Bit by Bit: Inside the Rise of Retro Gaming

James Joel, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
James Joel, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Two years ago, Shawn Long went to a Habitat for Humanity thrift store in North Carolina and walked out with a 36-inch Sony CRT television. It was the kind of television you can’t find anywhere but at a secondhand shop: A tube model accompanied by warnings that the front-heavy design and herniating weight (well over 200 pounds) could tip over and crush a small animal.

Long lived in a house with hardwood floors, so he set it on a piece of carpet and dragged it like a trophy animal to his game room. It had no HDMI ports and it couldn't display a high-definition picture. Those were selling points: Long wanted a monitor for his collection of classic game consoles that were designed to plug into TVs exactly like this one, with a limited color palette and a distinctive sound (something like chonk) when it’s powered on.

“I prefer the original hardware over everything else,” Long, a collector who reviews retro games on his YouTube channel, tells Mental Floss. “It’s the fact that it’s physical media. It’s tangible. You can hold it in your hand. It takes you back.”

Like audiophiles who prefer to drop a turntable needle over a piece of vinyl, retro gamers can spend considerable time, effort, and money trying to embrace an old-school gaming experience in an increasingly sophisticated—and digital—entertainment world. They brush off expensive consoles and photorealistic visuals for titles with blocky graphics and single-channel audio.

Last fall, when Nintendo tried to capitalize on its nostalgia factor by releasing a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) Classic with 30 pre-loaded games, the company was totally unprepared for the demand: the units sold out across the country and were being marked up by as much as 10 times the $60 retail price on eBay.

Nintendo swears it’s ready to fill orders for the Super Nintendo (SNES) Classic hitting stores at the end of this month. If so, it’s likely that a game console released more than a quarter-century ago could become one of the hottest gifts of the 2017 holiday season. It’ll join a series of retro releases intended to evoke memories of the Sega Genesis, classic games like Street Fighter II, and even original titles meant to replicate the euphoria of digging into a brand-new NES game on the drive home from Toys "R" Us.

“As a kid, maybe your parents didn’t buy you every game you wanted,” Long says. “Now you can.”

A Retro-Bit startuip screen
Retro-Bit

It wasn’t nostalgia that birthed the first retro console. In 1983, Coleco—makers of the ColecoVision video game system—decided to manufacture an add-on module that could play games that ran on the Atari 2600 system that was first released in 1977. Atari, understandably upset, sued Coleco for $350 million for infringing on their patents. The two parties settled, with Atari agreeing to collect royalty payments.

They didn’t get many—the video game crash that same year decimated the industry. Overrun with a glut of poor-quality games, industry leader Atari collapsed. It would be several years before Nintendo reinvigorated the category with the NES, winning retailers over by referring to it as an “entertainment system” and not a video game console.

Nintendo and Sega went on dominate what would become a billion-dollar industry, releasing a stream of titles and increasingly sophisticated systems that turned video games from a bargain-bin staple to a massive entertainment force. Thirty years on, those early titles have morphed into retro collectibles—and collectors need something to play them on.

That’s where “clone” consoles come in. Made by third parties that usually have no affiliation with the original game company, clone consoles essentially level up vintage hardware by offering features that '80s gamers only dreamed about: HD graphics, the ability to save games, and a slot for media cards. Companies like AtGames, Retro-Bit, and others do brisk business selling equipment they didn’t invent. And it's perfectly legal.

“Hardware patents only last 20 years from the date of application,” Ma’idah Lashani, a lawyer specializing in the video game industry, tells Mental Floss. “You can rebuild the actual tech. It’s when you try to reproduce a game like Sonic without permission that you get into copyright and trademark issues, and those typically don’t expire.”

Retro-Bit, which kicked off its business in 2007 by producing an NES clone, now has an assortment of consoles priced anywhere from $25 to $70 that can play original Nintendo, Super Nintendo, and Sega Genesis cartridges. (Their Super Retro Trio can play all three.) According to Richard Igros, marketing manager of Retro-Bit’s parent company, Innex, gamers prefer clones over vintage hardware for a number of reasons. “Newer TVs don’t even have audio and video ports anymore,” he tells Mental Floss. “Old console cables can wither over time. They just want something to plug in and use for classic games.”

