Restor­ing The Past

SNK was light­ing up ar­cades long be­fore its Neo-geo hard­ware came along. Bran­don Sh­effield and Frank Ci­faldi ex­plain why those early games are cru­cial, and how they’re pre­serv­ing them with the SNK 40th An­niver­sary Col­lec­tion

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS - Words by Dar­ran Jones

How Dig­i­tal Eclipse is bring­ing SNK’S first wave of games to Switch

If the re­cent clo­sure of high-pro­file ROM sites like Emu­par­adise has taught us one thing it’s the im­por­tance of hav­ing ac­cess to clas­sic games that you can legally own and play as the de­vel­op­ers orig­i­nally in­tended. Of course, pre­serv­ing games in the form of com­pi­la­tions is cer­tainly noth­ing new, but de­vel­op­ers have re­ally been up­ping the stakes in re­cent years. Com­pi­la­tions like Rare Re­play, Street Fighter 30th An­niver­sary Col­lec­tion and Mega Man Legacy Col­lec­tion are as much about the her­itage sur­round­ing the fran­chises as the games them­selves. No com­pany knows this bet­ter than Dig­i­tal Eclipse, and it’s been work­ing its own spe­cial brand of restora­tion magic for years and most re­cently wowed us with the afore­men­tioned (and 91% scor­ing) Street Fighter 30th An­niver­sary Col­lec­tion.

Dig­i­tal Eclipse has now turned its at­ten­tion to the early ar­cade and NES games of SNK in the form of a brand-new com­pi­la­tion, the SNK 40th An­niver­sary Col­lec­tion. Ex­clu­sive to Switch and de­signed to show off those hal­cyon days when the com­pany was first find­ing its feet, it fea­tures an eclec­tic range of games and ac­cord­ing to Frank Ci­faldi, has been in the works for some time. “SNK and Dig­i­tal Eclipse have been want­ing to work on some­thing to­gether for years, but we could never con­nect the dots be­fore now,” he says. “I think this spe­cific project needed a his­to­rian’s touch, which is what we ex­cel at.” He has a point. Nowa­days, there’s so much fo­cus on SNK’S Neo-geo that it’s easy to for­get it’s the same de­vel­oper that de­liv­ered ar­cade thrills in the form of Ikari War­riors, Pre­his­toric Isle In

1930, Athena and count­less other games, which meant Frank, who works as head of restora­tion, knew he and his team has a unique op­por­tu­nity. “Ev­ery SNK fan knows those later games, but they don’t re­ally know much about what came be­fore them,” he says. “For us it was a dream project: it’s easy to sell peo­ple on Mega Man or Street Fighter, but we wanted to prove that there’s an au­di­ence for lesser­known ti­tles if they’re treated with care and re­spect. I think peo­ple who are into older videogames are will­ing to go ex­plor­ing for hid­den gems, and it’s so rare that a game com­pi­la­tion en­cour­ages that.”

Bran­don Sh­effield, who is in­volved with the project in a writ­ing ca­pac­ity, is also keen to point out that it high­lights an im­por­tant slice of SNK his­tory, which is of­ten over­looked due to the pop­u­lar­ity of its later home con­soles. “This col­lec­tion shows where SNK came from, be­fore the hard­ware was stan­dard­ised, when the com­pany was still find­ing it­self,” he ex­plains. “There are great games in here that have very rarely been played, but they’re very much a part of the evo­lu­tion of the com­pany, and very fun to play in their own right. It was also re­ally im­por­tant to us to give de­vel­op­ers like Yokoyama-san and Yoshino-san their due. When­ever peo­ple talk about SNK, they talk about the Neo-geo.

But this col­lec­tion high­lights the in­no­va­tions of the staff of that time, when each new ar­cade board was made from scratch, to meet the specs of a spe­cific game or series. Those wild and free days are what we are cel­e­brat­ing here. On top of that, there are games in this col­lec­tion that have never been prop­erly em­u­lated be­fore, and thus weren’t even playable in their cor­rect form un­til now. Even if they were on prior col­lec­tions.”

At the time of go­ing to press, 18 games have been an­nounced, which range from early re­leases like Fan­tasy and Van­guard, to the popular Ikari War­riors series.

