The world of physical media in brick-and-mortar stores has dwindled in recent years due to the proliferation of digital storefronts readily and conveniently available on modern platforms. While some would never think to pay the same (or more) on a digital game versus one they can hold with their hands, plenty of folk are just fine with buying a game and installing it on their SD card without having to leave the house.
However, the success of boutique labels and companies like Limited Run Games has proven that tangible video games still have a place in the world, especially since a digital game store like the Wii Shop Channel, or more recently the 3DS and Wii U eShops, can be closed forever — in turn making digitally exclusive games inaccessible.
Limited Run Games in particular has been an incredible boon in the industry, making physical versions of previously digital-only titles like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World The Game, The Mummy Demastered and plenty more available to the enthusiast masses. Sure, these physical editions will often cost you more than they do digitally on the eShop, and they're only available for purchase for a certain amount of time, but they are helping guarantee that these games won't be entirely lost in the digital sands of time.
Making a limited edition print of a video game is only half the battle, however. Once a game sells out, there's no way to control demand with supply and the price of a game on the secondhand market may well rise. We see this all the time when a well-regarded sequel comes out and fans want to go back and play the original, or when a game doesn't sell well and is produced in low quantities. Take EarthBound on SNES, Chibi-Robo on GameCube or even Attack on Titan 2 on Switch — all of these games took some time to gain popularity and now are essentially inaccessible for most in their original forms. Every retro game player or collector has at least one title on their list they wish they could buy, but can't justify an entire paycheck to acquire it.
Limited Run is trying to do something about this. Shantae on the Game Boy Color is not only one of the best titles on the handheld, it also released during a time where the Game Boy Advance was already on the market. Much like in 2017, when people started forgetting to feed their 3DS and spent their free time with the Switch instead, Shantae released to critical praise but commercial indifference. This unfortunate timing made the game a highly-sought treasure that you'd be lucky to play in its original form. But then, in 2020, Limited Run Games announced not only a digital re-release of the game on Switch eShop, but also a physical re-release on an authentic Game Boy Color cartridge.
This port and re-release was thanks in part to Limited Run's new development tool, the Carbon Engine. A Swiss army knife of sorts, it allows LRG to take games from the classic era and port them efficiently and authentically to every modern platform and, in turn, also offers the chance to bring back games in their original format. More recently, Limited Run used the Carbon Engine to bring over the previously Japan-only exclusive Super Famicom game Shin Nekketsu Koha: Kunio-tachi no Banka, to the West for the first time, re-branded as River City Girls Zero.
Given the frequency with which LRG releases physical games and the desire for them, the impact this effort could have on the retro game community is huge. We recently sat down with LRG co-founder & CEO Josh Fairhurst, marketing director Alena Alambeigi, and game developers Dimitris Giannakis and Joe Modzeleski to dig deeper into the process and find out where they hope to take the Carbon Engine.
Nintendo Life: The Carbon Engine is basically a development tool that you’ve created that works with emulators to make classic games playable on modern hardware. But what truly makes this truly easier for developers to work with and what makes it different from other methods that are currently being utilized?
Joe Modzeleski: The way we approached developing our toolset was a very frontloaded way. We did a lot of the development and the R&D in advance. What we try to provide for people that have legacy content and don’t really know what to do with it or how to bring it to modern customers is to offer them an all encompassing tool that supports every modern platform. Our Carbon Engine has a variety of emulators it supports and it’s one central tool base that we work out of that we’re super familiar with since we’re using and expanding it all the time. It’s a situation where partners don’t have to come in and invest a lot of money or resources, we just need software.
Josh Fairhurst: I don’t want to simplify it this much, but, we’re building a tool that’s basically plug and play for retro re-releases. Every game is going to have things we need to adjust the emulation for, but then once we make those adjustments, every other game that uses that emulation going forward can also be that much better. It’s a continuous thing that the tool will keep getting stronger, more powerful with each release.
Joe: You’ll find weird quirks too, like the first game we really focused on, Shantae, worked great, almost perfect! Then you start messing with some other games and find weird edge cases, weird CPU instructions that aren’t commonly used and we fix it!
