1. DUX, Sega Dreamcast (2009)
Somewhere at this moment, someone is forming a sentimental relationship with technology. They’re pawing at an iPad Air or listening to the complete King Crimson discography through Google Music on their Nexus phone and thinking it won’t ever get better than this. But in 20 years or less, those tools will be as hopelessly antiquated as an atlatl in the age of bows. Some people just don’t want to let go, though, and rather than crave the technology’s pure functionality, they savor its eccentricities.
Why make games for the Sega Dreamcast in 2013, 12 years after the console was discontinued and replaced by more advanced machinery? Because nothing else feels quite like a Dreamcast game. You can mimic the Dreamcast by rigging a software emulator to play its games on your PC—or simply by recreating their distinct brand of weirdness on another platform—but for some people, nothing but the original will suffice. Martin Konrad and Rene Hellwig made DUX for the Dreamcast in 2009. It’s a traditional space shooter—your tiny ship slowly flies from left to right shooting down other spaceships. It’s not just built to play on the Dreamcast, it’s also built to evoke the system’s physical appearance. It does so superficially, with its whitewashed sci-fi corridors and your red triangular spaceship—both prominently featured in the Dreamcast’s design—and on a more subtle level with its minimalist, modern spin on classic design.
2. Gunlord, Neo Geo (2012)
The developers of NG:Dev.Team have particular tastes. Making a macho running-and-gunning game in the vein of Contra isn’t enough for the German studio. Instead, the creators of Gunlord aspired to make a game that felt like the old German shooters of the 1980s and early ’90s—like Factor 5’s largely forgotten Amiga game Turrican, itself a slice of Contra fallout. And so the developer made Gunlord, a game whose layout is as anachronistic as its title. (If it were meant to ape modern games, it would be called Gunlord: Origins Retribution Ascension.) The titular lord of firearms runs around multi-tiered fantasy landscapes (which look as if they were plucked from the side of a metalhead’s conversion van) and blows up robot monster hybrids. Gunlord can be played on Dreamcast, but its more fitting home is the Neo Geo, which was best known for lavishly animated two-dimensional games like this one. NG:Dev.Team went to great lenths to replicate the Neo Geo experience as well. Gunlord is available as a cartridge for Neo Geo arcade cabinets and as a wildly expensive cartridge for the Neo Geo AES home console.
3. Pier Solar And The Great Architects, Sega Genesis (2010)
As time marches on, the SNES dominates popular consciousness when it comes to classic role-playing games (it’s always “Final Fantasy VI this,” and “Crono Trigger that”), but the Sega Genesis had an earthy quality that made its fantasies something special as well. Games like Shining Force and Landstalker looked dirty—adventures out in the woods that appeared to be practically made out of wood. Pier Solar And The Great Architects by game studio WaterMelon nailed that Genesis RPG style. It’s rife with the same dark color and harsh sounds Genesis game’s are known for, as well as the brutal difficulty of its signature Phantasy Star RPGs. Three young botanists set out on an adventure to find a magic herb and save one of their dads, and they get in lots of random turn-based fights along the way. The team even obsessively recreated Genesis packaging for the game’s release. “If we want a Genesis game to feel authentic, it has to come with a packaging equal or better than what we use to get back then,” Tulio Adriano Cardoso Goncalves, Pier Solar’s designer, told Polygon. That’s commitment.
4. Duck Attack!, Atari 2600 (2010)
The Atari 2600 endures not because its games were especially good, but because it was the first home gaming machine to offer a variety of games beyond virtual ping pong. Pitfall and Adventure are foundational texts, but they’re not exactly readable at this point. Atari 2600 games are aesthetically abrasive, which makes it hilarious when developers who are still tinkering with the hardware remake modern blockbusters, like a devolved interpretation of Halo that has been reduced to squawking essentials. Will Nicholes’ Duck Attack!, however, is an oddity. It’s a wholly modern 2600 game that’s actually fun and as awesomely weird as old 2600 games like Frankenstein’s Monster. Rather than control a duck, you’re in control of a robot who invades a mad scientist’s lab and tries to destroy his army of fire-breathing, nuclear-egg-laying mallards. Both the ducks and the robot are crafted with an impressive amount of detail for the 2600, somehow coaxing a new look out of an ancient machine.