Oddly enough, something like the Super Retro Trio may even be a little easier on cartridges than the original, front-loading NES unit. Cartridges are inserted from the top, which reduces the chances of connector pins getting bent. “Front loaders were kind of faulty,” Igros says. “You had to do it just right. If you inserted the game at an angle, it might not play.”

Reasonably-priced and easily available, clones are a popular alternative to hunting down a vintage console that may or may not have operational problems. But there’s a curious irony to running older games on brand-new devices, and it’s one gaming purists are quick to notice. “I’ve run the same game on three different clone consoles and each ran the game differently,” Long says. Sometimes the colors might be off, and Sonic could take on a curious purple hue instead of his familiar blue; frame rates, which affect how smooth the game’s visuals are processed, might be stuttered. “I’ve even noticed a difference in sound, the bass,” Long says.

As a result, some clones take on a release schedule similar to that of a smartphone line, with new hardware released every year or two to reflect improved compatibility. With each product, companies make sure they’re mimicking only the inner workings of old hardware: Making an NES clone look exactly like an NES would be inviting a cease-and-desist letter at best and litigation at worst. According to Lashani, hewing too closely to the classic look and feel of hardware can invite accusations of trademark design infringement.

“Some companies have put out clones that look exactly like a Nintendo and they get shut down pretty quickly,” Igros says. “You need to find ways to do workarounds.” Color schemes are chosen to avoid comparison; controllers are often shaped differently.

One thing clone manufacturers have little control over is how the end user treats their product. While companies like Retro-Bit will sometimes license games for bundling with their systems, a devoted subculture of gamers will take advantage of their SD card slots to “hack” the console and allow it to run hundreds or thousands of ROMs—downloadable, illegal copies of copyrighted games.

“I’m not sure why people feel that’s legal,” Lashani says. “Companies like Nintendo are continuing to release old content and want to keep that control.”

For some gamers, Long included, ROMs and hacked clones are a little like movie trailers: They’re used to preview games to see if they’re worth tracking down. “If I like it, I’ll pursue the [actual cartridge],” he says.

Not everyone in the retro community is preoccupied with downloading grey-market copies of classic games. Some of them are more interested in creating—and buying—brand-new games that have the look, feel, and gameplay of a 30-year-old title. But how can you evoke nostalgia over a game that never existed?

The box art for 'Haunted Halloween 1986'
Retrotainment

Mindful of Atari’s mistakes in saturating the video game market in the early 1980s, Nintendo initiated a clever—if maddening—method of corralling third-party licensees. Companies like Capcom (Mega Man) would have to buy the cartridges directly from Nintendo, which could ration the supply as they saw fit. If bootleg game producers thought they could strike out on their own, they were out of luck. The NES was built to look for a software "key" for their hardware chip in each cart. If it wasn’t there, the system wouldn’t boot up.

More than 30 years later, that “lockout chip” has been rendered obsolete. Some unlicensed carts can simply force their way past it, overloading the circuit. But it’s easier to simply buy the code from a wholesaler, along with the circuit board and blank cartridge. And that’s where the home brew community shines.

Home brews are games conceived and produced for play on vintage consoles like the NES. From their pixel-heavy 8-bit graphics to their glossy-papered instruction manuals, they’re designed and produced to look like something you’d have plucked off a shelf in 1985.

“It was always something we dreamed of doing,” says Greg Caldwell, the co-owner of Retrotainment, a small software shingle that has produced two NES games—Haunted Halloween 1985 and Haunted Halloween 1986—after picking up programming and manufacturing tips from the NintendoAge.com community of home brewers. “We always had a soft spot for Halloween,” he says, “and thought it would make for a cool NES game.”

To get the games launched, Caldwell had to immerse himself in an old programming language for the Ricoh 6502 chip that powered the NES in order to replicate the system’s relatively primitive aesthetic. (He also hired a programmer versed in the code, which is not unlike learning a foreign language.) Along with co-owner Tim Hartman, Caldwell teamed up with a supplier, Infinite NES Lives, that works with home brewers to source cartridges and manufacturing.

An old-school beat-‘em-up, Haunted and its 2016 sequel were modest hits relative to their small target audience. (Retrotainment doesn’t release sales numbers, but one home brew, 2014’s Star Versus, sold around 300 copies.) And while it may have been more profitable to simply release the game as a downloadable file, Caldwell knew the physicality of the product was a key selling point.

