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Episode 25: Homebrew Magazines


Scrobins

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A Homebrew Draws Near!

A blog series by @Scrobins

Episode 25: Homebrew Magazines

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Introduction:

Nearly every gaming fan, new or old, modern or retro, has or had a regularly published magazine they eagerly awaited, which often contained news on upcoming games, tips for improving their luck/skill at existing games, and shared a general love with the magazine’s creators and fans. Inspired by institutions like Nintendo Power and Game Informer, several enterprising members of the homebrew community have brought this fun to our niche corner of gaming. Where bloggers, podcasters, and YouTubers usually focus on one or a few games at a time, homebrew magazines touch several games from different angles, and include other interesting, related content that rounds out its pages. As a result, I’ve developed a Pavlovian response to any news of an upcoming new issue.

For this entry, I’m covering several magazines that have dedicated all or part of their content to homebrew news and related subjects: Dev Cart Magazine by Lexington Alexander, Cool Sh#t Magazine by Yan Ian Hook, Retrobrew Magazine by Matt Hughson, and Mali’s Cash by Dave Allwein. As of the time of this writing, all 4 magazines have at least one issue that can be purchased: Dev Cart digitally here & physically here, Cool Sh#t here, Retrobrew here, and Mali’s Cash here. And for those in the know, the recently Kickstarted magazine NES PRO is working on its first issues, with homebrew reviews by Retro Death Row and content from our friend @ecmyers!

 

The Magazines:

Each magazine, despite a shared interest in homebrew, has carved out a distinctive corner for itself, cultivating a unique personality. As a result, these magazines do not compete with each other so much as they create a chorus of voices, whose collective harmony provides richer insight and a wealth of content for fans to enjoy.

Dev Cart began with its introductory Issue 0, released in August 2018. Up to this point, Lex has published five more issues, selling digital editions on Amazon and physical copies through Mega Cat Studios. Declaring a focus on 6502 Assembly, the NES, and cartridges on each cover, Dev Cart focuses on the NES side of homebrew, promoting both available and upcoming games either with detailed write-ups or imagery styled after advertisements. The magazine also includes other fun content like interviews with creators in its DEV Chat segment, and coding tutorials for aspiring developers. Ultimately offering readers a little bit of a lot in each issue, Dev Cart provides a snapshot of what is exciting at the time of each issue’s release, with helpful resources to hopefully give rise to new homebrewers and games that can populate future issues.

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I know a good interview when I see one

Cool Sh#t Magazine is the edgy older brother to the gaming magazines you grew up with, taking a tongue in cheek playfulness to its content that connects more adult humor with our childhood nostalgia. Debuting in early 2020 and going strong with a prolific nine additional issues to date, Cool Sh#t covers a lot of ground. Sharing hot takes on homebrew games on older consoles, new games on modern platforms, toys, and all things wrestling, Cool Sh#t lets out a primal scream in appreciation of growing up during such a cool time (and living in a rockin’ renaissance). These are the dedicated folks who have the courage to remind you that Michael Keaton is the definitive Batman, and they have the good taste to back up why you should listen to their opinions on all things pop culture and yesteryear.

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Truth

Retrobrew debuted in April 2022, and though it remains the only published issue to date, fans are clamoring for a follow-up (as might be expected regarding anything with author Matt Hughson’s name attached). Available digitally or in print form from its dedicated site, Retrobrew is devoted entirely to games in development across multiple consoles that excite Matt (plus the exclusive comic 72 Pin Connection by Joey “yoeynsf” Provencio). Rather than provide reviews or lengthier write-ups, Matt lets these upcoming games speak for themselves, limiting his voice to the juicy tidbits he has gleaned from social media or directly from the developers. Retrobrew provides an enthusiastic focus toward the horizon, helping to bring attention and support to well-deserving projects, highlighting features that exemplify homebrew’s place on the cutting edge. Characteristic of Matt’s desire to share data, he has also released his write-up on the first issue’s profit and loss, so others who might create their own magazines (and the generally curious) could learn from his experiences.

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What is it with homebrew and reptiles?!?

Amidst more traditional magazines, Mali’s Cash strives to be the quirky cousin. First released in May 2022, Mali’s Cash published two additional entries, all available on Amazon. For the most part, Mali’s Cash shares its love of Taiwanese culture, including legends, movies, and good places for coffee or beer. As a center of fun unlicensed games (not to mention the home of Dave’s homebrew game publisher ITG Soft), Mali’s Cash celebrates Taiwan as a capital of fascination, overlooked by too many. Ensconced between its slices of Taiwanese life and your monthly horoscope, Dave includes detailed write-ups on interesting Famicom hacks and homebrew games, as well as retrospectives on older homebrews still deserving of praise.

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When you want to put the BREW in homebrew

 

Interviews:

For the exclusive scoop from some fellow homebrew fans, I interviewed the minds behind these great new magazines to learn more about their fandom and what inspired them to take the extra step to publish a magazine…

 

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Lexington Alexander-Dev Cart Magazine

@DevCartMagazine

-Before we get into Dev Cart Magazine, I would love to talk about you and your background. Tell me about yourself.

I started out in game development as an intern and then a production coordinator for HER Interactive. They had a proprietary script and the production coordinators used that to build game environments. It was a good job. I took a certificate program at the University of Washington for 3D modeling and animation for games, but went on to produce casual games for the major casual game portals. I transitioned to Flash, but once it was no longer supported, I didn't do much in games after that.

 

-What about retro gaming and the homebrew scene in particular resonates so strongly with you?

I didn't know that development for the NES was possible until the NESmaker Kickstarter. I knew it was possible to make a game for the Sega Genesis, but couldn't really figure out how to get started. That was around 2009. The NES was the first video game console that we had in the house, but we got it right before the Super Nintendo came out, so we kind of forgot about it. Now, I like to go back and see what could have been produced on the NES had the platform continued and developers had the time. I like NES games because they're simple and you can get right to playing around without much orientation.

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The Kickstarter heard ‘round the world

 

-Do you feel there is any particular phenomena driving the nostalgia for retro games? Is there something inherent in what Nintendo, Sega, or others did during these old consoles’ lifespans that is having this effect? Or is it simply that our generation, having grown up with these games, is excited over something that was a big part of that moment in our lives, and we could just as easily be nostalgic for something else?

Well, there were so many people playing Nintendo games at one point, that many people referred to all video games as 'Nintendo'. There was little fragmentation in the market around 1989. So, there are many of us that have the shared experience of playing the same games at the same time and on the same console. There was almost no competition or market diversity.

Today, I could ask ten different people what they are playing and they might all say something different. It wouldn't be surprising to me. Or, you might hear a major online title. It was similar with television. There was little diversity and availability in programming and no Internet. People had to watch things at the same time while broadcast, so people had shared experiences. My mom, dad, sister, and I don't even watch the same stuff on Netflix.

The retro game console in homes was fascinating because it was the one toy that one child could play with while all of the others sat there and watched – without fighting. Other children watching their friend play a game was the original version of the Let's Play in homes. Fighting of course happened, but the basic pixels moving around on screen practically hypnotized people, especially children. It seemed to, anyway. I like to watch old television broadcasts that covered the NES being played in homes because you can see it plainly.

NES and other retro games are often simple and people like things that are easy. They don't always like to think. A lot of my friends will not play a game that they think is hard – or work – or requires some instruction.

Otherwise, I'm not sure. It could be cyclical for my / our age group and our 'turn'. I see people from every decade collecting things from their eras – their childhoods, especially – when they might not have been able to afford them or couldn't find them. Thirty and forty-year-olds have money now. Has there been some regression or retreat into what was familiar or simpler at some earlier time? I would say, probably. You see other industries experiencing similar trends. In fashion, we've seen cottagecore rising, and in collectibles, there is the grandmillennial trend. In media, Stranger Things has been really popular. In fiction, vintage dystopian books are certainly up.

I don't know whether enthusiasm for 6502 Assembly will continue to be a thing. A lot of developers in their thirties and forties – and twenties – didn't or don't do much with low-level programming in school. I took one computer architecture course that had one lesson of assembly programming and the other students had nervous breakdowns and existential crises over it. Some even thought they couldn't be programmers because they didn't get assembly code! I probably would have, too, but I had been studying assembly code because of the NES, so it was easy for me and definitely fun to be on the other side of it. And I of course helped them. Some people consider C to be lower level, but I don't really feel like it is, mid-level, maybe. I notice … a lot of high-level developers don't know much about low-level programming, hardware, and counting bits.

Assembly code for the NES is on the metal with no operating system. I think this appeals to some programmers with traditional backgrounds in computer programming. It is interesting to people who are only accustomed to programming for and on operating systems. Many of these people probably have trouble figuring out why their programs are inefficient. Working within the constraints of the NES helps us to start thinking about these things. I know that when I was porting games to Flash, the games didn't run well on web because they were too inefficient. I didn't realize why until I started reading about assembly code and dealing with memory constraints. Going back to these NES games as programming adults helps us to understand how they worked, and this is of interest to people.

 

-What kind of collector are you (cart-only, CIB, sealed, graded)?

I pick up whatever, but I don't keep much for long. I try to get rid of sealed as quickly as possible because I know I'll never be able to have much of a sealed collection. I like to pick things up, be done with them, and share them with other people. Though, I do try to make a dollar in the process. I don't make money on Dev Cart and have to make money in other ways. I do have some favorites that I keep duplicates of in case one breaks.

 

-What first inspired you to launch a magazine? What is the origin story of Dev Cart Magazine, and how did you decide on the name?

I follow some of the major games news sites, but they copy each other and don't do their jobs, so a lot of stories don't get told and therefore aren't getting heard. There are a lot of stories I would like to read about, but they simply don't tell them. They probably think the readership for such topics is too small – too few clicks for their ad revenue, or something. Likely, this is correct. I saw this as a problem and believed that more people would come into the space if they knew it existed. It is hard to get started developing on the NES because the information and tutorials are fragmented, jump steps, and feel out of sequence if you don't have the background knowledge. It doesn't flow in any form that is consumable for the layperson.

I wanted to focus on cartridge games because the playability of a cartridge game on an original console validates that such a program was possible – that it could have existed. Emulators are good, but there are some rare behaviors that don't necessarily translate to console. A development cart or dev cart is what programmers used to produce and test games for market. It is something that was commonplace in console game development, but no longer necessary, given that executable files can be played and tested on an OS without physical parts as part of the development process.

 

-What do you feel makes Dev Cart Magazine unique in terms of both aesthetic and content?

I wanted to have a retro 90s cartoon style without the drag of poor and unoriginal layouts. I like the style of early 90s cartoons like Ren and Stimpy, Rocko's Modern Life, and Doug. I don't see stuff like that anymore without a reboot, and a lot of cartoons today are just Flash-compatible graphics or 3D. Actually, are there any cartoons left?

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THE golden age of animation

 

-Who are your influences? And whose work are you watching closely now?

I'm all in on the NESmaker and #nesdev crowds right now. I don't want to leave so many people out, but I do interact with @DaleCoop for NESmaker stuff a bit. I think Gustavo Pezzi and Nathan Tolbert are interesting players and rising stars in the vintage console space. Pezzi is an educator and Tolbert is active in the NES and Atari 2600 spaces – others, too.

 

-Dev Cart Magazine includes coding lessons, teasers, news, interviews, and reviews for a host of games. How do you decide what to include? What jumps out at you? Do you have a preference between the types of games you want to cover?

