Saudade: Homebrew Retro Games & The Interrogation of Capitalism
January 31, 2019 9:15 PM   Subscribe

It is easy to view retro gaming as regressive. With the arc of history bending towards justice, the past is problematic and its celebration can hurt the vulnerable. Archival efforts are literally conservative. It is impossible for a community which celebrates long dead brands to escape the shadow of consumerism. Despite all of this, portions of the hobby—consciously or not—can be seen as casting doubt on the standard narratives regarding the proper roles of capitalism and politics in the creation of culture.

The Portuguese concept of saudade is related to the longing feeling of nostalgia but is commonly considered more general. It can apply not only to the past but also to that which hasn't yet happened (like Carly Rae's missing you before you came into her life) or which has never happened (like America's greatness). Thus saudade might be a better description than nostalgia for the appeal of homebrew: the sub-culture within retro gaming that makes new games for old systems. In this evocation of what never was homebrew games are inherently transgressive to actual history. They show what could (perhaps should) have happened but did not and they make the case that this alternative history was at the very least possible thanks to their existence as technological artifact being "proof by construction".

One truth commonly illuminated by homebrew games is that the "limitations" of classic systems were often limitations of their producers business models, of capitalism, rather than the technology itself. Tod Frye's 2600 version of "Pac Man" is simultaneously famous for its corporate driven development, its financial success, and a level of quality so low it is (perhaps apocryphally) blamed as key contributor to the the great video game crash. Without homebrew, the question of whether the compromised quality of Frye's "Pac Man" was due to business constraints would be a more open one. By doing the work himself, AtariAge user DINTAR816 makes a compelling case for what Atari could have achieved if they had been willing to devote more money (with an 8K as apposed to cheaper 4K ROM) or time (as he eventually managed to squeeze his 8K version into 4K) to the project. Here (SLYT) is Frye reacting to DINTAR816's version.

Haroldo de Oliveira Pinheiro (haroldo-ok on github) wrote a compiler for the Ren'Py visual novel engine for the Sega 32X (SLYT). His resulting port of Ren'Py's example novel is not just a technical achievement. It is a peek into an alternative past where a genre of game often credited with driving female interest in game development (and programming in general) could have inspired future coders a decade earlier.

When homebrewers target commercially failed systems, they question the very right of capitalism to gatekeep culture. Gaz ‘N Blazzzt (SLYT) is a fascinating project from the /r/retrogaming community. It targets not one (SLYT) failed VHS-based system, but (SLYT) three (SLYT). While requiring a great deal of technical know-how to produce, as a video based project it also challenges the gatekeeping role of coding within. To cap it off, its proceeds went to charity.

You could argue that this is all purely implicit but there are cases with clear intent. Kittyhawk (best known for her webcomic) has designed two vintage Game & Watch games . The first, Bride, imagines what might have been if early 80's Nintendo had chosen to target young women as an audience. The second, Squeeze (NSFW), imagines Nintendo leaning into keeping G&W as an adult novelty rather than pivoting to children as it did historically. Unlike other projects, the intention to engage a wider audience with the era is obvious and includes not only using vintage technology and aesthetics for the games themselves but also the manuals (PDF) (which use halftones and spot color) and attempts at wider accessibility via on-line emulators (both games are playable in-browser) and a themed event appearance.
posted by always_implicated (28 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
It is easy to view retro gaming as regressive. With the arc of history bending towards justice, the past is problematic and its celebration can hurt the vulnerable. Archival efforts are literally conservative.

With all due respect, this is really not an argument supported by what you've brought up, and I think it is not something a lot of people who grew up retro gaming will agree with. To a lot of people, myself included, retro gaming is the story of piracy preserving media that would otherwise be lost because of capitalistic disregard for the past.

