As hearsay continues to swirl that a remaster of From Software’s Bloodborne is in the works, a developer decided to move in the opposite direction and remade it as if it was a Legend of Zelda clone from 1994. Dubbed Yarntown, the “demake” transforms the lamplit streets of Yharnham into a bright, but nonetheless ominous, SNES-style game. All the trappings are here, from strange ghouls prowling the streets, to mixing long and short-range combat and a terrifying fight against one Father Gascoigne.
It’s a fascinating way of playing the game, merging modern and classic convention, and just like the compelling trial-and-error of Bloodborne’s gameplay, it was effectively built through exploration. “I was like ‘well, let me just think about how I could make my enemies more like Bloodborne‘,” Max Mraz, the creator of Yarntown, tells me. “And as I was working on that, I thought ‘well, if you’re going to do this kind of enemy AI, you need to be able to parry them’ so I had to make a gun for parrying. And then, the time it takes to heal is also an integral part.”
Mraz came to Bloodborne while knee-deep in the development of his own project, Ocean’s Heart, and found himself inspired by From Software’s tight-knit mechanics. Too late to overhaul Ocean’s Heart in the spirit of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s grimdark fantasy, he decided to replicate it in the hopes of gleaming a deeper understanding of how From Software does what it does. “With Bloodborne, all the mechanics come together so well, if you pull out one thing, it fundamentally changes what it is,” He says. “Everything is so tightly integrated with each other into what the final experience is.”
Yarntown is part of a crop of ambitious demakes this year, joined by Super Tilt Bro, which transfigures Super Smash Bros. onto the NES, and Disco Elysium Game Boy Edition, porting the esoteric detective RPG onto Nintendo’s original handheld. In each case, a popular, well-known game is totally reframed in old technology, and despite each sounding a tad ludicrous, all are remarkable in just how well they capture their inspirations, design trade-offs and graphical overhauls and all.
“I wanted the game to feel just like a modern game. I am not interested in copying gameplay gimmicks that we abandoned decades ago,” Roger Bidon, creator of Super Tilt Bro, explains via email. “Super Tilt Bro. always aspired to be a modern game on a retro system, not a retro game.”
A hobbyist programmer, Bidon rediscovered his NES during a trip to his parents house four years ago, but had become “more interested in programming for it than playing old games.” The idea was to make something that he may never finish, something he could work on until he got bored, and as it turns out, making the honorary 8-bit installment of Super Smash Bros was perfect on both counts. As an avid player of the Smash series, he became enamored by the intricacies of the fighter, dedicating himself to making the thing fit within the constraints of a NES cart. The current version is a fluid, convincingly of-the-time game, if full of notable concessions.
Smash attacks are replaced by the simpler Tilt attacks, crouching is gone so the down button can be your shield, and the up button is the only jump. A game designed for a seven buttons, a d-pad, and two joysticks had to be boiled down to two buttons and a d-pad. Thankfully, the mathematics for how Smash Bros functions are freely available, providing a small headstart. “The NES is terrible at doing multiplications and divisions. All formulas used by Smash Bros are very well documented,” Roger says. “You can find online exactly how characters react to a hit, it is vector math with a lot of variables. These formulas had to be extremely simplified to be doable in a timely manner.”
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This practice of paring games down to their base elements is intrinsic to what makes demakes like these compelling. Mraz believes that Yarntown’s popularity stemmed directly from many people already knowing what Bloodborne is and wanting a new perspective on it. On a purely aesthetic level, the pixel art delivers that, and playing carries the same objectives, just in a different context. In Bloodborne and Super Smash Bros, you’re talking tried-and-tested platforming and movement that has roots stretching back decades. For Disco Elysium, a psychological drama involving a layered, text-heavy presentation, the obstacles are quite different.
“I wanted to keep some aspects of the larger skill tree, so the easiest way to do that was, it’s already in four classes, so I just wrote all those down,” Colin Trannan, developer of Disco Elysium Game Boy Edition, tells me. “Which lost a lot of the nuance, but I think people still get the idea there.” Built on the standard logistics of tabletop RPGs, using D6 rolls for skillcheck and so on, Disco Elysium isn’t difficult to make run mechanically, but it is tough aesthetically. The UI ties heavily into the rundown, retro kitsch of the game’s setting, and keeping that on a Game Boy took some tinkering.
At present, this quasi-Game Boy port of ZA/UM’s work is a free, lo-fi demo of the full thing, and aside from being interesting to players already familiar, Trannan sees games like this as a way of drawing in people otherwise left out. “I think the combination of a pretty high-profile game from last year and the Game Boy as such an approachable format for people, it made it a lot more approachable to people,” he says. “Instead of going ‘Oh, I got to sit down and play-through this for 17 hours’, here’s this little bite-sized taste.” Some of the comments he has received are from people who couldn’t play Disco Elysium yet — it won’t be on consoles until next year — who were thankful for a way to check it out.
Going Back to Move Forward
Bidon and Trannan are first time developers, while Mraz’s Ocean Heart is technically his first, though he’s released a number of smaller projects during the development process. They all credit these games as being great for learning the ropes of game development, using free engines like GB Studio and Solarus. “I acquired in-depth knowledge of mechanics I used as a player. How many frames you have to input special moves, exact formulas, and things like that,” Bidon says. Trannon, meanwhile, recommends software like GB Studio for anyone looking to try something similar: “If you want to jump in, create a character, have that character move around, talk to people, do simple stuff like that, it’s absolutely a great way to go.”
Considering its popularity, Mraz is considering turning Yarntown into its own full game. In light of the recent Demon’s Souls and XIII remakes, both criticized for not quite capturing the charm of the originals, he thinks short trips back in time make for more meaningful interpretations. “It’s definitely a more interesting way to re-examine a game than through a remake, and shorter is better,” he tells me. “In Yarntown, in the play-throughs I watched, people were most interested in ‘Are the sewers going to be there?’, or ‘Oh wow, you can still do visceral attacks’. People weren’t super fascinated by ‘Oh I get to do this again, in a different way’, they were more ‘Ah, but how will it do this, but different’, and if you just keep doing that, you’re going to wear out your welcome.”