What Does It Take to Make the Criterion Collection of Video Games?

What Does It Take to Make the Criterion Collection of Video Games?

If you want to watch the famously bad 1956 Sci-Fi film Plan 9 from Outer Space, you have several options on both free and paid streaming services. The film has been archived, restored, and documented by people who care about the history of cinema. The same can’t be said about the similarly horrible 1993 Atari Jaguar game Cybermorph (does “where did you learn to fly?” ring any bells?). For years, experiencing that curious piece of gaming history required buying an ageing Jaguar or emulating it. But while Plan 9 has a wealth of scholarship about its history, few have tried to give Cybermorph its historical due.

Well, few except for Digital Eclipse, a game developer that works to document, emulate, and enhance classic video games. The team has spent the last few years creating some of the most lauded pieces of classic gaming collections. The company produced anthologies for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other venerable IPs like Capcom’s Street Fighter and Mega Man games and the Samurai Shodown series on the NeoGeo. Their latest release, Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, featuring over 100 classic game emulations plus supporting material and interviews, might be the most comparable thing games have ever come to creating a documentary of their own medium.

Mike Mika, Digital Eclipse’s longtime president, told Gizmodo in an interview that if you want to show what things were like in the past, you have to find a balance between making things playable, and showing off what made these products special in the first place, warts and all.

“We’re trying to simulate and emulate those flaws in that kind of hardware to allow these games to run like they did before,” he said. But more than that, they need to decide just how much old jank is worth including. For Mika, it’s most important that those holding the controller can “play [these games] in a way that it’s the game they remember, and less than the game that it was.”

Atari 50 is more than just a modern emulator of major Atari releases from the 2600 up through the beleaguered Atari Lynx handheld and the poor, poor Jaguar. Through design documents and video interviews with the games’ original developers, Digital Eclipse wanted to show that more than the games are worth preserving. The very ideas, art, and struggles that went into making classic games remain the same as other mediums, even if the scale of game development is magnitudes bigger than before.

The 1990 game Ninja Golf for the Atari 7800 is a fan favourite, though Atari quickly dropped support for the system soon after. (Gif: Digital Eclipse)
The 1990 game Ninja Golf for the Atari 7800 is a fan favourite, though Atari quickly dropped support for the system soon after. (Gif: Digital Eclipse)

Chris Kohler, Digital Eclipse’s editorial director, said that in today’s environment, anybody with a real inclination to play a game from an arcade or Nintendo NES can go online, download an emulator or ROM, and enjoy. You can probably find some old design documents floating around the internet, but what it all lacks is context.

“The term that we’ve landed on to differentiate our work — it’s like an interactive documentary,” Kohler said. So instead of just giving people a game and some loose bits of game trivia, the team wants to offer a kind of timeline for users to understand what it takes to create these works. In Atari 50, the game selection might include a developer interview along with an arcade flier, all providing more information on why and how the game is what it is. In some cases, the company even included an image of a game’s original code, such as the incredibly short codebase for the entirety of the Atari 2600 version of Combat.

“Nostalgia only carries you so far,” Mika said. “What all of this extra material does is paint a picture and shows people who might not be familiar with the property or the franchise or the company why these sorts of games are important.”

“There’s great books about the history of video games,” Kohler added. “There’s films, there’s documentaries in which people sit down and tell the real story. But video games are this great storytelling medium. Why can’t video games be the medium through which we tell the stories about the history of video games?”

What kind of tech lets you preserve older games?

Digital Eclipse, was first founded as a studio in 1992 and focused on emulating arcade games from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Later in the decade, the team specialised in making arcade emulations for the Game Boy Colour. After a few splits and mergers at the company, some former Eclipse employees formed Other Ocean Interactive which later revitalized the Digital Eclipse brand.

In the years since it was formed, game emulation has changed dramatically. It’s harder to emulate a more recent console than it is an older one, especially when they start to use multi-core processors.

