All screenshots from 'Mega Man Legacy Collection' courtesy of Capcom
A few days ago, Capcom launched Mega Man Legacy Collection as a digital-only release for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam. It would be easy to underestimate the significance of this – on the face of things, it's just another retro compilation – and yet this compendium of the Blue Bomber's first six adventures is actually one of the most important game launches of the year.
It's not so much what it is as what it represents that makes it important. This is no ordinary compilation. It's the work of a company that prides itself on treating classic video games with great reverence and care, its mandate to both restore and preserve important titles from the medium's past for current and future generations. Digital Eclipse mightn't be a familiar name to some, but it was a pioneer for emulation before people were even aware of the word, founded in 1994 and therefore pre-dating MAME by three years. The company was recently reformed by original founder Andrew Ayre, who recruited Mike Mika as Head of Development and former games journalist Frank Cifaldi as its Head of Restoration.
There could hardly be a better choice for the latter role. Cifaldi has been a video game historian and archivist for many years now, and he runs a Tumblr blog called Game Preservation. "For me personally, the Digital Eclipse brand always stood for innovation in terms of bringing back classic games," he tells me. "I wanted to reinvent that, by focusing on what I consider the proper restoration and premium packaging, as if we were treating these old games as the art form that I believe they are."
Cifaldi has lofty aims for Digital Eclipse, hoping it can eventually become the game equivalent of The Criterion Collection. "That's the elevator pitch," he says. "I don't say that officially because it's so hard to make that comparison. As much as we've done here I think we're years away from [that level] because what they do far exceeds the scope of what we're able to do right now." That, he believes, says less about Digital Eclipse than the video game industry as a whole. "I don't think we've proven that there's a market for this yet, and I'm hoping that the Mega Man Legacy Collection will wake up the rest of the industry, in understanding that people do appreciate these [games] not just as commercial products but as culturally significant works that are worth encapsulating in a way that contextualises them and treats them with respect."
"What we're trying to prove here is that at least for certain games people do want a premium package. I think Mega Man Legacy Collection is going to prove that out. As a company, we're banking on it." – Frank Cifaldi
That's certainly the case for Legacy Collection, which assembles pristine recreations of the first six Mega Man games, originally released for the NES, packaging them together with a series of bonuses – think of it as the equivalent of a second disc crammed with Blu-ray extras. There are challenge modes complete with online leaderboards, and an extensive digital museum, which contains an array of Mega Man memorabilia, including dozens of pieces of previously unreleased artwork. "We got lucky because Capcom published a Mega Man art book a couple of years ago for the 25th anniversary, and because of that project, they'd already done the hard part of digging through their archives and scanning everything."
The museum, then, was the easy part of the process. Before all that, Digital Eclipse had to build an engine. As important as the tech was the philosophy behind it. "We have this unique problem with our form of media where new platforms will not play old product," Cifaldi explains. "You don't have that with film. No matter what, you're not going to [build] an architecture that makes playing video hard. And it's the same with books. It's relatively easy to print a reprint, or to put it on your Kindle or whatever. But it's not like that with games at all. If you port a game to one platform, you're really just focused on making it work on that. If you want it to work on other platforms, essentially you're just going to have to start over – especially when you're talking about new platforms that emerge."
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Essentially, The Eclipse engine had to be future-proof. The idea the studio had was to build a platform that would, in layman's terms, take the strain of porting away from the games themselves so the tech could bear the load. So rather than starting again, now it has the six Mega Man games running on Eclipse, it should theoretically be a matter of ensuring the engine runs on other platforms. "So when PlayStation 5 inevitably happens and we port our engine over to it, the hope is that getting [the Legacy Collection] running is a fairly painless process, because our tech's already on there." It's a commercial consideration, too, of course. Making games is costly, and Digital Eclipse's method should make it less risky for rights holders like Capcom to consider future ports.
