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

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

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'

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 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] 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

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.”

Disney Enterprises, Inc.
9 Things You Might Not Know About National Treasure
Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Released in 2004 to mixed critical reviews but a positive audience response, director Jon Turteltaub’s National Treasure has grown into a perfect rainy-day film. Stumble upon it on a streaming service or a cable channel and the fable about historian-slash-codebreaker Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) excavating the truth about a reputed treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence will suck you in. Check out some facts about the movie’s development, its approach to historical accuracy, and why we haven't seen a third film.


Originally planned for a summer 2000 release, National Treasure—based on a concept by Disney marketing head Oren Aviv and DreamWorks television executive Charles Segars—had a Byzantine plot that kept it in a prolonged pre-production period. Nine writers were hired between 1999 and 2003 in an attempt to streamline the story, which sees code-breaker Benjamin Franklin Gates (Cage) pursuing the stash of riches squirreled away by Benjamin Franklin and his Freemason cohorts. Filming finally began in summer 2003 when Marianne and Cormac Wibberley got the script finalized. Turteltaub, who spent three years in development before finally starting production, told Variety that “getting Cage was worth [the wait].”


Nicolas Cage and Justin Bartha in 'National Treasure' (2004)
Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Fact and fiction blur considerably in National Treasure, which uses history as a jumping-off point for some major jumps in logic. While it’s not likely the Declaration of Independence has a secret treasure map written on it, Franklin and other Founding Fathers were actually Freemasons. Of the 55 men who signed the document, nine or more belonged to the society.


It can be tricky to secure permission to film on government property, which is why producers of National Treasure probably considered themselves fortunate when they discovered that Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm fame had built a perfect replica of Independence Hall on his land in Buena Park, California back in the 1960s. The production used it for a scene requiring Cage to run on the Hall's roof, a stunt that was not likely to have been approved by caretakers of the real thing.


One of Cage’s cryptic clues in the film is reading a time of 2:22 on the clock depicted on the image of Independence Hall on the $100 bill. Bills in circulation at that time really did have an illustration that pointed to that exact hour and minute, although it was changed to 10:30 for the 2009 redesign. There’s no given reason for why those times were picked by the Treasury Department, leaving conspiracy theorists plenty to chew on.


Speaking with The Washington Post in 2012, guards and escorts for the National Archives reported that the National Treasure films have led visitors to ask questions that could only have been motivated by seeing the series. One common query: whether or not there really is a secret map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. “I call it ‘that’ movie,” guard Robert Pringle told the paper. “We get a lot of questions about the filming.”


Both Cage and director Jon Turteltaub attended Beverly Hills High School in the late 1970s and shared a drama class together. While promoting a later film collaboration, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Cage revealed that Turteltaub had actually beat him out for the lead in a stage production of Our Town. Cage was relegated to two lines of dialogue in a bit part.


Nicolas Cage and Diane Kruger in 'National Treasure' (2004)
Disney Enterprises, Inc.

On a press tour for the film, Cage told reporters that he and co-star Diane Kruger bonded by going out at night and singing karaoke. “We’d go and karaoke from time to time and sort of blow it out and be completely ridiculous, which helped, I think,” he said. “I think it was some Rage Against the Machine, AC/DC and some Sex Pistols.”


Popular films often have the residual effect of drawing interest to the real-life locations or subject matter incorporated into their plots. Mackinac Island, site of the 1982 romance Somewhere in Time, has become a perennial tourist spot. The same influence was true of National Treasure and its 2007 sequel, both of which apparently contributed to an uptick in attendance at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.


It’s been over a decade since National Treasure: Book of Secrets hit theaters, but Cage is still optimistic fans of the series could see another installment. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2016, the actor said a third film was in development, with the convoluted writing process slowing things down.

“I do know that those scripts are very difficult to write, because there has to be some credibility in terms of the facts and fact-checking, because it was relying on historical events,” Cage said. “And then you have to make it entertaining. I know that it’s been a challenge to get the script where it needs to be. That’s as much as I’ve heard. But they’re still working on it.”

Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
How Accurate are Hollywood Medical Dramas? A Doctor Breaks It Down
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images

Medical dramas like Grey's Anatomy get a lot of things wrong when it comes to the procedures shown on the screen, but unless you're a doctor, you'd probably never notice.

For its latest installment, WIRED's Technique Critique video series—which previously blessed us with a dialect coach's critique of actors' onscreen accents—tackled the accuracy of medical scenes in movies and TV, bringing in Annie Onishi, a general surgery resident at Columbia University, to comment on emergency room and operating scenes from Pulp Fiction, House, Scrubs, and more.

While Onishi breaks down just how inaccurate these shows and movies can be, she makes it clear that Hollywood doesn't always get it wrong. Some shows, including Showtime's historical drama The Knick, garner praise from Onishi for being true-to-life with their medical jargon and operations. And when doctors discuss what music to play during surgery on Scrubs? That's "a tale as old as time in the O.R.," according to Onishi.

Other tropes are very obviously ridiculous, like slapping a patient during CPR and telling them to fight, which we see in a scene from The Abyss. "Rule number one of CPR is: never stop effective chest compressions in order to slap or yell words of encouragement at the patient," Onishi says. "Yelling at a patient or cheering them on has never brought them back to life." And obviously, taking selfies in the operating room in the middle of a grisly operation like the doctors on Grey's Anatomy do would get you fired in real life.

There are plenty of cliché words and phrases we hear over and over on doctor shows, and some are more accurate than others. Asking about a patient's vitals is authentic, according to Onishi, who says it's something doctors are always concerned with. However, yelling "We're losing him!" is simply for added TV drama. "I have never once heard that in my real life," Onishi says.

[h/t WIRED]