Take the Atari Jaguar for example. It came to North America in 1993 and was marketed as the first 64-bit home system thanks to its twin 32-bit processors. Unfortunately for both the company and consumers, it was notoriously error-prone and even when you could get games to run, they were notoriously awkward to control and buggy. Mika said it’s difficult to emulate the platform, but there are still fondly-remembered titles like Tempest 2000 that deserve to be recognised.

“Because it was the early days … there was no concept of bitmaps or anything like that,” Mika said. Despite its size, a Gameboy Colour released in ‘98 can be more complex than a SNES released in 1991 because of the increased complexity of the built-in display.”

But more importantly for a developer like Digital Eclipse, there are very, very few games that still have the original source code lying around. Without that, the team needs to start an “archeological process” of trying to find anything the team could have for reference. Building an emulation usually requires looking at the ROM, or read-only memory found on the games themselves. This is where the term “emulation” comes from, developers try to recreate the game logic and present it in a way that is close to or “better” than the original.

Legendary LucasArts and Double Fine video game designer Tim Schafer talked about the Atari Lynx, the little handheld that could(n't). (Image: Digital Eclipse)
Legendary LucasArts and Double Fine video game designer Tim Schafer talked about the Atari Lynx, the little handheld that could(n’t). (Image: Digital Eclipse)

The company uses its own proprietary tools it called the Eclipse Engine to recreate these old pieces of software. The ROM is just the start, as the devs need to disassemble the games and understand the logic behind the original design. The engine can give the developers a rundown of everything that’s happening at the moment in the game’s emulation, but Mika said it also allows them to go in and make modifications on the fly. Their system can “draw in” enemies and objects into the world. It can interleave sound effects and music, all to see what best matches the game developers’ original intent.

“Without source or with source only as reference, we had to go and figure out how to hack these games,” Mika said. “By the end of this process, we came up with a list of features that are like this is what the product is about. Then we spend a large amount of time trying to understand how we can push these games and add features to them in a way that’s very natural.”

But then the task becomes modifying it and making it compatible with modern consoles and televisions without changing things dramatically. The Eclipse Engine can spit out builds that would be compatible with a PlayStation 5, a Nintendo Switch, and the PC separately, though the developers still need to see if the game plays fine when 12 FPS is bumped up to 30 or 60 or if the game is at all compatible on a widescreen format. For Tempest 2000, the company allows users to run it at 60 frames per second.

In terms of visuals, things get even more complicated as old CRT televisions tended to blend the lines of images. What we think of “pixel art” is more of how these pixelated images are represented by more modern television screens. Sometimes, old-school designers created colours knowing that a CRT would blend certain pixels together. Digital Eclipse needs to go in and either add a filter or otherwise make the pixels match the colour the developer originally intended.

There are times Digital Eclipse has actually added cut content to games, especially if they manage to get their hands on the source code. The company’s 2021 Disney Classic Games Collection included levels that were originally cut from the 1993 Sega Genesis game Aladdin that the team was able to reconstruct. The Blizzard Arcade Collection included artwork that one developer told the team was originally removed because it would have caused the game’s age rating to go up. In interviews with devs for the Samurai Shodown NeoGeo Collection, the Eclipse team learned there was an entire version of the game, finished, but never released.

“It’s a lot,” Kohler said. “We’re a small, scrappy team of developers that tries to punch above our weight. It’s difficult to do that level of detail for every single game in a collection. It’s just something we are constantly thinking about.”

What can both designers and regular folks learn from older games?

The company’s former Head of Restoration Frank Cifaldi said back in 2019 that the company’s goal was to become the “Criterion Collection” for video games. Just like Criterion’s work restoring and redistributing classic films, revitalizing old games is for the sake of scholarship as much as enjoyment.

Just 30 years ago, when graphical detail wasn’t the name of the game, video games needed both strong art direction and even stronger gameplay to stand out, Mika said. But beyond the simple pleasure of classic arcade titles or even sophisticated CRPGs, the extra material included in Digital Eclipse titles paints a more severe picture of game development. Labour disputes, developers not given credit for games, designers fighting back against publishers’ whims — all things developers are still regularly tackling today.

