The more video gaming chases the next stage of its ostensible progress, the more we seem to pine for the past. Nothing makes this more obvious than the growing popularity of retro gaming, where developers young and old are revisiting and reimagining a legacy that never truly dies, but is instead increasingly reborn and rebuilt.
An extreme example of this generation-spanning trend is 6502 Workshop’s Nox Archaist, which reaches back forty years to the heyday of the pioneering Apple II. Leaping into the game last week, I was impressed with how faithfully it reproduces an early 80s video game experience in both presentation and interface, from blocky pixels to blurred CRT-style fonts. It was only after contacting 6502 Workshop that I discovered exactly why this was.
“While Nox Archaist is playable on Windows and MacOS, the game was written on an Apple II,” Mark Lemmert, one of 6502 Workshop’s founders, told me via email. The game is not simply attempting to imitate the style of a bygone era, but was “created within the same platform capabilities and constraints as [other] games of the 1980s.” Nox Archaist was developed using the very same tools of that time, hardware many of us wouldn’t even be able to find any more.
That means Nox Archaist has not just been released for Windows and MacOS, but also for the Apple II. Any Apple II owners will need one of the more powerful versions of the platform, with both 128k of memory and specific hard drive cards, but these system requirements still read as ridiculously meagre by any modern standards. For Lammert, however, it was a very familiar development environment and the realisation of a long-held ambition. "This kind of 8-bit authenticity was important to me because I've wanted to write an RPG on the Apple II since I was a kid,” he said. “I grew up in the 1980s playing games on and learning to program on the Apple II. This project was a return to my roots.”
The constraints of such a system are also a reminder of how game development made impressive steps forward even when hardware did not. Many of the gaming and home computer systems of the 80s had relatively immutable system specifications with very limited options for expansion, forcing developers to hone their craft and find new ways to cram more complex, more impressive games into the same amounts of memory and disk space. This is exactly the challenge Lammert and the others at 6502 Workshop continued, a generation after everyone else had stopped. “One of the goals of the project was to explore what might have happened if RPG development had continued on the Apple II past the end of the 1980s,” he said. “Basically, stand on the shoulders of giants and pick up where games like Ultima and Bard's Tale left off.”
Lammert says that lessons learned by a generation of games developers have made Nox Archaist’s tutorial, interface and inventory systems more approachable and player-friendly. Nevertheless, they still remain a curious artefact of the past in many ways, being keyboard driven and with context-sensitive commands mostly eschewed in favour of unique keys bound to specific actions. For example, L will look (in a compass direction and at whatever is right next to you), while O will open a door that will otherwise rebuff you if you simply try to walk through it. Such a rebuff will be announced with the game’s favourite exclamation, a classically discordant bleep that some of us will not have heard in a generation, and others, never.
If this return to a particularly authentic way of working wasn’t remarkable enough, on Tuesday Apple II designer (and Apple co-founder) Steve Wozniak announced that he can be found somewhere in Nox Archaist as an NPC. This is Nox Archaist’s second celebrity cameo after Ultima creator Richard Garriott previously revealed that he would also feature, once again appearing in the role of his noble alter-ego Lord British. “Garriott is an Apple II guy at heart,” Lammert said. “That's the computer he learned to program on and used to create Akalabeth and the early Ultima games in the late 70s and 80s. With Nox Archaist being inspired by games like Ultima and being the first RPG released for the Apple II in over 25 years, it was a very good fit with his interests. Richard is of course very busy, so we are deeply honored that he took the time to engage with us and grant permission.” Lammert says that Lord British serves as a kind of mentor, offering guidance to the player at several stages along the game’s main narrative.
This combination of cameos and constraints has unquestionably made Nox Archaist exceptional in both senses of the word. It stands out as an extremely impressive creation, faithful and fascinating, but is likely to appeal to a very specific audience. Nevertheless, that audience was certainly large enough to successfully crowdfund its development a year and a half ago and our growing appetite for retro or retro-inspired games is unlikely to wane any time soon. While making new games for old hardware is a common bedroom hobby, a financially proven project like Nox Archaist takes things to a different level. It remains to be seen whether it inspires more such projects, but the audience certainly seems to be out there.
Meanwhile, Lammert hints that there may be even more in store for Nox Archaist. “I haven't made a final decision,” he said. “But I certainly have ideas for Nox Archaist expansion packs and sequels.” Perhaps more cameos are on the way.