And beyond that, faux-retro gaming is amazing precisely because it's engaging with this history of piracy; the elephant in the room that gave us access to our collective history and in many ways made gaming's history more accessible than gaming's present. What makes homebrew so rebellious is that it is necessarily built off of the tools provided by this piracy. Even if your homebrew is entirely legal, playing it or loading it requires using tools developed and maintained primarily to play pirated software.

Like, this is what I grew up with, and it's honestly upsetting to see it dismissed as "regressive" and "literally conservative" when the very ethos of retro gaming is anti-capitalist.
posted by LSK at 9:28 PM on January 31 [27 favorites]


Saudade is having saved games older then your nephew.
Fantastic post.
posted by clavdivs at 9:33 PM on January 31 [4 favorites]


LSK I think we might be talking past each other or at least about separate things.

My point is that home brew is especially not only anti-capitalist but also progressive (as it challenges and not just celebrates the past). I think that's compatible with your great take that by being so rife with piracy that retro gaming itself can be viewed as anti-consumerist in some sense.

However, I think my point regarding retro gaming (and all things retro) in general as culturally regressive stands. Man caves adorned with vintage gaming posters are going to have many more bikini clad women and racial stereo-types than ones with posters post 2009. Even Nintendo thinks games like "Fire Attack" need to be forgotten and have removed references to such from the new Smash.
posted by always_implicated at 9:41 PM on January 31 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure what's going on with this fpp but if you're Mefi's latest video game scholar then hello friend. Your previous post about wall games was great.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:45 PM on January 31


I mean, you're right that the entire framing of the post is a bit 'post your graduate thesis on your own damn blog' but I believe the phrase 'literally conservative' was meant to imply 'conservation' more than a framework of political policies, and 'regressive' meaning 'against the flow of technological process.'

> One truth commonly illuminated by homebrew games is that the "limitations" of classic systems were often limitations of their producers business models, of capitalism, rather than the technology itself.

Well, that and the availability of a fleet of technologies and consumer hardware to enable rapid development. It's much easier to write Gameboy games today, in part because we have C compilers that weren't available at the time, and emulators to test on. And we have tools to better collaborate such that you might plausibly be able to have more than one programmer work on the same game, as was Atari's standard. I mean, NES Mario games were largely designed on graph paper, and now you can design them on your console, and then immediately play them.
posted by pwnguin at 10:00 PM on January 31 [5 favorites]


It is a peek into an alternative past where a genre of game often credited with driving female interest in game development (and programming in general) could have inspired future coders a decade earlier.

I think visual novels are great! But at the same time... it isn't like there's some new huge movement for women in code that really depended on visual novels to happen, and it isn't like there weren't lots of girls who got interested in computers and technology because of video games in the 80s. It was that those who did... got treated very poorly by the technology establishment when they tried to get further in.

Gaming in the 80s and 90s was a long, long way from universally male. But while games were made that had a less masculine intended market, especially in the days before shooters took over everything, women had plenty of aptitude but were increasingly unwelcome in computer science, and teaching yourself how to program was a lot less accessible in 1994. Shortly after that, I did start teaching myself how to code--and then was told by young men that what I was doing wasn't real programming, it was only "scripting". (And basically everything went downhill from there.) Visual novels wouldn't have fixed that kind of problem. It feels like it removes a lot of nuance from the history of tech to suggest that what girls lacked at that point was an avenue to get interested.
posted by Sequence at 10:27 PM on January 31 [11 favorites]


I think by limiting the discussion to retro video game console gaming, in part (I assume) because it's easier to talk about a sample of single consoles that were each sold for a (well documented) number of years, rather than the more fluid PC environment, you may have not realised that you're talking about the challenges of bringing a platform to market, rather than a widget. The difficulties of producing a product that requires 3rd parties to provide the content, while pricing it competitively enough to attract enough customers to make it worth developing for is more a chicken/egg problem than a shortfall of capitalism, per se.

