Little bits of history repeating
A kaleidoscope of videogames from down the years, Multibowl is a twist on WarioWare worthy of study
A tour through gaming history with the creators of Multibowl
Multibowl’s madcap tour through hundreds of vintage games feels like something that should have existed a long time ago. Setting two players the task of facing off during ten bouts of classic gaming action, it’s a nostalgic journey through the history of simultaneous multiplayer gaming and littered with novel twists. In the Midway classic Rampage, the goal is to avoid touching the floor instead of causing chaos. Cave’s DoDonPachi appears as a bullet-dodging challenge, with the players’ guns disabled.
The action isn’t limited to the arcade – it takes place across an array of vintage console and computer formats. Once a challenge is won and points awarded, it’s onto the next, and the next after that. Multibowl, however, is no compilation. It is consciously a collage; comprised of ‘found’ media and then assembled, installed and presented to entertain and educate, albeit in a randomised sequence. For creators Bennett Foddy and AP Thomson, Multibowl is more than facile retro tourism or iconoclastic appropriation. It’s an expression of deep passions and firmly held beliefs.
Multibowl was born from mild frustration and Foddy’s passion for gaming history. “It was by virtue of trying to play old twoplayer games over and over again, and trying to teach people to play old games,” he says. “It’s very inaccessible if you’re not super familiar with emulators – there’s a huge amount of setup time. If you’re trying to play a Commodore 64 game, you have to wait for the cassette to load and all those sorts of things. I’d always enjoyed the directness of Mario Party and WarioWare, where it’s jumping you from one game to another, so the idea [for Multibowl] had been there for a while.” Foddy’s inkling only became a possibility last year, when MAME and MESS unified, bringing an exhaustive range of arcade and home gaming platforms into one codebase. In March, MAME went open source with, as Foddy puts it, “quite a liberal licence”. This allowed Foddy and Thomson to take all the liberties they needed with gaming’s past.
Despite having coded the likes of QWOP and Speed Chess, Foddy admits his skills weren’t quite up to the task of wrangling MAME/MESS into a vintage-gaming jukebox, so he turned to previous collaborator, ex-student (and now co-educator) AP Thomson to handle the thornier coding overheads. The need to find hundreds of games that would work in Multibowl’s merry-go-round represented a colossal curation challenge. Foddy took this on with quite some ardour: “There are the games that everybody loves, that they remember fondly. There were my favourites and games that were recommended to me, but then we were nearing the bottom of the barrel.”
It turns out that quite a few favourites that advocates were sure had twoplayer modes were actually singleplayer. Thomson recalls, laughing, “I said, why don’t we have F-Zero in there?
“There’s more we could add. I’d like to get to the point where no human being can know them all”
Then we discovered there’s no multiplayer in that game!” With memories of friends and colleagues exhausted, Foddy began some serious mining to fill the roster. “It was just an enormous research project,” he says. “I would go to websites that catalogue old games and filter them by which ones had simultaneous multiplayer. I just went through and played them! Once that ran out, I went to websites devoted to translating old Japanese and Korean games. It was a real challenge to find things that aren’t repeats in terms of gameplay.”
“We have a list of games to put in if we can get certain emulators to work properly,” Thomson explains. It transpires that MESS’s Amiga and MS-DOS emulators don’t natively support save states, which is a crucial function for setting up games within Multibowl. With 232 titles repurposed already, Foddy isn’t entirely satisfied. “There’s more we could add, and I think 300 is a good number. I feel that at 230, if you play it for a while, you can start to know all of the games. I’d like to get to the point where no human being can know them all.” We propose that 256 might be a good number. “If we’re going to go above that,” Thomson suggests, “we need to get to 512!” “There probably are 512,” Foddy says. “The more research I do, the more I discover there’s a long history of [simultaneous multiplayer], particularly
in public-domain games, which aren’t easily found now.” But after searching for the titles came the real work – overriding each game’s formal rules to enforce their own. “There was a technical side, which was figuring out how all these games function in the code and where the data is stored, and also choose what the win conditions should be,” Foddy explains.
“Transforming the games into being a different kind of game entirely emerged from us putting them together in this really constrained format,” Thomson adds.
“That’s really true,” Foddy says. “There’s a whole series of design considerations that you wouldn’t run up against making just one game. What should the win conditions be? What should be the moment that we pick in the game that’s the most exciting moment? It’s not always just the beginning of the game.” He explains that Multibowl’s take on the notoriously tricky NES version of
Contra dumps players in one of the later levels, and the task is to simply survive.
The doctoring often went further than mere level skips. “There are cases where you want the players to have very little health and you want them to have the exact same health,” Foddy explains, “so I had custom cheats to reduce their health to one of 200.”
Beyond the glee that comes from accessing gaming history in such a fun way, Multibowl and its technology represent something deeper for its creators. “We’re only scratching the surface,” Foddy says. “There are so many mixtapes, collages and assemblages that are possible now, especially with emulators that support so many systems.” He confides that the technology, which can seamlessly load, cue and alter a sequence of games from a pool of thousands, may have a life beyond appearances on the festival circuit. “We’ve talked about releasing the tools so people can make something similar themselves. Of course, you wouldn’t be confined to having it work in the same randomised way. You could curate a list of scenes from games that you play in order.” The possibilities for aides-mémoire and history lessons are obvious. The festival circuit, which will be
Multibowl’s home, is no new territory for its creators. Foddy has a long history in event games, as does Thomson, who created Stellar Smooch, the game played by hugging a yoga ball. “There’s a draw because there’s an energy at those events when it’s clear this is the only chance you get to play a game,” Foddy says.
For Thomson, the intellectual challenge is key: “It completely changes the kind of design you’re aiming for if you know its primary expression is going to be in this one-off event.”
Foddy agrees. “You design the games to be enjoyable for the audience, so the games tend to be much more orientated towards the group of people watching.”
In some ways, the festival event game harks back to the original arcade experience, set apart from domestic gaming thanks to exotic hardware and interfaces, and the lure of playing something rare and unique with a human audience. Foddy concurs, confessing that he was obsessed with arcades as a child. Multibowl manages to connect that experience of the past with current trends, and it forms a personal statement for him, both as a designer and educator. “I’m motivated by a desire to teach people about old games so that they don’t die in the common memory. And to discover old games I didn’t know about. I think the history of games is important – it’s such a forward-looking medium, and people often think they’re inventing things that have already been done six or seven times. We also have a real problem with erasure [in games], and it’s something that I’m seeking, as an educator, to avoid.”
Throughout our discussion, it’s clear that Multibowl has been very much a labour of love. “It was something we didn’t have enough time for, but we did it anyway,” Foddy says. He’s proud of the project, and it’s clear that’s because it so ably illustrates his appreciation of games and the desire to inform, while also being thoroughly entertaining.
“I’m motivated by a desire to teach people about old games so that they don’t die in the common memory”
FROM TOP Multibowl team Bennett Foddy and AP Thomson
While many of the games are drawn from the vintage coin-op scene, Multibowl also emulates console and home computer formats, throwing up oddities such as Psyclapse’s Ballistix, represented in Amiga form