Interview: TimeWalk Games - More Than Just Reproduction Carts

Timewalk-Games-InterviewThis month brought along the saddening news that the manufacturer who created the limited edition DuckTales Remastered press kit, along with countless other video game reproduction cartridges, boxes and manuals has closed down. Timewalk Games recently announced their closure online, much to the disappointment of many many retro gamers, leaving behind a huge void in the industry.

More than just a cloned cartridge...

When I was younger there was a ritual that I would unconsciously go through every time I went to play a game. I would take the box off the shelf and have a quick glance at the box art. I would then remove the game, trying to avoid pulling in the middle of the flap, as that always damaged the sacred box. Next, I had to do the ‘cartridge blow’ which I now know did nothing but get the game covered in spit. Only then would I push it into the Super Nintendo. This was all part of the game playing experience even before uncoiling the control pad and pressing start.

Yes, of course the act of playing the game was the goal, but the packaging was part of the experience. It was the box that I would stare at on the bus going home having purchased the game. It was the poster I would put on the wall, it was the map I would depend on when lost in an RPG. The box, may have safely stored the game and made it easier to identify on a shelf but it was also more than that. In a world lacking the internet’s wealth of opinion my desire for a game was determined by one thing above all others; how exciting the box looked.

Spencer also knows the value of a good box, a self-confessed “packaging nut”. Like me, so many joyful childhood memories are tied not just to video games, but also the boxes they came in. “One of my fondest memories as a child was going to Sears department store to pickup our NES Action Set” he reminisces. “I was six years old and remember sitting in the back of the car during the car trip home just gazing at the packaging. The design work back in those days was so exciting. In the case of NES console, the box was so exciting. You had this awesome star field with the NES console just blazing in on a blue gradient. Every time I got a new NES game, I remember holding that packaging and just imagining the world inside. Then when you opened it up you got all this extra stuff like a glossy manual, and subscription cards for Nintendo Power. The cart was beautiful and packed in a little baggie. The box art on the old titles was amazing as well.”

As Spencer aptly puts it; “The game is a piece of art, and the packaging that it came in was the frame.”

In a download, instant access world of emulation and ROMs, gamers’ focus seems to have shifted solely to play. Indeed, so little emphasis is placed on boxes nowadays, that on all the newly released consoles, manufacturers don’t even include a case or a disc for the pack in game. Instead greeting expectant eyes on a Christmas morning is just a series of numbers that download a file. The victims of time and carelessness, boxes for older games too are vanishing at an alarming rate. Even the most casual search on eBay will reveal that “cart only” listings far outweigh “boxed complete”. For someone like Spencer, a retro gamer and box addict, this simply isn’t good enough. “My heart will always be with the classics. I grew up with NES, SNES and Sega Genesis and some of my fondest childhood memories revolve firmly around my gaming experiences with these consoles. There is nothing like playing the game on the system that it was intended for and to use the original controller. I'm even a purist to the extent that I prefer to play my classic games on old school CRT TV's. I started making boxes for myself for my own collection. I even shrink-wrapped some for display pieces. Others in the retro gaming community saw that and wanted it too.”

Seeing the demand, Spencer and a friend Dave went on to form “TimeWalk Games”, which for many served as the go to website for authentic reproduction versions of games. It wasn’t a new idea,“reproductions have been around for a long time and there are a lot of folks who make them.” These folks however, were simply offering repurposed carts put in a white box that carried the game’s original art. What Spencer set out to do was far more ambitious than anyone had tried before. With the team at TimeWalk he set about replicating the experience, the pre-play ritual associated with starting a newly bought game. “We understand that large game companies can't justify producing games like this now. There's just nowhere near a big enough market for them to even consider it. But a small group of us really wanted to re-live those old days of opening up a new retro game. It was the experience of breaking the seal on that box and discovering everything that was inside. The Timewalk project was like a love letter to the gaming industry for the way that it used to be. To go back, for just a brief moment to our childhoods and re-live some of those experiences that made us so happy in our youths.” Everything about a TimeWalk reproduction oozes love and attention to detail. It’s not just a case of the boxes being the correct dimensions, or the re-purposed cartridge carrying the correct sticker. From the internal colour and thickness of box to the size of the plastic cartridge bag, every minute detail was considered, made and shrink wrapped. The sole aim of making their reproductions was to have them as close as possible to those of yesteryear. “It’s very difficult to do. A lot of different people contributed their time to help create manuals and printed materials. There really was a lot of work involved”.

