For as long as there have been new generations of gaming, there has been a desire to take a step back and sample the offerings of generations past.
Be it the mini console fad of 2017 or retro game collecting, players understand that there are gaming experiences that call for their attention beyond the wave of new releases. Though many of those retro classics have undergone an HD remaster or full-fledged remake, there is still a palpable appreciation for those originals, be it the first Resident Evil with its pre-rendered backgrounds and clunky tank controls or playing Link’s Awakening on that original brick-shaped, green-hued Game Boy.
The video game demake inhabits a unique middle ground between modern and retro, where the game properties of the recent past are paired with technologies deemed impossible to run such games. The demake is an intentional recreation of a modern videogame for an aging retro console. From both a technical and gameplay standpoint, the demake is built to answer the question: What would this game play like if it had been released during a different console generation?
The echoes of the demake can be traced to fans of a game or series who have some degree of coding/development experience and are looking for a challenge. But what separates a proof-of-concept from a memorable playable experience involves a balance of characteristics that proves to be an art in and of itself. It’s where nostalgia and nuance blend together to create an artifact that — in the best of situations — can successfully play on original hardware. Let’s take a look at four efforts that paint a full picture of what goes into a demake.
The original Halo debuted to universal acclaim and became a benchmark for how console-based first-person shooters should play. It was among Microsoft Game Studios’ most treasured acquisitions and almost single-handedly kept the Xbox alive back in 2001. Carrying the subtitle “Combat Evolved,” you’d better believe Microsoft had big hopes for the game and its developer, Bungie.
As an homage to gaming past and present, Ed Fries, who was vice president of games at Microsoft during the initial Halo development and launch, reconceived the game as an Atari 2600 title. It’s like ET: The Extraterrestrial but good. Gone are the twin-analog stick controls and precision aiming of a plasma rifle. Fries drops players into the role of Master Chief as he battles a wave of pixelized Covenant through 64 screens of single-shot kills. The demake was published by AtariAge and even sports its own “official” cover art.
Halo 2600 is a demonstration of a demake at its best: a perfect blend of nostalgia, fan appreciation, retro-chic, and gameplay. What’s so uncanny about the game is that, though it could certainly never be the actual Halo, playing it with nothing more than one button to shoot with and a single stick to control it just feels right. Halo 2600 blends the recognizable gameplay of the Halo franchise into the constraints of Atari-age game design.
One of the more recent releases given the demake treatment is Bloodborne. Occupying a slightly different space than Halo 2600, Bloodborne is a PlayStation exclusive that has long been desired by players to be released on other platforms. Unlike the other entries in FromSoftware’s series of “Souls-like” games, Bloodborne manages to set itself apart with a gothic horror-themed setting and a blend of RPG and action that offers challenge while also being slightly more forgiving than Dark Souls (or the original Souls-like, Demon’s Souls). Its demake equivalent reimagines the Victorian city of Yharnam as an original PlayStation release, complete with grungy 32-bit, barely anti-aliased polygonal graphics.
Developed by Lilith Walther (aka b0tster), BloodbornePSX feels authentic to the PlayStation 4 source material, complete with the roll-heavy dodge mechanic that many a Hunter has sworn by to survive the onslaught of monsters and difficult bosses. Walther managed to remake the iconic Cleric Beast boss fight theme into a 1995 era score. As an added plus, Walther has gone on to add in — get this — a Mario Kart style add-on to the demake called Bloodborne Kart complete with the same PSX era graphics. Though players can use a USB PlayStation controller, the demake doesn’t run the original PlayStation hardware. BloodbornePSX is extremely well-done, containing the same balance of nostalgia, fan appreciation, and retrofied gameplay as Halo 2600.
Portal for C64
Valve’s Portal and its sequel are both incredibly fun first-person experiences that developed a devoted fanbase. I mean, who doesn’t remember Companion Cubes or that “the cake is a lie”? Beyond its lore, Portal is about inventive puzzle-solving using, well, portals. Jamie Fuller took the 3D fourth-wall-breaking property and developed a demake of the game for the Commodore 64.
The core gameplay is preserved and, visually, it looks like a cross between Lode Runner and Another World. Fuller and his team (Del Seymour and Roy Widding) created a demake that shows how far fan appreciation can go. Every element of the game, including GlaDOS’s different interactions with the player, are lifted and translated into the limitations of an 8-bit computer. Portal’s gameplay — no matter the make of each level, be it sprite or fully-rendered 3D — proves that thinking in portals goes beyond dimensions.
Soundless Mountain II
Silent Hill 2 is one of those survival horror titles that consistently crawls back out of its grave to be discussed by players both new and veteran. The purgatorial Silent Hill, a mysterious letter from a dead wife, a town draped in mist and full of personal secrets: Silent Hill 2 was a sleeper hit and has become one of those horror touchstones that fans keep going back to, extolling its atmosphere and complex storyline.
So then, no surprise — someone demade it for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Retrofied gameplay? Check. Nostalgia? You’d better believe it. Fan appreciation? Natch. Created by Jasper Byrne as an entry in the TIGSource Bootleg Demakes competition (which it won), Soundless Mountain II takes the trademark story and world of Silent Hill and aims to retell the first few moments of Jake’s adventure (protagonist renamed, like the title, just enough to eschew Konami’s lawyers). Byrne tackled the constraints of the 8-bit NES and succeeded in capturing the plodding, eerie exploration, obtuse puzzles, and jarring music as if it had all been transformed into an NES cartridge. And though it’s only playable on PC, it’s a remarkable effort, one that we hope Byrne revisits someday and updates into a full-fledged game.
Achieving a Not-So-Limited Run
Demakes have grown over the years from self-imposed challenge, hybrid fan-made freeware curiosities into games that garner production runs, complete with boxes and manuals to mimic the console era from which they pay homage. Limited Run Games is a studio known for its limited editions of modern digital-only game releases, but it’s also begun publishing “classic editions” of games like Streets of Rage 4 that demake the cover art and packaging for older console generations. Although the games themselves are no different than their modern equivalents, it’s the same sense of nostalgia that demakes chase after, a throwback to the past while laying claim to modern gaming loves.
Some games make the transition into fully unique titles. The indie hit Retro City Rampage began as a Grand Theft Auto demake before becoming the beloved nostalgia trip we know and love. Remember how Mega Man 9 was developed? Yup, it began as a demake too. And then there are also other spiritually similar community-driven efforts, like adding achievements to retro games. Retroachievements.org is one such community-driven effort to capture the modern standard found on platforms like Steam, Xbox, and PlayStation for the gamut of retrogaming consoles, including everything from NES to Genesis, Vectrex to Virtual Boy.
There’s no doubt about it: demakes have increased in popularity in recent years. BloodbornePSX is one of the latest in a legion of PSX demakes for games as varied as BioShock and The Last of Us. These creations are valiant efforts at a time when we are seeing gaming go the way of subscription-based delivery models like Game Pass and into the world of cloud gaming. It isn’t just nostalgia, either. We yearn for something both new and old; with demakes, the past and present join forces to build a synergy of something wholly historical yet unique.