Dimitris Giannakis: When we talk about a retro throwback game sometimes there’s a stigma about “well that game can never come back because there’s no source code, assets were lost or there’s some piece that doesn’t exist anymore” so it’s difficult to bring back. With Carbon we’ve tried to simplify that as much as we can to really say, “Look, we can get this game up and running.” Ultimately we can kind of break those barriers to bring any game we choose to.
Josh: We’ll develop classic titles for free for our partners and we’ll work with the Video Game History Foundation to dig up original art assets that we can restore for our releases. VGHF actually acquired all of GamePro magazine's QuarkXPress files, which is how they use to edit the magazine and for our Doom 64 release they were able to pull art directly out of an old issue for us to use. Another thing we’ll do is if there’s a licensed game out there to bring back, we’ll actually invest the time and resources to reach out to the license holder for that property to figure out how to get their approval to do it. That process is incredibly time consuming, no one wants to chase around all of these Hollywood people around to figure out how to do this. Something that stuck with me during a GDC talk a few years ago was when Frank Cifaldi said you’ll never see a re-release of Home Improvement on the SNES, and I just want to prove him wrong now! We would do the work to go to Disney and they would say “Oh no, you’ve gotta go talk to Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Tim Allen and all of these other people to get their okay.” but we’ll do it!
There are a lot of people out there that will compare and swear by a game’s original version as the only way to play thanks to the fact a re-release may see a change to music, framerate, in game art, dialogue or even something as simple as a font. Are you keeping this in mind and trying to future proof these releases so players won’t have to feel like they're making a sacrifice to play these games?
Joe: The average person will look at these releases and they won’t notice a difference. However, there’s always going to be a difference as emulation isn’t perfect, it can’t be. There’s a range of what “good enough” is, and there’s “good enough” that I don’t think is truly “good enough” and there’s “good enough” that I can settle for that’s basically 99% almost perfect.
Dimitris: We want to be very careful we don’t mess too much with the original source material of the game. We want it to be the same game, other than removing any licensing information that we potentially need to, we want to offer that same experience! So when you play Shantae on your Switch and then you play the Limited Run cartridge on your Game Boy it should feel and look the same.
Josh: If a game has a feature that is core to that game, we want to make sure that feature is represented. With Shantae, we made sure we had the Game Boy Advance enhancements that were there in both the physical and digital versions. If you look at the 3DS eShop release of Shantae, it’s missing those GBA features since it’s running through a Game Boy Color emulator. So the different color palette is not there, the extra transformation is not there, you’re losing out on a core piece of the experience. We don’t sacrifice those pieces and it’s all about accuracy for us.
Joe: The way we worked within River City Girls Zero. You want save states in an emulator but the average person doesn’t know what that is. So we presented the whole UI in a way that reads to the player as these are just your save files. The way you load into them through the game and the way you save them, all of it’s presented in a way that’s very modern despite the fact the game doesn’t save that way. We’re careful with how we mask things to make it feel modern, but the game is exactly the same.
Josh: One of the big things with River City Girl Zero that I actually really like is that WayForward, Joe and Dimitris pushed really hard is that we had a part that was authentic to the original game. We wanted to make sure we had a version of the game that was very River City Girls, that had the flavor and style of that but we also wanted to give people the option to play it as if it was the Kunio-kun game. So we had one localizer work on it but they localized it in two different ways. One way as a Kunio-kun game, unrelated to the River City Girls brand and then we had it as a River City Girls game. In each version there are little differences that don’t really impact much but they give fans of Kunio-kun a way to play it without having to go “Oh they shoehorned it into River City Girls.” If we’re going to make a change that sweeping, the original needs to be there as well.
If we want to re-release Rap Quest with Vanilla Ice, the game that never came out!
Joe: Say we want to do that!
Josh: Say we want to do that and Vanilla Ice is like “Nahh, you can’t have Ice Ice Baby” so then we’ll license Under Pressure from David Bowie and then change it slightly and we’re good!
Joe: Another thing I wanted to mention is not necessarily preservation but accessibility. There are all sorts of different barriers to something like that, but the absolute casual consumer needs to have a game available on the eShop or PlayStation Network. So you can have a game like, for example, Mother 3, with a fan translation on your PC but that doesn’t mean it’s truly 100% accessible to everyone because there’s always that barrier. One of the things that I think is really important with the philosophy of Carbon is that we’re hitting them at the lowest common denominator of accessibility. We want to take the back catalog of our partners and make it accessible to everyone who wants to play it.
