The Problem with Ports

ImageThe player’s hapless tank/metal slug in the clutches of Metal Slug 3’s final boss, Rootmars.

Earlier today, a friend linked me this page:

http://store.steampowered.com/app/250180

As it turns out, Metal Slug 3 is finally coming to Steam (it had been in the registry since last year, so it wasn’t a complete surprise). Those who grew up in the last 10-30 years might fondly remember the Metal Slug series a prime quarter muncher, inhabiting bowling alleys, family pizza joints, arcades, Mexican neighborhood laundromats, and countless other locales even to this day. It’s one of the most – if not THE most – well-known Neo Geo titles behind Puzzle Bobble/Bust-a-Move, and to not have at least seen it once while growing up in the United States would raise a few eyebrows among anyone who spent any amount of times wasting weekly allowances on those darn video games. Metal Slug 3 is often regarded as the best (and sometimes the hardest, which is an accomplishment considering how unforgiving the games are) in the series, so its re-re-re-release to the PC audience should come as a pleasant reminder of days gone by.

Except that the PC audience already has other ways of playing the game.

One bit of tech that PCs have over consoles is access to emulators. By booting up the ROM image of a specific game on a program that emulates the desired console or platform, a user can play it for free. Other users hack ROMs to alter the base game to fit their own desires or to find out more about the underlying game mechanics, known as, well, ROM hacking. MAME, which emulates arcade games ranging from the CPSes to Neo Geo games and just about anything else, is widely considered to be the best in its field. This means emulating closest to the original framerates of the games they play. For people new to emulation, “obtaining” ROMs lies in a very muddy legal territory, so you’re on your own for that. Keep in mind that I’m not decrying emulation, it’s just necessary to be knowledgable about the gray areas of doing so.

With that aside, a quick look at that Steam store page states that both SNK and a company called DotEmu are developing it. I hadn’t heard of DotEmu until today, but looking at their official website and their Wikipedia page shows that they are a French porting company mostly known for their phone games.

Digging a bit deeper, DotEmu also ported a collection of the Raiden series of SHMUPs (shoot-em-ups, like Galaga) to the PC. It can be found here at GOG. A quote in the comments section caught my eye:

“When PC gamers have the option of playing these games for free via MAME, the developer really needed to go the extra mile to make this an attractive purchase.”

Something dawned on me. This is the biggest issue with arcade game ports that have been cropping up recently, with Iron Galaxy’s ports of games like Street Fighter 3: third Strike, Vampire Savior, and DnD: Shadow Over Mystara among them. MAME is already an excellent emulator; what can SNK and these porting companies offer to outdo a free (and highly suspect) service that replicates gaming experiences more accurately than anything else out there? Therefore, game developers need to be able to offer better services than what emulators already offer. These include

• Better netcode. Playing by yourself is alright, but killing and dying to hordes of aliens with a friend is even better. You don’t want shaky connection to mess with that. MAME does have online capabilities, but including online play right out of the proverbial box would be a lot more intuitive for the average player.

• A better UI. For some reason, a lot of recent ports have worse interfaces. Capcom’s recent JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure PS3/XBOX360 port comes to mind. It’s also a sloppy port in general that’s not even accurate to the original game mechanics, but that’s another topic entirely.

• Scripting capabilities.

And probably many more features I can’t think of at the moment. For now, these could serve as  very basic guidelines for future PC porting projects. To me, it’s something for big companies to keep in mind when attempting to reach out to a new audience. Sure, you might rope in a few nostalgics who are unaware of emulation. But emulation is no underground service, and anyone who has access to the Internet has access to it. To reel in the rest, developers must think of how they can offer a better (and it doesn’t have to be a much bigger) product to catch the eye of the emulation scene.

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