Additionally, the great video game crash was not inherently caused by bad games, but overly-optimistic projections and overproduction of games well beyond the volumes that the established player base could support. While easy to toss into the modern bucket of "landfill capitalism", it was, again, more a function of the challenges presented by trying to market (and manufacture for) a platform rather than a stand-alone product.

I can be down on capitalism, and I'll always have a soft spot for retro video gaming, particularly new homebrew titles on old hardware, but trying to mix the two concepts together in this post benefits neither.
posted by krisjohn at 12:27 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]


Sequence and krisjohn please forgive if I respond to both of you in this comment. Being OP, I do not want to spam this thread.

It feels like it removes a lot of nuance from the history of tech to suggest that what girls lacked at that point was an avenue to get interested.

Full disclosure: I am biased because I pretty much have to admit that I can trace my current career to VNs.

Your point that getting interested is just the first step is well taken. Of course, I had to survive years of misogyny in addition to being initially interested to get where I am, so that's not the full picture. Interest is necessary but not sufficient. However, "it's more complicated than just getting girls interested" is true now and yet mainstream feminism has decided that getting girls interested is an important tact to take. So my question would be, why give 1994 a pass? I get what you're saying about coding being easier to learn post-Internet but I don't see how that's relevant as it's a situation both sexes would face. Or are you saying there's something about learning from the Internet that favors young women? If anything I would think that the opposite is true. Most men of the era seemed to have learned by lone experimentation and manuals. What those men complain about (the lack of a community and mentors) seems like it would help a young woman at the time. If she had to learn as a lone wolf, there's less chance she would be told to stop learning.

...you may have not realised that you're talking about the challenges of bringing a platform to market, rather than a widget. The difficulties of producing a product that requires 3rd parties to provide the content, while pricing it competitively enough to attract enough customers to make it worth developing for is more a chicken/egg problem than a shortfall of capitalism, per se.

Sure, but the need to have cultural artifacts be "competitive" is kind of the shortfall of capitalism having a role in culture. What you're saying is very close to saying "that's how capitalism works" with the (always implied) subtext: "and that's the only system". I'm really glad you made this argument because more than anything else this is why I made this post about video games. If I saw your comment in any other thread on any other topic (music, film, etc.) I'd totally reject it... but I really really want to agree with you about games. Does that mean you're right or that I'm letting my love for games give me false consciousness? I don't know but I want to give my fellow mefites a chance to feel that same tension and process for themselves. I've come to realize I've had some major blinders on this topic even while generally nodding along with the idea that most of gaming is toxic.
posted by always_implicated at 1:36 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure there's any reason to assume that people preserving vintage games are also uncritically accepting the messages they promote. Preservation can be practiced with an eye towards conscious reflection. Forgetting something isn't necessarily the best or only way to engage with problematic aspects of the past.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 4:13 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


How does the origin of the phrase homebrew in this context, and the long history from the '70s and '80s of similar "homebrew" computer clubs and shareware games, relate to all this?
posted by eviemath at 4:13 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


A year and a half ago, when we were packing-up to move to a new place, we decided not to take our bajillion-pound 32" Sony WEGA flat-tube TV. We put it up on Craigslist and it was quickly snapped-up by some nice boys from Purdue, who were deeply into retro-gaming and coveted the TV as being the proper screen the old games were meant to be played on. They were quite excited about their find.

I can attest that Sonic the Hedgehog looked amazing on that old tube.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:38 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]


How does the origin of the phrase homebrew in this context, and the long history from the '70s and '80s of similar "homebrew" computer clubs and shareware games, relate to all this?
Homebrew in a retro video gaming context usually means a game for a console delevoped by a sole developer or small team, well after what most people would consider the end of the console's life. It is also, most often, released as a physical product (including packaging, manuals and so forth) to be played on an original console, but not always.
posted by krisjohn at 4:39 AM on February 1