Cifaldi admits it's always difficult to discuss financial concerns without provoking accusations of only being in it for the money. Yet he recognises that commercial feasibility is a vital factor in the preservation of classic games. He doesn't believe that the industry has little respect for its past so much as it hasn't yet been able to tackle the problem of how to make its past profitable. "Without the participation of the rights holders of these classic games, I don't think we're ever going to get to the point where the industry wakes up and understands that our past is valuable. Now I don't think there's commercial viability in everything. But I think that if any game from the NES era is going to prove that there's still a market for that content, it's going to be Mega Man."
"I think we can all recognise that video games are culturally significant. We're finally at that point. But I don't think the commercial video game industry has properly reflected that." – Frank Cifaldi
Currently, part of the problem lies in the industry's prior treatment of older games. Many retro compilations have merely slapped several old ROMs onto a disc, and Cifaldi believes that rather than bringing the value of these games to light, they've done quite the opposite: they've cheapened them.
"It's like getting one of those ten-dollar boxes that have ten cowboy movie DVDs in them. Whereas we're doing the [equivalent of] the Criterion Collection [release] of Unforgiven. And I don't think video games have really tried that yet." He cites Nintendo's Virtual Console service as an example – though the quality of the emulation is generally good, the focus of each new release isn't about treating them as premium products so much as making them run and selling them relatively cheaply. "I think we're hurting the value of classic games if we continue doing that. We identified as a studio that classic games weren't being valued by [the industry's] traditional practices, and what we're trying to prove here is that at least for certain games people do want a premium package. I think Mega Man Legacy Collection is going to prove that out." He pauses briefly. "As a company, we're banking on it."
Mega Man is a particular labour of love for Cifaldi, though not simply because it's one of his childhood favourites; he thinks it's one of the most important games of the 8bit era. "This was, at least in the console world, one of the first games that I would argue was primarily art-driven in how we remember it," he explains. "I think the character designs and the pixel art in the first Mega Man, especially if you look at it in comparison to any other Famicom (NES) game that was released in 1987, those artists were really the first to adapt to those limitations. Before that, the best art on the NES was [aiming] for 'convincing', whereas I feel Mega Man was one of the first games that really made a style out of pixel art."
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Whether there's enough of an audience that cares enough about such considerate and careful recreations remains to be seen – and, indeed, this is what Digital Eclipse is hoping to prove. For his part, Cifaldi is optimistic that not only is there a market out there for high-quality ports of classic games, but it's larger than many would think.
"Do I think we're going to prove it? I absolutely do. I mean, you can go to the mall today and probably buy a shirt with Super Mario pixel art. It's commercially proven that at bare minimum there is a nostalgia market. And I think there are people like me who want access to important works of video game art presented with loving care."
His excitement for the collection is clearly evident, and not just from the perspective of his role as its curator. "I'm making this for me, too, as a consumer. I want to be able to launch this thing and know that it works and it's right. All the stupid little details, like the NTSC colour grading, the scan line approximation, the aspect ratio correction, the colour palettes, the way that the sound chip is handled – I want to know that obsessive weirdoes like me have gone through this game with a fine-tooth comb and it's the absolute best it could be. And I don't think I'm the only person who appreciates that."
While Cifaldi knows the importance of appealing to those who would scrutinise the technical minutiae of the collection, he's keen that Digital Eclipse's work is part of a wider understanding of the form. Indeed, the recent rise of mainstream acceptance of games as art is what prompted him to consider the meaning behind the cultural preservation of the medium. With exhibits at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the MOMA, and films ranging from Wreck-It Ralph to the forthcoming BBC telemovie Game Changer, which traces the meteoric rise of the Grand Theft Auto series, it's increasingly clear to all that games are a growing part of the wider cultural landscape.
That's something, says Cifaldi, of which the industry should be proud. "I think we can all recognise that video games are culturally significant. We're finally at that point. But I don't think the commercial video game industry has properly reflected that. And that's why it's important that something like Digital Eclipse exists. So we can start waking up the industry into treating these works of art as works of art, which is something that the rest of the world already knows."
Mega Man Legacy Collection is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.
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