The New Old Games

Today was a day of great elation followed by mild disappointment. Nintendo World Report have flagged up the release this week of classic shooter Gradius Rebirth on WiiWare, a game which would for me immediately warrant a points card, as you might deduce by my droolings over related items whilst travelling round Akihabara. This was marred only slightly by checking my Wii and seeing that the UK shopping channel doesn't list it yet. Arse. Never mind, it'll soon be added I'm sure.

Gradius Rebirth is the latest in what is becoming a revival of the older style of game, a revival brought about in no small measure by the free availability of games for older systems by the Wii Virtual Console. As well as all the Nintendo consoles from the NES onwards, the Megadrive, Master System, Turbografx, Neo Geo, and even Commadore 64 are supported with in-built emulators. And - bless them - Nintendo have used the opportunity to release games that were never available in the UK or even English markets. This sometimes means that they still contain all their original Japanese text (it's just not cost-effective to translate them as well) but they are available to run at full speed with no borders, free from the constraints of PAL which dogged the home consoles for so many years. In return for getting a fresh set of income for previously produced games, and providing a way to distribute them with little chance of piracy, the game companies win big.

So with this sudden wealth of playable back-catalogue, it's not surprising that many gamers are discovering (or re-discovering) the delights of the styles of game that have been left behind as the technology has rendered them insufficient. Around that is emerging a new market, catering for those people who don't just want access to the old games, or don't want fancy modern updates to the games they remember from their youth, but want to get hold of new games done in the old style. If one game was to exemplify this, it's Mega Man 9.

Capcom's Mega Man was a series of rock-hard platform games beginning on the NES, which since the first one in 1987 has attracted a loyal and dewey-eyed following amongst the older, crustier gamers. After 6 games on the NES (and a few sister games on the Game Boy) it moved to the SNES with fancier graphics and character models. The franchise then started to move away from its roots; it left behind its platforming heritage, and now currently enjoys a less warmly embraced series of RPG-ish games over a variety of formats.

Capcom saw the little wave of nostalgia brewing and decided to do something for the original fans. Mega Man 9 is about as authentic as possible. It looks and feels like the original NES games; the pallette and screen resolution are restricted to the NES specifications, the character models and scenery are based on the original art styles, the sound is sampled from the old NES sound chip, and the music was composed by Manami Matsumae, creator of the music for the first two games. To demonstrate just how much they were trying to cater for the nostalgics, the game even has an option to impose a degree of sprite flicker and slowdown that was present in the earlier NES games for that really authentic feel.

Such wallowing in nostalgia may sound kitsch, but there is sound economic sense for software houses to ride the wave if it truly does herald the start of a classic games revival. Compared to the enormous outlay of cash required to come up with the leading edge games, these new classics will cost relatively little, and can be released uniformly without a huge distribution network, or Nintendo's famously steep licensing costs to shoulder. Capcom took a risk with MM9, but it was only a small risk, and it paid off - the game is a popular download title, and it received broadly favourable reviews in the press.

Gradius Rebirth is much the same, returning to a graphical and play style reminiscent of the older games in the series, and especially taking a step backwards from the Treasure-flavoured Gradius 5 that was released on the PS2 some time ago. Hopefully this will result in a really enjoyable step back into the past, and if popular enough will not be the last of the new old games.

Edit: No, it isn't the last: Taito have announced Bubble Bobble Plus! - a new installment of their classic arcade game, returning to its platform roots as opposed to the endless succession of Bust A Move rehashes. Also: 4-player support! *squeals*