@always_implicated: Well, that is kind of how capitalism works. Another word for platform, in some cases (particularly more recent consoles with their own on-line stores baked in) is "market". To look at what is essentially a little pocket universe of capitalism and criticize its position in a capitalist system seems contrary for its own sake. If you want an open system, you have the PC; no one manufacturer, no one OS, no one gatekeeper, nothing stopping you from developing whatever you want and distributing it however you wish. And similarly nothing stopping people from paying attention or not.
posted by krisjohn at 4:52 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


That Tod Frye video is really impressive, how he expresses so much appreciation for how the developer solved the problems he wants dto but couldn't He's very classy and shows how programmers would communicate in a better world. A snippet from his Wikipedia page says that Atari insisted that only 'space-themed' games get a black background which was the reason for that difference in the home version, not a technical one.
posted by Space Coyote at 5:02 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


@krisjohn

To look at what is essentially a little pocket universe of capitalism and criticize its position in a capitalist system seems contrary for its own sake.

Or just... standard Marxist Critical Theory (this is MeFi after all). Granted, as someone who has survived grad school I will admit that the line between embracing critical theory and being an asshole does not really exist.

The PC as an almost completely open platform (mostly by historical accident) is itself a fascinating topic. The PC versus console debate as an extension of communalism/cooperation versus competition even more so. There's surely a PhD in figuring out how we got "pc master race" garbage people from an open platform.
posted by always_implicated at 5:12 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


Related: Mallwave and the aesthetics of decline
posted by The Whelk at 6:34 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]


One truth commonly illuminated by homebrew games is that the "limitations" of classic systems were often limitations of their producers business models, of capitalism, rather than the technology itself.

I cannot disagree with this statement strongly enough. Yes, Pac-Man was a terrible game and far below the technical standard of the time. The main limitations, though, were limitations of knowledge. It takes time to discover the upper bounds of any constrained system, and coming at the 2600 from the POV of a retro homebrew enthusiast in 2019 and saying "look what can be done, why didn't they just do that in 1982" is missing the point that 37 years of trial and error and information sharing have passed. Homebrew developers are literally standing on the shoulders of giants. Just take a look at the evolution of the C64 Demo Scene. The idea that someone could have done that in 1987 is preposterous.

And I'm not saying that capitalism didn't play a role in the technical limitations of early retro games - the push to get things to market necessarily constrained development time - but I don't believe for a moment that it was the primary driving factor, especially and particularly given how competitive the environment was and how those very limitations drove innovation to squeeze more features out and give games a leg up.
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:36 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]


krisjohn, by "this context" I meant the social analysis of the original post.
posted by eviemath at 7:13 AM on February 1


Isn't Critical Theory (founded in postmodernism, with its rejection of modernist sweeping narratives, such as, say, Marxist Historical Materialism) only “Marxist” in the Jordan Peterson sense of the word?
posted by acb at 7:19 AM on February 1


You can definitely reject the sweeping narrative (especially the "inevitability") of Marxist theory and still keep the idea of the dialectic and analysis based on power dynamics. Many consider that Marx's key contribution. Beyond that, because we live in a world where money has such sway, power dynamics are almost inevitably tied to capital dynamics. It's not really a narrative or theory, just a common detail of power structures that happens to evoke Marx in people's minds.

I'm not actually sure what Peterson has said on this subject but it would be a shame for anybody to distance themselves from Marx on his behalf.
posted by always_implicated at 7:55 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


One interesting manifestation of this saudade has been the number of hobbyist-led projects extrapolating historical platforms into the modern day. Recently there have been a number of attempts at answering what a modern descendant of the Commodore 64 would look like, such as the Mega65 and Jeri Ellsworth's C-One. There was another one, which had a screen with the familiar VIC-II 8x8 character set and colour palette, only with something like >200 columns on the screen (allowing for the aesthetically all-important border), because it had a 1920x1080 HDMI display, though I can't find a link to this.

