Earlier this year, developer Jeffrey Janssen released Nobeliaa new game for Phillips CD-i, an early 90s hardware platform best remembered for hosting a handful of ill-regarded Zelda and Mario games.
Talk with GamesIndustry.bizJanssen answers the most pressing question: Why?
“My dad worked at Phillips when I was a kid and he brought home a CD-i player,” Janssen explains. “We didn’t have any other game consoles, so we had a lot of fun with them.”
While Janssen’s family owned a PC, they did not own many games for it, and they found the pioneering disc-based CD-i’s video and music set it apart from other entertainment options. He remembers playing Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, the football/soccer game Striker Pro, and an Asterix board game as a kid.
“The pandemic hit and I was looking for something to do when I remembered the CD-i player in the attic”
“When I was an adult, I found a player maybe ten years ago with a lot of games on a local second-hand site,” Janssen explains. “Then the pandemic hit and I was looking for something to do when I remembered the CD-i player in the attic.”
He tinkered with the system a bit, researched the specs, and built a USB to CD-i controller converter.
“It was a fun project,” says Janssen. “And around that time, I also found a community around it, I met a few people there, and I was like, ‘Well, how hard is it to program for this? Can I create something that will work on
Janssen is a software developer by trade, but not in the games industry. Other than a couple of small projects in the past, he says he’s never done any game development. So aside from his childhood nostalgia, what made CD-i the platform to change that?
“What I really like about CD-i programming is that it’s limited,” he says. “You can’t do anything. If you’re making a game for the modern PC, the sky’s the limit. You can do pretty much anything you want. I find it very rewarding and challenging to work within certain limits.”
Fortunately, the CD-i does not lack limitations.
“I think it gets a lot of flak for being the CD-i, and I think most people who talk about it have never really seen the system or played with it,” Janssen says. “That being said, as a game console, the hardware isn’t really designed for that.
“It was designed as a multimedia machine, and you can see that it supports all kinds of controllers. When we didn’t have one of the game controllers, we did everything with the remote, or a trackball, which isn’t really the best thing to play games with. But we managed.
“Hardware-wise, there’s no hardware acceleration for games. Like, even the old Nintendo had support for sprites and tiles and so on. Everything [with CD-i] you have to do in the software. So it’s a bit slow. You have to do a lot of laps. There’s a lot of input lag.”
Even something as simple as playing a sound effect while background music played required some work around.
“There are a lot of cool things that have been done with it that suit a system like this”
“It’s not a very good game system,” Janssen concedes. “But I think there’s a lot of cool stuff that’s been done with it that suits a system like this.”
It didn’t take long for these limitations to show up. Janssen set out to create a game that would have involved screen scrolling, but soon found that was harder to do on the CD-i than he was prepared to tackle.
He reduced the concept to a Bomberman clone, just a static screen where the player walks around planting bombs and blowing things up.
The concept of the game would once again change, but this time it would be about Janssen’s own limitations rather than those of the hardware.
“I’m not really a graphic designer, so I started looking for graphics online,” he explains. “I didn’t really find anything that I liked that fit the theme of Bomberman, but I found the tileset I used in Nobelia and I really liked it. It didn’t really look like to Bomberman; it was more Zelda-ish, so I thought why not do a crossover? And that’s why Nobelia is Nobelia.”
And of course, even a solo developer often counts on help along the way. The CD-i homebrew scene may not be exactly thriving, but it does exist and there is a community around the system that has proven useful for Janssen.
“In the community, there’s this guy called CD-i Fan, who used to be a CD-i developer,” Janssen explains. “He developed professional software for the system and some games. He is very passionate about the system; he is also the guy who developed the CD-i emulator. He was a great help. He knew about it still a lot on this since he was working on and he was always very helpful. When I was stuck he gave me advice. Without that help I wouldn’t have gotten this far I don’t think. Or as quickly.
When he shared a demo of Nobelia in development, it was the community that asked Janssen about a physical release for the game. He looked into the matter, discovered that a series of professional discs would cost less than expected, and committed to producing a series of discs with packaging he designed himself.
“At first I was really scared,” recalls Janssen. “Will I get a return on my investment by printing it?”
Fortunately, it got its money back in about two weeks, thanks to strong early interest and a US dealer who placed an order for double-digit copies.
Although Janssen isn’t about to make a living from full-time CD-i development anytime soon, he’s making another CD-i game in his spare time. This game, SkyWays, is inspired by an older DOS title called Sky Roads, and aims to take advantage of CD-i’s video streaming strengths to mimic a 3D effect in a kind of action racing game.
And while Janssen enjoyed his early experiences developing homebrew games in Nobelia and SkyWays, he doesn’t plan to branch out to work on other systems.
“I like the limits of this one,” he explains. “We didn’t really have any other game consoles when I was growing up, so none really appealed to me enough to start making a game for it.”