In­ter­est­ingly, in ad­di­tion to ar­cade orig­i­nals, the col­lec­tion also fea­tures a num­ber of NES con­ver­sions, in­clud­ing the ac­claimed RPG, Crys­talis. “Some­thing unique about SNK is that ev­ery home ver­sion of­fered some­thing unique that was not in the ar­cade orig­i­nal,” con­tin­ues Frank. “Plus, a lot of these ports were made in-house at SNK, some­times by the same peo­ple who made the ar­cade games. This col­lec­tion is a snap­shot of SNK as it was in the Eight­ies, I like to call it an ‘in­ter­ac­tive art book.’ That snap­shot would not be com­plete with­out the home ver­sions.”

If choos­ing to fo­cus on the pre-neo-geo games was a rel­a­tively straight­for­ward de­ci­sion for Dig­i­tal Eclipse to make, col­lat­ing the as­sets that were needed was a lot more dif­fi­cult as Bran­don re­veals. “SNK doesn’t have a lot of the orig­i­nal boards, and it’s tough for them to get in­ter­views and the like, be­cause reach­ing out to past em­ploy­ees can be a bit of a faux pas for Ja­panese com­pa­nies. So we took a lot of it on our­selves. Frank sourced dozens of ar­cade fly­ers, cleaned up lo­gos and fuzzy screen­shots, and bought ar­cade boards to test them against ex­ist­ing ROMS to en­sure they were cor­rect. As for my­self, I found and in­ter­viewed sev­eral for­mer SNK em­ploy­ees, which is eas­ier for me to do as a third party, ver­sus SNK do­ing it them­selves.” Equally use­ful from Dig­i­tal Eclipse’s view­point was be­ing able draw on the ex­pe­ri­ence of those em­ploy­ees. “It was such a re­lief,” says Frank, “as some Ja­panese com­pa­nies won’t ac­knowl­edge past em­ploy­ees. Be­cause of that we were able to get a lot of in­sight that we could never pos­si­bly get oth­er­wise.”

We’ve long told sto­ries in Retro Gamer about how source code can go miss­ing or get de­stroyed, so it’s un­sur­pris­ing to hear that Dig­i­tal Eclipse faced sim­i­lar is­sues while col­lat­ing its se­lec­tion of games. What is sur­pris­ing are the sheer lengths that the team went to in or­der to se­cure the ti­tles it wanted. “I took a sev­en­hour bus and train ride through ru­ral Ja­pan to a shop in the mid­dle of nowhere that rents out ar­cade boards,” re­veals Bran­don. “This was the only known lo­ca­tion of Space Mi­com, one of SNK’S very first games. I man­aged to play it, con­firm a mas­sive amount of info (it has a CPU, prior to this we didn’t think it did), and gather in­tel about a num­ber of other un­dumped SNK ti­tles. That re­la­tion­ship is on­go­ing, so no prom­ises, but any­thing that comes out of that will be quite ex­cit­ing for the preser­va­tion of SNK’S his­tory.”

Of course, track­ing down games is only part of the prob­lem, you also need to faith­fully em­u­late them and en­sure they work in a way that’s ac­cept­able for mod­ern gamers. It was a chal­lenge for Frank and his team, partly be­cause of SNK’S love for a cer­tain type of joy­stick that was popular at the time. “The big­gest chal­lenge has been deal­ing with the Loop Lever games,” ex­plains Frank. “The Loop Lever was this weird joy­stick used in sev­eral games, in­clud­ing Ikari War­riors. It was ba­si­cally a joy­stick that you could twist: you’d tilt to move, like a reg­u­lar joy­stick, but you’d twist it around 360-de­grees to aim your gun. I don’t know about yours, but my Switch didn’t come with a Loop Lever, so we had to fig­ure out how to make these games play right and feel good us­ing stock hard­ware. What we ended up do­ing – and this was not easy – was forc­ing the games to play like ‘twin-stick’ shoot­ers. When SNK re-re­leased these games in the past, the best they could do was map but­tons to ‘ro­tate clock­wise’ and ‘ro­tate

coun­ter­clock­wise,’ which to me does not repli­cate the ar­cade ex­pe­ri­ence at all. In the ar­cade, if you were good, you could turn quickly in any di­rec­tion you wanted to just with mus­cle me­mory, which is im­pos­si­ble if you’re wait­ing for your char­ac­ter to ro­tate where you need him to on screen. Tech­ni­cally ‘twin-stick­ing’ these games is mak­ing them a lit­tle eas­ier than they ever were, so it was a tough de­ci­sion to make, but we be­lieve this is the best way to pre­serve the in­tended feel­ing of playing the ac­tual games in the ar­cade.”

