Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Homebrew

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It started predominantly with the Dreamcast, but for as long as consoles have been around “homebrew” make an appearance in one form or another.  Nowadays it’s not uncommon to find a myriad of independently developed applications and games for consoles.  Mind you, it does require you to hack your console – and these days that’s no simple feat and usually carries with it the risk of bricking¹.  Once complete, a modded console with working homebrew can greatly improve the capabilities of your device – certain Wiis, for example, can play DVDs and MP3s as a virtual media machine that even accepts external hard drives via USB.  There are plenty of dark sides to homebrew as well, including the inevitable piracy debate, and in some consoles the homebrew scene is almost laughable.  This article will discuss what homebrew is, why it has been beneficial and the legalese dance any homebrew user must take.

Basement Beer

I couldn’t find any direct correlation between the two, but most likely the name “homebrew” comes from the culture of brewing alcohol in one’s home that began wide popularity after it was made legal in most countries in the 1970s.  Independent “brewers” would create wine, beer or grain alcohols in their homes using various materials and methods.  It was said by these homebrewers that unique flavors were created via methods not possible in major distillers and breweries.  Much like these basement libations, the homebrew scene on video game consoles stems from a similar background.

Homebrew is defined as a program or game created for specific hardware (the specifications of the home console they are developed for) by the community.  In many cases these games are not authorized or licensed by the manufacturer of the console and at times aren’t even legal due to the use of protected materials and copyrights.  It is possible to have legal software created on a development kit and authorized by manufacturers, but this is rare and has only seen mainstream success via Microsoft’s XNA program.  From my experience homebrew either helps the pirating community open up the capabilities for a console to emulate games that never came to them, college students to get the most out of their device (the aforementioned turning a Wii into a DVD player) and hardcore fans of a dead console creating new and sometimes impressive games.

Is that a Nintendo game on your Genesis?

Whenever homebrew is developed for a console, the first step is usually to get it to emulate other consoles.  As we’ve seen from the manufacturers themselves, there is a high demand for consoles that will play its predecessors and with emulation each expensive game of yesteryear is only a short download away.  It’s always fun to run NES games on an N64 or Genesis titles on your Dreamcast, but essentially this isn’t some amazing advancement for consoles.  There’s also the world of ports, which thrive mostly on the Dreamcast and original Xbox.  Each console has a wide variety of old PC point-and-click adventures like Day of the Tentacle, PC ports like System Shock 2 and even run PC games as if it were a PC.   Frankly it seems like a lot of risk, time and effort to do something your computer can do with none of these setbacks.  In addition, prior to the use of writeable discs it was often expensive to get media to run these items and even with discs you have copy protection to worry about.  Not only that but due to the limited hardware many emulators don’t run at optimal speeds, resulting in a chugging mess when the N64 tries to run Gameboy Advance games.  I have to admit, though, there’s limited appeal to running games that never belonged on a specific console, like running Sonic the Hedgehog on SNES.

Unreleased games and fan translations fit into that gray area of neither being a pirate game nor technically being homebrew, so I view them as both.  A game like Earthbound Zero (Mother in Japan) was intended to come over to the NES in the States, it was even translated, but Nintendo never released it.  This game is a lost gem to the thousands – okay, hundreds – of fans that loved the SNES title Earthbound (Mother 2 in Japan) and want to see its roots.  Fortunately through leaks from within Nintendo, the original version of Earthbound Zero can technically be played on an NES.  This can be done in various ways from emulating the game on PCs, newer console homebrew or even a repro or homebrew cart.  Repro carts are individual carts that have been built just like an original cart but have rare or unreleased games on them.  Homebrew carts are predominantly used for piracy, but are flashable blank cartridges that work with consoles and download individual games from a storage bank like an SD card or CompactFlash card plugged into it.  Fan translations are games that only released in another country, typically Japan, that has been completely reprogrammed for another language, usually english, because a localized version never released.  For any of these games, homebrew has given a new opportunity to experience lost games of the past.

The True “All-in-1” Console

It amazes me sometimes when I see the capabilities of some home consoles.  One of the early examples of hardware modification is the PSX, a Playstation 2 released in Japan that had DVR (digital video recorder) capabilities.  There was also the Japan only Panasonic-Q, a region free Nintendo Gamecube that had a built-in region free DVD player.  These are modified and licensed adjustments for consoles with hefty consumer price tags to accompany them – the Panasonic-Q retailed for $500 compared to the $200 price tag of the GameCube.  Homebrew applications don’t cost anything though and open up your console at no additional charge to do the exact same thing on a Wii.