Timewalk-Games-Dragon-Quest-I-and-II

With ambitions this grand and considering the huge catalogue of games that TimeWalk offered, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they had huge production lines and an army of employees. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Everything was made for the most part by hand” recalls Spencer modestly. “These were small runs for niche collectors. Everything was hand soldered, boxes were made one at a time by hand. Because the idea was to recreate the original experience you also had to do your best to recreate the quality without the benefit of large industrial equipment, not an easy task, and also quite costly. That's why it took so long for us to send these out each one was a handmade piece of art.”

The whole process was made all the more complicated by TimeWalk specialising in something that was even more niche and specific. They wanted to bring unreleased Japanese games to the west, accurately translated and packaged exactly as they would have been had publishers seen a demand. This ambitious desire to offer experiences to an audience they had originally been kept from though, was not something one person could do on their own. “Different volunteer graphic designers created the box and manuals based on their artistic interpretation as well as trying to maintain the original look of the game so it felt like it came from that era. Everything was inspired from the original releases and then localized to look like an NTSC release.” Fans lapped up these westernised games, with dozens of ‘unboxing’ videos being posted on YouTube. Be it “Earthbound Zero”, “Megaman & Bass” or “Sweet Home” the glee as someone peeled off the shrink wrap from what could have been a twenty year old game was obvious. For Spencer this made all the hard work worthwhile. “That was what I liked about TimeWalk. Really our goal was just for people to be able to relive that childhood experience of getting to play a new game on their NES or SNES. When I saw a person remove the shrink wrap on the package, for a brief moment you could see the child in their eyes. Seriously we would get multiple page fan letters on a regular basis thanking us for helping them to feel like kids again. That was great.” Even others selling similar Reproduction boxes were quick to sing TimeWalk’s praises. Retro Replace are a UK based company that also sells custom made replacement boxes and manuals for Snes games. In many ways they were in competition, but even for a rival the love for TimeWalk is evident. “As someone who makes reproduction custom made boxes I had the utmost respect for TimeWalk Games and the quality of their work”, says Dan Edwards.

But at the height of their success, TimeWalk suddenly and seemingly impulsively decided it was time to stop. At the end of January 2014, their website once filed with countless boxed homebrew tributes and unreleased gems was stripped back to a simple message. White word on a black screen marked the end of a project that had filled so many with so much happiness. “The Timewalk team would like to thank everyone that has supported us! Unfortunately, we no longer have time to continue forward.” For Spencer though there was no sadness in this announcement. “It was a relief. We we're happy to be done with it as it wasn't fun anymore. It was work. For the most part, it was very time consuming. We had lives outside of TimeWalk such as jobs and families and it was creating too much of a hassle for something that should always have been just a hobby.”

The void left by TimeWalk is huge and even though rival companies had lost competition from the front runner in the ‘Reproduction Game’ this news was bitter sweet. As Dan says, “it is a shame to see them go but with the other commitments they had I do not blame them. At least they were here for a while.” It’s a view that seems to be shared by the community at large. Though many understood why they chose to stop, the number of games offered and the absolute devotion to authenticity meant that TimeWalk’s departure was still a huge disappointment.

So although the box is firmly closed and sealed for TimeWalk games, Spencer and his team are certainly not turning their back on the Retro Community, quite the opposite. “We wanted to start a legitimate project. TimeWalk introduced us to a lot of talented people, and if we we're ever to work on a project that could truly contribute to the retro gaming community, we had to let TimeWalk go”. For a team so talented and creative it would be devastating to see their artistic or technical flare lost and unappreciated. However, from the shadows of TimeWalk is emerging something that Spencer promises will be even more exciting for fans of the past. “We have a new project under works, and though I can't share the details of it yet, I can say that it is a project designed from the get-go to be done for the proper reasons. Our new project will be dedicated to helping gamers, and those in the involved in the gaming industry to see everything that is so great about gaming, then and now.”

Spencer has fond memories of the TimeWalk project, “it was a wild experience and I'll never forget it.” To the naive all they sold was pretend boxes for old games, but what they actually provided was a chance to recapture a time from our past. A moment of joy, of heart pounding excitement that many thought they would never experience again. Much like the games they translated, they will be missed but never forgotten.

RetroCollect wants to thank Spencer for his time, and we wish him every success for his future projects. For a UK based collector, looking for authentic reproduction boxes ‘Retro Replace’ is now a good go to. Only time will tell if they can successfully walk in the footsteps of the former masters of ‘boxed shrink wrapped memories’.


Last Updated ( 24 February 2014 )  

Julian Hill

Julian is the author of the popular blog Boxed Pixels, and is currently on a mission to document his thoughts as he buys boxed complete SNES Games.

Described by PlayStation Access as a "gamer, Dad and all round hero" he has been playing games since they had four colours on screen and blips for music.

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