When I was a kid I was convinced I would grow up to become a Ghostbuster. Later, I created my own wrestling persona, convinced I would one day be the World Wrestling Federation (as it was then) Heavyweight Champion. There’s even video of this floating around in the ether. Neither of these aspirations have ever come to light. At least not yet. Sadly, that’s the way many childhood aspirations go – neglected, forgotten, growing dusty in the back of your mind. For Joe Granato IV, it was the creation of his own fantasy world that he could play out on his Nintendo Entertainment System, that kept him awake at night.
The year was 1988, Granato and his childhood friend Matt Juliano had just drafted a whole new video game experience called Mystic Searches. It was, or so they thought, exactly what Nintendo of America was looking for, and all Nintendo needed to do was send the two boys the means with which to create it, free of charge. Instead, Nintendo sent them a rejection letter, told them to stay in school, and squashed their dream flatter than a Koopa Trooper after it has been jumped on by Super Mario.
Like my Ghostbusting Wrestler fantasy, Granato’s dream lay dormant for a quarter of a century, until one fateful day when he discovered a soggy old cardboard box hidden away in the back of his parent’s shed. Inside the box was Mystic Searches. The concept. The artwork. The boyhood dream. All present and accounted for. Where many of us might have glanced at the now dog-eared pieces of paper and reminisced about that time Nintendo destroyed our childhood, Granato instead decided that he would embark on a 2-year mission to bring the dream back to life and make Mystic Searches a gaming reality. That mission became what we now know as The New 8-Bit Heroes, one of the best new documentaries currently wowing audiences across the globe.
I first became aware of The New 8-Bit Heroes project around about the time the original Kickstarter was about to launch. Bizarrely, despite me growing up in the arse end of nowhere, myself and Granato have a mutual friend, and it was through brief conversations with this friend on Facebook that I came across this insane notion to create a fully playable 8-bit game for the NES, despite the console being dead for over 20 years. I was hooked immediately.
So how do you turn an idea that you had as an 8-year-old child into a real life, fully playable video game for a platform that is long extinct? For Granato, it was case of pulling together a group of incredibly talented individuals, with the right amount of know how. This included illustrator Austin McKinley, Pixel artist Jherin Miller, and published author (and mutual friend and awesome cup of tea maker) Elizabeth Wilson. There were others too. Too many to name here, but each just as important as the next.
With the team in place, Granato could now focus on the actual realization of Mystic Searches. The premise seemed simple enough; create a game that had the platform mechanics of Super Mario Bros, the open world exploration of The Legend of Zelda, the cinematics of Ninja Gaiden, and the story of Final Fantasy. How hard could that be, right? For those of you reading this who have ever dabbled in “Homebrew” programming for retro consoles, this was no easy task. Sure, the team could throw something together on an emulator that looked like a NES game, but the point of the project was for Mystic Searches to be a NES game. A real NES game on a cartridge that you had to blow on to make work! This meant getting to grips with the incredibly restrictive constraints of an archaic system. Restraints, it would transpire, that there was absolutely no way to get around.
Setbacks are a recurring theme in The New 8-Bit Heroes. Whether it’s trying (and failing) to cram Elizabeth’s spiraling mythology into such a tiny memory, or the failed second Kickstarter, we are privy to the lows of the project just as much as we are the highs. That’s the beauty of this documentary. It wasn’t essential that Granato and co. filmed the whole process, but it’s a credit to them that they did. It humanizes the dream. We want to see the team succeed because they are all such lovely people.
The New 8-Bit Heroes is a blueprint for turning childhood dreams into a reality, and Granato is the Willy Wonka of the original video game generation. Watching him is like watching his 8-year-old self all those years ago. His eyes light up at the thought of realising his dream, just as much as his heart breaks when he finally understands that it’s not going to happen. At least not yet anyway.
At the start of the film, Granato claims that “Nostalgia is just a prologue”, but it’s also the driving force of the entire film. We all long for a return to a simpler time of magical quests, pixelated heroes, and Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start.
The team behind The New 8-Bit Heroes have the hopes and dreams of an immeasurable number of kids from the 1980’s riding on their shoulders, and we’re right there with them at every stage. Let’s hope that after the sure-fire success of the documentary, the project is granted an extra life. After all, this is the world of 8-bit gaming, there’s sure to be a green mushroom hiding somewhere.
You can check out the Beta, and support the project here.