“There’s something about pushing the cart in and feeling that click,” Caldwell says. “And about feeling that rectangular controller in your hands, with the D-button hurting your thumbs. People want to have that experience.”

And not just gamers who were around in the ‘80s. “We’ve had young people in their teens and twenties buying the games,” Caldwell says. “They just have a general interest in that pixel art, which is unique, and in seeing the history of games. They want to see how it got to where it is now.”

Caldwell and Hartman toyed with the idea of another Haunted Halloween game for 2017 to join their other new NES release, Full Quiet, but a chance meeting at a software convention earlier this year pointed them in another direction. “Some guys from [nostalgia retail site] iam8bit.com saw our carts and asked if we’d be interested in doing something with an existing intellectual property,” Caldwell says. Soon, Retrotainment was working on a 30th anniversary re-release of Street Fighter II for Capcom, an officially licensed retro collectible playable in SNES units that will be limited to 5500 units.

Street Fighter II is not a rare game, but getting one in a box can cost $100,” Caldwell says. The new version, also priced at $100, comes in either red plastic or glow-in-the-dark green in honor of the monstrous game character Blanka.

Caldwell says game “purists” chafe a little bit at transforming games into purposeful collectibles, but nostalgia is a powerful incentive to keep the line going. Set for release in November, Street Fighter II has already sold out.

An Atari Flashback clone console with joysticks
AtGames

For years, Nintendo and other marquee game companies have largely left the retro community to flourish on its own. Like most tech industries, gaming is about innovation, and revisiting ancient hardware for a small segment of consumers didn’t seem financially viable.

The controversial launch of the NES Classic last fall was a disruptor. Underestimating demand, Nintendo failed to produce enough units and ultimately ceased production until it could figure out a way to meet expectations without inviting the ire of video game bloggers. (It’s set to be re-released in summer 2018.)

“They severely underestimated how big that would be,” Long says, slightly incredulous. “You’d think they’d know by now they could take a dump in a bag, write ‘Nintendo’ on it, and people would want it.”

The ensuing hysteria has led to a groundswell of interest in retro devices. AtGames, which has been marketing clone consoles since 2007, is releasing new versions based on the Sega Genesis and Atari 2600 this month and expects unprecedented attention for both. “The NES Classic put a whole new spotlight on us,” Ray Attiyat, marketing coordinator for AtGames, tells Mental Floss. “There’s a big opening in the market for licensed and fully supported consoles.”

Like the NES Classic, these machines are dubbed plug-and-play. Rather than having to hunt down ROMs or original games, they come pre-loaded with dozens of titles. Their $79 Sega Genesis Flashback carries 85 of them, including Sonic the Hedgehog and the Mortal Kombat series. Attiyat believes these types of all-in-one products attract interest across demographic lines. “Vintage game collectors want something they can just pick up and play rather than put wear and tear on their old games,” he says. “And your everyday person may not want to go through the expense of collecting.”

At Retro-Bit, products like the Retro-Bit Generations come installed with games that go through quality testing to try and reduce the chances games will run or “feel” different than the originals. “Sometimes they might run too fast or the sound might be off,” Igros says. If one game out of 50 is glitchy, it might turn gamers off the entire system. “It could run two frames too fast and someone will say, ‘I don’t like it.’”

AtGames and Retro-Bit work with classic game developers for these bundles, but consumers are sometimes tempted by unauthorized systems that promise hundreds of games shipped from China that seem almost comically infringing. Often, they perform poorly. “The market is saturated with them,” Igros says. “They look like an NES and have 300 games like Mario 10 and you can buy them on Amazon.”

For retro gamers, cheap isn’t necessarily the point. Even though emulators can run free ROMs and industrial gamers can craft and sell consoles complete with thousands of ready-to-play games, that kind of all-you-can-eat gaming buffet takes some of the fun out of the nostalgia trip. For fans like Caldwell, the satisfaction is in using the NES aesthetic to come up with something completely new; for Long, it’s remembering a time when buying and playing a game was an event, not something so easily obtained.

“It plays on your psyche,” Long says of his sessions in front of the Sony Trinitron. “It takes you back to a time you could play games for hours on end. No bills, no responsibilities.”

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

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