A copy of Micro Mages arrives in an old-school cardboard shell, complete with a paper manual and a classic gray NES cartridge with the cover art stickered to the front. It plays like a typical 8-bit platformer: A tiny, purple-hooded sprite carves its way through gothic castles and gloomy caverns across 26 levels on its way to save a princess. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see gathering dust on the back shelf of a vintage game store. But Micro Mages was released last year, nearly 25 years after the last NES was manufactured, thanks to a crop of game developers refusing to let these classic consoles die.

“Since our childhood, NES has been one of our favorite consoles,” says Nicolas Bétoux, a developer at Morphcat Games, the company responsible for Micro Mages. “We started to develop NES games in our free time for fun and out of our curiosity."

Micro Mages has been highly successful, generating over 150,000 euros during its Kickstarter last year. It’s a triumph that counters recent trends in game development. In 2019, the industry is pivoting to a ubiquitous digital model — with EA, Ubisoft and Microsoft breaking ground on their own subscription services that deliver full games free to their customers. But some companies are winding the clock back to a time when physical media reigned supreme.

Morphcat is not alone. There’s been a boom of game designers trading in modern development tools to instead focus on the archaic consoles they grew up on. The Washington-based studio Octovania will release the Sonic-like Rollie in February, Artix Entertainment is doing the same with the Zelda-inspired Dungeons & Doomknights, and Retrotainment is putting together the spooky adventure game called Full Quiet. This is an expensive, labor-intensive process. Kevin Hanley, a designer of many home-brew NES cartridges, says he spends about $6,000 to print 250 copies of his games. Most of this money goes into the boxes and manuals, which are a necessary investment for his customers.

“Everyone wants the complete package,” says Hanley, who's most recent game is NEScape!, which takes cues from the escape rooms that have popped up all over the country. “Buying a new game, and sitting it on a shelf to sit besides the old classics, they wanted it to look similar."

Hanley says he first started making his own NES games when he was in his 20s, and “basically unemployed,” which made it difficult to scramble up the money necessary to produce cartridges effectively. But since 2015, he and other so-called “home-brew” NES developers have pivoted to Kickstarter, which has proven that there are a lot of people out there willing to fund new games for old consoles. NEScape! alone has made over $38,000 from 557 backers, more than twice as much as the $15,000 stated goal.

“[Kickstarter] has blown the doors of what’s possible in the community. Now it’s much easier to get the money up front. You say, ‘If you pay for this now, I’ll get this [game] to you,’" says Hanley. “It’s a different world now. In 2008 it was a very close-knit community. Everyone buying your game was the same person who bought all your other games. There was really no room for growth."

It hasn’t yet become a viable full-time vocation, according to Hanley, who says the developer scene is almost exclusively made up of part-timers and that games typically takes him about eight months to produce given his schedule.

Micro Mages was also released on Steam and as a downloadable ROM, but the most authentic way to play the game is on a genuine, non-modified NES. Bétoux says that because the NES motherboard is so primitive, Morphcat had to fit Micro Mages into 40 kilobits — the same data weight as the original Super Mario Bros.

“This is a small space to store the entire game, for example we can fit around two seconds of MP3 music into 40 kilobits,” adds Bétoux. “Usually, we have to create our own tool to develop on the NES."

There are some limitations to this model. Hanley says he’d like to port NEScape! over to Switch at some point, but because the game was developed for the NES, that makes the file difficult to compile on modern technology. “For developers that don’t have the extra resources, putting it on an NES ROM is really the only way they can operate,” he says. In general though, developers like Hanley and Bétoux are thrilled to be at the precipice of a brand new renaissance for some very old consoles. As long as they’re around, the NES will never die.

“I’m happy to see how far it’s come. For so long we were doing everything we could to get the word out. It’s awesome,” says Hanley. “I am excited to see where it can go. How freaking cool is it that we’re putting out games for something that came out in 1985?”

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