Digital Eclipse tries to add in as much old reference material as they can find into its emulations. Everything from press releases to old design documents show what kind of thought and effort went into older games. (Image: Digital Eclipse)
Digital Eclipse tries to add in as much old reference material as they can find into its emulations. Everything from press releases to old design documents show what kind of thought and effort went into older games. (Image: Digital Eclipse)

“Nothing ever changes,” Kohler said. “You literally have people sitting down from the very beginnings of the video game industry telling stories from the early 1970s about conflicts between management and labour, about design versus business and art, and it’s all just the same fights and the same problems that we have today.”

Jason Cirillo, one of Digital Eclipse’s software engineers, told Gizmodo that he knows making games has always been very hard. But still, even as a kid, and later a young man, he never had to think about how the games were made. Instead, to any young person growing up with them, these games were just “pure magic.” Then you learn about who may have been smoking weed at work or getting into it with the publisher over their game, and then you “finally put a face to the person that actually created hours and hours of your own childhood fun.”

IP rights are still a major hurdle for emulation

Even in Atari 50, there were several big or important games missing because of who owned the intellectual property. The classic arcade game Star Wars or the infamous 2600 flop that was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial are important moments in Atari’s history, but neither made the cut even if they are mentioned in some of the insider interviews.

“One of the hardest aspects of what we do outside of the development of the work is dealing with licensing,” said Stephen Frost, Digital Eclipse’s head of production. “Unless we can prove that somebody owns every aspect of a game, we can’t actually publish it or develop it.”

Frost said back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, few publishers thought their games would have any kind of long shelf life. IPs end up falling into a rabbit hole of ownership. Sometimes contracts will grant rights to now-defunct companies or individuals who passed away, and then nobody has any clue who still has ownership.

Video game industry veteran Faran Thomas about the Atari Jaguar and some other infamous Atari devices from the 1990s.  (Image: Digital Eclipse)
Video game industry veteran Faran Thomas about the Atari Jaguar and some other infamous Atari devices from the 1990s. (Image: Digital Eclipse)

Though Cifaldi has since moved on to the nonprofit Video Game History Foundation, in previous talks at the Game Developers Conference, the historian said that some game publishers have been incredibly hostile to the idea of game emulation. Nintendo in particular has been antagonized by anybody simulating its classic game lineup. In 2018, the company called emulators and ROMs “the greatest threat to date to the intellectual property rights of video game developers” in a copyright lawsuit against several ROM sites. At the same time, Nintendo and the Sonic franchise have been particularly reliant on emulators in order to re-release old classics.

Opinions on emulators have changed to some degree. It may be getting easier to convince companies to re-release games, especially as we’re now three years into the 30-year nostalgia cycle. The Digital Eclipse team’s other recent release, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection, revamps 13 TMNT games, including several of the franchise’s fondly-remembered ‘90s beat-em-ups. That was done in collaboration with publisher Konami and Nickelodeon. Those IP holders were jumping in front of other major TMNT releases for this year, so they had an incentive to collaborate, but these are all separate companies looking to hold onto the rights of their old work. Will publishers ever loosen up enough to allow collections that focus on whole consoles at once? What about a collection that analyses the evolution of first-person shooters?

Thanks to companies like Disney, copyright has extended far past the first 1790 copyright law’s terms. Current U.S. copyright law says that works receive protection for the life of the original author plus an additional 70 years or 95 years for a corporate copyright. Super Mario Brothers was first copyrighted in 1985, meaning it won’t be until the 2090s before the first edition of Nintendo’s flagship franchise enters the public domain. In that way, changes to copyright law may be the best way to expand artistic preservation.

“And I think, as a company, ourselves, we’re actively trying to break down barriers to allow [more game preservation] to happen — to focus on broader topics that involve multiple companies, and multiple IPs,” Mika said. “The dream is, 10 years from now, we do something that’s more broadly themed, that involves a myriad of different companies, and they’re all ok with working with each other.”

“You know, that’s at least the hope,” he added.