Buying a PS4 in Brazil costs around $1800. In fact, high import taxes mean most electronics are significantly more expensive than in the US or Europe. Could this in some way explain why Sao Paulo indie developer JoyMasher has made Oniken, essentially a NES game that runs on your PC?
Partly, yes, says Thais Weiller, ones of a three-person team, although not necessarily just because hardware is expensive today. “Brazil has a long tradition of keeping the Master System and Genesis [or Mega Drive] alive. The company that still produces these Sega consoles also produced games for them until recently, and some of these professionals are indies too now.” The company, Tectoy, still produces Mega Drive variants with in-built games, but stopped making them with cartridge slots in 2006. Now, she says, “since [the] 8-bit and 16-bit generations lasted a bit longer here most of us between 35 and 18 have fond memories of playing those games in our childhoods.”
Oniken may take nostalgia to its limits—it doesn’t just look like an 8-bit game, it plays like one, too—but pixel art is popular with more modern and experimental developers as well. Those fond memories mean many popular artists use pixel art, and younger ones are inspired by them.
While historical expense has had an effect on the artistic style of games being produced, so too have contemporary economic constraints. “Taxes and bureaucracy are big setbacks,” says Weiller. “We used outdated hardware throughout the whole Oniken development. We were invited to be part of Sony’s incubator program last year, but we still don’t have the SDK. Why? Sony cannot send it to us because a government branch must approve the hardware first and it hasn’t approved it still.”
Such bureaucracy seems to be major stumbling block, along with outdated or inappropriate legislation. All three developers at JoyMasher have day jobs, and Weiller even suggests that it is nearly impossible for full-time independent game developers to survive. “Everything about videogames, including developing studios, [is] taxed by the same laws as casinos, so many small studios that try to be 100% independent while full time [go] bankrupt really quick.”
This difficult situation is improving in some small ways. Within the last few years, production of the PS3 and the Xbox 360 has begun in Brazil, which cuts the RRP by removing import tariffs. Weiller adds: “Electronics are really expensive in Brazil but nowadays we have options, we have information from the net and most of us can even order electronics from abroad. In the 1980s and 1990s electronics were even more expensive and videogames and PCs were even rare in some parts of country (where I was born, for instance, only one kid in the whole town had a SNES). Now things are really far from perfect but it used to be much worse.”
Their game, Oniken, is a 2D action platformer in the style of Ninja Gaiden. Both the features and limitations of a NES game are present. It’s got crude but attractive animated backgrounds, cinematic cutscenes (with close-ups!) and levels with enough variety for the simple run, jump, and slash mechanics. In creating a game that could conceivably be 20 years old, Weiller says they wanted to try something different. “We felt that most of the games being released nowadays using an 8-bit aesthetic are more aimed [at] looking cool and using it as a reference than actually using its characteristics and limitations to create something new.” Playing Oniken feels more like an emulation than a recent release, although Weiller admits that the team haven’t completely stuck to the hardware limits of the NES. Their next game, they plan, will.
It’s also pretty unforgiving. Jumping needs to be near pixel-perfect. Memorising where and when enemies appear is sometimes the only way to beat a stage and you have to restart each multi-stage level when you run out of lives. Joining in with the rash of proudly difficult games may also have been on their minds. “Trying to recreate the joy of achievement and the ‘hard fun’ of those games was probably another reason,” she says.
Oniken is now on Steam and therefore available nearly anywhere in the world. Despite the clear affection for the early years of gaming among Brazil’s indie development community, Weiller doesn’t consider there to be a stronger local demand for throwbacks like Oniken than elsewhere. The state of the market is such that it was impossible to buy the game in Brazilian reals before it was listed on Steam. In this sense it seems even more important to get listed on an international sales platform, especially as an indie: Steam’s competitors in Brazil aren’t likely to sell your game unless you form a proper, heavily taxed company.
Independent developers have been open about the enormous financial boost that Steam provides, and Oniken is no different. The non-Steam version of Oniken came out in the Summer of 2012 but it only took a week for Steam sales to match its numbers. Clearly, Steam’s ubiquity extends globally, and the developers who are allowed to use it to sell their game can reap much-needed rewards.
Oniken is a game made by Brazilians, in homage to decades-old Japanese games that were made in the style of American action movies, sold online to an international audience. It’s globalisation in action. It’s also the product of a gaming culture that has grown up differently than major markets thanks in part to global economics. As old as it might look, it’s a game that could only exist in 2014.