Making CD-i games in 2022
Nobelia developer Jeffrey Janssen explains why he only makes games for Phillips' discontinued and oft-derided multimedia platform
Earlier this year, developer Jeffrey Janssen released Nobelia, a new game for Phillips CD-i, a hardware platform from the early '90s that may be most remembered for hosting a handful of poorly regarded Zelda and Mario games.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, Janssen answers the most pressing question: Why?
"My dad worked at Phillips when I was a kid and he brought back a CD-i player," Janssen explains. "We didn't have any other game consoles, so we had a lot of fun with it."
While Janssen's family had a PC, they didn't own many games for it, and they found the video and music of the pioneering disc-based CD-i set it apart from other entertainment options. He recalls playing Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, the soccer/football 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 grown up, I picked up a player maybe ten years ago with a lot of games from a local second-hand site," Janssen says. "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, looked up the specs and built a USB-to-CD-i controller converter.
"That was a fun project," Janssen says. "And around that time I also found a community around it, got to know a few people there, and I was thinking, 'Well how hard is it to program for it? Can I make something that will run on
Janssen is a software developer by trade, but not in the games industry. Outside of one or two small projects in the past, he says he's never done any form of game development. So other than nostalgia for his childhood, what made the CD-i the platform to change that?
"What I really like about programming for the CD-i is it's limited," he says. "You can't do anything. If you make a game for the modern PC, the sky is the limit. You can do pretty much everything you want. I find it very rewarding and challenging to work within some limitations."
Fortunately, the CD-i has no shortage of limitations.
"I think it gets a lot of flack for being the CD-i, and I think most people that 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 it.
"It was designed as a multimedia machine, and you can see that in that it supports all kind 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 isn't any hardware acceleration for games. Like, even the old Nintendo had support for sprites and tiles and whatnot. Everything [with CD-i] you have to do in software. So it's a bit slow. You have to do a lot of tricks. There's a lot of input lag."
Even something as seemingly simple as playing a sound effect while background music was playing required a work around.
"There are a lot of interesting things that have been done with it, and are suited for a system like this"
"It's not a very good game system," Janssen concedes. "But I think there are a lot of interesting things that have been done with it, and are suited for a system like this."
It didn't take long for those limitations to make themselves apparent. Janssen set out to make a game that would have involved screen-scrolling, but quickly found out that was harder to do on the CD-i than he was ready to tackle.
He pared down the concept to a Bomberman clone, just a static screen that the player walks around planting bombs in and blowing things up.
The game concept would change once more, though this time it would be about Janssen's own limitations rather than the hardware's.
"I'm not much of a graphics artist so I was starting to look for graphics online," he explains. "I couldn't really find anything I liked that fit the Bomberman theme, but I found the tileset I used in Nobelia and I really liked that. It didn't really feel like Bomberman; it felt 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 relies on help along the way. The CD-i homebrew scene may not exactly be thriving, but it does exist, and there is a community around the system that proved helpful for Janssen.
"In the community, there's this guy who goes by the name CD-i Fan who used to be a CD-i developer," Janssen says. "He developed professional software for the system and some games. He's very passionate about the system; he's also the guy who developed the CD-i emulator. He was a lot of help. He still knew a lot about it from when he worked on it and he was always very helpful. When I got stuck, he gave me pointers. Without that help, I wouldn't have gone this far, I don't think. Or this fast."
When he shared a demo of Nobelia mid-development, it was the community who asked Janssen about a physical release for the game. He looked into it, found that a professional run of discs would cost less than he had expected, and committed to a run of discs with packaging he designed himself.
"At first I was really scared," Janssen recalls. "Like will I make my investment back getting this printed?"
Happily, he made his money back in about two weeks, thanks to strong interest off the bat and a US reseller putting in an order of copies in the low double-digits.
While Janssen isn't about to pursue a living from full-time CD-i development anytime soon, he is making another CD-i game in his spare time. That game, SkyWays, is inspired by an old DOS title called Sky Roads, and aims to take advantage of the CD-i's video-streaming strengths to mimic a 3D effect in a sort of action racing game.
And as much as Janssen has enjoyed his first experiences of homebrew game development in Nobelia and SkyWays, he isn't planning to branch out to work on other systems.
"I like the limitations of this one," he explains. "We didn't really have any other game consoles when I grew up, so none really appealed to me enough to start making a game for it."