The video game was a childhood fantasy. Steeped in digital constraints, Joe Granato’s quest made it reality.
Artists, like everybody else, start off as kids. In the normal course of human events, they grow up, move on from their childhood homes and leave boxes of their early creations behind. Some parents instantly trash their stuff. More supportive parents hang onto it for a while. But sooner or later, they give their artistic offspring a call — a polite (or impolite) request to pick up their stuff.
Joe Granato got the call in 2013. He’s a Sarasota-based filmmaker and game designer and used to last-minute travel. He didn’t waste time on this trip.
Granato took the next flight from sunny Sarasota to snowy Utica, NY. In a shed behind his parents’ house, he found a weather-worn cardboard box. Inside, he spied puzzling art that he’d made at the age of 7.
It took him a second to recognize what he was looking at: Illustrations for “Mystic Searches”—a fantasy game that he’d dreamed up for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). His white-hot childhood imagination had created concept art, manuals, the storyline, map layouts and a crudely recorded cassette of music and sound effects.
Granato studied the cardboard treasure trove and had a wild idea.
Cool game. Why not create it?
Back in Sarasota, he shared this idea with Austin McKinley, his friend and fellow filmmaker — and a cartoonist and illustrator, to boot. His immediate reaction? Go for it! McKinley was happy to lend his talents to the embryonic game. Granato suggested they also collaborate on a film that documented game development from start to finish. A handshake was all it took to get the documentary underway. (They restaged and filmed this conversation a few days later.) Creating a new NES game would be a higher level of difficulty.
They wouldn’t be the first. Thanks to the “homebrew” movement, garage designers were creating new NES games around the country.
But Granato planned to take it to the next level.
For the look of the game, Granato tapped McKinley to create conceptual art based on his childhood sketches. For the music, Granato wound up working a second shift as a composer. His score gave a nod to the classic games of the late 1980s. To take his childhood narrative to a deeper level, he reached out to Elizabeth Wilson, a published fantasy novelist. After that, he got on the phone to eight multitalented digital game artists.
They included: Jherin Miller, a versatile pixel artist devoted to 2-D digital gaming; Erin Johnson, a one-man band across the gaming/animation spectrum; Patricia Mead, creator of pixelated fantasy worlds; Justin Hillgrove, who spawned imps and monsters; and dynamic duo of Signom and Fernando Fernandez, who had never learned the word “impossible.”
They were all at the top of their game. Masters of the hyper-realistic art form of contemporary digital gaming. The worlds they created were nearly indistinguishable from reality. Sometimes better.
But their mad skills were useless for NES design. 32 KB of working memory was the absolute limit for this cartridge-based system. Asking these contemporary game talents to work within in those constraints was like asking an astronaut to take a covered wagon on the Oregon Trail.
Granato knew that. But he asked them anyway. They all said yes. He put his digital dream team together, and then he gave them the bad news.
The NES had no pre-existing game engine. That forced a one-at-a-time design approach — no recycling or adapting old work. Each new game cartridge was a vastly different design problem.
“Every NES game you create is the equivalent of reinventing the wheel,” says Granato. “The memory limitations force you into constant tradeoffs. More graphics mean less music. Complex mechanics mean simplified visuals. It’s insanely complex and never easy.”
So how did NES designers do it in the 1980s? That’s the other bad news. Nobody knows. Or nobody’s telling. According to McKinley, no NES programming documentation survives.
“The development history may exist somewhere,” he adds. “For all I know, it’s all locked in a steel vault beneath an extinct volcano in Japan. But nobody in the post-market development scene can access it.”
Call it the case of the missing manuals.
Like others in the homebrew community, the creative team cracked the case with dogged detective work. They took classic NES cartridges apart to see what they were made of. They played legacy games and used their powers of deduction to suss out the underlying code. Reverse engineering and a lot of patience yielded results. But very, very slowly.
Tough issues. But they were production issues. Means to an end, and not the point.
“Mystic Searches” was a work of art, not an engineering problem. Creating a compelling game experience was always the team’s goal. Without compromising the core story, they had to squeeze the many worlds of Granato’s childhood dreams inside the eight-bit limitations of the NES. Turning his fantasy into reality was their true quest, and they never forgot it.
Basically, all they were really doing was telling a story. A tale infused with the imagery and lore of fantasy art and literature.
In the late 1980s, an imaginative kid like Granato could feel that magic in the air, and soak it up through the pores of his skin. NES fantasy games took it up notch. Thanks to their 8-bit magic, he could actually enter the realms of “Zelda,” “Final Fantasy” and “Dragon Quest” and be the hero. The tales he loved made Granato want to tell his own. One good dream deserves another. “Mystic Searches” is both a quest and a rescue mission.
