Pop-up indie arcade Heart Projector returns with new games for old consoles

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      It’s 1989. The original Nintendo Game Boy has just come out in North America, boasting a grey body and 2-bit colour scheme. Super Mario Land has introduced the now-iconic Princess Daisy to audiences. The bulky NES has been plugged into your family TV for four years. Video game life is simple.

      Fast forward 30-something years and games are a hell of a lot more complicated. But those old consoles exist—and there are still people making brand-new games for them.

      Matt Hughson is one of those developers. His day job is working at one of the big triple-A studios in Vancouver—and, on the side, he makes video games for retro consoles. 

      Homebrewing, or making new games for old consoles (which he’s done since 2020), is a whole different kettle of fish than making something using modern code.

      “There’s no middleman between the code and the hardware. You are literally like putting pixels on the screen,” Hughson explains over a Zoom call. “When you go to the lower-level systems where there’s nobody catching you or holding your hand, you realize, ‘Oh, there’s a bunch of stuff happening behind the scenes to save me and give me error codes [in modern programming].’ Yeah, there’s nothing like that.”

      Despite abandoning modern technology for the systems of his childhood, Hughson has so far created two games: Witch n’ Wiz, a puzzle title, for NES; and From Below, a Tetris-style moving blocks game, for both NES and Game Boy. He’s currently working on Super Sunny World, coding a cheerful 2D platformer completely from scratch. 

      A screen from Hughson's NES puzzle game, Witch n’ Wiz.
      Matt Hughson

      While solo developing a game can be lonely, Vancouver has a surprisingly buzzy homebrew scene—perhaps to be expected for one of North America’s techiest cities. It’s how Hughson met fellow Game Boy homebrew developer Ziggy, who in turn is a co-founder of Heart Projector, an indie arcade pop-up night that sees a curated lineup of games get set up in a Vancouver warehouse. Instead of arcade cabinets, it’s computers and consoles, but the vibe is similar: wander in, find an empty game, and get to playing. Or crowd around the person absolutely destroying some gnarly-looking levels on a game you’ve never seen before.

      Heart Projector has been running for several years, though it hasn’t had one of its signature arcade nights since before the Covid-19 pandemic began. On November 25, the pop-up returns with its 12th volume, this one entirely dedicated to homebrewed games—and Hughson is serving as the guest curator. 

      “I think we’re showing 10 games, and five of them are from people [with ties to] Vancouver,” Hughson says. “Canada in general, actually, is one of the bigger names in homebrew.”

      The titles being set up offer an insight into the sheer breadth of homebrew development. Micro Mages (from Berlin’s Morphcat Games) acts as something of the pinnacle; the action platformer game for up to four players even got a writeup in The Washington Post. There are also action games, RPGs, and puzzle games, spanning consoles from the NES all the way up to the Game Boy Advance.

      It’s a very different experience to the current idea of playing games: quietly in your home, or perhaps screaming at strangers on the internet over voice chat. 

      “The idea of sitting with friends on a couch playing video games, even prior to Covid, had kind of lost its way a little bit,” Hughson muses. “ Everything's online, or it's on your phone. It's a very isolated experience.”

      Nostalgia for his own childhood games was a big reason why he became interested in creating homebrew titles in the first place. He hopes that Heart Projector will provide some of that same feeling: discovery, camaraderie, and getting absorbed by something relatively simple that’s deceptively deep.

      “I'm pretty excited with the idea of people sitting on a couch, taking turns passing the controller back and forth, getting frustrated, all that stuff in a group environment,” he says. “Maybe people don’t want this experience every day, but I think once in a while, it’ll be a blast.”

      Heart Projector Vol. 12

      When: November 25, 7pm 

      Where: 713 East Hastings Street, Vancouver (entrance is in an alleyway east of Heatley, between Hastings and Cordova)

      Admission: Free