December 31, 2018

Making an NES Title Part 1 – The Concept

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Somewhere in southeast of England in 1992, a little boy opens up his first gaming console on a cold Christmas morning. Little did he know that he was slowly building the knowledge he needed to create his own game 30 years later.

I was lucky enough that my parents were able to afford the original Game Boy. My sister and I both got one. They didn’t want to play favorites, although in my mother’s eyes I could do no wrong. Both were bundled with Tetris, but I was also gifted Super Mario Land while my sister received the very random Beetlejuice game.

I completed the vast majority of Super Mario Land in the first 24 hours and remember my dad looking surprised about my achievements. He would occasionally “see what all this nonsense was about” in his coy-yet-cunning objective to complete the levels himself. When he took too long to advance to the second world, he tasked me with sketching new levels to entertain myself as he gave it his best shot. He then promised he would send the levels I drew to Nintendo, and of course my gullible 6-year-old ass believed him.

After weeks of sitting by the front door awaiting my well-deserved job offer in Kyoto, nothing came. Either Nintendo was too good for my hand-drawn, sweet ass Mario levels or my dad lied his ass off and never sent them. I’m guessing it was the latter.

Instead, I held the grudge that one day I will create a the best platform game ever—or at least attempt to create something that was somewhat playable on original gaming hardware from the ’80s or ’90s. Then along came NESmaker. With this tool, I realized I could achieve all of the above even with my limited knowledge of creating games and writing code. The game won’t work on the the Game Boy, but I could install it on original cartridges for the NES.

Since I was always trying to get my grubby little paws on my sisters copy of Beetlejuice (without much luck), I liked the idea of creating my own horror platform game she wouldn’t be able to take away from me.

I started to flesh out top-level ideas for the game. Within a few days, I came up with a simple-yet-creepy idea that could be a winner: “He Lives.”

The concept was simple: The protagonist of the game is trying to escape a demon you’ve “accidentally” unleashed while carelessly playing with a old Ouija Board.

Naturally, I got overly excited and created some announcement art in Cinema 4D.

So, with a little bit of competitive analysis into creepy NES titles, I explored my technical limitations. How could I fit a compelling story with not-so-shitty graphics into hardware capped at 512KB PRG ROM?

Yes, you read that right. 512 Kilobytes.

For reference, that copy of Super Mario Land I got in Christmas 1992 clocked in at a whopping 37KB of data. I find it mind-boggling that the graphics, physics, music, and gameplay data fit into a file at that size—so I’m excited to see what’s possible with just half a meg at my disposal.

Releasing my homebrewed game on the original  hardware adds another level of complexity to this project I hadn’t originally anticipated. As such, I’ll need a few additional toys. The shopping list includes INL-ROM circuit boards, plastic cases/shells, and dust sleeves alongside the noob-friendly sounding NES 72 Pin INLretro Dumper-Programmer. This will enable me to hook up the NROM INL-ROM circuit board to my computer and inject the game via a standard USB A-B cable. Or something.

The final result (if everything goes according to plan) will be a blowable NES cartridge branded and ready to ship. The next steps for the project are already in motion. I’m familiarizing myself with the NESMaker software and starting to storyboard the game and flesh out the concept in a lot more detail.

I plan to finish the project sometime in 2020, so it gives me a little breathing room to gather all the materials I need to make this dream become a reality—something that the 6-year-old Adam has desperately wanted for nearly 27 years.

More to come shortly.