Mega Man 9 was recently announced, and if you haven’t got a chance to check it out yet - it’s extremely noteworthy that it is being developed in the same lo-resolution style as its 8-bit NES predecessors, and that it will be the closest thing to a new NES game in about 15 years. While it is unfortunate that Mega Man 9 is not going to be released on the traditional cartridge form to avid retro-gamers like myself, its upcoming distribution via WiiWare and XBox Live as well as widespread anticipation for its release seems to ask the question, is this format actually dead?
From working part time at a used video game store in Chicago, I would say the answer is most definitely ”no”. Despite carrying about every console in existence, including ones from the latest generation - by and far the most popular system we carry is the classic 8-bit NES. This seems to argue that despite all the advances in gaming technology, there are still a ton of people out there yearning to play some simple platformers on a controller with less buttons than you can count with one hand. Content seems to trump presentation for a large fraction of the gaming public. Another common comment I’ve gotten from customers, and one I happen to agree with is that a lot of people like video games, but lack the time in their day for the total world immersion demanded by blockbuster titles like GTA 4, Metal Gear Solid 4 or the latest Zelda or Final Fantasy game. Many people are just looking for something they can play casually for 15 to 30 minutes a day and then walk away from. Classics like Super Mario Bros., Dr. Mario, Tetris, and Castlevania all fall into this category - games don’t need to be deep, complicated or flashy - they just need to be fun.
With digital distribution channels available in the modern age that allow developers to completely skip the costly step of boxed, shrink wrapped software such as Wii Virtual Console, XBox Live, Playstation Network and Steam and the apparent viability of lo-fi games like Mega Man 9, it appears that there are alternatives to the current defacto multimillion dollar development route. The cost for to develop an 8-bit game is orders of magnitude lower than what it takes to put out a next-gen title due to the limitations of the platform, and that an entire polished game can be put together by a few people in very little time. If Nintendo were to allow 3rd parties to resurrect its NES platform (and possibly other platforms) by publishing new games for it via the virtual console, they would liberate the gaming world from the entrenched paradigms of fps and mmorpgs by allowing developers to attempt innovation and the introduction of fresh ideas, without risking millions of dollars on a game that flops. The development budget for Grand Theft Auto 4 ran upwards of $100 million dollars. Yes you read that right, $100 million. The budget for a AAA NES style game could be about $100k, which would be more than enough to employ two people, a lead programmer and a dedicated artist for a year. The development time would be much less as well, and that money would be enough probably to get a few games out the door in a year’s time by those two people. This amount of money is a drop in the bucket compared to current development budgets and would bring diversity back into an industry that once excelled on it. In addition to this, development hardware costs would be negligible due to the fact that any modern computer is vastly superior to the 6502 CPU in a Nintendo, and that high quality software system emulators to test with are common and free.
Let’s hope that Mega Man 9 opens the doors for more similar anachronistic games, ones that have their emphasis on fun as opposed to photorealistic graphics. If Nintendo has already met and acknowledged this need halfway, by giving access to classic games via the virtual console - why would they have any reason to stop there by denying developers the ability to publish new games for these time honored platforms? With any luck, Mega Man 9 might be the wake up call the gaming industry desperately needs to break from its current state of stagnation and dependance on hardware as a crutch for boring and lackluster games.