Making a New Game for the Original Sega Mega Drive Isn't Easy

By Ethan Gach on at

Matt Phillips has been working on Tanglewood, a new game for the Sega Mega Drive, for a few years now. Set to release sometime this year, the project has been a challenging endeavour but one which hasn’t dissuaded its creator from doing the same thing for his next game.

Tanglewood is a retro platformer that Big Evil Corporation, Phillips' game studio, got funded on Kickstarter back in late 2016. Taking inspiration from the art and movement of games like Another World and The Lion King, the aim was to recreate an authentic Sega Mega Drive game from the ground-up. The cartridges were originally supposed to ship out last November, but perhaps not surprisingly the project has undergone some delays.

Phillips recently caught up with the BBC to talk briefly about the reasons behind the game and how working on it has been. The developer said he’s been wanting to do something like this ever since he was a kid. Not content simply to do an homage on PC as so many other indie retroists have, he aimed to fulfil the dream he’d had back when he was still to young to actually act on it. It’s not been easy though.

Phillips’ development setup for making his Sega game. Image via BBC

“One of the biggest problems I face is none of this old equipment works very well anymore, I’ve had more repairs on this thing can I can count,” Phillips told the BBC. He’s been using an original Mega CD development kit alongside a computer running Windows 95 to program Tanglewood after first learning his way around the technology by making versions of Pong and Tetris. The major difficulties have been finding ways to continually optimise his code and employ helpful compression techniques.

On the hardware side, Philips told the news outlet he was able to find a factory in China who would produce the mould for him in order to produce a limited run of plastic Sega cartridges. For the actual PCBs (printed circuit boards) that the game will be running on, he’s relied on a contact he has in Canada. That person turns out to be an engineer and proprietor of DB Electronics, a retro hardware storefront who designed Tanglewood’s PCBs (I would tell you his name but even his Twitter account simply says “A guy in Canada”).

Phillips testing Tanglewood. Image via BBC

It turns out one of the trickier parts of creating a new game on old hardware is getting the voltages right. You can read a very comprehensive breakdown of the subject over at the DB Electronics blog, but the short of it is that many newer PCBs are often built for homebrew and retro revival consoles that run at higher voltages than what the originals were spec-ed for. The concern was brought up by a backer on the game’s Kickstarter page, and it’s something Phillips admitted to having encountered problems with in the past which is why he was now working with “a guy in Canada.”

As for what Sega thinks about all of this, Phillips said he approached the publisher at one point to try and get the game officially licensed. Unfortunately, Sega told him it no longer had the resources in place necessary to test and do quality assurance on a game like Tanglewood. Unofficially though, he said Sega still wished him luck with the project. So while he’ll never get that gold Sega seal on the corner of his cartridge, at least the company isn’t standing in his way either.

All in all, while Phillips told the BBC that the project has “taken a bit of my sanity,” he also said he plans to take all his new found knowledge and Sega Mega Drive savvy to make another authentic retro game after Tanglewood. As for the current game, you can currently check out an alpha build from last year on YouTube with a beta demo of the game expected to go out to backers of the project in the coming months.