If I see a game that is not getting (much) coverage, but I think should – I will generally prioritize that. Why would I write or talk about something that everyone else is already covering? What would I add?

I don't have a preference for the type of game because I'm more concerned about what readers want to see and play. The priority is to create news and lead on stories. Admittedly, I will try to avoid content that cannot be easily explained over a two-page spread. Some things require a demo. I often start by asking people to submit news and content requests to me via Twitter. This helps me to get a beat on what might be happening that I'm not aware of. I then try to go after stories that I think other people are not covering. A lot of people don't need help; they already have established platforms. I have little to provide to such established developers because they already have audiences bigger than mine. Some overlap is inevitable, but it would be nice to avoid many redundancies. If there are questions about a well-known project that are unanswered, I might go after it, but approach it from another angle. Some news might be too big to avoid. I generally try to include people who express interest in being in the magazine because it's easier to get material and questions answered, etc. A lot of it comes down to time. I also need to produce content that people cannot find elsewhere for free. People with completed and publicly available press kits do get priority. (The average reader does not ever see press kits).

I don't review games. I think I've stuck to that rule, anyway. I try to post that the games exist and describe them, but I stay away from saying whether or not they're good. I don't think there's much value in that and there's extreme sensitivity to what is good or better than something else. It's not a winning topic for content and just makes the tone of the magazine disagreeable and or inaccurate to those who do not agree. I try to stay away from opinion pieces, but I do review films on indie games. This is mainly because people try to compare indie films to blockbuster titles. These are not fair comparisons.

I initially reached out to the Nerdy Nights' author and asked if I could reprint the tutorials in some format. He said that it would be okay and hoped that it would help more people to learn assembly code, or something to that effect. I try not to change the tutorials too much outside of the order in which the lessons are introduced. This allows people to read and work ahead. Though, I've tried to break things down, I wonder whether NES development without NESmaker will ever be easily accessible for non-programmers. I have not quite figured out how to do this yet.

 

-What to you are the essentials to making a magazine such as Dev Cart Magazine compelling reading?

Again, I have to produce content that is not readily available online for free. Though, people have mentioned that they like being able to read about the NES scene in one place. Is it really compelling? I don't know. The reader can discover content without having to read much of the magazine. Some people might just buy it because they want it to exist – to place a dollar vote, or two. I know beta readers often go on to purchase a copy of the magazine. I know there are a few people that really like it because they've told me. Otherwise, I really don't know what people think about it. I would imagine that most people still don't know it exists.

 

-What is your favorite section of the magazine?

I still don't quite know who the magazine is for. It was primarily intended to be for new NES and 6502 developers, but the readership might consist of more homebrew gaming fans than anything else. The tutorials are my favorite part as a developer. Is it just a record of my working through the Nerdy Nights' tutorials? It very well could be. Well, I guess a few people have asked me about them or said they learned something. XD

 

-How do you obtain the information you publish? Do you reach out to people or do your own research?

I often type #nesdev and #nesmaker into Twitter and scroll. This leads me in various directions. And I will reach out to people, mostly asking for a press kit or press release.

 

-What qualities do you look for when choosing someone to publish your magazine?

Well, the magazine is self-published. I previously published the printed version through Amazon, but they made it impossible after they ditched Createspace. They would reject anything that looked like a white edge or image that didn't bleed into the edge, even if that's not what was happening or intentional. It got to the point where I couldn't get the file approved and asked James for help at Mega Cat because I saw they had printed some instruction booklets. Now, I send the file to James and he prints it. It's a huge time saver and it looks how I / we want it to, not how Amazon's A.I. robot demands it is laid out.

 

-What is the breakdown of your magazine’s physical versus digital viewership?

I would estimate that 60% of sales are digital and 40% are physical. It varies from issue to issue. The magazine sells long tail, but there still aren't a lot of people reading it yet. I generally don't have a lot of upfront sales, but the products have staying power. People often pick up all issues at one time – once they're aware that they exist.

 

-Dev Cart Magazine generally serves as an evangelist for the homebrew community, sharing support and enthusiasm for the games that interest you. Would you ever cover a game that didn’t excite you just because it was garnering a fair amount of attention? Are there any controversial subjects in the retro game collecting world that you would want to discuss in Dev Cart Magazine at some point?

Well, I wouldn't publish anything that I thought might get me banned from Amazon and Kindle Direct Publishing. If something was controversial, I would probably post that something was happening, but not take a position on whatever the issue was. If the issue was widely known and already being discussed, there would be little benefit in pushing in or advocating for or against it. I don't want the magazine to be for or against anything or anyone, rather – a source of news. One of the good things about the NES – I don't think it was ever political or anything like that. I did write about the cannibalization of game parts at one point, but I don't think I ultimately took a position, rather explained what people were considering before destroying a vintage game.

Again, I might avoid covering games that don't need help because it creates too much overlap. I did include Micro Mages more than once in the magazine because I thought it was important from a business angle. I do not know the developers. I wanted people to see the sales potential by using international reach, one-screen multiplayer, the YouTube algorithm, and Kickstarter money. Though, maybe those things were not what was so important, I thought it might help people to think about what the next sales record might be – how it could be achieved.

 

-Did anything you learned from working on your magazine meaningfully change your thinking about any aspect of retro game collecting or the homebrew scene?

The cannibalization of vintage game parts, yes. I think Emceemur is an important person in the retro / vintage game collecting scene. I interviewed him for one of the issues. He kept many of his video game receipts – pre-Internet when people had to buy games in stores. He held onto games for years and made some surprising profit margins, higher and lower.

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I genuinely tried to find a flattering photo of Emceemur, I swear!

 

-Did your direction or focus change at all between initial planning and putting the first issue together? Have any new revelations emerged since the first issue?

Initially, I published a 'lite' issue – issue 0 – just to see if people would read it. I was surprised how excited people were over a few pages. However, since the shutdowns in 2020, people have gone back to work. I feel like people aren't thinking about the NES as much, but it might not be true.

 

-What was the most surprising thing you discovered while making Dev Cart Magazine?

There are many more homebrew games for the NES than I originally realized. It's also shocking to discover how anybody ever got their game working on an NES without a dev kit and instructions from Nintendo. I often ask people, “How did you even start? How did you get anything working?” I've never gotten a satisfactory or believable answer for this – from anyone.

 

-If you could go back in time, knowing everything you know now, would you do anything different with your first issue?

Well, there is a banner on the first issue that says 6502 Assembly code. No assembly code was written in the first issue, so that confused people and they might have given up on future issues because of that. I thought that because the games and hardware in the issue used 6502 ASM … it might still make sense to have that on there. I wanted to have a consistent banner across all issues. I would just change that.

 

-Are there any homebrew games in development that you are excited to play?

Yes, but I don't know if they all have titles yet. There is one game that I'm watching called Former Dawn by ... I think Something Nerdy Studios is making it. The graphics look more like SNES graphics. That always impresses me.

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Screenshot from Former Dawn by Something Nerdy Studios

 

-If you could make your own homebrew game, what would it be about?

I am working on two NES games. One is aliens, kids vs. parents, 90s neighborhoods, and adolescence. The other is a traditional JRPG, but no random battles. It's similar to Secret of Mana. I have to work, so I generally get little done.

 

-I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me and share your experiences. Is there anything else you would like to tell readers and fans?

I wish we could have a monthly magazine, but I just don't think there's a way to make it work in any form. The fans shape the content of the magazine, so it helps to know what they want to read about. If they don't like it, I would like to hear that and I would not think it was rude. Otherwise, I don't know. Some of the content requests are beyond my skill level, so there's a bit of a wait on some things. I'd be interested in getting some help from other NES devs, but I know we're busy with life. Everyone I know just had a new baby. XD

 

 

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Yan Ian Hook-Cool Sh#t Magazine

@YAN_COOL_MAG

-What about retro gaming and the homebrew scene in particular resonates so strongly with you?

We're all lucky enough to have been children of the eighties and nineties, and in that we got to experience the greatest decades, and changes in video game history. Those consoles and their games become part of who you are, your DNA. We all share such incredible memories and experiences playing those games, that for us, it's something that will never leave you. When you come to today and people are still making new games for those systems, it's not only an incredible feat in and of itself, but it gives you the chance to relive that feeling of holding and opening a new game, and that something special.

 

-Do you feel there is any particular phenomena driving the nostalgia for retro games? Is there something inherent in what Nintendo, Sega, or others did during these old consoles’ lifespans that is having this effect? Or is it simply that our generation, having grown up with these games, is excited over something that was a big part of that moment in our lives, and we could just as easily be nostalgic for something else?

Several factors are driving this in my opinion. Firstly, they're for the most part fantastic games, and they represent a time when hardware was limited, and programmers had to be creative, not only in design but in how they relayed that story to the player. Nostalgia is obviously a huge part, games, toys or anything you enjoyed from your youth are always just hovering in the back of your mind, and when that curiosity becomes too intense, a collector is born. Supply and resellers are obviously going to affect all markets constantly, there is only so much of this stuff floating around the planet, and those peaks and troughs will also dictate or push someone to purchase that game or action figure they've been thinking about for possibly too long.   

 

-What kind of collector are you (cart-only, CIB, sealed, graded)?

I don't own a single graded anything, that's just not in my atmosphere, or my budget. I collect almost exclusively CIB, but in the last couple of years have picked up the odd loose cart here and there. When that does happen, I will usually make my own box for it at some point, just to keep it nice, but my collection is probably 98% CIB. I actually have this habit of remaking boxes when I feel the artwork didn't do the game inside justice.

 

-What first inspired you to launch a magazine? What is the origin story of Cool Sh#t Magazine, and how did you decide on the name?

Well, we had all done little bits of terrible writing for other people's magazines and blogs etc., over the years, and I think making something physical, or at least for us was the dream. When the Covid lockdown came into force in 2019, it was a mere month or two before we all lost our jobs, and in some cases businesses. I was in a pretty low place and wondering what my next move was going to be, armed with some savings and little knowledge of magazine production, COOL Sh#T was born! When it came to the name, we wanted something that covered the wide spectrum of topics that we intended to cover, and all of us seem to say "That is some COOL SH#T" when referring to video games or toys, so that just seemed like the perfect fit. It's funny because some people have really taken offence to the name, and refused to be featured because of it, which we just found hilarious.

 

-What is the breakdown of roles working on the magazine, and what does the working dynamic look like?

Myself 'Yan', I do all the design, all the page layouts and all the publishing duties. As we go about our lives, and we see new toys coming to market, or games that we are playing, or that have caught our eye, we make little notes on them. That all then gets put into a bigger pile, and we begin breaking it down into articles, reviews etc. Those are then shared out, between who is really buzzed up about whatever it might be. It sounds a little chaotic, and at times it definitely can be, but we just let our passions lead us. Everything about this magazine truly comes from the heart. There's no pretense. 

 

-What do you feel makes Cool Sh#t Magazine unique in terms of both aesthetic and content?

I truly, 100%, don't think there is anything else like COOL SH#T on the market. We put so much into every aspect of its design, and what you'll find inside. And what you do find inside is unlike anything else out there. From cover to cover, it is dripping in creative, beautiful pages of information and articles. Our aesthetic is truly our own. Yes, we take influence from things we read as children and young adults, but we morphed that into our own thing. We love video games, but we also love skateboarding, and music, and movies and toys. This magazine serves as a one-stop-shop, for everything that's hot! We're a tiny team, and we think our product stands head and shoulders with publications created by teams five times the size of ours, and bigger. We don't have the budgets, or resources of most outfits, but we'll still give you an incredible read.

