Multibowl isn't just Mario Kart. It isn't just Bubble Bobble. It isn't just Wild Guns. It isn't just Frogs and Flies or NARC or Super Dodge Ball. Multibowl is all of these games. 230 to be exact, in a rapid succession. A video game avalanche, your arcade rivalry's final level, Multibowl may finally determine who is the king of all video games.
You might have a distant memory of your first time with an emulator. Suddenly that dream of owning every video game became a reality, and that reality became a nightmare. Double that if you were with a friend, combing through files to decide what multiplayer game you'd want to configure and play for the evening. Bennett Foddy, creator of ragdoll running phenomenon QWOP, says he has a short attention span and this was always a dilemma. He wanted to play video games like you would a mixtape or a best-of album, quickly jumping to different tracks from different artists. So he and AP Thompson created a solution, Multibowl, a two-player fever dream that will test every video game skill in the most literal way possible: shuffling opponents through a variety of specific, 15-second challenges from 230 old games.
"I always wanted a way to skip through games really fast," Foddy said. "18 months ago I was teaching a class on old European computer games from the 1980s, and it's interesting and frustrating how inaccessible those games are for purely technical reasons—not just finding and emulating the files but even playing the games can be tough for new players. It's a goal of mine to help people to be more literate about the history of games, so that was also something I wanted."
Multibowl began to manifest after the team working on MAME, the most popular arcade emulator, merged it with its sister project MESS, which emulates console and computer software. Thompson modified his own version of the program that would automatically scroll through a list of games. From there Thompson and Foddy scoured through a variety of retro games looking for quick and exciting moments, saving the memory and going over it with a debugger to pluck out the relevant numbers as far as lives, points and time go.
Multibowl is essentially a Warioware for other games. Each snippet has a different win condition, explained in a few seconds as a cow bell strikes three times. Both players try to tally up the most points as they become short-winded masters. In some games it's as simple as hurting the other player, surviving, or scoring the highest before the timer runs out. Others are more novel, like not touching the ground in Rampage.
The 230 games span across 12 platforms, including arcade, SNK, Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Atari and Intellivision. Foddy said that they stopped at 230 not out of exhaustion, but because they struggled finding games that would add something distinctly new. At the same time, Foddy wishes he could have gotten the Amiga and the VGA PC to work in their program, because they have "amazing multiplayer libraries."
Multibowl includes evergreen classics like Excitebike and Dr. Mario to relatively unknown gems like Crossed Swords and Farmer's Rebellion. Foddy's favourite discoveries were Xeno, a turn-based air hockey from the ZX Spectrum, and Araiguma Rascal, a Japanese SNES Wario's Woods-esque stacking game that's apparently based on a short lived anime that's also based on a Sterling North memoire.
"It's definitely an interesting question, whether you could master Multibowl," said Foddy. "I think at 230 games you probably still could, although it's getting tough. If we can get the number up to 400 then it's probably impossible to hold all of that training in your head. Or at least, anyone who took the time to get to know all 400 games would be a kind of videogame sage."
Multibowl gives regular competitors an even slate. One player may be especially good at top down shooters or arcade brawlers, another might be a pro with gem puzzles and racing games. But with the surprise factor stirring in all these genres, it makes it unlikely any player will maintain any permanent edge on their rival.
"It is also a pure test of talent," Foddy said. "Since nobody can know more than 5-10 percent of the games in advance. If you're particularly great at mashing buttons really fast, I'll never beat you at Track & Field."
Multibowl will be available to play at the upcoming XOXO Fest, a digital arts and culture conference in Portland, Oregon. Foddy said it's too soon to announce any following appearances, but it sure doesn't sound like he's done with the project.