5. Battle Kid: Fortress Of Peril, NES (2010)
Mega Man games aren’t as difficult as some contemporary Internet citizens would have you believe—or, at least, difficulty is relative. When the early Mega Man games hit the NES between 1987 and 1994, they were mild compared to more unforgiving challenges like Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania, where your meager abilities and your character’s momentum made jumping over bottomless pits a nauseating ordeal. Sivak Games’ Battle Kid: Fortress Of Peril, made for the NES in 2010, not only looks and sounds like a Mega Man cover, it’s also as difficult as people remember those Mega Man games being. Its challenge is inflated to almost absurd degrees, even on the lowest difficulty. Each new screen is an intricate death trap for Timmy, the game’s robot-suit-clad hero, to navigate. A single blunder sends you back to the last save point. (Thank God for those.) It’s an odd tribute that mimics memory as much as it does old game design sensibilities.
6. N-Warp Daisakusen, Super NES (2008)
As beloved as the Super NES is today, it’s unusual to see people making original games for it. Game design courses at universities like Drexel regularly ask students to make games for its predecessor, the NES. Plenty of independent games that look and sound like a Super Nintendo game are being made today, but the code is rarely playable on the machine itself. N-Warp Daisakusen by Matthias Nagler is a rare example of a bonafide new Super Nintendo game. The look is very much in line with the bright anime-style character work commonly found in beloved Super NES games like Secret Of Mana and Illusion Of Gaia. Nagler’s game does something no commercially released Super Nintendo game ever did: It lets eight people play a game at the same time. The most any previously release Super Nintendo game ever achieved was five players—one plugged directly into the console and four into a "multitap" accessory. Turns out, you could plug two multitaps in and get eight players running without much technical wizardry. The game is little more than eight anime dudes punching each other on an open battlefield (no vehicles, no significant obstacles, just a painted background and fisticuffs) but hey, eight people!
7. Invasion Of The Zombie Monsters, MSX (2010)
The MSX computer never had much of a presence outside of Japan, but its gaming legacy gained legs in the Internet age as commentators started to recognize the first Metal Gear as the MSX game that it was—as opposed to the inferior NES version that made it out of Japan—and its sequel, Metal Gear 2, as a rough draft for 1998’s Metal Gear Solid. Takura Naramura, the developer behind the cult favorite La Mulana, rose to prominence with a signature style of MSX-inspired sprite graphics and sound work. Relevo Videogames’ Invasion Of The Zombie Monsters, released for the MSX in 2010, is a fast-paced action game à la Ghosts 'N Goblins that also has that chunky look. You control a geeky poindexter type who can throw fireballs as he runs from left to right, burning monsters and trying to save his girlfriend. The fat limbs and thick blue glasses of his sprite are classic MSX. Zombie Monsters later made an antiquated hardware tour, with ports for the ZX Spectrum and Game Boy as well.
8. Super Connard, Game Boy (2013)
The Game Boy enjoyed an unusually long life for a piece of entertainment technology, staying on store shelves in various forms from 1989 all the way to 1998. Even a couple of successors, the Game Boy Color and the original Game Boy Advance, still played the old games. The Game Boy has also enjoyed a storied retirement thanks to the popularity of its sound-making capabilities among chiptune artists. New Game Boy games are scarce, though. One rare example: French developer Furrtek released Super Connard, a collection of weird mini-games, in 2013. The game’s website describes it as “inspired by the Internet culture and personalities (an American asshole, a German, and a Korean).” The German in question appears to be Hitler, who shows up in the rough monochrome pixels that defined Nintendo’s handheld workhorse. Without knowing French or a detailed description of what the text scrolling past Hitler’s head says, it’s tough to say what Super Connard is driving at, but since one of the vignettes has you cruising a car into the horizon, we at least know driving is involved. There’s also a bit where you have to make adjustments to train tracks so a locomotive can roll through a specific tunnel. It's simplistic stuff, like many Game Boy games, but it becomes hallucinatory amid a barrage of Internet-humor-laden imagery.
9. Homebrew, ZX Spectrum (2009)
“Homebrew” is the slang term for an original amateur game made for mass-market electronics. So Homebrew, Jonathan Cauldwell’s 2009 game for the ZX Spectrum, is a bit of wordplay in addition to being a funny, strange piece of single-screen game design. A sparse, primary-colored game with the same angry color palette as Jet Set Willy—so much purple—Homebrew tasks you with making your own homemade booze. You control a little barrel, collecting grapes and other flotsam to make your hooch in a still at the center of the screen. Cauldwell has been making Spectrum games since the 1980s when the computer was still new, and he’s never given it up. Homebrew was his last full game, but he continuously updates his Spectrum-based game-making software, the most recent version of which was released in September 2013.