 

-Who are your influences? And whose work are you watching closely now?

 I get inspired by everyone and everything. My Mum inspires me, my girlfriend inspires me, as do my friends. The world around me every single day makes me notice and see things a little differently, or perhaps where I didn't previously at all. There are so many talented people out there, creating so many types of art, it truly blows my mind. To shout out a few: Luce Gray tattoo, Martin Varbarro, Skinner, Mike Winterbauer, Rob Mccallum, Ezkimo 6, Tolbooth10. All of these guys have a different outlet of artistic delivery to the world, and my morning socials feed usually contains something from them.

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Mike Winterbauer

 

- Cool Sh#t Magazine includes tips, teasers, news, interviews, and reviews for a host of games, toys, TV, movies, and more. How do you decide what to include? What jumps out at you? Do you have a preference between the types of games you want to cover?

We just keep our eyes open. We either have a gamepad in hand, or eyes on the internet. There is so much great stuff out there to cover, that the magazine could be two hundred pages an issue, and still never run out of new content. As far as games go, we tend to lean toward new indie games, whether it's on a classic system or a modern one. We like new games that are created with a vintage aesthetic. Blazing Chrome, Panzers Paladin, Steel Assault, that kind of thing. But, if it's good, we'll cover it, we've just done an article on Elden Ring and we always cover V.R games. 

 

-What to you are the essentials to making a magazine such as Cool Sh#t Magazine compelling reading?

keeping one foot in familiarity, the other in individuality, and package that in a style that punches you in the face!

 

-What is your favorite section of the magazine?

I always enjoy putting the news together, as it is lots of snapshots joined at the hip. It makes it fun from a design perspective, and I always just let go and get creative. It's the first section of the magazine that you find, so I always think it really has to pop.

 

-How do you obtain the information you publish? Do you reach out to people or do your own research?

For the most part we do our own research and collative work, but if it's about a new game or specific project then we'll reach out to the producers of whatever it may be to get the finer details.

 

-What qualities do you look for when choosing someone to publish your magazine?

We self-publish, but if you're pertaining to the specific print side, then price and quality are the priorities. Our profit margins per magazine are much smaller than they could be, purely because we choose high-quality paper, printing and binding. How it looks and feels in the hand are crucial to us, and we listened to what our customers wanted in the early days as far as finish etc.

 

-What is the breakdown of your magazine’s physical versus digital viewership?

Zero digital, 100% physical. We offered digital in the early days, but almost nobody was interested in it. We aim to add a little free pdf taster to the store, for anyone who is curious about a purchase.

 

- Cool Sh#t Magazine generally serves as an evangelist for the retro gaming community, sharing support and enthusiasm for the games that interest you. Would you ever cover a game that didn’t excite you just because it was garnering a fair amount of attention? Are there any controversial subjects in the retro game collecting world that you would want to discuss in Cool Sh#t Magazine at some point?

Great question. I think my answer to that would be yes. A game could be fantastic, but not excite any of us personally. You need to be open-minded to other people's creations, and artistic vision. However, if a game isn't good, has clearly had little care, and is overall badly executed, we won't feature it. In the eighties and nineties, the magazines were your window to a possible retail decision. The fact that people reviewed bad games, saved countless people from wasting their birthday money, and that served a purpose for that time, now though things are a little different. If somebody sends us a game for consideration, we'll check-it-out first. If it's terrible or not a fit for us, we'll politely decline. We want our magazine to stand as a bible for all things great, so anything inside is immediately worthy of your attention, should it appeal to you. Writing a review of a bad game is a waste of our time, of paper and print and ultimately paints someone's dream in a publicly bad way, which we don't want to do. There is always the chance that they'll develop it further, and it could end up being wonderful. If there are obvious things that could be better, we'll always point that out to somebody, whether they care for our opinion or not. Sometimes another person's eyes are the one thing that you're missing.

 

-Did anything you learned from working on your magazine meaningfully change your thinking about any aspect of retro game collecting or the homebrew scene?

I was under no illusion that making games was easy, but from talking to programmers and creators within the scene, it definitely opened my eyes to the levels of dedication, and work that it requires. Just like making a magazine.

 

-Did your direction or focus change at all between initial planning and putting the first issue together? Have any new revelations emerged since the first issue?

The overall focus has remained the same, but what you'll find internally has been bettered, every time. We continue to push ourselves further and further to create the absolute best product that we can. We keep thinking there is a plateau that we'll reach in a minute and that will become our blueprint, but it doesn't happen like that. Furthermore, we're continually learning, adapting and improving.  We know it isn't perfect, but it's as close to perfect as we can make it. We just hope that people enjoy it. If people turn the pages and are captivated for a moment by the art design, or a little humour, or a game they now want to go and play, then we've done our job. We're passionate, and we hope that is relayed in our output.

 

-What was the most surprising thing you discovered while making Cool Sh#t Magazine?

That I was capable of working a twenty-hour day. That people you are trying to help will let you down. Delivery companies are never on time, and the term '24hr delivery' should be grounds for immediate compensation, when not met. For the record this has just happened again, as I write. 

 

-If you could go back in time, knowing everything you know now, would you do anything different with your first issue?

Pretty much everything. It's not perfect. The writing is sloppy, we didn't have any proper editing software. Some articles are questionable. There are far too many adverts. The text is often too big, but we're still extremely proud of it. It stands as the perfect reference for development, when compared to our latest efforts.

 

-Are there any homebrew games in development that you are excited to play?

I recently backed The Cursed Knight, and Astebros for the Mega Drive, I would dearly love a copy of Montezuma's revenge for the NES, but I'm a little spent out, and not ballsy enough to beg for a review copy. I'm really looking forward to Copper Jacket, Adventure of Panzer 2, Roniu's Tale. I really want a copy of Haratyler MP, if that the right name's version, I know there are several different one's floating about. Essentially, the one with the enhanced CD music, it looks like you're playing a Pc engine Cd game, but only on the NES. That looks like a really fun and groundbreaking experience. I love to see old systems doing new things. I always keep an eye on Matt Hughson and what he's got going on over there. The fact that he develops triple-A games, but has now turned his hand to classic systems, really interests me. The style of his output is always great.  

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Screenshot from Copper Jacket by Monsoon Studios

 

-If you could make your own homebrew game, what would it be about?

Well, I released a game on Collectorvision some years ago for the Atari 2600 called 'Super Trash Truck', it was created with my friend Jason. I am extremely keen to someday remake this for the NES, as the Atari's limits couldn't quite deliver what I envisaged. I have also been working on a couple of arcade titles for literally years. I hope one day to see these through to completion. I planned an NES title based around the magazine, which was a hybrid of styles, but mostly a collect-athon.

 

-I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me and share your experiences. Is there anything else you would like to tell readers and fans?

It was my pleasure, thank you for asking me. YES, YES there is. We are taking a little break from Cool Sh#t after the next issue releases, to give us time to work on other projects. I cannot say too much at this point, but if you love video games, you're going to want to know about it. The best thing to do is go to our store page 'COOLMAGAZINE.UK', scroll to the bottom and subscribe to the newsletter. We won't spam you with anything, you'll just get a little note when something is happening, and you will also receive discounts and sales information.

 

 

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Matt Hughson-Retrobrew Magazine

@matthughson

-It’s great to talk to you again, and about a very different project. Before we get into Retrobrew Magazine, I would love to talk about you and your background. Tell me about yourself.

Hi! I’m a professional game developer by day, and a homebrew game dev on the side. So far I’ve released 2 homebrew games, both for the NES: Witch n’ Wiz and From Below.

 

-What about retro gaming and the homebrew scene in particular resonates so strongly with you?

I grew up with the NES, and it was a real cornerstone of my childhood. It was what we talked about a recess, it was on TV, in cereal, at McDonalds; it was everywhere. So I have a strong nostalgic connection to the platform. The homebrew scene itself is really fun because you can easily connect with all of the developers, both big and small, and it really feels like everyone knows everyone. There’s a real sense of community, and helping each other succeed.

 

-Do you feel there is any particular phenomena driving the nostalgia for retro games? Is there something inherent in what Nintendo, Sega, or others did during these old consoles’ lifespans that is having this effect? Or is it simply that our generation, having grown up with these games, is excited over something that was a big part of that moment in our lives, and we could just as easily be nostalgic for something else?

I would guess that it’s mostly just people my age growing up and now having money to buy all the stuff they loved as kids. I think you see this in all media right now (movies, tv, etc.). I think that’s also influenced by how massive these things were when we were kids, which might explain why NES stuff is so big now, but things like Atari didn’t really have that same kind of cultural resurgence.  I suspect in 20 years we’ll be looking at Minecraft and Fortnite reboots.

 

-What kind of collector are you (cart-only, CIB, sealed, graded)?

For homebrew it’s CIB or nothing. I open everything and don’t worry too much about “resale value”. For licensed stuff, I buy cart-only, and I only buy what I actually want to play. I’ve been collecting since the late 90s, but a few years ago I sold most of my collection off, and just kept “the best of the best”. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made!

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Sonic is relieved to hear that

 

-What first inspired you to launch a magazine? What is the origin story of Retrobrew Magazine, and how did you decide on the name?

I’ve been wanting to create a homebrew newsletter of some sort for a while now. I’ve had a few false starts and could never really get things looking how I wanted. A few months ago I came across a random zine on this site called “Flipsnack” and it was really close to what I wanted to create.

 

-What do you feel makes Retrobrew Magazine unique in terms of both aesthetic and content?

I tried to make sure everything in Retrobrew cannot be found online already. It focuses 100% on up-and-coming games that are either unannounced or are flying under the radar. I treat the magazine more like a “catalog of upcoming releases”, and avoid opinion pieces.

The digital version is pretty unique. I tried to channel the visual style of Game Shrines and NES Fan-Sites of the late 90s. It’s very image-heavy, with animated gifs all over the place. It celebrates the pixel art of the games it covers, in all their big chunky glory.

I also commissioned an original comic book, inspired by the Zelda & Metroid comics in Nintendo Power. The story is reminiscent of the 90s cartoon Captain N, where kids are sucked into their NES and need to survive in the worlds of their favorite homebrew games.

 

-Who are your influences? And whose work are you watching closely now?

2 of the magazines I really like are Retro Gamer Magazine and Cool Shit Magazine. Both are gaming magazines focused on retro gaming. Where RETROBREW is laser focused on homebrew, these magazines are much broader in their coverage, and much closer to a traditional gaming magazine.

 

-Retrobrew Magazine includes teasers and news about a host of upcoming games. How do you decide what to include? What jumps out at you? Do you have a preference between the types of games you want to cover?

It’s really all about what I find interesting, and what I think other people might not know about. Pio Pow (the cover story for issue #1) was a bit of a catalyst for getting the magazine started actually. The creator of that game reached out to me for advice on finding a publisher, and asked for feedback on the game itself. I suddenly had nearly-exclusive access to a finished, extremely polished homebrew, and the magazine was built around that centerpiece.

 

-What to you are the essentials to making a magazine such as Retrobrew Magazine compelling reading?

I’m still figuring that out! I think the key part is to keep the content 100% focused on homebrew. I’m not interested in competing with the larger magazines out there, so I need to make sure every single page is of interest to my audience.

 

-What is your favorite section of the magazine?

