Gamers of a certain age probably remember that Nintendo worked with Maxis to port a version of the seminal SimCity to the brand-new SNES in 1991. What most gamers probably don’t realize is that an NES version of the game was developed at the same time and cancelled just before its planned release.
That version of the game was considered lost for decades until two prototype cartridges surfaced in the collecting community last year. One of those prototypes has now been obtained and preserved by the Video Game History Foundation’s (VGHF’s) Frank Cifaldi, who demonstrated the emulated ROM publicly for the first time at MAGFest last weekend.
From lost to found
As Cifaldi recounted, the story of the NES SimCity began when legendary Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto says he had an idea for a game where you build and maintain an entire city. After hearing of a similar game on PC and trying SimCity for himself, Miyamoto was impressed enough to get Nintendo to purchase the console rights for the game, rather than trying to make a competing title.
Nintendo announced the NES and SNES versions of SimCity in late 1990, when the NES version got a Nintendo Power preview (complete with two screenshots) that promised a Spring 1991 release date. The NES version was then shown at the 1991 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, as proven by contemporaneous footage from the insufferable syndicated show Video Power, hosted by the equally insufferable Johnny Arcade.
While the SNES version of SimCity was released in August 1991, the NES version was summarily canceled and wouldn’t be heard from for over 15 years. That’s when a 2006 issue of Nintendo Power mentioned that Managing Editor Scott Pelland had a “far in development” golden prototype cartridge sitting in his desk.
Fast forward to last August, when the owner of Seattle-area retro game shop Back in Time, who goes by BigDaddyRamirez online, reported that two copies of the lost prototype had wandered in the door. A Nintendo employee had apparently taken the long-forgotten prototypes from the company’s offices; as Cifaldi later put it, when a lost game is found and preserved, “99% of the time it’s done through corporate theft.”
Portland Retro Gaming Expo delivers the industry’s rarest, weirdest stuffA short demonstration video posted at the time proved the prototypes were in working order. The demo also highlighted very basic gameplay functionality. Back in Time then showed the cartridges off at a Portland Retro Game Expo booth in October, where the carts were eventually auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Pat “The NES Punk” Contri recalled that auction in a recent podcast and mentioned that, at one point, it looked like the prototype might be effectively lost to history once again.
“There was a chance the game wasn’t going to be dumped—that someone was going to purchase both for an insane amount of money and lock both SimCity carts away,” Contri said. “Which would potentially mean no one would have access to the ROM, which would be awful, obviously.”
Fortunately, game collector Steve Lin was able to make what Contri called “a substantial purchase” to secure one of the prototypes, which was then dumped and preserved as a ROM file by Cifaldi’s Video Game History Foundation. On the NES Punk podcast, collector Ian Ferguson recalls the moment he and Cifaldi loaded up the ROM for the first time. “That was original NES title music we haven’t heard,” he said with awe. “That’s a nice title screen… We were reveling in it for a minute.”
While Cifaldi is still working on a full analysis and write-up of the prototype, he showed the emulated ROM file at a MAGFest panel on the status of lost NES games last weekend. As you can see in the video above, the game is pretty similar to the SNES release, right down to the green-haired advisor Dr. Wright (a Nintendo creation and homage to SimCity creator Will Wright).
The NES version even includes the same pre-built scenarios that appeared in the SNES version, including a Boston nuclear meltdown in the far-future year of 2010(!). The biggest immediate difference is in the Monster Attack disaster, which uses a generic purple monster instead of the Bowser cameo found in the SNES version.
Cifaldi also mentioned that features like nuclear meltdowns and boats hadn’t been fully coded for the NES prototype. And, at points, Cifaldi points out that “the NES is really struggling with its calculations. You see how nothing has power? That’s because it’s still doing the math behind the scenes to figure out what buildings have power… it’s not an easy calculation for a system like the NES.”
That slowdown could help explain why the NES version was eventually scrapped, or it could be a sign of an early version that would have worked just fine with a bit more polish. Nintendo could very well have canned the NES port to avoid creating more competition for the brand-new SNES, as well.
Whether or not the VGHF or another owner will release the prototype ROM publicly is still unclear. Regardless, the version that’s now being preserved by the Foundation ensures that this gaming history rarity will at least be accessible to historians and researchers well into the future.
Listing image by Frank Cifaldi / VGHF
More Info: arstechnica.com