While Dig­i­tal Eclipse wants the games to look, play and feel as ac­cu­rate as pos­si­ble. It’s also keen on en­sur­ing its col­lec­tion be­comes the de­fin­i­tive word on SNK’S early his­tory, a dif­fi­culty Bran­don is only too aware of as he’s col­lated the in­for­ma­tion, de­vel­oper diaries and trivia about the avail­able games. “I did as much work and re­search as pos­si­ble to en­sure the in­for­ma­tion was ac­cu­rate,” he ad­mits. “It’s tough, be­cause once this game comes out, what­ever I have writ­ten be­comes the truth, if you know what I mean. This is the of­fi­cial SNK stand­point once it comes out. But we’re re­ly­ing on old doc­u­ments, old mem­o­ries, old in­ter­views. None of that is per­fect, and when I had two pieces of con­flict­ing info from two dif­fer­ent de­vel­oper tes­ti­mo­ni­als, I had to do ex­tra re­search to fig­ure out who to trust. Read­ing it, it’s all pretty sim­ple stuff in there, but you won’t imag­ine the work that went into it. I’ve got a pretty short de­scrip­tion of Mi­com Block and Space Mi­com in the col­lec­tion, but if I hadn’t taken that jour­ney out to ru­ral Ja­pan, it would’ve been wrong, be­cause the avail­able in­for­ma­tion about the game was ei­ther in­cor­rect or in­suf­fi­cient.”

If there’s one thing that’s ob­vi­ous about Dig­i­tal Eclipse, preser­va­tion of the past is in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant and it’s pleas­ing that com­pa­nies like Dig­i­tal Eclipse, M2 and many oth­ers go to great lengths to en­sure that a new gen­er­a­tion can en­joy the clas­sics of yes­ter­day. “’Pre­serve’ is a loaded word, but I think the im­por­tant part of what we’re do­ing here is con­tex­tu­al­is­ing the games,” con­cludes Frank. “If it’s just a com­pi­la­tion that loads some game ROMS, to me, that’s not a very com­pelling prod­uct. But be­cause we of­fer easy ac­cess through Watch so you can ex­pe­ri­ence the whole game with­out learn­ing it, and be­cause our Mu­seum mode teaches you about the games and their place in his­tory, peo­ple can do more than just play these games, they can un­der­stand them. And to me, do­ing that right now is vi­tal. We’re in a unique time where we’re cel­e­brat­ing the golden age of this medium while its au­thors are still alive, and that’s not go­ing to be the case for much longer. The more we can do to cap­ture these sto­ries, the bet­ter off the fu­ture will be in un­der­stand­ing gam­ing’s roots.” It’s some­thing Bran­don agrees on. “With this col­lec­tion, we have brought SNK games back to life in a way that they can be played cor­rectly for the first time in years. And as the de­vel­op­ers get older, the mem­o­ries about this time fade. Frank and I re­alised this might be our only shot at pre­serv­ing SNK’S his­tory… and there’s so much we couldn’t fit in to the com­pi­la­tion. If we don’t pre­serve these mem­o­ries, no­body will.

And SNK’S his­tory is ex­tremely in­ter­est­ing to me. They de­fined that Nineties ar­cade game feel. They de­fined the 2D fight­ing game world, out­side of Street Fighter. They brought sound syn­the­sis and vo­cal theme songs to ar­cade. They pi­o­neered RPG sys­tems in coin-ops. I mean… I wish we could pre­serve it all, I re­ally do.”

i took a seven-hour bus and train ride through ru­ral Ja­pan to a shop in the mid­dle of nowhere that rents out ar­cade boards Bran­don Sh­effield

» Frank Ci­faldi is Dig­i­tal Eclipse’s head of restora­tion and is im­mensely proud of its work.

» [Ar­cade] Athena is one of SNK’S ear­li­est suc­cess sto­ries in the west and was con­verted to sev­eral sys­tems, in­clud­ing the NES.

» [Switch] Blast­ing di­nosaurs in the ex­cel­lent Pre­his­toric Isle In 1930. What’s not to love?

» Bran­don Sh­effield went to great lengths to en­sure SNK’S his­tory is as ac­cu­rate as pos­si­ble

» [Ar­cade] You won’t find the Mega Drive ver­sion of Ikari III here due to the li­cence be­ing owned by Takara.

» [Ar­cade] Psy­cho Sol­dier is the sec­ond game to fea­ture Athena and in­cludes a track sung by Ja­panese pop idol, Kaori Shimizu.

» [NES] Crys­talis is one of SNK’S few orig­i­nal NES games, so its in­clu­sion here is a wel­come one.

» [NES] POW: Pris­oner Of War is the first SNK game that Frank played.

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