I think the coverage of Pio Pow is probably the part I’m most proud of. It really hits the target I set with the magazine: to feel like a late 90s game shrine, celebrating the videos and character of the game. On top of that I lucked out that the developer, Jeremias, is a fantastic graphic artist and was willing to create a custom cover image for the magazine. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to pull that off for every issue…

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Screenshot from Piopow by Jeremias Babini

 

-How do you obtain the information you publish? Do you reach out to people or do your own research?

I already had a relationship with pretty much every developer covered in the magazine. I’ve been following their work, and in some cases having private conversations about what’s going on behind the scenes with development. When it came to publishing the magazine, it was more about asking permission to share some of the work sent to me in private, and getting formal descriptions of some of the features, release dates, etc. It was all pretty organic.

 

-What qualities do you look for when choosing someone to publish your magazine?

Everything is self-published, but I used 2 main companies. For Print I used a company called “MagCloud”. I choose them because they do “print on demand”, meaning when you order a copy of the magazine it is printed right then and shipped shortly after. This means that I don’t need to pre-order a bunch of copies and sit on any stock. I also don’t have to do any of the shipping myself. On top of that, they use printers local to the person who ordered the magazine, reducing shipping costs and time.

For the digital version I used “Flipsnack”. I chose them because they allowed me to do the mix of animated and static media that I was really after. They have a free version you can check out, but you will likely need to upgrade to a paid account for most serious efforts to make a commercial product.

 

-What is the breakdown of your magazine’s physical versus digital viewership?

It’s almost exactly 50/50. Feedback for both has been really positive. People seem to really love the animated nature of the digital version, and on the physical side people seem to just enjoy getting a gaming magazine delivered to their doors again.

 

-Retrobrew Magazine generally serves as an evangelist for the retro gaming community, sharing support and enthusiasm for the games that interest you. Would you ever cover a game that didn’t excite you just because it was garnering a fair amount of attention? Are there any controversial subjects in the retro game collecting world that you would want to discuss in Retrobrew Magazine at some point?

I think I’m going to really try hard to stick with only covering games I personally care about. Once I start covering everything, I think the magazine loses some integrity. I want people to know that every game covered is going to be something special, and the only measure I can really use is was I think is cool. Obviously that’s subjective, but at least it will be somewhat consistent.

I would never be tempted to cover a hugely popular game, as that’s kind of the opposite of what I’m trying to do (bring attention to unknown games).

In regards to covering controversial subjects, I’m not against it really, but I am against injecting too much opinion in the magazine. I don’t really know why, but I want RETROBREW to have an almost entirely a positive tone. It’s about stuff to get excited about!

 

-Did anything you learned from working on your magazine meaningfully change your thinking about any aspect of retro game collecting or the homebrew scene?

Not really. I think this experience was a lot less about growing and learning myself, and more about sharing what I know and love about the homebrew scene with the world. I have heard from a lot of people from outside the homebrew world, who maybe grew up with Nintendo Power and are getting exposed to the homebrew scene for the first time. That’s really cool.

 

-Did your direction or focus change at all between initial planning and putting the first issue together?

Not a ton to be honest. I had some pages that cut. Originally I was going to do a big collage of the NESdev weekly art challenge happening on the NESdev discord. I was also really hoping to do a short tutorial of Retro Puzzle Marker. But in both those cases I just couldn’t put together a layout I was happy with, so I cut them. I definitely learned that have a great art content is key to making a pleasing layout. I’m not very artist myself, so I rely on the devs to supply great stuff that lets their games shine.

 

-What was the most surprising thing you discovered while making Retrobrew Magazine?

It took a lot longer than I expected. I was thinking originally it might take a week or so, but it ended up being months of work. I guess that’s something that changed after initial planning. Originally I imagined the magazine being much simpler. Each page would just be a collection of screenshots and gifs, with a title at the top. But as I continued to work on it, I felt like that wasn’t go enough, especially for print, and spent a LOT of time of layouts.

 

-If you could go back in time, knowing everything you know now, would you do anything different with your first issue?

I would be more careful with my spending. I experimented with advertising on Twitter, but it wasn’t worth it at all. I also spent more than I needed to on Flipsnack, which ate into my profits.

I learned a lot about layouts, designing for print, etc., but I think that’s just stuff you need to go through to learn. Next issue should hopefully go smoother.

 

-Are there any homebrew games in development that you are excited to play?

Yah for sure. Everything I covered in RETROBREW! Beyond that I’m especially excited for Alwa’s Awakening, Full Quiet, Halcyon, Orange Island, and probably a bunch of others I’m forgetting about. I’m really hoping to hear more about Genesis and SNES homebrew though, so if you know of any great ones coming up, let me know!

 

-Speaking of homebrew games, how is From Below Pocket coming along? Any other projects you’re willing to talk about at the moment?

From Below Pocket is very close to entering Beta. I just a few more lingering tasks, and then I’ll start the process of testing and getting a physical version up for sale. I think I will likely put out From Below NES again at the same time, so if you missed the original release, you’ll hopefully have another shot.

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Teaser for From Below Pocket

I’ve also started a new NES game project for the 2022 NESdev Compo called “Blades of the Lotus”. It’s a side scrolling platformer, reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden, Vice Project Doom, and Shadow of the Ninja. It’s super early, but I think it’s going to be pretty cool!

 

-I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me and share your experiences. Is there anything else you would like to tell readers and fans?

If you are working on a homebrew game, please reach out! Especially game on systems other than Game Boy and NES. I’m out of the loop on the other consoles, so I would love to learn what’s in the works out there, and hopefully find some more games to cover in Issue #2 of RETROBREW!

 

 

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Dave Allwein-Mali’s Cash

@familybits1

-Before we get into your new magazine, Mali’s Cash, I would love to talk about you and your background. Tell me more about yourself.

Well as you know, my name is Dave, though a lot of people know me by the name fcgamer. I was born in the mid-eighties, and by chance, my older (step) cousins had introduced my brother and I to the NES. As I can remember, I had gone up to the bedroom to play NES with my cousins, and I thought it seemed really amazing. My brother, who is five years older than me, thought that the NES was some sort of music machine, and he had no interest in it. I then went back downstairs and somehow managed to convince him into coming upstairs to play as well, and we would then ultimately get a NES machine for Christmas. Ironically enough, this is honestly my first memory on this green earth, as I was only three years old when the whole ordeal occurred.

Unlike many children, my parents never really wanted us to sell our previous gaming machines to raise quick funds to purchase a newer machine. Doing chores and receiving good marks on our report cards at school allowed us to purchase games occasionally, and we’d also generally get something for birthdays and Christmas.

Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, my family was pretty strait-laced, and as there wasn’t a lot going on, gaming was a very important aspect of our lives as kids. With the NES, we never stopped playing it, and then by 1998 or 1999 a Funcoland moved into a strip mall in a small city near us. My parents had been taking dance lessons there, and so my brother and I would always tag along and purchase these old games, primarily for the Nintendo, and then we’d wait out the rest of the time for my parents to finish up their lessons by eating pizza and drinking Mountain Dew at a nearby pizza shop. This was when my interest in collecting NES games came about, though by the time college came about, I sold off most of my collection, aside from my favorites and my childhood games, to purchase CDs and later, beer.

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A true 90s destination

 

-What about retro gaming and the homebrew scene in particular resonates so strongly with you?

I never ever stopped playing these old (Nintendo) games, aside from a very dark period in the mid-nineties when we couldn’t get our NES games to run due to faulty pin connectors and dirty games. We were forced to play SNES, or we had to do without games. I think this has actually subconsciously made me have little interest in the SNES now, and it might also be one reason why I much prefer the Famicom console’s overall design. But yeah, these games have always just been a part of my life.

As for the homebrew scene, as I had maintained a website back then, I remember when all of this first started! I was actually on the list to purchase a Garage Cart, but I backed out for one reason or another. Knowing where the scene had started, and watching it as it has grown into what it is now – it blows my mind, honestly.

Additionally, I view the homebrew and indie games now as a form of art. We have people making chiptune music albums, and then there are others working tirelessly attempting to create games that push the graphics capabilities of the gaming machine. On the other hand, I also remember there being some contests in the earlier days of homebrew NES games, where the idea was to create a game within a very limited amount of memory. In this way I can draw parallels between the homebrew scene and the art / music scenes, in which I’m also involved, wherever I am living. It’s a lot of fun meeting others that have a passion and interest in your hobby, and I like supporting these types of people anyway that I can.

 

-Do you feel there is any particular phenomena driving the nostalgia for retro games? Is there something inherent in what Nintendo, Sega, or others did during these old consoles’ lifespans that is having this effect? Or is it simply that our generation, having grown up with these games, is excited over something that was a big part of that moment in our lives, and we could just as easily be nostalgic for something else?

Story time! It’s a bit anecdotal, but I have three stories to share from here in Taiwan, and I think this can demonstrate how these games really are something special.

For the first several years after moving to Taiwan, I didn’t have a smart phone, so I’d always carry my old Game Boy Color in my bag, so that I’d have something to do when riding the bus or while on break at work. Anyways, one day, some of my fifth and sixth grade ESL students had seen me playing my Game Boy Color, and they all crowded around. I finally let one of them have a turn, and before long, everyone was taking a turn playing. A few of these kids even had smart phones with games, but they all wanted to play my Game Boy Color, and if I didn’t bring it, they were disappointed. This was back around 2014 or 2015, and the kids were born probably around 2002 or so. Needless to say, my mind was blown.

Then in 2018, I had the opportunity to meet up with the former owner of a game clone company. His company used to make clone machines, though they’d also extensively hack some of the classic NES games, such as the original Mario Bros., which they had turned into a “game” titled Roge Brer. I asked the boss if he enjoyed gaming himself as well as why he had decided to hack the classic NES games to release them as updated, “new” games. While the boss was ultimately motivated by money, he said that the classics all still hold the test of time and are fun for kids, and that his reason for updating them was just so that the kids who had these clones as opposed to the modern games, could still feel as though they fit in with their richer peers.

Finally, I was at a cultural antique market just today. I ran into a guy that had a stand dedicated to classic games, primarily Famicom. Before I knew it, a pair of brothers, aged about three and five, came over with their mother and they asked to play, settling on Mario Bros., Twin Bee, and F-1 Race, and they really seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Unlike earlier home console machines, such as the Atari 2600 and Colecovision, the games developed for the original Nintendo and Sega Master System, and subsequent machines, although dated, still look quite nice. The enemies, characters, and backgrounds are mostly recognizable for what they are, and then of course with the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, things become even clearer. Combine this factor with the initial, inherent simplicity of the games compared to modern offerings, and it is no wonder why everyone is feeling nostalgic for these games.

 

-What kind of collector are you?

Beginning my collecting adventure in the late nineties, I’m a product of the times, where there’s no way of collecting aside from that of the so-called “full set”. After collecting more or less a complete Famicom full set, I eased up on the rules, and while I still have the full set mentality in mind when purchasing gaming machines, it’s not something that I actively chase anymore.

These days my larger focus is on collecting Taiwan-region games and homebrew games. For the Taiwanese games, I am not concerned about whether they are licensed or bootlegs, rather were they produced specifically for the Taiwanese market or not. I’m quite interested in the gaming landscape over here, as it sits somewhere between the Japanese and American landscapes, and my collection sort of illustrates this. As for the homebrew games, it’s just always so exciting to be playing a new game that was made for one of the older machines.