River City Girls Zero and Shantae both received physical versions alongside digital releases, but will you always release your Carbon Engine games physically?
Josh: Anytime we do a Carbon release we’ll follow it up with a physical version. We feel a physical version ensures it stays around, especially if we’re going out to get licensed titles back. Licensed games are five times more likely to get delisted from online shops before anything else. Like Stranger Things 3, the minute that got announced we knew we had to talk to those developers to find out how to make that thing physical. And look, I don’t want to say that a Limited Run physical copy with X amount of copies is accessible, but it is more accessible then the game being completely delisted from the eShop. Physical copies are important for that in terms of just making sure these games are accessible in some way after the term of that licensing agreement is over.
That’s another thing about Carbon that I really like is if you look at the movie industry the barriers of studios getting their content to people are so low since they just send the video files to Netflix, and then boom, it’s out! While Carbon won’t lower the hurdle as much as a streaming service would for video, we could theoretically help a publisher get hundreds of titles from their back catalog back on the modern platforms.
Alena Alambeigi: There’s a lot of times where the hype for a game is higher now than when it first came out. For instance with Shantae on Game Boy, Josh told me we sold more copies of the Game Boy Version that we printed than when they originally put it out.
On your website you cover the fact that part of the goal of the Carbon Engine is to bring back potentially hard to find games that are expensive on the second hand market. Shantae was an excellent starting point. How often can we expect to see Carbon Engine releases and do you have more publishers you’re talking with to plan the future?
Josh: We have a lot of Carbon stuff in the works.
Dimitris: We have three Carbon projects we’re working actively on right now and there’s more in the pipeline.
Josh: There’s about seven projects that we’re about to sign in the next week that people are going to get extremely excited about!
Do you feel any of this work is taking away from some of your other projects or are there two separate teams working on things?
Dimitris: It feels like it compliments the business in a new way and having that development arm of the company adds value to the overall brand. I was telling Josh the other day that when River City Girls Zero came out that someone tweeted that they didn’t realize Limited Run makes games. There’s a lot of public perception out there that they feel Limited Run doesn’t make their own games, but slowly as we make more of these Carbon Releases they’ll definitely know who we are and what we’re about.
Josh: These publishers and developers are very forward focused and just don’t always have the time. We’re just stepping in saying they just have to give us permission and we’ll do it for you. Submission, ratings, and it’s great! It doesn’t detract from our core business because Joe, Dimitris and Kevin are all sort of off doing their own things with Carbon. It’s very complimentary and helps grow our business in a way that makes sense!
Sometimes you’ll hear a story that a developer or publisher used an emulator or software they didn’t have permission to use. What sort of hurdles and steps are you taking to not fall into those same problems.
Dimitris: There’s two ways we’ve kind of approached that. First is, for Shantae on Game Boy Color, we built our own engine in house. So there was no need to go out and find a license for an existing emulator. But for other emulators that we run in the engine like SNES for example, we’ve actively licensed emulators. We’ve been very mindful and careful about when we get licenses for these emulators and that we’re very respectful to the original author and that they’re fully onboard with what we’re trying to do.
Josh: It’s very important because we’ve seen the response the community will have if a hardware manufacturer or somebody just takes something open source and doesn’t let the people that made it know. That’s how you lose your credibility in that sphere.
Dimitris: We love this stuff! I’m personally a retro gamer and everyone else here is as well. If we’re going to bring something back we’re gonna make sure it’s ten out of ten quality and no less.
Now before we run off, where does the infamously expensive and rare Nintendo game, Little Samson, rank on your list of games to bring back?
Josh: It’s super high on games I want to do but no one knows where the rights are. We reached out to Taito and they said “They might be with the owner.” So we found the owner (who was really hard to find) and he said “I don’t know who has the rights.” So now we’re basically at a dead end. Who has the rights to Little Samson? No idea.
That’s one of the things that’s really hard about this is that you basically need someone who is a forensic detective to track down where the rights to these things are. You have companies like, I think it was Culture Brain that were allegedly fronts for criminal organisations. Where did the rights go for games like Ninja Kid? Are those games ever going to get re-released?
The biggest thanks to Josh, Alena, Dimitris and Joe for taking the time to share their passion for all things retro with us.
Be sure to let us know a classic game you'd love to see them bring back to the life!