The fantasy retrocomputing scene has even spawned a FPGA-based host machine named the MIST, which costs about €200 and can be flashed with configurations emulating anything from 8-bit computers to arcade boards. (It contains an ARM-based computer which does the flashing and then gets out of the way, IIRC.)
posted by acb at 7:59 AM on February 1 [4 favorites]


Thanks for this post! I'm glad to have a word to go along with the concept.

One of my personal favorite examples is Simon William's MICRO.MUSIC - a complete album on floppy for the Apple II. It is a work from 2007 which is built upon Michael J Mahon's DAC522 routine from 1993 which itself had predecessors such as SoftDAC from a few years earlier. I'm not an expert on the history of sampling theory, but I don't think it's unreasonable to think the principles of a single bit DAC were known in the early 80s when the Apple II was a contemporary thing. So the pieces were in place, and it was technically possible, but that historical branch wasn't taken, and it's worth exploring why.

I agree with grumpybear in that the availability of information plays a large role in this. It's much easier to backport modern techniques and modern imagination than it would have been to invent them whole cloth without history to draw from. However, I think capitalism perhaps does play a role in that it limits the time people spend using and experimenting with older technology due to the way it tends to recast anything outside the current moment as unworthy of attention (that thing is old, buy new thing!).
posted by wordless reply at 8:29 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


Sample playback on consumer computer hardware dates back to at least 1984, when Activision's Impossible Mission on the C64 featured grainy-but-intelligible samples of the chief antagonist. That was achieved by exploiting the clicking sound emitted by the SID chip when the volume register was changed. Later implementations used the PWM channel to achieve higher quality playback, likely aided by the LPF. This can be heard on the intro music to 1988's Skate Or Die.

That sample playback, similar to SoftDAC, was 4-bit.
posted by grumpybear69 at 10:38 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


Music Construction Set (1984) had multi-voice music playback on the Apple ][ using (I assume) a PWM/PCM approach. PC games used the heck out of PWM for sample playback, and I found this handy supercut video.

I think this approach may have been more obvious than not to EE types before hardware and software became segregated disciplines. After all, this is basically how you design a class-D amplifier.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 2:03 PM on February 1 [2 favorites]


I wrote 8086 code to do PWM Sample playback on the PC lo many years ago. You could reprogram the clock chip to fire an interrupt at typically 8khz and do pitch bent sample playback for PCM instruments. Doing that and handling serial I/O for BBS connectivity without dropping chars or hitching audio playback with Colour ANSI resulted in my Luigiterm program which was outrageous for the time. The memories.....
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:03 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure there's any reason to assume that people preserving vintage games are also uncritically accepting the messages they promote.

It's not especially clear to me that the content of vintage games is more politically regressive than that of contemporary games. I think the point would be more clearly made with reference to the role of nostalgia in reactionary thinking.
posted by atoxyl at 8:50 PM on February 1 [2 favorites]


If we're talking microcomputer speech synthesis then hat tip to the Currah μSpeech peripheral which let even a 16K ZX Spectrum give it some verbal. The latter 128K Spectrum had a half-decent AY-insertnumbershere soundchip plus built-in tapedeck which made sampling and playback a lot more straightforward, if potentially massively memory consuming. (This is as close as I get to acknowledging out loud that the C=64 and the SID were straight-up awesome, unless someone ever tries describing the history of '80s gaming entirely in console/Apple terms in which case I'll stand up for us Sinclair/Commodore/Amstrad/Dragon/Acorn/BBC/Oric/MSX types all).

So as not to be completely offtopic, I'll note that it's been a few years but last I checked the Atari 2600 scene were still doing limited runs of actual cartridge versions of new homebrew games. That's just amazing. Running off a bunch of cassette copies of My New Spectrum Game has to be a million times easier, not least considering the whole retro '80s tape boom ~a decade back.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 9:42 PM on February 2


They certainly are still making new carts. There's a new port of Mappy for the 2600 that's damn amazing.
posted by JHarris at 8:18 AM on February 3


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