How Mega Cat Studios is Helping to Reignite the Love of Retro

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Posted November 1, 2016 by Spencer Birch in Video Games

Mega Cat Studios (formerly known as 8-Bit Evolution) is a fairly small development team outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. For a few years now this team has been working hard to bring retro gaming back into the mainstream. Unlike other developers however, Mega Cat Studios is not simply making games with pixel style graphics, but are actually developing software for these old consoles using original source code and releasing them in all of their cartridge glory. This is a niche market that you may have noticed is beginning to grow as of late, especially since the introduction of emulator consoles like the wildly popular Retron 5. Their goal is to not only create great games designed to run on original hardware, but also to create interest in the mainstream for games that not only look and feel like old-school games, but are actually designed to be playable on some of the greatest old consoles in gaming history.

One of their latest projects, Coffee Crisis is being developed in conjunction with a local cafe Black Forge Coffeehouse. I got the chance to talk with the founder of Mega Cat Studios James Deighan about Coffee Crisis and the state retro gaming as a whole!

If you would like to know more about Mega Cat Studios you can find them on Twitter at @megacatstudios, or on their website at Megacatstudios.com

Be sure to check out their upcoming title Coffee Crisis and support the cause!


Spencer Birch: Hey James! Thanks so much for talking with me. So you are the founder of 8-Bit Evolution, now called Mega Cat Studios, and your company specializes in refurbishing retro consoles as well as creating brand new games for those consoles! How did 8-Bit Evolution get it’s start?

James Deighan: Well we actually started by selling modified Gameboys, Backlit Gameboy Advances, and Gameboy Colors. It was just too challenging to keep the quality supply chain inbound of stuff that is like 30 years old. No matter how many times we were rushing to conventions, buying everything possible and allowing customers to have trade in credit and all that stuff, it just never became easy. So over time we figured we would try one game, and we have done a ton of games since then.

A lot of games we started with we try to keep away from these days, they were kind of like learning games with pretty low quality. But stepping stones aside we got better and better at it. There aren’t that many resources for the retro game console stuff, it’s pretty limited out there. So a lot of it had to be very new territory.

SB: Yeah that makes sense. I would imagine that there are a lot of unique challenges in creating games for hardware that is 20 or 30 years old.

JD: For sure. The technical limitations are always interesting, you know, the three colors rule for the SNES graphics for example. You can take the most veteran graphics designers who can put out three maps a day or 10 character sprite sheets and shove them down into a single cell or single sprite character.

SB: That definitely sounds tough, and it sounds like you have your work cut out for you! Earlier this year you released Germ Squashers for NES to support Children’s Miracle Network, and are now paired with Black Forge Coffeehouse, a local business. Can you tell me about this game? How did it get started?

JD: So we promote the Pittsburgh Retro Gaming Convention. We have been doing that for two years and this last year was the first time we did a game with it, and Black Forge Coffee was actually the coffee vendor. So from one small business to another I started talking to the Black Forge guys, you know “Thanks for coming out”. The weather was pretty bad, it was one of the worst weather days for Pittsburgh last year, which was a little bit of bad luck there. I was just talking to Nick, one of the founders of Black Forge saying thanks for supporting it, and asking him if gamers love coffee or if it is just me! I found out pretty soon that he started his coffee shop about a year ago with a successful Indiegogo campaign, which is a very non-traditional start for the kind of business that they are. You don’t see a ton of brick and mortar business launching via Indiegogo right? But they had a cool enough thing that they hit their mark and it was just enough for them to get started.

Coffee Crisis, a brand new Genesis game

Coffee Crisis, a brand new Genesis game

I think we were both serial entrepreneurs who had tried a ton of stuff mostly out of interest to do something. It is such a huge challenge when trying to transition a hobby into a business. So we started talking about that and I said that this [charity event] went really well for Children’s [Miracle Network], kind of unexpectedly well, and it is something we are going to be doing in perpetuity now. Initially getting Children’s [Miracle Network] to even say OK to it was a unique challenge. They wanted to make sure that anything that had their name on it had some level of vetting and that marketing department signed off and legal signed off. So after going through all of that I was talking with Nick a bit and I told him that I would be happy to front 100% of the cost for the game. It was the first metal themed coffee shop I had ever seen, and definitely the first metal themed coffee shop that had their own Sega Genesis game.

SB: That is so cool! I was looking up about the coffee shop a bit and it seems like a really great place, I wish they had something like that out here near me.

