April 13, 2024

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Meet Morphcat Games, the new generation of NES Devs pushing the 8-bit envelope

Meet Morphcat Games, the new generation of NES Devs pushing the 8-bit envelope
Image: Zion Grassle/Nintendo Life

Four decades after becoming an international sales phenomenon and dominating a crowded gaming market, the Nintendo Entertainment System — the 8-bit console that spawned some of the media's biggest enduring franchises — today finds itself hosting something else entirely: a new aftermarket for highly polished IPs. Eye-catching and delightfully fun.

The NES homebrew scene has boomed over the past two decades, especially with the advent of tools like NESmaker in 2018, making console development even easier. Inspired by the pioneering developers, the minds behind Morphcat games They made their own font programming games from scratch using the 6502 assembly language.

Enters Little witches. A tribute to platformers from the NES era, the 2019 game was the subject of a viral spread YouTube video making Which showcased the clever optimization techniques used by developers Julius Riecke and Nicolas Bétoux, who tasked themselves with limiting the size of their game to just 40KB, in line with the file size of the popular NES game Super Mario Bros.

Maybe you haven't heard about this… – Image: Damian McFerran/Nintendo Life

Scroll through the YouTube comments, and the general sentiment is: “If this had been released during the NES's heyday, it would have been a milestone in the gaming world.” Physical copies of Micro Mages run smoothly on the original NES hardware, though the physics and gameplay, which supports up to four players, feels quite modern to the touch, with gorgeous pixel art to boot.

We noticed that new players also enjoy this ancient physical experience

“Creating a Nintendo game has been a dream of mine since I was little,” says Ricky, speaking to Nintendo Life. “In the past, even though I never owned an NES of my own, I always looked forward to playing one at a friend's house. I think it was that circumstance and the great times we had together that put this on a pedestal for me.

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Berlin-based Ricky and Beto cited titles such as Kirby's Adventure, the Super Mario Bros. series, and Mega Man 2 as having left a lasting impression. “Later, we discovered Mr. Gamek and Little Samson who also impressed us! All of these games have a high level of polish, with attention paid to every detail. Truly moving and inspiring.”

Riecke began tooling for NES development in 2005 and linked up with Bétoux in 2015. The duo at Morphcat Games now have a range of popular aftermarket NES games under their belt. With Riecke handling the programming and sound and Bétoux creating the graphics and levels, the duo made a niche name for themselves by pushing older hardware to its limits.

“In 2005, things looked different: I got all the technical documentation I could find and spent a few weeks reading them over and over until the pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place,” Ricky says. “At present, the state of the NES documentation is excellent. While we use compilation as veteran developers have done, the tools available today are much improved.

While assembly language programming, known to be much closer to the binary machine code understood by a computer's CPU, is undoubtedly labor-intensive and time-consuming, “the benefit is that you have control over every aspect of the NES,” Ricky says. “It also helps in understanding exactly how much CPU time each piece of your code is using.”

Little Witches Guide
Image: Morphcat Games

Ricky adds that although modern tools have greatly simplified the NES development process, “hand-written assembly still outperforms code written in a high-level language like C for the NES.” “This allows the console's limits to be pushed beyond anything seen back in the day. I dare say that, to date, no one has come close to exhausting its full capabilities.”

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Bétoux also finds pleasure in pushing the boundaries of hardware graphical limitations. “I started learning 6502ASM with Nerdy nights In 2011, “a series of great tutorials for beginners” was hosted by the now-defunct NintendoAge forum. “The limitations of the NES's graphics are very attractive and also challenging to create. There is so much to explore!

Aside from 2019's Micro Mages, the Morphcat duo have been published since then Bubble In 2020, a water physics-based Metroidvania game with an amazing soundtrack and a focus on exploration, and seagulls In 2021, which integrates the controls in a colorful way headmaster With elements from the Mega Man series. Both titles were made for nesdev combo A more lenient limit of 64 KB has been set.

“The level of ROM space optimization we did in Micro Mages has already taken a long time. But wouldn't everything become manageable if we focused on one step at a time? That's what we did, we just got lost in the optimization maze for a while,” says Ricky. “We didn't know where it would lead us, but it was so much fun that we didn't mind.”

Lower memory limitations meant that the duo needed less time to optimize performance, although Böbl, in particular, who depicts the player as a literal bubble, “was all about optimizing the code to run smoothly on the NES's 1.7MHz CPU. The water surface ripple effect alone takes more than 50% of the available CPU time.

The duo spent nights and weekends fueled by sushi and pizza to complete the entire Böbl within a month. “With Spacegulls, we just had fun and could focus on exploring the game design using the tools we had already created for Böbl. However, the deadline was shorter: one week from start to finish.

For all the hard time it takes, Morphcat's output gives no hint of that. For the curious, the fantastic physical edition of Böbl, Spacegulls and Micro Mages: Second Quest – an expanded version of the base game with new items and increased challenge – is now available for pre-order on a single NES cartridge as part of Triple jump set.

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Image: Zion Grassle/Nintendo Life

“The physical cartridges with box and manual are absolutely charming. Playing a game and diving into the instruction booklet is very satisfying. In fact, it has expanded the game experience far beyond play sessions,” Bétoux told us, highlighting Morphcat's partnership with publisher Broke Studio To issue cartridges from Little witches And triple jump set.

Physical releases would have been “impossible” without input from Antoine Guhain, creator of the aftermarket NES game Twin dragon Bétoux and the head of Broke Studio, who shared that the publisher handled the heavy fabrication of the Micro Mages' PCB and shell, while the box, manual and stickers were made in-house.

“had brought [out] Producing a new game is difficult and expensive, but it's satisfying to see people enjoy the end result. There's also a bit of nostalgia for people who grew up during the 8-bit era, but we've noticed that newer players also enjoy that old-school physical experience, are looking to buy an NES console and enjoy discovering old and new games.

Bétoux notes that Morphcat is thinking “a lot” about modern consoles, with something in the works for 2024. “The Nintendo Switch is a great console for local multiplayer gaming, and much easier to find than an NES Four Score,” he said, referring to the accessory . It was released for the NES in 1990 to enable four-player local co-op – a requirement if you wanted to play Micro Mages with your friends on older hardware.

“All this fun keeps the NES alive.”