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.