Vagabond minstrel Julian is the hero. He struggles to save the 8 Mystics—guardians of the magical disciplines who maintain balance in the land of Myrinda. Amriya, a beautiful gypsy sorceress, has gone rogue and set that realm out of joint. But follow the quest and you can set things right.
The documentary captured their struggles. The film was a second heroic journey—and it led to a third. The quest for cash to pay for the movie.
In 2014, Granato launched a Kickstarter campaign to get the word out and the money flowing in. Greater contributions = greater rewards. A simple tiered system. If you didn’t know any better, it might seem like a Hail Mary play. But the appeal was always part of the plan. Filmmaking is ridiculously expensive. Paying for it out of pocket was never an option.
The campaign was slow out of the gate. Then it suddenly took off, and the money poured in. Where was it coming from?
The NES community, mostly. A loose affiliation of gamers, collectors, and homebrew creators. Who quickly got behind Granato’s documentary.
Granato knew this community existed. But he’d underestimated its size.
“I thought it was a happy few diehards,” he says. “I found out the NES community is actually the size of a small village, scattered across the world.”
Thanks to the Kickstarter campaign, this virtual village of NES fanatics discovered and embraced Granato’s documentary project. But you can’t talk about the movie without talking about the game. They discovered it, too.
The Kickstarter pledges didn’t stop. But the NES devotees found a new way to show their love. They started sending clues, tips and hints. As the villagers were virtual, their advice popped up in email and message boards. Not ignorant amateur blather. Insights from obsessive fans who played and studied NES games far into the night, often to the exclusion of so-called “real life.” Their advice was good.
“Nobody Fed-Exed a manual they’d been hiding under the bed for 30 years,” says Granato. “But the input was useful. We dodged a few dead ends and took a few shortcuts. Every little bit helps.”
“Some of the fans knew more than we did,” says McKinley. “When we’d get stuck, we’d go to forums and crowd-source the problem. The solution would usually arrive in a matter of minutes.”
Nostalgia tied the scattered NES villagers together. Granato shared their love for the eight-bit ’80s. But his passion went beyond recapturing happy childhood memories. He was driven by the possibility of creating a new NES game. Not a misty-eyed recreation of the art of the past. Original eight-bit art, created for today.
But today turned into tomorrow — then someday or never.
They’d invested serious time and energy in the project. Would it ever yield a playable game? The relentlessly optimistic Granato had his doubts.
“A project like this never moves in a straight line,” he says. “There’s no guarantee, no sure pay off.”
They’d hit a wall. In early 2016, they broke through. A long hard road of technical challenges still stretched ahead. But it felt like the end of the quest.
By now, the original creative team had dwindled. Everyone left was in it to the end.
McKinley was busy translating his lush concept illustrations into the blocky, abstract forms of pixel art. The other game designers wrapped up the bits and pieces of their work. Like an architect, Granato incorporated these elements in the overall layout of the game. The myriad parts fused into a whole. Then beta tests began on a next-generation virtual console provided by Derke Andrews of Gradual Games. Granato was close to turning his childhood sketches into a playable game.
But he still made time for one beloved side project: The NES game engine he’d developed. It wasn’t universal, but it was versatile — and could be adapted to create a wide range of NES gameplay. As far as anyone knew, there was nothing else like it. He was already getting it ready it for a release to other NES designers. But he never lost sight of his main quest.
In June 2016, the first “Mystic Searches” prototype was up and running. It was both a cartridge for the original Nintendo deck, and executable code that ran on any contemporary computer with a Nintendo emulator. In September, the companion film premiered. “The New 8-bit Heroes” was its heroic title. A nod to Joseph W. Campell—and the unsung homebrew game creators who brought the NES back from the brink of oblivion. Granato also released a prequel game to whet the appetites of eager fans.
In early 2017, he’s still fine-tuning “Mystic Searches” to professional standards. There’s still one last stubborn bug. He’ll track it down and squash it. Then he’ll set a release date and smile.
According to rumor, the launch might unfold at this year’s Dragoncon.
“No promises,” Granato says. And smiles.
Sharing the love of the game is what keeps him smiling.
“When you see the film, you’ll fall in love with the art of how we made the game,” he says. “When you play ‘Mystic Searches,” you’ll fall in love with the game itself.”
Is that love affair worth the blood, sweat and tears of designing for the cramped format of an 8-bit gaming system? Why accept those limitations?
Granato replies with the famous quote that starts his documentary.
“It’s like Orson Welles said: ‘The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.’ The freedom to do anything usually leads to doing nothing. The 8-bit constraints took us to places we never would’ve imagined.”