The clandestine underworld of Game Boy demakes

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You find some batteries for your old Game Boy. Cartridge in, you power it up. Luckily, it still turns on. It’s dark in your room, so you find the brightest corner and settle in. Nintendo’s iconic chiptune sound effect plays, then the splash screen for Hollow Knight takes over the screen.

Feels weird, right? That’s because Hollow Knight released in 2017, almost thirty years after the original Game Boy. At the ripe old age of 35, Nintendo’s first handheld is now old enough to run for President, yet there are still a committed bunch of developers out there proving that the hardware is far from finished.

My Game Boy Pocket, sold to me by a friend for £20 when I was 12. Thanks, Josh. Captured by VideoGamer.

Hollow Knight GB is a “demake”, a striking phenomena that builds on the nostalgia left by retro games, tops them up with surreal anachronisms and what-ifs, all in an act of quiet rebellion against the modern standard of game production.

There’s something slightly uncanny about loading up a game from only a few years ago on hardware from several decades ago. It feels wrong because it is wrong. Part of that is down to the games we consume nowadays; riddled with bugs, day one patches, and neglectful optimisation. We’re used to games that do nothing to defy convention, nor strive to innovate technically. But for those making demakes for original Game Boy hardware, this is part of the draw.

The Game Boy released way back in 1989. It was a scaled down NES, battery operated and far more accessible than its Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear peers. Nintendo’s practice of sticking to simple hardware with a fantastic user experience paid off, and it has remained one of the best selling consoles of all time. Even compared to the Famicom, the Game Boy is by far one of the most unassuming consoles ever. It’s limited to just four colours, a screen containing as many pixels as an inch of your phone’s screen, and about 4MB of ROM to play with. It’s not a lot at all, really.

Just in time for the Game Boy’s 35th, Pokémon Scarlet came out. No, not the Nintendo Switch version from late 2022, but a demake fit for the Game Boy. The creator behind this project, Game Boy Demakes, has been working on “demaking” popular titles in line with early 90s 8-bit design choices for years now. A few other examples of their work include spriting Hearthstone and Resident Evil in the classic 160×144 resolution that Nintendo’s iconic handheld is known for.

Pokémon Scarlet, the Game Boy version. Image captured by VideoGamer, courtesy of GB Demakes.

A playable ROM is available from Game Boy Demakes, though you will be limited to no more than ten minutes of gameplay.

I had a little chat with Game Boy Demakes, hoping to understand the form a little bit better. They had some illuminating thoughts on the topic, ”I tend to get overwhelmed – colour theory, palettes, what resolution do I want to do, what sort of scale –  it was just driving me crazy so I thought hey, the Game Boy, 4 colours, 160 x 144 resolution.”

The idea that limiting your design scope will actually help you focus better on creating something worthwhile isn’t necessarily reflective of what we understand as modern games. You have these giant live-service products crammed with as many ‘gameplay’ elements as possible: PvP, franchise crossovers, battlepasses, and micro-transaction galore. More time is spent on monetising AAA games than properly cracking a core gameplay loop that’s fun and rewarding.

I asked them how important it was to get their games running on original hardware, thinking that was a big part of why they develop GB games. It’s a key to get it “running,” but what’s far more important to them is that it’s “good, readable, and functional.”

GB Demakes also alludes that this is one of the reasons why the form has had a recent resurgence in popularity. “It’s not just for nostalgic reasoning, but pixel art being a necessity from the time…I also think the style is reactionary to the absolute size of games these days.” Nowadays you will see titles released with downloads well surpassing hundreds of GBs. For example, you can fit 415,549 copies of Pokémon Red into the size of Star Wars: Jedi Survivor. “Smaller games that are a complete package are what more people want.”

Take Balatro, for example. It’s a tiny game with a pretty striking concept – poker-turned-roguelike. It doesn’t faff around with immersive 3D visuals, gamifying a persona into an RPG, or plotting out a complex storyline set up for future DLC instalments. Instead, it’s a simple system that encourages you to keep playing thanks to its well-fleshed out loop. It’s now sold over a million copies, alongside cementing itself in the gaming zeitgeist.

Balatro, Captured by VideoGamer.

“If you design it on, or with old console limitations in mind, it reigns you in and has you re-evaluate what is integral to the game, and what’s even feasible in the first place,” GB Demakes finished.

Above all of this, I had to know what IP the developer behind these demakes would want to have full licensing control over; either “Daisy & Luigi: Couple Curse, or Banjo Ooie (a prequel to Banjo Kazooie).” I think I speak for most when I say we are totally behind that.

Game Boy Demakes ideas for Luigi and Daisy: Couple Curse

I can get behind the idea of retro demakes being this rebellious art form, a metaphorical middle finger pointed towards big tech polluting game development with stakeholder demands and unrealistic expectations. Above that, they present an alternative visual language of semiotics and branding hot potatoes that are just great to look at, and even more rewarding to play.

Where projects like 64-bit Elden Ring act as a strong proof of concept, Pokémon Scarlet GB is actually playable through an emulator, or real hardware if you’re savvy enough. Much of this is thanks to GB Studio, a drag and drop game engine designed specifically for creating original Game Boy ROMs. It’s available for free on itch.io, so you can have a go at creating a similar project yourself.

Game Boy Demakes refers to them as “musical slideshows.” Careful not to draw the ire of the “Swinging Sword of Nintendocles,” as they’ve put it, current demakes are limited to just-about playable proof of concepts. It’s still enough to strike something unsettling inside – like you’re peering into an alternative reality built by 8-bit Resident Evil sprites.

Unfortunately, the risk of developing a full game alongside its potentially ensuing lawsuits and DMCAs is just far too great, so we’re limited to “love letters” that show you what’s possible, so long as you try.

I like to think of demakes as a clandestine act of rebellion behind the backs of AAA gaming, though beyond that, and perhaps more importantly, they tap into a world of possibility and fantasy that’s only really possible with video games. With projects like RelicCastle having recently shut down, the ones working on Game Boy demakes need all the attention they can get.

Images via Game Boy Demakes Patreon.

About the Author

Amaar Chowdhury

Amaar loves retro hardware and boring games with more words than action. So, he writes about them daily.