8-bit remakes fix the past

Back in the day, home versions of arcade hits were often disappointing: low-res screens, tiny sprites and tinny music. At the time, this was seen as the result of computers and consoles lacking the originals' cutting-edge tech. This is true enough; accurate living-room clones of coin-op hits weren't common until the 16-bit era. But expert coders, armed with an intricate mastery of ancient 8-bit computing knowledge, are revisiting the past to prove just how good the early machines could be.

For example, pictured above is the player's craft from 1980s classic shooter R-Type. At left, the original arcade incarnation is colorful and detailed; at center, a contemporary home version is barely recognizable as the same thing. At right, however, a more faithful modern remake, crafted on the same model of home computer, recovers much that was lost.

It's easy to assume such poor results were the result of slapdash programming. But more often than not, crushing development cycles were the cause.

"You make one mistake in your life and the internet will never let you live it down," wrote Keith Goodyer, programmer of the unfortunate R-Type port, on the CPC Wiki. "Electric Dreams / Activision gave me 21 days to do the port. I wish I had the time to do a nice mode 0 port with new graphics, but alas it was never to be."

Impressed by his candor, other readers of the forum decided to make it a reality 20 years later -- and gave themselves more than 21 days to get it done.

For those with the skills and the remembered disappointments, the chance to go back in time to fix childhood downers is hard to pass up. Anyone who grew up with an early Atari, Commodore 64 or Nintendo Entertainment System will likely have their own takes of holiday dismay to share. Pictured above is a fresh remake of Sega's colorful, fast-scrolling Space Harrier, from 1985. The home versions were universally grim, but garnered positive reviews because no-one expected better. On the left there is the arcade original. At center, a typical home conversion. On the right, however, is Sheddyshack's 8-bit remake for the Atari XE on the right.

(Sure, the still image of the remake isn't much. But video shows how close it gets. Frame rate, scrolling and animation -- factors not apparenty in screenshots -- were where many early conversions went to die. Also compare the colorful first version of CPC Double Dragon with the screenshot-ugly but superior rival version.)

In Europe, the nexus of the crummy conversion was the Amstrad CPC, a popular platform similar to the Commodore 64. It used a Z80 CPU, which permitted developers to recompile versions made for older computers such as the Sinclair Spectrum. Above, there's the arcade version of Capcom classic Black Tiger on the left, the notoriously awful CPC conversion in the middle, and, on the right, what I imagine a remake using that machine's capabilities would look like. It's not perfect -- detail and color is still lost -- but the appeal is not about exact reproductions. It's about a strange kind of nostalgia for specific experiences offered but denied; and, of course, the challenge of making the most of limited resources.

In an interview at Reassembler, coder Alan Laird reveals that he and Ian Morrison had to convert the arcade game Out Run to multiple home formats on deadline: "This was whilst attending university," he said. "It was a rather stressful time."

Above are screenshots from the hydraulic hit and a representative port. At left is the original, a spectacular affair that embodies the industry's mid-80s recovery. In the center, the tantalizingly perfect loading screen on the 64kb home version, a broken promise from which I clearly have yet to recover. And on the right, the gruesome reality of the actual game. This one has yet to be remade.

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  1. It would be interesting to read about the development tools and other support software available to the modern programmer, compared to the very clunky tools used back in the mid eighties to make those horrible ports. I don’t remember having anything more sophisticated than Microsoft’s M80 assembler and L80 linker back then.

  2. ZX Spectrum version of OutRun was phenomonal, considering. If you play it on an emulator at 150% speed it’s actually a pretty good facsimile of the arcade game, albeit lacking the absolutely gorgeous graphics of the original.

  3. Wow, I guess I’m showing my youth, but I had no idea arcade games used to be so much better than the at-home versions. I’ve never seen anybody mention that as a possible explanation for why arcades floundered after the 16-bit era. 

    1. If you are too young to remember bad home ports, do you remember arcades at all? Or are “arcades” to you mostly just things like Dave and Busters? But yes, that’s *exactly* why arcades more or less died.

      1. I remember arcades (I’m 34) but I didn’t realize they looked so much better than home systems (is there any way to play the arcade version of Space Harrier nowadays? It looks cool). Then again I didn’t spend a lot of time in arcades (mostly just at other kids’ birthday parties when I didn’t have to pay) and I didn’t own a home game system (aside from a Mac which I used to play Dark Castle).