 

-In addition to Mali’s Cash, you’ve published the guide that accompanies Hungry Ghost Night, the book that accompanies your own game Hot Pot Runs, and Family Bits. What was the inspiration for those projects, and how did your company ITG Soft come about?

Let’s tackle these in chronological order, and therefore we must start with Family Bits. I moved to Taiwan in 2011 for work, and I quickly ended up fired from my job, through no fault of my own. Worried about my visa expiring and getting kicked out of the country, I ended up taking a job in a small town situated along the coast of western Taiwan. I didn’t speak any Mandarin Chinese, and even if I did, most of those people also throw a lot of the local language (Taiwanese) into their speech. As a result, I started becoming very nostalgic for my past, and this led to me asking one of my colleagues if she could help me purchase a Famicom machine to entertain myself on weekends and weeknights.

One thing led to another, but I quickly realized that the games we westerners used to refer to as “Hong Kong originals” were actually mostly developed and manufactured in Taiwan. My interest in gaming from pre-2004 started creeping back into me, and I then decided that I would try to collect all of the unlicensed and bootleg Famicom games. The only problem was that all of the sources I could find online were horribly incomplete. This ultimately led to me creating my own lists, which I shared with other collectors, though I always felt that these games deserved their own guide. The project went through many transformations and was canceled multiple times, but then just last year I realized that I could make the project viable, and I just recently released the first volume.

I guess it was towards the end of 2018 when ITG-Soft was born, and it was a whole string of events that led to the whole company forming.

I guess one could say that the tale actually started back in 2016. That July I had switched jobs and moved to downtown Taichung, as things had taken a turn for the worse at the job I had been working for the past five years. Basically a new manager had been hired, and she had brought her own crew to teach some of the hours, giving them preferential treatment and leaving me with fewer teaching hours (and less pay), as well as the less desirable shifts and classes. I hate to sound crude but as the owner of the school had been shagging the manager, he couldn’t care less about the treatment until I left; shortly afterwards the manager quit as well as her buddies, and the school had trouble finding reliable teachers. One of my former colleagues actually mentioned that the owner’s daughter wondered why they let me walk, but it was too late to get me back as I had not only switched jobs, but had also moved an hour away to downtown, to be closer to the woman I had been seriously dating at that time. After the move, things wouldn’t work out between us either, but there’s no need to get into that.

The point is that when I moved, I rented a post office box at a post office near the school where I now work. In those days I frequently bought games online from local sellers, but as I had just moved, I wasn’t buying anything as I didn’t have time to update my shipping address. Lo and behold, one day a random parcel showed up in my P.O. box. The incident was strange enough as I hadn’t ordered anything, but to make matters even odder, the parcel had contained a copy of Super Mario Kart, for the Super Famicom, along with around $12 worth of money.

I was never a big fan of the original Super Mario Kart game, so it wasn’t something I would have ordered anyway. As Taiwanese can be a bit superstitious, when I got home, I added up the money and it turned out to be something like 331 or 311 or something. It really freaked me out as after looking the number up, it was supposed to be some sort of angel number. For the rest of the night I felt a strange presence in my apartment and even the cat was weirded out, I slept with the lights on that night. Later I looked up the return address of the game and according to Google Maps, it was located at a cemetery.

This whole incident reminded me of another creepy story that I had been warned about. When giving money in Taiwan at weddings or for Chinese New Year, the money is placed inside a red envelope. I was told never to pick up a red envelope lying on the ground in the street, as likely the envelope would contain some money, along with fingernail clippings and locks of hair. The catch is that these items came from a young, unmarried woman, who had died an untimely death. By picking up the envelope, you are unknowingly agreeing to marry the woman and generally the daughter’s parents would be hiding around the location to wait and watch if any passersby picked up the envelope or not. A wedding would then be held with a picture of the deceased woman and the man, and I found the whole thing to be quite unsettling, especially as it still occurs in some rural areas of the island.

Because of these incidents, I decided that I wanted to create a Nintendo game based around the theme of Chinese horror. The idea was that the protagonist would pick up a red envelope and be forced to marry a ghost bride, but he makes an agreement with her parents that if he avenges her death, he is left off the hook. I contacted Frankengraphics about doing the game, as she does amazing pixel art, but she was really backed up on her schedule, and for the kind of money we were talking, between graphics and finding someone else for programming, it just wasn’t going to happen. I then thought about trying to do it as part of a Kickstarter campaign to go along with my Family Bits book, in a similar way to Jeffrey Wittenhagen and the Black Box Challenge game, but again, I was struggling to create an appealing video to pitch my Bits book, so I just scrapped the whole idea entirely.

Sometime in the autumn of 2018, I heard about NES Maker, and after watching a few videos, decided that this might be the way to feasibly create the game I had initially conceptualized in 2016 / 2017 about the red envelope. I was certainly late to the NES Maker party, but I guess I still joined earlier than a lot of people.

After watching some of the tutorial videos that Joe Granato had done for the different NES Maker modules, I decided against making the Red Envelope game, and I instead opted to do a shooter. To be honest, platformer NES games are easily my favorite genre of all time. I grew up playing the greats, such as Castlevania, Marios, Mega Mans, the Disney games, etc. The platformer module just didn’t look like it was where it needed to be to create a game that I would be personally happy with, and something like a shooter just seemed like it would be less complex to make, i.e. you just dodge obstacles and shoot planes. I still needed a theme though, and without much deep thought Cross Straight Independence was decided upon.

Going into the game, I knew it wasn’t going to be good by any means. When I had first entered university in 2004, I had studied to be a comp sci major. This was my first experience with programming and I had a lot of trouble wrapping my head around java and C++, so I eventually switched my field of study after about a year and a half. As such, although I had some knowledge about how to break down “problems” and “think” like a programmer, it was very basic, and in terms of assembly, I had no knowledge at all. So I might have had a slight leg up in this department compared to some people who were going in completely blind, but it wasn’t a huge advantage either.

In a similar manner, I had been classically trained in piano, and also play guitar and had learnt music theory as it relates to guitar and songwriting, in part thanks to a personal friend of mine who is also a professional musician. That being said, although I love playing music, I am not a *great* musician either – the only reason I have the skill I have is because I’ve been muddling through it for over fifteen years. Also, I never did anything relating to chiptune music in my life, and I don’t play drums or any rhythmic instrument.

Finally, although I’ve been quite into creating art and painting abstracts over the past five years, I am not a great artist by any means, which is why I focus on abstracts. Are you starting to see a pattern here? Due to my knowledge and interest in art, music, and programming, I knew I could make something that didn’t look or sound half bad, but it was destined to be average at best, right out of the gate.

Since around 2014, China has been getting a lot more aggressive towards Taiwan. I’m not particularly a political person, but Taiwan is a free, safe country, and genuinely a nice place to live. Over the years my dislike towards China’s politics has grown, as I suddenly have a dog in the race. It’s not a good feeling to be teaching a class of five-year-old children how to read, when you suddenly hear fighter jets flying overhead, for example. After almost a decade of this sort of unnecessary aggressive behavior, it was quite easy for me to decide upon creating a shooting game where the locals try to prevent an invasion.

When I first had the idea to make a game myself, I knew I wouldn’t be able to compete with experienced developers, the likes of Sivak, KHAN, etc. in terms of quality, and it was then that I realized I would need to take a different approach to make the game memorable. And so I decided to make the game as ridiculous as I could, basically also as a nod to the notorious Super Nintendo Hong Kong ‘97 game.

I sketched out a title screen of the leader of both Taiwan and China facing off against each other, with the island nation centered between them. I believe I had also started working on the first stage, and I took a few screenshots and shared them with OptOut a month or so later, when we had met for a boys trip up to Taipei one weekend. I remember we had talked about the game and some things relating to the game and the feelings of the time. Here were a few of the things we had discussed at length, while on the train and at the station.

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Screenshot from Never Say Die/Cross-Strait Independence by ITG Soft

As I’m sure you remember, it was around 2019 that NES Maker finally started coming into the public’s eye, and there was a lot of discussion about the utility at that time. A lot of the old-time developers seemed to have felt threatened by the tool, as obviously it would lower the bar of entry into the homebrew / indie market, and as we both can attest to now, with so many games coming out now (made from scratch, by NES Maker, etc.), it is almost impossible to purchase everything, or even track down everything. I felt the hatred and fear towards NES Maker was unfair, as I was around and remember when people first started making homebrew NES games back in the Solar Wars days, and while it wasn’t until 2010 or so when some of the games actually started being sold in any decent numbers, commercially, some of those games were...well...simplistic. I don’t mean any disrespect towards anyone, but if a company such as American Video Entertainment or Color Dreams had done the game, as opposed to someone from within the community, I honestly believe some of the titles would have been viewed negatively.

What does this have to do with NES Maker, you might ask? I’m one of those guys that understands that sticking something out long enough just to finish the project can be a big accomplishment in and of itself. So I felt it was unfair that some developers were trying to raise the expectations or standard to a level beyond what they had been creating when they got in, as I believe everyone needs to start somewhere, and hopefully projects get better as people get more experienced.

OptOut didn’t think the fear that NES Maker would pollute the pool of homebrew NES with garbage titles to be warranted, as it would require a lot of time, money and dedication that most people wouldn’t have, if they were truly just after a cash grab. Either way, I wanted to distance my game from NES Maker due to the whole controversy.

The other big thing that had been discussed was any potential safety issue relating to the game. Although it sounds silly to talk about it, politics in the mainland are quite serious, and China tends to go off the deep end over anything that tarnishes their image. My family back home were against the creation of the game full stop, for fears that I would “disappear”. Furthermore, I do have some collector friends on the mainland, I mean, the game was going to be quite provocative, and I really didn’t want to have trouble from that angle either. The girl I was dating at the time also wasn’t fond of it, though it was more about using the Taiwanese president’s image in the game, without permission. Taiwan has some odd laws relating to defamation and privacy, so she thought I was just asking for trouble and might get sued. So even though the project wasn’t particularly serious, it was something I definitely didn’t want to risk putting my name on. Safety was definitely the number one concern though, and it seemed like a serious concern back then.

I figured that things would seem more legitimate if the game had a team of people credited in it, so I had come up with a whole team of people, and gave everyone a bit of a backstory. I was Kiki Wang of course, and Richard Miao was famously my cat Richard. I always wondered if anyone would actually stop and realize that Miao and Meow are the same. Although Richard Miao just worked in marketing and doing graphics or programming or whatever, he always had a “bad temper” and would start getting destructive if progress wasn’t made to his liking. Once my cat had bit one of my rare game boxes, and when OptOut found out about it, he mused something along the lines of “I told Richard Miao to do that, since you weren’t working as hard on the game as you should have been.” OptOut is even credited in the game, albeit again under a different name.

As for the company itself, I named it ITG-Soft, which although never mentioned, was short for Independent Taiwan Games Software. I imagined it to be situated near the one local university, which is situated near a night market, as well as a place known as “art street”, where there are some cafes and curio shops and things like that. I know this area quite well and am fond of the area, and always saw the devs of ITG being out of university, yet still young enough that they haven’t had their spirit broken by the cold, harsh realities of the working world, with ITG-Soft just being a fun project that they did on the side for hobbyist reasons. I guess in some ways, it was the mirror opposite of a lot of local friends here in Taiwan, who gave up on their dreams years ago.