JD: It really is cool! I hadn’t heard of them at the time until they came to the convention, but every single week they have some event going on. Two or three times a week they will have bands playing, and it is constantly packed with everything from art galleries to anime clubs. One thing that is cool about them is about 85% plus of the events are free. It’s mostly a local community run place rather than just a guy who is a really good event manager. Everything that happens there is about bringing people together.

SB: What made you want to put Coffee Crisis on the Genesis specifically versus some other retro console?

JD: Everybody loves making games for the original NES. It has the most tools out there right? There is a ton of source code that people can evaluate and figure out, even though there are different color restrictions with the NES there are tutorials and Youtube videos like crazy that can get somebody started in a day or two. They aren’t going to become excellent at it for months or years but you can create a project for NES very quickly.

I grew up with Genesis. One of the things Nick and I were discussing at the event was the stigma of Genesis. From the perspective of someone that was 5 years old or 9 years old at the time it was this slightly older kid console. It was black and sleek with no hard corners. You know, there was blood in the games and more adult themes, and there wasn’t a super cuddly, familial first party character. It was Kid Chameleon, Shinobi, Alex the Kid, Sonic, all that kind of stuff. So we were talking about the whole 90’s attitude era and next thing you know we were talking about the very active music scene. Nick, of course having a metal themed coffee shop, is huge into music. So we started talking about chiptunes and one of the things that Sega Genesis has going for it is really good music quality. The blast processor and the sound chip for Sega Genesis make it a great candidate for killer music with stereo effects for the era. So one thing led to another and we were saying how there really isn’t a ton of cool stuff in that space right now. It’s something we are totally capable of, but we haven’t found the right project.

One of the big challenges of course is that we are a business that is largely and highly fueled by passion and we do want to try to avoid burnout. It’s inevitably something that happens in this space. That’s why you don’t see many people releasing more than one game every year or two because it is so many hours it can’t possibly sustain them full time unless you have this incredible market reach. We have kind of done it via brute force. We travel to a ton of conventions and try to get the game in front of as many people as possible no matter what game it is. We had a decent back end for it and we already had some very talented artists that are capable of pushing it out in about half the time of other people in similar spaces. And since it is their full time focus instead of getting them in their casual hours, you know 1-3 hours a night, we are getting them bright eyed and bushy tailed first thing, all day as their exclusive focus. So we have a unique opportunity there to make a good impact in the next calendar year in that space. We probably have about 30 games that are in development over the last 5 years that made it to about eighty or eighty five percent but something always happens where it doesn’t make sense to finish. Over the last 6 months we’ve had such an interesting pickup and resources have become available. I think we have about 5 games that are going to be completely ready for release after multiple revisions and playthroughs in the next month and a half. Sometime between now and holiday season we are hoping to launch our subscription box. One of the things we are going to try to bring out there is a subscription box where you can only get those games through the subscription box, you can’t get them retroactively.

Sega Genesis

Sega Genesis

SB: That sounds really cool. I am actually glad that you brought up the Genesis’ music! When I was researching for this interview I had that thought about Black Forge Coffeehouse. It’s all about metal themes and it is a little more hardcore. I was thinking about how the NES and the SNES specifically have music that is excellent, of course, but it is always a bit more toned down or smooth versus the Genesis. With Gensis you will often get music that is so edgy and it sounds like robots playing some sort of death metal and I felt like it really fit this project.

JD: Yeah we have some killer tracks for it!

SB: That is something that has me really excited for this project.

JD: This is probably something you are really going to be interested in! I think we are going to do an Indiegogo or Kickstarter for it in the next two or three weeks here to finish out. We have a 7” vinyl record press of just the chiptune music that we did for the game including all of the titles that are in the game and also all the additional titles that we didn’t use in the game that didn’t quite make the cut. So it should be a pretty cool package, we have a limited run of 100 of them and it kind of just screams Kickstarter right? It’s this nice collectible pack-in thing that we initially did as a thank you for the release party, but I think we are going to do a double run and lock the Kickstarter maybe the day before or the day of the event.

SB: Awesome! Lately, in the past couple of years at least, there has been a big surge in the market for not only chiptune releases but also in brand new games for retro consoles. Do you think this is something that is going to continue to grow, or is it going to taper off and fall out at the end?

JD: I guess it’s everyone that grew up with this era of consoles who are all hopefully some level of functional adults now. [Laughs]
We all probably had the grand dreams when we were a kid thinking “Oh my god I wish that I could make Earthworm Jim” or whatever it would be. Now there is a little entrepreneurial spirit behind it but it is led largely by nostalgia. I think everyone who does this is doing it first because of passion and there is a big difference between the games we want to bring compared to the games that some other people in the space bring.

