Last month, friends Charlie Hoey and Pete Smith uploaded “The Great Gatsby” video game to their Web site with the explanation that they had found a dusty, gray Nintendo cartridge in a garage sale box and reprogrammed it to work online.
The game had all the hallmarks of a Nintendo classic: the blocky art, the strangely hypnotic music of beeps and bops, and a humorous story line following Nick Calloway, narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic book, as he sashays through a 1920s party battling flappers, butlers and drunks.
In just over a month, a million people had logged on to the friends’ Web site to play.
As it turned out, Nintendo hadn’t created the “Great Gatsby” game. Hoey, a developer, and Smith, an editor at Nerve.com, had made the whole story up. They had designed the game themselves over the course of a year as homage to the Nintendo Entertainment System 8-bit video games of the 1980s that they had grown up loving.
There has always been a niche fan club dedicated to the original NES games, which were played using a a television console. But recently the old games and some newly created ones are proliferating on the web with the availability of Flash technology, which makes it easy to replicate the 8-bit look and feel. Art projects and musical tributes are also flooding the Internet. Just check out Swedish band Rymdreglage’s Lego-made music videos as the epitome of 8-bit cool, the movie “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” for 8-bit gone mainstream, Eightbit.me, a location-based iPhone app that turns you into a video game avatar, or Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” remade with a Ninendo sound chip.
Google showed how huge a demand for these games can be when last May the search engine turned its logo into a playable version of Pac-Man to celebrate the game’s 30th anniversary. People spent so much time on the site that some companies opted to block Google for the day to keep their employees on task.RescueTime, a software tracking company, estimated people spent a collective 4.8 million hours on the Pac-Man game in one day.
The Google doodle designer that created the game, Marcin Wichary, said the old game was “deceptively straightforward, carefully hiding [its] complexity under the hood.”
At a time when video games boast all sorts of design bells and whistles, the 8-bit Nintendo technology, once viewed as state-of-the-art, has a nostalgic appeal. (The term 8-bit refers to the processor used in the early generation of home computers and is discernible by its pixelated, block-shaped style.) The original game creators had few materials to work with — there were only 56 colors in the original Nintendo palette — but they still managed a huge range of visual styles, creating whole, elaborate universes for the first generation of computer-raised children to enjoy.
In the old, flat two-dimensional video game world, it’s the details that delight. For example, in the “Great Gatsby” game, check out the shocked expression on the butler’s face after he’s hit by a bowler hat.
“A lot of us look fondly at these old games now because they’re cozy mementos from childhood,” Hoey wrote on his personal blog. “But many decades from now people will look with a much deeper affection. They’ll see these games as early artifacts of a species that was just beginning to teach its machines to tell stories.”
Hoey and Smith did not charge for the game, partly out of fear of any legal repercussions from Nintendo. They considered creating an entire classic literary 8-bit arcade, with “Jane Eyre,” as their next project. Instead, they put their source code online, giving it away to other would-be game programmers.
Shortly, there could be a whole slew of new old video games to enjoy.
Fitzgerald might be right. We do beat on, boats against the current, ceaselessly into the past. But sometimes the past can be a pretty fun place to be.
From my SundayWeb InSites column.