I could go on forever discussing interesting tidbits and the thoughts that had gone through my mind, but I’ll spare you the details...for now, and I’ll try to focus primarily on a few interesting points regarding the first release and things directly afterwards. If there’s anything else that you’re particularly curious about, then feel free to ask!

As I mentioned earlier, CSI was quite a provocative game. In some of the stages, the player shoots down communist flags off of buildings. In the final Taipei stage, the player literally fights against a huge enemy that is literally just the Chinese characters which read “One country, two systems”, which of course is a reference to China and their failed system for ruling Hong Kong in a so-called democratic way. And at the end of that stage is the leader himself, depicted as Winnie the Pooh. His manhood is hanging out and that’s where the hit detection box is. When you shoot him in the groin, he smirks, before giving it a yank and continuing on with his attack. This would be seen as highly offensive, and I became so concerned about safety that when I sold the game locally, I changed the plot and removed all references to politics. I even changed the name of the “company” publishing the game, in an attempt to add distance from the projects.

As it was the first game I designed, Independence has a lot of design flaws. Ignoring issues with poor animations and what not, the stage designs are just too difficult for many, though as I had been playing the game constantly to test it, I couldn’t really gauge this. OptOut didn’t fare well at it, but he’s not particularly a NES gamer, so I couldn’t really judge if it was him or the game itself. So while the game is horrible in many ways, I have a soft spot for it in my heart.

The stages themselves are somewhat accurate of the actual topography of Taiwan. I did some research into possible invasion points too, and there are landmarks that can be recognized such as the lighthouse in Kenting, the Buddha in Changhua, and Taipei 101. Some of the non-offensive enemies are quite funny, culturally, such as the monkeys that spit betal nuts at the plane. Oh, and the music track of the first stage has ties to Taiwan too, as I had sampled it from a local expat band here, called the Peaks. The song I borrowed is titled “Bring the Devil Out”.

From a development standpoint, I had a lot of fun making the game. Sometimes I would play test it or work on the stages while at my day job, and my (former) students were really excited to help and watch, as any six-year-old would be. I added a lot of hidden paths in the game, and I even referenced this via the map in the instruction manual, though I doubt too many people actually found the secret path leading from Chiayi across Alishan Mountain, eventually having the hero approach Taipei from the East via the port at Keelung.

There’s also a warp at the beginning of the first stage, which takes you to the “tester’s” room. There are a bunch of secret messages and if you can find your way out of it, you’ll find yourself at the beginning of the final Taipei stage. As a child, I loved the idea of secret stages and brand new areas that were referenced somehow in the game, yet so obscure that they remained nothing more than rumors to most. So I had to do the same with this game, and I also added a few secret rooms to the Peace, Love, Trippy Club game, though not to the same extent as with Cross Strait Independence.

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Screenshot from Peace, Love, Trippy Club by ITG Soft

As I mentioned earlier, I paid a professional to do the artwork for the game. It’s funny, that artist and I run around in the same circles locally, but he’s quite eccentric, and can be hard work sometimes. I also paid another guy I know to advertise the game in a local magazine he publishes. The magazine is a bit offensive and controversial, so it was a perfect fit for the game. It was funny, I just wanted the guy, Ross, to design up an advert for me and I’d pay him – this guy loves making and editing videos and graphics and what not. Well, he insisted on me coming over to the school that he owns, one Monday evening. In reality, he is friends with the artist that did the box art, and he just wanted to see the original artwork as opposed to the low-res image.

So against my better judgment I had gone over, and we sat there, him rambling on and on about various conspiracy theories while designing up the advert. He also insisted on us drinking whiskey and as the hours dragged on, I had wanted to escape but I just couldn’t find a means of doing so. I finally got out at around 4 AM., and I overslept and made it into work about an hour before my lunch break. My manager was so angry, but as she is friends of Ross, I just told her to speak with him if she wanted details on the ordeal, and it smoothed things over. Oh and regarding the game, not once did anyone ever message inquiring to buy the game based on seeing the magazine advert.

When it came time to actually produce the game, I was once again diving into uncharted territory. I asked a Polish collector friend of mine to help design PCBs for me, and he did – the PCBs for all of my games are custom, only ITG-Soft uses them. As this guy is an engineer, I paid him in the form of old bootleg Famicom games, mostly non-functional carts. He enjoyed reverse-engineering the games, and then sometimes he was able to fix them and sell them or keep them. He even sent them back to me repaired one time.

Originally I wanted to buy Taiwanese components to build the games, so I went down to the old computer components district in my town but let me tell you, it was a ghost town. Aside from IC sockets (which I used to make a cartridge to test individual chips when making protos and demos), I couldn’t find any of the components I desired, and all of the guys were shocked I was even trying to find these parts anymore. Frustrated, I was delayed again, and the Polish friend then helped me find the components I needed on AliExpress, and I ordered them from there.

This wasn’t smooth sailing either though, as one of the orders had been canceled, and for another one of the orders, the seller shipped by private courier, despite me paying for local service. As a result, they couldn’t deliver the parcel to my P.O. Box, and so I had to drive my scooter all the way out to the science park area of the city, which is located in the middle of nowhere, to pick up the parcel directly from UPS or DHL or whoever it was. As for the order that was canceled, I found a local seller selling the item, but I had to buy it in bulk and I still have tons of stock that I’ll probably never use.

There used to be a toy store in my city, which had a lot of old stock from the nineties, and I cleared him out of good stuff years before I decided to make Independence. I went down there to buy the remaining junk Famiclone titles to harvest for their shells, and I did the same with the junk Sega bootlegs (for the cases). I bought him out of everything, and had about 100 pieces of each, but I had planned on doing a 200-piece run of CSI, so I figured I’d do 100 to begin, then after they sold, worry about sourcing more cartridges and boxes from somewhere. Then OptOut helped me print out the artwork and manual, and I took those proofs to the local print shop to make copies. Soon it would be time to start assembling these games.

I sold a few games on Nintendo Age and received payment, then that weekend I would try to assemble everything. I had never soldered before, so I was hoping I would even be able to do so, but at worst I figured I could pay someone locally to help me out. I watched some YouTube videos to learn how to solder, and then I attempted to assemble a cartridge. Tears filled my eyes when I powered the machine on and saw the title screen for my game on the television screen, and heard the music that I had composed coming from the TV. It all felt so surreal, I mean this was every boy’s dream, right?

As an aside though I will just mention that those times were weird times. Against my better intuition, I had been set up to date my good friend’s sister, and the woman I was seeing had decided to take a course on the weekends to get trained in architecture design. To make matters worse, the time we did have together was generally spent at the hospital as my friend’s mother has had serious health issues for the past ten years or so, and the problems had gotten really bad around the time that I was doing Independence. I guess I bring this all up as I think in some other way, Independence really was a coping mechanism for me, a way to deal with the stress in my life at that time. As my ex had taken the class late in the evening on Saturday nights, and the class was close to where I live, she’d always rather crash at mine than drive an hour back home. As a result, I couldn’t really travel or go out and do things, and then Sundays were spent traveling with the family to visit their mother in the hospital. Independence gave me something to focus on though, during those incredibly bleak times, and ironically enough I had a fight with the woman I was seeing the day I had fabricated the first copy of my game. I told her, “I’m having an amazing day and I’m not going to let anything get in the way of that”. Obviously she wasn’t happy by my cavalier attitude, and I felt really sad inside, as I had wanted to share my project with someone and I couldn’t really do so, but that’s just how things go sometimes. Things weren’t meant to be in that relationship for a lot of reasons, but she’s a great person and we managed to become friends, so it’s just one of those odd points that I think about whenever I remember making my first CSI cartridges.

In the end, I sold probably around fifteen or twenty copies of the Independence game, and I gave copies away to a few friends as well as my parents and brother. I actually kept track of who I was selling the games to, again for the sake of being able to track them should there be some sort of issue with safety, and IIRC, I only sold one single copy of the Never Say Die hack, it might have been to you or Neodolphino. No one had bought it locally. One of my local (former) collector friends had come across CSI at one point, and he and his friend had each wanted one, so I burned them each one, but somehow I had lost the final ROM of the game, so their copy is just near final, with one or two minor graphical changes.

That brings up one final point, in this legend. I honestly have no idea how you had gotten the impression that the game was out of print (and thus you marked it as such on the VGS list), but as far as I had been concerned, it still was in print, as I had planned on doing a run of 200 games. When I saw you had marked it as out of print, I decided to just go with it and let sleeping dogs lie, as the game was horrible, and I just wanted to remove all ties of myself to it, once again just for safety reasons, so that had given me an out. If someone really wanted one, they could get the censored version, and the other version would just be something of legends, a legend which you ironically enough had even contributed to.

That brings up one other point. I recognize that there might be some revived interest in these games, and as such I know that some people might want to own a copy of the game. On the other hand, with so few cartridges having been produced, and as a collector myself, I thought about the best way to handle the situation, and this is what I intend to do.

I plan to occasionally auction off “original print” versions of Independence in auctions for charity, along with other ITG-Soft games as a set. For example, I will throw a set of ITG-Soft games in the auction I am currently doing for donation to VGS, and I also plan on sending KHAN a set to auction for his NES Game a Thon fundraiser for Autism. On the other hand, I am never going to sell any more original print versions of the game for profit, for myself. For those who want a copy of the game, I am planning on doing a reissue, changing the copyright date, adding the missing cover to the manual, using brand new shells instead of recycled ones, possibly including an insert detailing the history of the game, etc.

Being on both sides of the coin, of wanting to play a homebrew game legally and not being able to purchase it, and also being a collector and watching as a game that I have paid $$$ for plummets in value, I think this is sort of the happy medium, and as for the charity bit, I’m definitely not rich working as an ESL teacher, but if I can help raise some money to help people and for good causes, then that makes me happy too.

I think that more or less sums up the story of Cross Strait Independence, and the early years at ITG-Soft. When I went into it, I thought it would be a one and done, or possibly a test project that would give me experience enough to create that Red Envelope game that I had wanted to do since 2016. The further I got along with Independence though, the more I realized that it would be a looooooooong ways off before I could create a game that met my personal expectations for Red Envelope. And that’s when I started playing around with other projects and ideas, with the hope of someday fulfilling the Red Envelope dream.

You might have noticed, but ITG-Soft’s slogan is “Simpler Times”, and I already explained to you the way that I imagined these characters saw life. In some ways I think I might also be just crying out for homebrew / indie gaming to get back to its roots. And Piss the Fish is an example of that.

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From ITG Soft’s homepage

Piss the Fish is weird, it’s silly, it’s stupid, and it’s slightly vulgar – but its artsy. I got the idea from when I noticed I was holding my Micro Genius Famiclone controller almost vertically, quite similar to a Wii remote, one evening while playing a game. Peace, Love, Trippy Club was also a bit vulgar, but it tried to push the envelope, in terms of sexuality, drug use, etc. With Hungry Ghost Night one got the guide, plus there were two totally different games released at the same time. Dragon Boat Fest was a holiday-themed game.

Even some of the ideas that haven’t made it yet to fruition are out there somewhat. I have a quiz game planned that I might try to do for the NES Maker contest this September. Basically Richard Miao is the host and he quizzes you in radical facts based around felines. The Hot Pot Runs game my brother and I are doing, it was supposed to be the way that I could “go legit” and start doing some games away from ITG-Soft. It had the novel to go with, which documented the “creation” of the game that people were playing. I even have a murder mystery game planned, and I’ve been trying to collaborate with a friend from Argentina and a bodybuilder buddy from New York to do some chiptune albums, as well as some custom mini-games. Oh, and although it never happened (at least not yet), another idea I had was titled “Taiwan in Pixels”, basically each cartridge is a photo album from a single region in Taiwan. I might actually revisit that one and sell it with the Taiwanese snack boxes that my friend and I sell.

