The person making new games for the NES in 2021

Image: Lowtek Games

Over the holidays, we are re-posting some of our best articles, interviews, opinions, and talking points from the previous 12 months. from both employees and participants – Articles that we think represent our best of 2021. In them you will find our usual mixture of thoughtfulness, frivolity and retro. expertise, nostalgia for games and, of course, enthusiasm for everything related to Nintendo. Enjoy!

Alastair Lowe wasn’t even born when the NES was originally released in the UK. But he spent most of his childhood playing fun with Nintendo’s 8-bit wonder machine after he bought it for a pittance at a car boot sale in the mid-1990s. “I remember buying an NES with ROB and a three-pound pistol in a box,” he says. “Damn amazing then.” While the console was far from up to date, he loved the car. But when he switched to Super NES, he ran into some problems.

Alastair is dyslexic to the point that he finds the text almost impossible to read. “I remember playing The Legend of Zelda,” he cites as an example, “but since I really have dyslexia, I didn’t read the title Zelda, I just said, ‘Oh, this is a game with a gold cover.’ ‘. “When he later got the Ocarina of Time on the N64, he didn’t realize it was part of the same series until he started playing.

His dyslexia was not a problem for ordinary text-based games of the 8-bit era, but many games since the 16-bit era can be practically unplayable due to the dramatic increase in word count. “Things are great between Atari and the NES,” he says, “and then, starting with the SNES, they had a lot more memory to fit novels.”

The proliferation of lyrics meant that Alastair had to give up hopes of playing – or at least understanding – some of the greatest hits in gaming, such as Final Fantasy VII. He cites Telltale’s The Walking Dead games as notorious examples of games in which some parts are nearly impossible for people with dyslexia due to the fact that they regularly ask multiple-choice questions that need to be answered in time. “Being able to pause the game at this point would be great for a dyslexic player,” he says. “And you could argue that non-dyslexic players will take advantage of this advantage, but who cares if it means more people can play it? This may be an option that is not enabled by default for everyone. “

The good news is that several games have dramatically improved accessibility for dyslexic players. In particular, according to Alastair, it has been a huge boon to have text-to-speech options when the game speaks text in menus and other options. “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla did it really amazing,” he says. “They have a virtual cursor that you can move, and it reads whatever you hover over. This is amazing.”

Alistair left his job at mobile developer Ninja Kiwi to found Lowtek Games, and part of the studio’s job is to provide accessibility for people with dyslexia.

Alistair is currently giving advice to other indie developers on how to make games more dyslexia-friendly. “Dyslexia manifests itself in different ways for different people,” says Alastair, but believes there are a few simple things that developers can do to make games more accessible. In addition to presenting dialogs as short, skipped chunks, he suggests writing text in sentence case rather than capital letters, and that developers should use an easy-to-read sans-serif font.

Last year, Alastair left his job at mobile app development company Ninja Kiwi to found Lowtek Gamesand part of the studio’s job is to provide accessibility for people with dyslexia. Alastair has developed a Unity plugin called Dislectek this allows developers to easily add dyslexia-friendly text to their games. But he also created dyslexia-friendly games for his favorite console: the NES.

Alastair was interested in making home games for a while before he discovered NESmaker, a simple program that allows anyone to easily create games for the Nintendo 8-bit console. Previously, he came up with a concept for a game in which the protagonist constantly jumps automatically, and even did a demo for mobile phones, but now he’s switched his design efforts to the NES – and Flea! was born.

“The reason I chose the flea is because I thought frogs and rabbits were already in the game industry,” explains Alastair, adding that he could only think of one other game with a flea as the main character – Raging flea on Super NES. In addition, the tiny parasite is perfectly matched with the always jumping mechanic, where the player carefully guides the jumping insect through deadly spikes in its quest to collect blood.

The forced boredom of nationwide isolation in early 2020 gave him time to end it. “COVID helped me finish it because I stayed overnight doing level design,” says Alastair. “It really went overboard: otherwise it would have taken a lot longer.”

COVID helped me finish it because I stayed overnight doing level design. It really went overboard: otherwise it would have taken a lot longer.

But Alistair went even further than just creating an NES game that can be played on PC: after a successful Kickstarter campaign, he produced a limited edition of real NES cartridges so gamers can play Flea! on the original console (or modern equivalents like RetroN or Analogue NT). But how do you go about making cartridges for a console that was discontinued about 26 years ago?

“I was going to find everything myself: buy carts on AliExpress, buy boards on Infinite NES Livesand ask some guy named Frank from America to print boxes and manuals, ”says Alastair. “Then I realized that it would be very, very expensive to send it all to me and then send it back to America – because most of the people who bought these things were in America. Then during Kickstarter Broke Studio sent me a message and they could do it a lot cheaper, and they also did everything, like distribution. ” Broke Studio is a French developer and publisher founded in 2017 solely to create and distribute new games for older consoles, and is one of many firms like Limited Run Games and Strictly Limited Games that are part of a resurgence of development for defunct slot machines. …

Even with the help of Broke Studio, it was not cheap to produce Flea! cartridges that sell for £ 50 or £ 60 for a color cartridge. Even at this price point, Alastair believes the profit margins are about the same as from the much cheaper digital version of the game. But he thinks the hassle of making the cartridges is worth it. And there is no shortage of collectors willing to buy them – Alastair himself believes that he now has more homebrew games for the NES in his collection than the original releases of the 80s and 90s.

Lowtek Games continued playing Flea! with a puzzle game to the disco Tapewormwhich was successfully funded on Kickstarter earlier this year. Alastair is planning more NES games set in the Flea universe. “We’ve got a couple of ideas, like a joke or something like Lost Vikings where you play other characters.”

Even so, he admits that making games for ancient consoles is unlikely to become mainstream. “I think it will be a niche. I think there will be a lot more people who start doing this, and then the Kickstarters will start to decline or maybe the quality will drop. A couple of bad Kickstarters are enough for everyone to say no. “

However, he is currently enjoying a renaissance in NES game development – in particular, collecting a collection of NES games created by his contemporaries. “It hurts my wallet a little. But there is something about the fact that these are games made by people I know. There is something nice about that. “

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Image: Lowtek Games

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