        1. MAME (an arcade game emulator emulating thousands of games from the 1970s to the 1990s) is your friend in regard to playing old arcade games. Of course, as with any emulator, you need the ROMs for the games you want, and those can’t be legally distributed, but they aren’t that hard to find if you look around…

          1. I don’t want to be a wet blanket. I have played in the last few minutes, and in rapid succession, Space Harrier, Out Run and Double Dragon. There come, not just one version of said games, but several, including bootleg and several country regions. As well as all the sequels.

            I have MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator by Nicola Salmoria originally) installed and bought five DVDs of ROMS for it. That gave me 5633 working games of 8823 games of every kind, nation and age up to 2007, from 1975. Some as bizarre as an Argentinean machine for “Truco” card game complete with jibes in Argentinean slang; and a Korean game about an alien green dog shooting some kinds of ghosts,  with crying and laughing baby sound effects, set to baroque music and christmas carols called Pang Pang.

            Some ROMS themselves are there for your logging pleasure but the game does not work properly. Yes, you can log gameplay and tweak the “machine”, change dip switches and run test modes.

  4. In some sense, this sort of thing happened back in the day as well. The Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man is infamously bad. The version of Ms Pac-Man, although arguably a harder game to code, is much better. Yes, it is on a larger ROM, but using the same hardware.

  5. I wonder if anyone ever attempted a faithful port of Pac-Man for the Atari 2600.  The Atari conversion had to be the worst piece of garbage ever to come out of the “glory days” of the first-gen cartridge-based consoles (Atari’s “E.T.” not withstanding, of course).

    1. Several years ago somebody released an Atari 2600 remake of pacman that was far superior to the original. It used an impossibly large ROM if I remember correctly.

  6. I don’t see how the first image can show the same game on the same computer – the second image is R-Type on a ZX Spectrum. Renowned for its attribute blocks problem, the Spectrum could only show 2 colours in the same 8×8 pixel square. The third image doesn’t conform to this. It’s a small point, but the words ‘crafted on the same model of home computer’ are in italics, to emphasise the point. Am I wrong?

    1. I suspect the 2nd image is from a port from the ZX Spectrum version onto a computer with more capable hardware. I guess the CPC, based on the quote: “I wish I had the time to do a nice mode 0 port with new graphics, but alas it was never to be.”

  7. At commodore, the programmers were supplied with actual arcade machines to play, and then went and coded their versions. This was hit or miss, but a lot fo the commodore ports in general were pretty good.

  8. Yeah, there’s a connection between the end of arcades as a youth culture thing and home consoles/computers improving. Home machines like the Neo Geo and Sharp X68000 were the first to close the gap, but were expensive and hard to find in the west. But the Commodore Amiga, Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo were close enough and often had ‘perfect’ conversions or at least first-party titles that were nearly as impressive as arcade games. So the arcades headed toward big sit-down racing games, gun games, dancing games and other bullshit, and lost their mojo.

    On the R-Type image, the 2nd and third images are both CPC, seriously! The deal with CPC users getting shafted with Spectrum ports is addressed later :D

    1. The Amiga 500 was my first computer, but I’ve always been a heavy coin-op lover. I stopped playing arcades when it became clear that many new titles were simply unbeatable / unfair, or required money to advance no matter what (like NBAJam, an otherwise excellent game). The explosion of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat simply destroyed the market for any different game at the time (at least in Italy, where I was living), alienating a lot of semi-casual punters like me (good luck progressing in SFII unless you learn loads of random combos); and more and more game producers started customizing the hardware in ways that made it harder to just swap around or repair the boards, in order to kill the black market that had made them so popular in the first place. Around the same time, the slot machines market was liberalized around Europe, conquering the entire bar/pub circuit almost overnight (more money for the bar/pub/arcade, quieter punters, less mechanical problems — a no-brainer, really).
      Yes, consoles killed the coin-op stars, but I also think the industry was a victim of its own greed. The dancing games you begrudge were a breath of fresh air for a few months (different demographic, younger players, etc), but again and again they were fossilized by an industry looking for repetitive & reliable formulas. Some recent developments in Japan, when I went three years ago, were “online arcades” (where you basically enter a MMORPG from the coin-op) and games that required you to first buy /trading cards/ — an aberration, yes, but quite a lucrative one. Haven’t seen them in the UK yet, not that anybody cares anymore.

