Traveling Back in Time with Tanglewood
A love letter to the Sega Genesis stands out in an era of increasingly arbitrary console wars
We have just entered a new generation of home consoles, but it doesn’t quite feel like it. Both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X have struggled to forge an identity of any sort other than their namesake.
In an era where consoles are having trouble differentiating, it’s worth looking back in time. The 16-bit console war, arguably the greatest of all the video game wars, certainly was driven by branding — yet there was still so much more to it beyond just superficial slogans.
In the red corner we had SEGA Genesis (or Mega Drive for some of us) and over at the blue corner we had Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). As consoles they were completely distinct from each other, each powered by their unique architecture, with game developers having to adjust everything from graphics to sound design in order to accommodate for hardware differences. Just compare Sonic the Hedgehog with Super Mario World, or better yet try stepping into a Genesis vs. SNES battle of the ports debate over Earthworm Jim.
Given the uniqueness of each console, even the process of assembling and porting games from one console to another required far more inventive solutions, rather than simply uploading an unlock key onto Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. With such ambition, each console in prior console generations, anything from the Genesis to the 3DO or even the CD-i, could claim to be a unique beast. Nowadays the lines have blurred so much that many gamers can’t help but feel nihilistic about the very idea of a video game console.
But not everyone.
Tanglewood by developer Big Evil Corporation is the brainchild of creator Matt Phillips, who created the game as a love letter to and a product of a very specific console: The Sega Genesis.
Tanglewood is a game developed from scratch using authentic Genesis development kits and assembly tools (6800 language to be precise), all with the intent of creating something capable of running and functioning on Genesis hardware via cartridge.
Many indie developers over the last decade alone have risen to the occasion to accomplish such feats, most notable being the RPG epic Pier Solar, and so Tanglewood is certainly up there as one of the more higher tier outputs to keep a long-extinct console alive.
Those without the rose-tinted lens of nostalgia would wonder the point of it all, just as they scratch their heads whenever they see the countless 8-bit style titles on Steam on an almost weekly basis. Games like Tanglewood are genuine in what they are trying to recreate, and for the developer to meticulously design and construct the title under the working conditions of the ’90s, shows a whole different level of commitment to the craft.
In various interviews with developer Matt Phillips, the most telling thing about Tanglewood was how difficult it was to realize its vision within the confines of not just the Genesis development tools, but translating everything onto a cartridge that can be played on any version of the Genesis (or Mega Drive) console without issue.
Working around these limitations proves to be a blessing in disguise, as inventive and creative programming methods were needed to bring all of the ideas of Tanglewood to fruition. There’s something about limitations which somehow inspire developers to push their talent and creativity to the limit. Nowadays a typical Xbox One game spans hundreds of gigabytes, with development being so complacent that post-launch updates further add several hundred extra gigabytes to the hard drive.
Matt Phillips didn’t have this luxury when creating Tanglewood, in fact every ounce of resource available had to be utilized to the fullest in order to make sure every single pixel and sound byte could exist. The end product is a game which pushes the graphical and technical boundaries of the Genesis further than anything else before, unearthing new things several decades after the hardware had been utilized for all its worth.
Nearly two decades earlier, the late, great Satoru Iwata (1959–2015) of Nintendo performed an absolute programming and file-compression miracle, when he found a way to make Pokémon Gold/Silver possible on the extremely dated Game Boy Color hardware, without driving up the cost of the cartridge. Matt Phillips too needed to ensure a cartridge could carry his ambitious title, which has since become a collector’s item. Of course, Tanglewood can now be played on more convenient gaming platforms.
Tanglewood is a surreal and beautiful platformer, with great use of color and sound to create a sense of atmosphere. It has the vibes of 16-bit SEGA classic Ecco the Dolphin in that it’s purposely vague. This is a remnant of gaming from yesteryear, when players were expected to step into the game’s world without excessive tutorials to hold their hand.
Of course, back then every game shipped with a tome-sized instruction manual, and it was almost mandatory to read through it before the cartridge was latched onto the console (by the way, every manual advised to NOT blow into the cartridge!). It’s funny to think how these days the very idea of a colored instruction manual is now a premium product, coming bundled with limited print editions of game releases. To get the most out of Tanglewood, players need to digest the manual first and foremost, and thankfully there is a digital manual for those not playing the boxed Genesis version.
Tanglewood is a fascinating case study, because if anyone played it on PC today, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell how it was built pixel for pixel using primordial game development tools. From both a visual and design standpoint, it’s on par with anything else in the indie gaming scene, arguably coming together with more fluidity and finesse than games built with far more convenient tools and methods.
In an era where consoles often have more detractors than celebrators, Tanglewood demonstrates the power of limitations. It is a love letter constructed through the beauty and science of its deeply intentional creation process.
Written by Jahanzeb Khan for Vista Magazine.