalgic level, yes, but they also add something fresh to the conversation.
Note: There are a ton of incredible demakes out there that didn’t make it into this list for lack of space, so if you’d like to tell me about something I didn’t include, please feel free to strike up a conversation with me on Twitter!