Early versions of consoles usually lack the lockout hardware and software to prevent these exploits from being blocked, although most current consoles have consistent firmware updates to help with this problem.  Thanks to that and early more expensive hardware often being integrated near the beginning of a console life cycle, homebrew tends to thrive on early or obsolete versions of various consoles.  First generation Wiis can play DVDs as we’ve discussed, early Dreamcasts can play burned games right out of the box and there was a mountain of homebrew games and apps on the PSP before it even released in the US.  Thanks to this the Wii can be just as valid a multimedia center as the 360 or PS3, the Dreamcast has a vast library of legal freeware that has released after it was discontinued and the PSP is basically a netbook.  All versions of the Nintendo DS can be modified with homebrew to run almost every multimedia application that the PSP can.  With all of the wonderful capabilities that utilize mass media and have nothing to do with piracy, it’s a wonder that these manufacturers don’t open up this functionality.

New Games

This is why I love homebrew.  Independent developers are starting to get the praise and attention they deserve thanks to Playstation minis, XBLA Community Games and Steam, but before these outlets it was limited mostly to online distribution.  Dreamcast was definitely the first place I saw games like this see the light of day.  I had recently gone to the Midwest Gaming Classic and members of the press who went to a specific lecture were rewarded with a copy of a game called Last Hope.  Developed by NG:DEV.TEAM out of Germany, Last Hope is a side scrolling shoot-em-up (shmup) for the Neo Geo.  It was initially released on the AES and Neo Geo CD, with the AES version having a limited print run of 60 copies and retailing for about $725 it’s one of the rarest games ever released.  A much more affordable version, the Dreamcast port, was released in the United States for $40 by RedSpotGames and sold online at play-asia.com.  This was the version I received and began my love for the play-asia site in 2007.  Last Hope is an appropriate title because it’s brutally difficult and the bullets that come at you are hard to see despite the fact that it’s a VGA-compatible side scroller.  In 2009 the Pink Bullets edition released that eased some of the difficulty and made the bullets, you guessed it, pink and thus easier to see.  It also integrated immediate respawns a la Salamander rather than checkpoints like Gradius.  As an indy shooter this is a solid title that demonstrates promise for games of its kind.

On the opposite side of technology, Ed Fries of Microsoft fame flexed his Atari VCS/2600 programming muscles by creating Halo 2600 in a mere 4kb of space.  To put it into perspective, 4 kb is a blank formatted Notepad document, and this is a full 64-level game with Master Chief against the Covenant.  It is available in a rare cartridge format – around 100 sold for $20 apiece at a classic gaming show – or can be played for free online.  Normally a project like this can get you sued but I think that Fries connection to the franchise and the fact that he’s not garnering much of a profit on the game are helping his case.  Either way, Halo 2600 is one of the crowning achievements on the 2600 and a perfect example of how 30 years can enhance one’s ability to do some amazing things on some limited hardware.

There are some great examples of homebrew originals below, but remember these numbers grow every day:

  • Odball for the Magnavox Odyssey marks the longest release stretch ever: 36 years since a previous release.
  • Pier Solar and the Great Architects is an original (and solid) RPG originally developed for the Sega CD and later moved to the Genesis/Mega Drive.  The original can be hard to find due to high demand but if you have the money, $300 should net you a US copy and $750+ gets a PAL copy.  Great game, I highly recommend grabbing the reprint edition from the link for $50 before this adventure is lost forever.  (Update from 09/2014: Pier Solar HD is now available on PC, 360, PS3, PS4, and Xbox One for $14.99).
  • For the more affordable titles, Good Deal Games has Sega CD games like re-releases of canceled titles Citizen X and Marko as well as original homebrew titles like Mighty Mighty Missile.  Average price: $20-$30
  • Battlesphere for the Jaguar is a space combat game that even allows for networked consoles to battle with one another.  It is easily the rarest and most technologically advance of the Jaguar games.  As for how good it is, there is a review, but with auction prices climbing over $2000 for a copy it’s up to you whether it’s worth a look.
  • Popular Streets of Rage/Final Fight openware Beats of Rage has had countless remakes on the Dreamcast starring everything from Mega Man characters to Resident Evil to even Mortal Kombat 3 sprites.  Every game is your classic walk to the right and beat guys up approach, but the sprites are adapted to create entirely new games.  It can get old if played back to back, but for every once in a while they are tons of brawling fun.  All are free and available for download at sites like DCISO Zone.

As you can see, certain homebrew games that are only available on cartridges or in limited print runs can be extremely expensive and hard to find.  On the flip side, there are a ton of indy homebrew games that are easily found and distributed for free online, so you need just hunt them down.  Homebrew has come a long way since the early days of running Gameboy games on an SNES, but it continues to stay strong thanks to a rock solid and dedicated community for every console from the first (Odyssey) to the most recent (Wii).

¹ bricking: due to a hardware or software issue from a modification, the console no longer works and thus is as useful as a brick

Written by Fred Rojas

January 17, 2012 at 12:08 pm

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