        1. yeah, there’s still the odd arcade gallery in places where youngsters are supposed to congregate: multiplex cinemas, bowling alleys, the occasional megamall, and the average rundown pier in soon-to-be-abandoned-seaside-resort-which-cannot-compete-with-cheap-flights-to-Spain towns (although many piers have taken them out a few years ago, or are doing it now… badly-maintained wooden piers have gone up in smoke a bit too much in the last  decade, so they’re trying to reduce risks). They’re damn expensive (one or two GBP *per game*!), but they’ve always been more so here than on the continent. As you said, their content is fairly predictable: dance-dance, guitar hero (in ascendancy), guns+zombies, car racing (losing ground). No retro option whatsoever (at least outside London, guess there might be something there, there’s always “something of something” in the Big Smoke), very little innovation.
          In Italy they’re mostly gone, afaik.

  9. One of the most surprising cases of the ‘bad port’ phenomenon that I’ve seen has to be the official port of the original Sonic the Hedgehog to Game Boy Advance. Unlike the home computer ports above, Sega was porting the game to more powerful hardware this time around. They still somehow managed to make it worse– like some of the ports described above, it looks perfectly good in screenshots, but in video, it’s pathetic:

    Naturally, a homebrew developer tried his own hand at it, and came up with something that plays pretty much exactly like the original:

  10. I have been obsessed with looking at the differences in old 8bit ports. It’s interesting to see the graphic differences of each machine and how the programmers found solutions for the respective limitations.

    While not an arcade port, some c64 guys recently did a wonderful job porting Prince of Persia to the Commodore. http://popc64.blogspot.com/

  11. One of the tradeoffs of the CPC was that you could have 16 colours with very low resolution (the “mode 0” referred to by the programmer), 4 colours with higher resolution (mode 1) or monochrome at the system’s full resolution (mode 2)
    Converting a 4-colour Spectrum game to 16-colour mode would also mean squeezing everything into a smaller screen size, so I can see why many ports didn’t go that way.  Mode 0 arcade ports often played dreadfully, but the screenshots looked cooler on the box.

  12. Thanks for the heads up about black tiger. There are oh so many arcade games that i have played but do not recall the name off out there.

  13. I don’t think this article does the C64 any justice. The C64 did a really great job at tackling the 16bit Arcade machines. R-Type looked great and played the same. I must say however, that R-Type on the Amiga was THE SAME as the Arcade (except for load times). Having the C64 next to a ZX Spectrum in graphics is a bit unfair.

  14. You guys and your fancy graphics. The port that deeply disillusioned me was Space Invaders on Atari. I was totally obsessed by Space Invaders and the idea that my friend could play it at home, all day, as much as he liked, blew my mind. But then I tried it and it was complete shit. The screen grabs are only a fraction of the story, the gameplay in Space Invaders and its descendant shooters (esp Galaga) was really great, and very very hard to reproduce.

  15. I had to look it up to remember what it was called, but “space harrier” (which I admittedly never played) looks/plays a lot like “worldrunner 3d” for NES, which was nice to look at and ran smoothly. AND had red-blue 3d mode.

  16. I just want to point out that the folks on Defence Force have been keeping the Oric-1/Atmos alive with new 8-bit releases .. in the last year we’ve had an Elite rewrite, an Impossible Mission re-write, and many, many more great apps for this old, rare, long-forgotten platform.  These guys really show the Oric-1 was a machine capable of much more than the 80’s market let it reveal .. 

    Check out our forum: http://www.defence-force.org/
    Have a look at some great new Oric-1 releases here:  http://www.oric.org/?page=software

    Look for the following titles, which are new releases for the platform, made with love by Oric/Atmos fans all over the world: Impossible Mission, O-Thrust, 1337, Stormlord, Space 1999 .. with more to come (Skooldaze, Prince of Persia..)
      

  17. Not that you can compare it to an arcade version since there wasn’t one that I’m aware of, but certain games were just designed brilliantly compared to others of their time in the early console days. Case in point: Mega Man. No other game at the time touched its graphics and use of color. A sidescroller just like Pitfall! and only 5 years older, Mega Man owned Pitfall!.

    Mortal Kombat did seem to be the last holdout for arcades. But when MK II was released, having to know the combos made continued gameplay ridiculously expensive.

    And I still have no idea how Raiders of the Lost Ark is supposed to end for Atari 2600.

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