I think there are four ways or different styles of preserving history and bringing games out. So if you are cool with just functionally releasing games…I never want to be shovel ware-y, you know just putting a game out right? I don’t want to put a game out just to put it out, so I’m not interested in being a publisher for a ton of international people’s fun side projects. Although it is cool to put that stuff in a physical medium and get it into collector’s hands. As a collector I can see the value in buying any new game that comes out on any new console. It’s a cool novelty and it is something I am very supportive of on the consumer side.

SB: I am glad to hear that. This market is something I want to see grow up but like you said I don’t want to see a lot of shovel ware or garbage out there.

JD: That is kind of what’s out there right now. I think if someone would do a dichotomy of 200 home-brew games released in the last ten years…there are like 5 super ultra triple A versions released in that space, then there are maybe ten cool games that someone went to great efforts to preserve and buy legitimate source code from a publisher. Everything else below that is just kind of gimmicky and kind of a side project. It’s not really something a publishing company would put their name on. This space specifically, putting games on retro hardware, may take off, I’m not sure. I think that if we can find a way to deliver it to the masses through Steam or PC ports, or upmakes that are on new generation consoles then I think there is a viable market for people to do this full time.

SB: What sort of role does Black Forge Coffeehouse play in the development process?

JD: The story-line for Coffee Crisis is something they wrote in great detail with multiple revisions and as you can imagine a ton of coffee. They want to do a comic book style collaborative story-line process to create the characters of Black Forge and the bios of how characters interact and what kinds of relationships they may have. Very thorough, very detailed things like that. Aside from the creative writing side everything else was on our side.

SB: Great! So let me ask you specifically, what is your favorite console to develop for?

JD: I grew up with Genesis so I’m going to have to stick to it tried and true.

SB: Nice!

JD: I know it’s not a popular opinion and I’m constantly in arguments with one of our team members about it but I think it’s a great console and highly under appreciated.

SB: There is always going to be that argument but you can’t deny that the genesis was a great console, one of the best of all time for sure. Does Mega Cat Studios have any plans to develop for more consoles in the future, maybe from the 32 but era?

JD: Yeah so we actually have our first game that we have been working on the last few months for Dreamcast.

SB: Oh! Cool, okay.

JD: Something that is maybe more exciting and kind of on the tip of my tongue right now is two games that we have that are both at about 90% done. They will have one retro port then an upmake for PC OSVR. Are you familiar with the Razer OSVR platform?

SB: Yeah!

JD: We have one game called Viking Democracy and the original version of it is releasing with the PC version, plays on a Sega Genesis cartridge, and we also have a PC upmake that’s a local 4 player VR capable product. We have Viking Democracy then we have another one that is pretty far along called Log Jammers. The NES port of Log Jammers has been done for a few months now but the upmake is still getting the final touches. They are both completely OSVR compatible, and also highly playable without the peripheral. They will have full gamepad support on the PC.
If we can find a way to take what we love from the retro console pieces and pair it in with something that has market ties where we can sustain ourselves full time then we are going to chase it.

SB: That is definitely something that could help you guys stand out, aside from having actually great games on these old platforms. Not everyone has an old Genesis to plug in and play, or even a Retron or something like that.

Retron 5, a new system capable of playing games from many different consoles

Retron 5, a new system capable of playing games from many different consoles

JD: Which is really a shame! [Laughs] Have you ever seen the tree planting campaigns, like “We are going to plant 10,000 trees next year!” Well I want to rescue every Genesis I come by. We repair and refurbish them and we do sell them on our website, but we pick them up at every con we go to still. They’re cheap. We are leaving them at restaurants and coffee shops all over Pittsburgh, just planting them everywhere.

SB: That’s great! [Laughs] That makes me really happy to hear, I really don’t ever want the joy of playing these old consoles to die out.

JD: I’m with you totally!

SB: So on your page online for Coffee Crisis there is a ticker counting up showing the money you have raised around this game, you are using that money to support Black Forge Coffeehouse directly?

JD: Yeah it’s going to support Black Forge. We have actually been working on a new website that should be up here tonight or tomorrow!

 


I want to thank James as well as the entire Mega Cat Studios team for taking the time to talk with me about these awesome projects! this is a very cool studio that you should keep an eye on.

If you would like to know more about Mega Cat Studios you can find them on Twitter at @megacatstudios, or on their website at Megacatstudios.com

Be sure to check out their upcoming title Coffee Crisis and support the cause!


About the Author

Spencer Birch
Spencer Birch

I dislike long walks on the beach actually, sand gets everywhere and the sun makes it hard to see my screen. Follow me on twitter at http://twitter.com/spencermbirch