Thursday, 13 January 2011

Super Smash TV and the burning of the videogame libraries

This may well be a blogging faux pas, but I'm going to reproduce a comment as an actual post.

You may remember this recent post in which I talked about my fears for the future of older console games. I rather melodramatically compared the lack of backwards compatibility in newer consoles to the burning of libraries. I then made a slightly scatterbrained case for legal emulators or better backwards compatibility.

Because I'm not a developer, I'm not really equipped with an understanding of the practical issues that stand in the way of creating really good (legal) emulators for older games consoles. I know, I know. What I lack in "knowledge" I make up for in scatterbrianed idealism, but you really need both to solve a problem.

Anyway, Henry is a developer and I'm reproducing his comment because you might have missed it and there's not a huge amount of point me re-wording it. If you're interested in the emulator issue or the threat faced by games from older generations, it's worth a read:

I wholeheartedly agree about the tragic loss of parts of our culture due to gaming hardware becoming obsolete. This problem isn't unique to gaming though -- the same argument applies to recordings on wax cylinders and 8-tracks, it just happens that it's much, much easier to rescue audio by recording it onto a new format than it is to rescue games.

You're right that it's technical hurdles that stop newer consoles from being able to play games from previous generations. The only reason you could play any PS2 games on the first generation of PS3 consoles is that the first PS3s actually had some PS2 hardware inside just for this purpose. Emulating an older console in software has two problems: first, that it's almost impossible to emulate hardware exactly. Some game code, especially code written for older, more limited consoles, exploits the fact that the hardware is known to be identical on all consoles, and use undocumented features and hacks that work by coincidence, which a software emulator won't reproduce. Secondly, to emulate a machine in software you need a significantly more powerful machine to run the emulator at full speed. It may take a machine 3-5 times more powerful to get acceptably fast emulation, so the PS3 can't reasonably emulate the PS2 in software.

Finally, game companies are starting to release older titles running in emulators on their newer consoles. Wii Virtual Console lets you buy most of the best NES, SNES, Master System, Megadrive, etc, games. Microsoft has put up old Xbox 1 games for download as well, and I'm sure Sony is doing something similar. The only downside of this is that you can only play the games they choose to port, but at least you know that not all games from that era will be gone forever.

Well that's something at least. Given the hardware specificities which Henry mentions, I suppose it's optimistic to expect perfect reproductions of older games.

For example, there's an XBOX 360 version of the SNES classic and Well-Rendered favourite Super Smash TV. Well-Rendered Towers naturally acquired a copy, but was disappointed that the features that made the original game so compelling were largely absent.

I'm pretty sure this version was not "emulated", and I'm in no position to say whether or not any of the original code was used. The game was faster and smoother (good), but players of the new version are bestowed with infinite lives, which defeats the game's point entirely. Super Smash TV was thrilling because it was so incredibly difficult, and the fact that lives are so scarce means that players really do have to work as a team, providing covering fire as the other scrambles for the 1-Up. If players just get a free "continue" every time they reach "game over", they don't need to avoid being attacked and they don't need to co-operate.

Given that Super Smash TV's gameplay is about as nuanced as its name suggests, then without challenge and danger, the game has nothing to offer.

I presume the new version of the game is appealing to a time-poor market (if you're old enough to remember SSTV the first time round, one would hope you have a job by now), but to my mind it's pointless. I'm not a purist, and I have no problem with charmingly pixillated graphics or sound being updated, but if a pivotal aspect of a game is altered, then perhaps developer's time would have been better spent elsewhere. Besides, it's not as if the XBLA is exactly starved for 2-stick shooters.

There is an upside to this. Certain older games which Microsoft deem worthy are being lavished with an HD makeover as they are ported to newer platforms. Specifically, I'm talking about the re-release of Beyond Good and Evil.

My drooling (one-sided) love affair with this game has been going for nearly a decade, and my burning passion for the promised sequel remains as yet unconsummated. Thankfully, Beyond Good and Evil is available on PC and is thus available to me in its original incarnation so it shouldn't matter too much if the HD version is compromised. At least the (possible) sales might push the sequel a little bit closer to production (the glass is definitely half-full today).


  1. Cool, I'm famous :D

    I'm not sure if this is really on topic for your blog, but I thought it was vaguely relevant. There's a recent project that has taken a new approach to emulating old hardware. Instead of using the hardware manuals to reproduce the chip's functionality in software, they take high resolution photographs of the chip's surface to find out exactly how it's put together. They then emulate the individual transistors in software to make a working chip. Because it's based on the original hardware itself, rather than what the documentation says about it, it's a 100% perfect reproduction.

    They started with the 6502 CPU, which was used in various computers and game consoles, including the NES.

    There are some great pictures here:

    And a Javascript simulation of the chip that you can run in your browser and watch the circuits in action is here:

    Thanks for reposting my comment :)

  2. Thanks for this. Not being a developer, I wasn't really aware of the relationships between hardware and software, and the dedication required to re-create hardware that will work.

    But surely it's worth it, right?