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Meet the Gamers Bringing Achievements Back to the Past

Ever since Microsoft introduced their Gamerscore system in 2005, it’s been increasingly rare for games to ship without achievements or trophies, and today there are countless websites for tracking and conglomerating them across platforms, tutorials with millions of views to aid in unlocking, and complaints whenever a game is released with malfunctioning or irritating achievements. Zealous achievement hunters are so obsessive in their pursuit that Sony has racked up YouTube viewers by complaining about the most obnoxious trophies their own platform is responsible for. Retro Achievements is taking this all even further by adding achievements to games that predate achievements in the first place. 

Founded in 2012, RA members have used emulators with added achievement tracking functionality to put 109,055 achievements into 2,858 games. Players that meet the appropriate conditions as checked by the emulator against a game’s RAM, like whether the player has acquired the Master Sword in A Link to the Past, will have their achievements uploaded to their username on RA’s server. Beloved classics like Super Metroid and Final Fantasy VII are well-represented, but you can also unlock achievements for The Berenstain Bears’ Camping Adventure on Game Gear and Ninja Golf on the Atari 7600. Players have collectively unlocked 12,606,980 achievements, and it all came out of founder Scott Davies tackling a programming challenge. 

“In 2012 I was working at Eurocom on Goldeneye 007: Reloaded for Xbox 360/PS3. We were close to the end of development and were adding achievements/trophies,” he tells me. “I’ve always had an interest in emulation, and I’d recently come across the source code to Gens, the Sega Genesis/CD32 emulator. Given that a large part of tracking achievements in Goldeneye was simply keeping track of different quantities (i.e. number of kills), I said to a colleague ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do the same thing for emulators?’ I compiled Gens, loaded up Sonic 1, and after doing a bit of research I showed a message saying ‘Achievement Unlocked.’”

When Eurocom went bankrupt, Davies found himself with time on his hands and, after teaching himself some new skills, he created a server that could dish out achievements to users. Ironically, he was never a passionate achievement hunter. “I had never felt any sort of compulsion to play games for the sake of achievements,” he notes. “In fact, I couldn’t stand them at first. I haven’t quite become obsessive with them, but I’ve found a satisfaction with getting 100% completion in games that I’ve never felt in any other way. I’ve learned to accept that it is simply another way to enjoy games.”

Metal Gear Solid

Rewarding Every Kind of Player

By April 2013, RA had attracted 100 fans. Today, it has 110,345 users. Davies, now mostly hands-off, credits volunteer administrators with keeping the site running, players with funding RA’s server, and developers with expanding the game library. Those developers have also created exhaustive documentation on what makes for a good achievement set, and some modern releases could benefit from their tips on avoiding achievements that are obnoxiously difficult, spoil key plot points, or require mindless grinding.  

Instead, developers are encouraged to “reward every type of player” and “create fun new memories” by inventing challenges and highlighting side quests, bonus modes, and Easter eggs that, in the original games, may have offered no tangible rewards. A developer who goes by Hotscrock cites Metal Gear Solid as having the Platonic ideal of an achievement set, as while it rewards players for progressing through the game it also rewards them for seeking out secrets, approaching combat in new and strange ways, and challenging themselves to speed runs and other self-imposed restrictions. For example, players can earn “Peace Walker” for killing fewer than 25 enemies throughout the game… or they can earn “You Pissed Me Off” by blowing up a guard with C4 while they’re urinating. 

The joy of completionism is the obvious appeal here, with WilHiteWarrior, who helped create the Metal Gear Solid set, commenting that they “like to experience everything a game has to offer. There’s something really satisfying about seeing that you’ve earned every achievement there is in a game.” But Davies, WilHiteWarrior, and Hotscrock all emphasised that achievements also help inject novelty into old games. 

While RA is probably the only community to be playing the Game Boy Advance’s Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, developers put the most love into games that mean something to them. “I grew up with my Mega Drive, and have always wanted to show off my skills at Streets of Rage 2 and Sonic 3 and Knuckles. Achievements that have become surprisingly popular are the ones that push you to play the game in a way you would never normally play it,” Davis said, citing achievements for completing Sonic 2’s Emerald Hill Zone without jumping and beating World 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. without ever pressing left as the kind of challenges that have proven popular. “There are plenty of opportunities to do something cool in a game that the game itself wouldn’t reward you for, but we can!”

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Elf Bowling

Giving New Life to Retro Games

Achievements also help address the repetitive nature of many classic games, where there was nothing to do but watch your score climb until you got bored. Hotscrock expresses pride in his achievement set for Boxing on the Atari 2600, saying “The game is really basic, and the achievements brought a new life to it. Achievements allow you to revisit your nostalgia with a different point of view, and that’s fascinating.” 

In just 13 achievements, the Boxing set guides you through pretty much all there is to do in the game, and there’s a distinct charm in seeing modern achievement icons applied to a 40-year-old title. Because creating good achievements requires an intimate knowledge of a game, they also become a way for developers to proselytize for beloved or underappreciated titles. WilHiteWarrior gave just as much love and attention to Casino Kid 2 and Chakan: The Forever Man as he did Metal Gear Solid, while Hotscrock says that he’s discovered titles he otherwise might not have played because of RA.  “I never gave [Clock Tower] a chance until I started playing because of a [community] event,” he tells me.” I liked it so much that I added more achievements.”

RA’s achievements are often in flux. “There has been a lot of discussion about demoting some achievements and replacing others,” Davies says. “We do not ‘lock’ any achievements in place; all developers have an equal right to discuss, contribute and have their say in how each game shapes up.” In short, a developer or small team of developers will claim a game as their next project, then post their ideas in RA’s forum for feedback. Once a set of achievements is discussed, tested, and released, other developers can go in and make revisions, but only if the community agrees that their proposed changes are necessary. This way, every game has a single canon of achievements, and the members who know a game best tend to be in general agreement on it.

The Berenstain Bears’ Camping Adventure

That could easily be a recipe for chaos but, while not without its disputes, RA has a healthy community. Old achievement sets made before developers understood good design practices are revised, obscure games are highlighted in events, bonus sets of challenging achievements are added to games just for their superfans (40 RA users have finished Pokémon Blue with just a Rattata), and the community’s competitive users complete games from Super Mario World to Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase to climb RA’s leaderboards. In 2020, RA is looking to refresh their site design and better integrate with streaming and social media, so the whole world can know when you finally score a perfect game of Elf Bowling or complete the PlayStation port of Diablo. 

The passion of RA’s community could fuel it for a long time. Hotscrock’s volunteer administrative work can eat up two to three hours a day, and when they’re also developing achievements they can “spend most of the day” on contributions. For WilHiteWarrior, a typical achievement set takes him up to three weeks to outline, research, and code. “I’ve spent most of my free time working on achievements because I enjoy it so much. Still, the number of games I personally want to make achievements for is finite so when they’re all done I’ll likely retire from the development side of things.” That implies play will continue after development ends and, as Davies sums up, “We want players to enjoy their games with a little added extra to bring their experience somewhat into the 21st century.”

About the Author

Mark Hill

Mark is a freelance writer and former editor at Cracked. Follow him on Twitter at @mehil or check out his horror-comedy novel Dead Star Park.