Haunted: Halloween ’85 Creator Talks Releasing New NES Cartridge Games

Greg Caldwell is one of the creators of  Haunted: Halloween ’85 , which was released on a game cartridge for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 2015 and is currently in Steam Greenlight for a planned PC port.  The NES has not been supported by publishers for approximately two decades due their resources being diverted to newer and more powerful systems.  Haunted: Halloween ’85 is a welcome addition to a retro gamer’s library and Hardcore Gamer had a discussion with Greg about his decision to release a new game for this platform.

[Hardcore Gamer] How did you decide that in 2015 you were going to release a game on an NES cartridge?

[Greg Caldwell]  Neither my business partner Tim (slash best friend since third grade) or I had an NES back when all our friends did, it just wasn’t in our family’s budgets. So we would go to our friend’s houses and play, and mostly watch them play since they were always better than us. I think that left a void that we both have always wanted to fill in some way. It’s part of the reason that throughout our lives we’ve never stopped playing games on the NES, especially our weekend-long Baseball Stars tournaments. On top of that the NES is such a sweet-spot in gaming where the graphics are detailed enough while still allowing your imagination to fill in the gaps, the game play can be technical without requiring a steep learning curve and the mechanics can be precise enough to feel natural without being overly complex and cumbersome.

So we always had this yearning to play more NES games and we always thought it would be super cool to make our own game for what we feel is the best console ever. The only problem was that neither of us had any experience making a game and we didn’t think it was actually possible to do without a huge team of people. That is until we discovered NintendoAge and the wonderful people on there! Once we saw that it was possible to make a game on cartridge for our favorite system we knew we had to make it a reality. There’s just something about the shape and feel of the cartridge that still resonates today, we never want to see that go away.

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The playable character’s appearance reminds me of River City Ransom.  What are some of the influences from 1980’s NES gaming and are there homages to certain franchises within the game?

We didn’t sit down and try to emulate anything in particular but I think we were naturally influenced by things we had seen and played all these years. I still play RCR and the rest of the Kunio series so that is definitely in the mix as well as ​Double Dragon, Wizards and Warriors, Rygar and SMB. We get comparisons to Bart VS the Space Mutants, Splatterhouse and Monster Party as well even though we’d only ever played the Bart VS games and it certainly wasn’t one of our favorites.

As for homages we definitely threw some things in. For instance, there’s a poster in Donny’s bedroom from a music tour. You can see a similar poster on the wall of a certain wanna-be-rocker tentacle in a certain mansion filled with maniacs a year later in 1986. Donny happened to attend that tour when it came through in 1985. There’s also some homages to movies and music from the era throughout stages like the Mall.

NES games were often unforgiving in their difficulty, and a game you would spend hours on you could eventually complete in a short amount of time.  About how long would someone who mastered H:H85 take to complete?

I can run it in about 25 minutes. That’s knowing where every enemy and pitfall is, knowing the techniques to beat the bosses and just running past most of the enemies. If you have Donny’s controls down pat then you can work your way through the game in about an hour progressing with caution. We hear that the difficulty is tough but fair, just the right amount to keep you coming back for more, which is about the best compliment we could get.

So it’s yet to be determined how long a master-level player could get through it since we haven’t seen anyone master the game yet. I would love to see speed runs from serious gamers who did master the game… that would be pretty rewarding to watch!

Because of Donny's support Iron Maiden was able to continue releasing new albums 30 years later.

Because of Donny’s support Iron Maiden was able to continue releasing new albums 30 years later.

How many people actually worked on this game?

The game was conceived by Tim and I. We planned to do all the music and graphics ourselves while working with a programmer to make a very basic game. Then the programmer had to back out so things stalled. In the meantime I talked to Zack and Thomas who I had already known but didn’t know their interest in retro gaming or their skill at making music and graphics for games. Once they came on board everything changed. All of sudden we had assets that looked and sounded great so we brought on David from Two Coins Entertainment for development and Damian Yerrick for the 6502 Assembly programming. The team was complete and from that point everything just rolled!
Also, I’d like to extend a special thanks to Shiru and Rainwarrior for help with the audio engine.​

Without any spoilers, can you tell something about this game that you are particularly excited about?

Three things stand out…

First, the game-play mechanics and control were extremely difficult to tweak and get right but I think we achieved what we set out to accomplish which was a character that’s fast, agile, maneuverable and precise. Donny is not as tight and rigid as Mega-Man but not as loose as Mario, he’s somewhere in the middle which feels really good to us. We get a lot of praise for this, it means a lot to us that others enjoy controlling Donny as much as we do. We can’t wait to build on this for the sequel

Second, developing the town of Possum Hollow where Donny lives and the back story behind the town is very fun and exciting for us.
​Players learn about Possom Hollow and the depths that the evil within the game comes from as they go through it. The story is not spoon-fed but if people pay attention and look around during gameplay there are clues to what is happening. It has amazed us how fans of the game have taken to the story line and characters, coming up with theories and trying to predict where the game(s) is headed.​

Third, the sequel. That is very, very exciting! There’s so many things we either didn’t have time to do, couldn’t afford or couldn’t figure out how to make happen that we can include in the sequel. A female playable character, more attack moves, new enemies/obstacles and telling more of the story; we can’t wait!!