I guess what I am trying to say is the following: NES homebrew has very humble beginnings, which I try to showcase and dive into when I write my homebrew history articles for my Mali’s Cash magazine. I remember when Chris Covell first put up instructions on how to burn Solar Wars onto a game cartridge, I was on the list for a Garage Cart when Memblers was selling them (though backed out at the last moment, I was just a poor teenager). When I received an email about Hot Logic, I just about shit myself, it looked amazing compared to any homebrew games previously, and then there was that amazing-looking NeoToxin game, or the forgotten Time Conquest that had always intrigued me.

By now, we have ex-programmers from back in the day using Kickstarter as a means of presenting ideas and gathering capital to create commercial-level NES homebrew / indie games. From a gaming standpoint, I absolutely love this, as I get to experience more amazing games designed for my favorite gaming machine. On the other hand though, I sometimes do miss the quirkiness and originality of the earlier homebrew, where creators didn’t have to worry about pleasing backers and had free reign to experiment and make games how they saw fit. In some ways, I guess ITG-Soft is a nod to those times. We’re always looking to do something out of the box or slightly controversial, for the sake of having fun, seeing where things lead, and going back to earlier times.

Regarding Hot Pot Runs: Originally, I didn’t even intend to make a game for it, rather it was just to be a book. Over the years, I’ve read a lot of novels and literature, as it came with my studies as an English major. That being said, two books that have oddly stood out to me were Herman Wouk’s The Lawgiver and Thomas Glavinic’s Das bin doch ich.

I had read Das bin doch ich years ago, I am not sure if it was ever translated into English or not; however, I found the book to be oddly entertaining, as we followed the author and his attempt to get his book onto the short list of books. Actually, I had read the book back in 2008, so I am really stretching my memory about the plot, though I remember that I had really enjoyed the book. As for the other book, my father had left The Lawgiver at my apartment after visiting me in Taiwan, and after many months of it just sitting there, I had picked it up and fell in love with the book immediately. If you read that book, you can see that I completely stole the format when creating Hot Pot Runs, and I guess one could argue that these books both are just a modern form of the epistolary novel, i.e. Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

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From the game’s accompanying book (or rather the book that accompanies the game)

Anyways, I think in terms of gaming companies, we always tend to romanticize companies such as Active Enterprises. Even today, people suggest that the company was just one or two guys creating games out of their basement, though it was a much larger organization then that. The same could be said for Color Dreams, Sachen, or likely any of the independent gaming companies from the NES era.

Hot Pot Runs is therefore a direct tribute to the romanticized idea of the two or three entrepreneurs with the get rich quick plan of creating a kick-ass triple A game title, despite not knowing anything about games or game development. I wanted to make sure that all of the characters in the story had their own voices, so I made an email account for each character, and then my brother and I corresponded over the course of several months, to create the story. We even had a few Google Meets calls and transcribed everything. You might see some mistakes in the emails, either grammatical or spelling, but I left them in as it creates a sense of realism as people sometimes do make mistakes when corresponding via email or whatever.

My brother actually wasn’t onboard with the project at all, initially, but I eventually was able to bring him around and then he had a blast!

We decided to do a Hot Pot Runs game simply as a tribute to those in the gaming community. It’s sort of like if a movie or book features a fictional product, and then the item is eventually produced. I know that the Hot Pot Runs game is not particularly good, which is why we are only selling it to those who have bought (and hopefully read) the book, but then again, Raj did a terrible job with the game in the book, so if the real game was an amazing title...well that would be a whole different issue. So it’s just a fun item for the fans.

 

-What first inspired you to launch a magazine? What is the origin story of Mali’s Cash, and how did you decide on the name?

Unbeknownst to me, everything happened around May or June last year. COVID-19 had finally reached Taiwan, although not to the same extent as it had the rest of the world; however, I will never forget that fateful Tuesday afternoon. My supervisor came into the classroom and said to me, “After you go home today, don’t come back for two weeks, no pay. Enjoy your holiday.” Two weeks then turned into four, and before long, we were all wondering how we were going to pay the rent and bills. I guess I shouldn’t complain, as we had it easier than many people in the States or elsewhere, but I was out of work for about three months, unpaid, and as a foreigner, the government had also hung me out to dry, refusing to offer me the same assistance that the locals had. These were very dark times, and my average day went something like this. I’d wake up around ten o’clock, and I’d lift weights for an hour. Then I’d walk half a mile to the supermarket and purchase a six-pack of beer, or maybe a bottle of wine or spirits if I were feeling particularly low. I’d snag any frozen pizzas, bags of french fries, or bags of chicken nuggets that I could find, then head to a second supermarket to load up on more frozen provisions. Afterwards I’d head home and talk to my mother via the internet before taking another nap. I’d wake up again around eight at night and call my parents and brother again, before going to bed sometime in the wee hours of the morning. Aside from any brief interaction at the shops, the only human contact I had during this time was a cat, and well...oops, he’s a cat, hahaha.

Although I didn’t realize it then, this situation had a profound effect on me. I realized that even after working for a school for six years, despite having my visa tied to this school – well, when push came to shove, they wouldn’t be there to help me, if circumstances had turned out poorly. If you’re interested in my experiences, I wrote a memoir about it titled Always a Painted Smile.

These experiences had led me to start thinking about my future and what I had wanted to do, and I decided that I wanted to focus more on writing, something that I had enjoyed back when I was in university. Sometime around January or February this year, I had been taking the above-ground subway in the city to link up with the main train station, and from there I had planned to head south and go game hunting. I was chatting with an American friend of mine from Buffalo, and I told him that I wanted to do a print magazine about unlicensed, pirated, and homebrew video games. He sort of laughed, and then told me that if anyone had the contacts to pull it off, I did.

A few weeks later I was in a junk shop and I heard a familiar voice on the radio. Apparently Avril Lavigne had released a new album, and it sounded basically the same as her older albums. I was dumbfounded, I mean this is 2022, right? It was at that point that I sat down and decided to make Mali’s Cash a reality.

As for the name, that’s a whole other story. Originally I was just going to run copies out at the local print shop, and then cut and assemble them myself, in an attempt to make the magazine feel really underground. To keep with the vibe I decided to use the name “Mali”, which is a romanization of the Chinese word for Mario. In my mind, I had the idea of the ugly “fortran” Mario from the bootleg TV Mario game as being some sort of unofficial mascot for the magazine. As for the cash part, I thought it sounded a bit edgy, but admittedly enough there’s a female character in a Hong Kong drama I like who is named Cash. The drama translates into something as Hitman or Killer, and it is quite action-packed. I thought the two words sounded quite good together, and the rest is history.

 

-What do you feel makes Mali’s Cash unique in terms of both aesthetic and content?

I think to start a print magazine now is quite a difficult undertaking, and therefore it is critical to create a unique personal brand. For me, I really wanted to use a lot of bright colors in the magazine, such as “hot” pink and green, as perhaps I wanted to invoke either a punky feel or an eighties / nineties feel. As for the writers, well of course they are avatars for real people, and I’m the lion guy, Renny Lions, though I’m not from Brisbane, nor do I smoke, but I wanted to create a bit of an edgy feel to the magazine. Maybe this goes back to my days of undergrad studying English lit and determining hidden meanings.

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Oh hello Renny, rawr

As for content, I’m trying to draw from several different angles, namely homebrew / indie games, bootleg / unlicensed games, and Asian culture. My goal is to write about niche genres that I think other people will find interesting. If I can get more people to become interested in homebrew games, for example, it would be a dream of mine, as more support generally equates to more projects, and the fact that I know a lot of these folks in one way or another is just gravy on the top.

 

-Mali’s Cash includes reviews, teasers, and news about a host of games, as well as cultural pieces centered around Asia, and Taiwan more specifically. How do you decide what to include? What jumps out at you? Do you have a preference between the types of games you want to cover? What about Taiwan and your experiences are you hoping to share with others?

Let’s address Taiwan first. From a gaming standpoint, I see it as being a wildcard, lying somewhere between Japan and the States. For example, about one third to one half of the NES game library was never released in Japan; however, it was released in Taiwan, albeit as bootleg versions. The brightest Taiwanese often go abroad to live and work, yet they maintain ties to the island. I know many people here who have relatives living in California or Texas or wherever. As a result, I guess some of these people were related to the gaming industry, and brought back North American exclusives to Taiwan, where they were copied and then released unofficially.

Then there are the official items, such as that Pokémon-themed 7-11. There’s also a product being sold here at the convenience stores where it is herbs or plants, which grow in Pokémon-themed planters. I even have a few official Pokémon displays that were never released in Japan or the west.

Taiwan will never be the gaming mecca that Japan is, though it comes in second place. We get a lot of official merchandise from Japan, but we get the best from the States as well. This is what I want to share.

There’s a stationary shop near me, for example, and it has PC keyboards for sale, including one decorated with Snorlax and another with Pikachu. These are official items, released for this region by Pokémon / Game Freaks themselves. I think it’s so neat seeing these things.

For the articles, I try to include things that will interest others. That’s why we’re doing a three-part special on Mario hacks – I always found these games to be interesting, even back in 1999 or 2000. As for the homebrew games, I want to cover those which I personally found interesting, for one reason or another, as well as those that I find to be culturally significant. Let’s take Solar Wars: it’s not the type of game that I generally play, but to me, it is the most significant homebrew NES game, historically. Garage Cart would be number two, and then for three and four, I’d throw Hot Logic and Sudoku in there somewhere.

 

-What to you are the essentials to making a magazine such as Mali’s Cash compelling reading?

Don’t make it dry! With my Family Bits books, I am trying to be objective as an encyclopedia, but for Mali’s Cash, I hope to be a bit more subjective.

We also decided to latch onto things such as the Super Jeff – if you respond to the advert, you’ll get a response, lol, and the name should look very familiar to a certain someone in Hot Pot Runs.

My dream is to make the magazine both fun and informative, something that the gaming mags of yesteryear were.

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Cover from Family Bits

 

-What is your favorite section of the magazine?

Oh that’s an easy one, definitely the Sachen horoscopes! Sachen had made a horoscope “game” and released it on one of their multicarts. Basically what I do is I run each sign through the game, take the message, and then we add a bit of flare to make it unique. I know it’s really silly, but who knows, maybe one of these readings will resonate with someone and lead to something big!

 

-How do you obtain the information you publish? Do you reach out to people or do your own research?

Honestly, we do both. I learned long ago that without the assistance from others, it is sometimes unfortunately too easy to overlook something or get all trapped up in one’s own personal thoughts and opinions. Due to this, we do our own research though we also reach out to others hoping that we can make Mali’s Cash a top-tier magazine on the market.

 

-What qualities do you look for when choosing someone to publish your magazine?

For us, the biggest factor is a publisher that grants us the freedom to write about the things that we desire. For example, a lot of publishers refuse to publish books or magazines that include articles on bootleg games. Although I don’t condone bootleg games, I personally feel that there is a difference between providing links to modern PS5 bootlegs, and bootlegs from thirty or forty years ago, which are being discussed primarily for historical purposes.