Donny takes advantage of the lack of adult supervision during the zombie apocalypse to sneak into an R rated movie.

Donny takes advantage of the lack of adult supervision during the zombie apocalypse to sneak into an R rated movie.

Does Retrotainment have any other upcoming games, particularly ones that could receive a physical release on the NES or another classic console?

 The aforementioned sequel is the big thing for us. We have already started building assets, planning out levels and storyboarding the game. It will also be released on cartridge for the NES. We’ve concurrently been working on a block-smashing, puzzle style game that should be a lot of fun, again for the NES. I think you can see the pattern here… we love making NES games!

We’re also currently porting HH85 to the PC by building it from scratch in Unity. We’re matching it up with the NES version so that it plays the same on any platform. We’re on Steam Greenlight now hoping to bring an actual NES game to the PC that is true to form. Since a lot of people can’t find or afford a working NES we are making the effort to give them an alternative option to play the game.

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 Is there anything else you would like to say about the game?

The biggest thing I want to point out is the community of NES “homebrewers” that is out there making games that they love. It’s not just a community rehashing the past, rather it’s a group of enthusiasts constantly learning and innovating to create new games and new hardware to push this old technology into the future.

The NES has a lot of hardware restrictions that make game development very tough. The limitations and restrictions are both beautiful and a bastard in the same breath. It took a devoted group of fellow nerds to figure all of this stuff out and find ways to work with and around these limitations. Without them laying the ground work HH85 would not exist so I want to say thanks to everyone on NintendoAge and NESDev who helped make all this possible!

Finally, there’s a lot of hacks, repros and reskins of NES games that get the spotlight since they use the games and characters that we all love so much but there’s a clear distinction between these hacked games and genuine homebrews. There’s something to be said for games that are all original without any “borrowed” code or graphics. Don’t get me wrong, hacking is difficult and there’s some really awesome hacks out there but it’s incredibly more difficult to make homebrews entirely from scratch and I tip my hat to all the brewers on places like NintendoAge.com, NESDev.com, etc… who put in sooo much time and effort into making original games for the system they love.

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Game Development Back Story:

The game was dreamed up and created by myself and my business partner. We own several stores in the Pittsburgh area called Cash-In Culture which specialize in retro gaming and toys. We’ve been in business for over 10 years and we both personally love cartridge games, in particular NES games. Since we were kids we always wanted to make an NES game but never really thought it was possible. While perusing the internet I stumbled upon NintendoAge and after learning about the homebrew community we immediately knew what we wanted to do…make an NES game! We like platforming and action games and he’s a Halloween nut so the choice was pretty easy as far as what kind of game we wanted to make.

We developed our story line, I made up some graphics, he made some sounds, we found our programmer and we were on our way to making a very simple game to get our feet wet in this new world.

Then the programmer backed out due to real-world complications. So I talked to a friend and we took it upon ourselves to learn 6502 Assembly together. Then he had a child and things stalled again. During all this I talked to Zachary Curl (graphic artist) and Thomas Cipollone (sound artist) who I’d known for some time but did not know their interest in retro gaming. They were pumped to come on board and they took the graphical and audio artwork to all new levels (really, these guys are good and we’re lucky to have found them!). At this point we had all the parts we needed so we sought out an experienced programmer. Through Two Coins Entertainment, Damian Yerrick (you know him as Tepples) was brought on board and everything just rolled from there. It cannot be overstated how solid of a programmer Damian is! He handled everything we threw at him, did all the 6502 heavy lifting and even contributed a few things to the game along the way. Programming started in May of 2015 and with the help of Paul at infiniteNESlives.com the game was released on October 17th 2015 at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo.

Release:

We elected not to seek funding through Kickstarter or the like because it didn’t seem right to ask the public for money for something we had never done before. Instead we financed the game ourselves with the limited funds we could muster. Unfortunately this prevented us from making boxes and manuals for the game due to lack of time and resources. We will get them made ASAP so we can sell CIB versions of the game and we will definitely make them available to all those who purchased the game already.
We worked like crazy on the game up to the very last minute. I literally received the finished cartridges the day I was getting on the plane for Portland. We did a very small run of PRGE Editions to sell at the convention and the rest of the first pressing of carts are labeled as “First Pressing”. Beyond that we would like to make a limited edition of some sort once we can with some extra goodies for the collectors out there. Ideas are always welcome…