I take a similar stance with bad language and nudity. I’m definitely against censorship, but similarly, I realize and recognize that some people, my brother included, don’t enjoy f-bombs or naked bodies. Therefore I am trying to toe that line, where I can please everyone. I want a publisher that allows me to post a few racy pictures, if necessary, though similarly I am trying to create something that is appropriate for everyone. I know that these two objectives may be at odds with each other, but I am trying to meet somewhere in the middle.

 

-Do you have any interest in offering a digital edition of the magazine in addition to its printed format?

You know what, I’m honestly not a fan of digital at all. For starters, the very idea of a print magazine is somewhat nostalgic in and of itself. It’s sort of like creating a homebrew and wowing people by breaking out original hardware, versus playing a modern game that was designed to “look” retro. Having a magazine that covers new games for old machines, yet is digital, just doesn’t do anything for me at all, personally, as the idea behind Mali’s Cash is two-fold, namely that content, but secondary that I believe physical media is going to be making a comeback within the next ten years or so.

Never say never though about a digital version of Mali’s Cash – if it did show up digitally, it would definitely be exclusively for monetary gain; I guess I’d be selling myself out to my constituents giving them what they wanted and going against my personal tastes, just for money. Hopefully it doesn’t get to that point, but who knows!

 

-Mali’s Cash generally serves as an evangelist for the retro gaming community, sharing support and enthusiasm for the games that interest you. Would you ever cover a game that didn’t excite you just because it was garnering a fair amount of attention? Are there any controversial subjects in the retro game collecting world that you would want to discuss in Mali’s Cash at some point?

As I mentioned earlier, my coverage of Solar Wars in the first issue was not out of any personal interest, rather a decision spearheaded by historical significance. I have a feeling we are going to be going down this route again and again as the magazine progresses. I am trying to cover games and items that I think the readers will find exciting and interesting, while ignoring my own preferences.

Not game related, but it’s definitely a cultural point that I’ll be throwing in one of the later issues. There’s a chain of convenience stores here, originating from Japan, named Family Mart. Did you know that some of these stores have washing machines inside, where one can wash their clothes? In the same shop you can buy slabs of frozen meat, such as steaks, chicken breasts, etc. I’ve been away from home for way too long, so this doesn’t have the wow factor that it once did, but it’s honestly incredible, and who knows, maybe some entrepreneur with cash might read one of these articles and then bring the concept to the States.

About the controversial stuff, I think I mentioned earlier that the single deal breaker for me, in terms of a publisher, would be one that censored me. When I first envisioned Mali’s Cash, I saw it as some sort of tabloid, a rag that one might pick up near the till at a supermarket. At that point, I was still planning on just leasing a copy machine and printing the magazines myself, taking it truly underground from the safety of Taiwan.

I then decided to tone the magazine down a bit, around the time that I decided that I’d let others handle the printing and shipping. I still want to cover controversial topics in the magazine though. I’d love to talk about the whole sealed market, the NES Maker versus from scratch debate, dumping versus not dumping games, or even the concept of repros. On all of these issues, I’ve probably been on both sides of the debate, personally, and at the end of the day I think most of the arguments stem not from protecting one’s best interest, rather stem from one single thing: fear.

 

-Did anything you learned from working on your magazine meaningfully change your thinking about any aspect of retro game collecting or the homebrew scene?

A pivotal moment for me was when I decided to write Family Bits. I had posted a few sample images, and the text was a bit subjective, and while most people liked it, a single person told me that I should try to be more objective in my writing. This was influential to me, as it forced me to look critically at whole libraries of terrible games. I spent whole weekends playing games that were not to my liking at all, and to make matters worse, I had to write something about them afterwards!

How does this relate to Mali’s Cash? I guess it’s changed the way that I look at games as a whole. I’ve begun to look at games critically, trying to determine which games might be significant culturally and why. I then use this knowledge to help determine the games that I write about in the magazine, as I want to produce a magazine that is informative and interesting now, yet also has relevance in the future.

 

-Did your direction or focus change at all between initial planning and putting the first issue together?

Yeah, definitely! I decided to tone things down a bit to make the magazine more friendly for all audiences. Initially I wanted the magazine to be like a tabloid, and I had the idea to include a lot of trashy articles in each issue, though most of that got removed, aside from the Piss the Fish article and the Sachen horoscopes section. I’ll probably still reuse many of the initial ideas in later volumes of Mali’s Cash, but I’ll limit it to keep things fun for everyone.

 

-What was the most surprising thing you discovered while making Mali’s Cash?

Writer’s block is real, even for seasoned writers as myself. There were many nights when I didn’t get anything of use accomplished, simply because anything that I put to paper read terribly. I also realized just how expensive it was to make copies at the local print shop!

 

-If you could go back in time, knowing everything you know now, would you do anything different with your first issue?

I wouldn’t change a thing! I’m the sort of person who realizes that there’s no point looking backwards in life, and overall I was quite pleased with how things turned out.

 

-In recent months, some of your posts here on VGS have referenced your work with TV Game Foundation Formosa, describing articles on classic gaming and a reference library. Tell us more about this project: its origins, its goals, and your work on it. How do you feel it complements your other projects?

The TV Game Foundation Formosa is the end result of my collecting habit. As mentioned earlier, gaming and subsequently game collecting has been a large part of my life, something that even resurfaced after moving abroad. I was basically in the right place at the right time, as the locals generally didn't start feeling nostalgic about these old games until about five or six years after I had begun collecting here; as a result, I ended up building contacts with old shopkeepers and amassing a really amazing set of classic games, consisting of Japanese imports, Taiwanese originals, and Taiwanese bootlegs.

Gosh, I've spent thousands of dollars over the years on this hobby, and my family and friends are quick to point this out; however, as we both can recognize, the values of these games continue to climb and if I sold everything off tomorrow, I'd be a rich man, haha.

That's sort of where the idea for the TV Game Foundation Formosa came into play. I own more games than I ever care to play, or even want, but somewhere along the line I had decided that I'd just start keeping any game that I could purchase locally, which cost me $3 or less. As I grow older, year by year, I come to realize that I am gaming less, and although I still care about gaming immensely, similarly I can't just keep blowing tons of cash on old games that I don't even play, to complete full sets, and think that at the same time I can establish meaningful relationships with a loving partner, start a family, save for retirement, etc. So I began to think of something that my father had said long ago, simply that if you have a hobby, is there a way to make it viable, i.e. to turn it into a career somehow? Thus the TV Game Foundation Formosa was born.

Although we have just started, our focus is to research, preserve, and document everything related to gaming here in Taiwan. For example, we started compiling a list of the Asian version Xbox games released. We scan boxes and cartridges to preserve them, of course the Family Bits series of books is being endorsed by the TV Game Foundation Formosa, and although it isn't really mentioned, we also dump and release ROMs. In the future we hope to write some articles about games and gaming here, and similarly, the content in Mali's Cash coincides with the aims and goals of the TV Game Foundation Formosa.

I have a few friends, who are in the coffee business, and I am trying to get them onboard with my vision. What I eventually see is for us to have a few coffee shops situated in some of the cities across Taiwan. I'll donate some of the rare and historically significant pieces for the shops to display, and we'll also have gaming stations set up. Think something like a cross between Hard Rock Cafe and an arcade. Then continue to do the writing, the scanning, the dumping, while also working with other preservation groups such as Gaming Alexandria. That's where I want to take things, within the next five years - I don't think I need to hold onto 80% of my collection forever, but similarly, I think it's a damn fine collection and to just part it off isn't fair either, so I'd like to see some good come from the whole thing, as I progress into a later stage of my life.

 

-Are there any homebrew games in development that you are excited to play?

There are four titles that are currently on my radar. The first is Orange Island. Ever since I saw the Kickstarter and trailer for the game, I felt that it looked amazing. The graphics looked so detailed, yet colorful and cute, and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing. I know the game is supposed to be an action-adventure RPG, but in some odd way it reminded me of Gimmick. And what about the moon? I’d love to know what’s on it!

I’m also interested in ITG Soft’s Leopard Cats and that What Remains game. Both seem to have been more or less finished, so I’m just wondering what the holdup is to an actual release. Finally, Bitca Games’ Sun Wukong versus Robot looks VERY interesting to me. Not only does the game look extremely fun, the idea that it draws influence from Chinese mythology is another selling point that personally jives with me.

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I’ve heard of that one…

 

-Speaking of homebrew games, you’ve been working on your own game, which has an accompanying book: Hot Pot Runs. How is that project coming along? Any other projects you aspire to develop?

As you know, the book is done, and the game is about 80% complete. I was hoping to finish it this weekend, as I had three days off, but one thing led to another and I have got almost nothing done this weekend. The Hot Pot Runs game should be finished pretty soon though, definitely sometime early in June.

Regarding other projects, I had an idea for a game years ago, which came about after several experiences. As I mentioned earlier, I used to live along the coast, but then in 2016 I moved up to Taichung city center. I rented a new P.O. box, and randomly one day a package arrived for me, containing a copy of Super Mario Kart for the Super Nintendo. There was also a substantial amount of money included in the envelope, I think it was around 221 Taiwan dollars, okay that’s not a lot, but it definitely wasn’t a refund for being overcharged on shipping or something.

Anyways, Taiwanese are very superstitious, so I counted up the money and it turned out that it was an “angel number”. This had freaked me out, and it brought my mind around to a story I had heard years ago, which is honestly the creepiest story I’ve ever heard in my life.

In Taiwanese culture, money is given out for special occasions, such as Chinese New Year, and it is stuffed inside a red envelope. I was warned early on though that I should never pick up a random red envelope that has been dropped on the side of the road, not under any circumstances.

These red envelopes include money, as well as locks of hair, fingernails, and sometimes a picture of a beautiful woman, namely someone’s daughter who had died an untimely death before getting married. By picking up the envelope one basically consents to marrying the woman’s spirit, so that the dead woman’s spirit can find rest. They’ll even have a wedding ceremony, the whole works! It’s not so common in the cities, but in some rural areas, it still occurs.

This story had led me to the idea of creating a game based off of this scenario. A beautiful, popular woman was raped and murdered in an untimely fashion, and then a random guy ends up picking up the red envelope; of course he doesn’t want to marry a ghost, so he makes a deal with the family, namely that he avenges the daughter, and then he is let off the hook. I had pitched the idea to FrankenGraphics years ago, as they do beautiful artwork, but it was obviously out of my price range. I later pitched the idea to ITG Software and while not a reality now, it may become a reality at some point in the future.

 

-I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me and share your experiences. Is there anything else you would like to tell readers and fans?

Tell me what you would like to see in Mali’s Cash! The same goes for my Family Bits series of books. Constructive criticism is always necessary, if we want to achieve our full potential.

I’d also like to thank everyone for the support that has been offered. My aim is to become a full-time author in a year and a half, yet similarly, my other goal is to create something that resonates with others. I mean, I believe I was put on this earth to help others, so why not? I guess we’ll see what happens.

 

Conclusion:

Thanks for tuning in to this special episode of the series that explores the new and exciting goings on in the homebrew community. What are your thoughts on Dev Cart, Cool Sh#t, Retrobrew, and Mali’s Cash, and their dedicated publishers? What homebrews are you eagerly looking forward to? Perhaps you’ll see it here soon when…A Homebrew Draws Near! Command?

 

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This is awesome! Also, I haven't contributed anything to NES PRO (yet); however, I did copyedit a bunch of the articles for the first issue, before I got swamped by book deadlines.

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