8 Bit Horse Celebrates 10 Years!

8 Bit Horse has officially been around for a full decade!

It’s hard to believe it’s been that long, and it’s even harder to believe how much the landscape has changed for indie game development during that time.

To celebrate the occasion, I’m going to take a look back and tell you a bunch of never-before-shared details about the origin and history of 8 Bit Horse. Hold onto your pantalones!

8 Bit Horse was founded by AJ Johnson (hey, that’s me) and Nathan Fouts, but the seeds for 8 Bit Horse were planted on the day that Nathan decided to leave behind a decade in the video game industry to found his own development studio, Mommy’s Best Games. Under this new label, Nathan developed a 2D run-and-gun shooter called Weapon of Choice (and I wrote the dialogue). Along the way, we had a lot of discussions about game design, development, and promotion, which were important topics given that there was practically no roadmap for an indie developer to get a PC or console game in front of a large audience at that time.

Weapon of Choice went on to win some awards, it got good reviews, it made it into the Guinness Book of World Records, and perhaps most importantly, it launched alongside Microsoft’s Xbox Live Community Games service (later renamed Xbox Live Indie Games) in 2008. Nathan followed up this success with Shoot 1UP and Explosionade before conceiving a grand follow-up… a sci-fi metroidvania called Grapple Buggy, which would mix elements from Bionic Commando, Blaster Master, and Super Metroid.

And here’s where things get nutty…

Do you remember I Love Bees? It was a viral alternate reality game (ARG) used to promote Halo 2 in 2004. Basically, there was a hidden message in a Halo trailer that led people to this website (originally at ilovebees.com) that looked like a beekeeping site on the surface, but there were clues to be followed, puzzles to be solved, and audio logs that filled out a strange story. It was compelling and got people talking about the game without hitting them over the head with direct marketing. It was also something that could be done at very little cost… which is important to a small indie dev studio.

So, it was 2009, and Nathan and I started discussing ways to promote our next 2D indie game and generate interest while development was ongoing. At the time, there were still very few new 2D games being released to PC and consoles, so we thought about ways to remind everyone how good 2D gaming was. One idea we had was for a YouTube series called 2D vs. 3D where we would compare a 2D entry in a popular franchise to one of its sub-par 3D sequels… like comparing Contra III to Contra: Legacy of War, or comparing the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog to one of the original Sega Genesis games. The concept was that we would be pretty sarcastic and snarky about the ways in which big studios had “improved” their franchises by bringing them over to 3D.

We sketched that idea out, along with a couple of others, but we were still really stuck on the I Love Bees phenomenon, so we talked about releasing a teaser for Grapple Buggy with a link to another website… something that wasn’t just the Mommy’s Best Games home page. We didn’t want the viewer to go to the link and just find a “Go buy Grapple Buggy” message. Instead, we thought the site could be a celebration of all things 2D. We could talk about how great classic 2D games were and what made them fun, along with articles showcasing modern 2D games (bearing in mind there weren’t that many). This would give us license to have articles that featured established 2D classics alongside our own games.

And so the concept for 8 Bit Horse was born! But we didn’t want it to be a fake website just built around marketing our own stuff… we wanted it to be a real site that 2D gaming enthusiasts could visit to find out more about 2D video games, both old and new.

We did a lot of research to see if there was anyone out there already doing this… any website that focused exclusively on 2D video games. We found some sites that covered indie games, or covered a mixture of 2D and 3D games, but no 2D exclusives.

We also debated what to call the site. We had probably a couple dozen different ideas, but unfortunately neither Nathan nor myself can recall any of the others. 8 Bit Horse was my top pick, but we talked a lot about whether the word “2D” should be in the name to make it clear that this was the intention of the site. Ultimately, we felt that 8 Bit Horse was best because it not only called back to early generations of classic gaming (which were almost exclusively 2D), but it was also very visual. This made it a great pick for our logo as well.

Using PowerPoint, I created a proposed layout for how articles would look on the site, which I have included below. Note that some of the language in the original layout design is still centered around pitching the idea.

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After this, I created a mockup for a fictional game entitled Mesal Hawny: Saru Saru Hearbreak (yeah, yeah, I know… Nathan likes monkeys and I wanted to make him laugh).

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One of the things I thought would be interesting is to provide a controller layout for all of the games so there would be a quick reference for all of the functions, which supported the idea that we would primarily be talking about gameplay mechanics. Below are samples of NES, SNES, and Genesis controllers.

This format worked well for classic games that had standard pack-in controllers, instruction manuals, and some historical context, but it made less sense for indie PC games, so the format was eventually changed to what it is today, which is a discussion of game mechanics followed by a 2D CRED section… but we still use the original format for classic games.

Nathan mocked up the website in Blogger, which went live on October 5, 2009. The site was real!

Nathan wrote three entries for the site, the first of which was entitled Our Hidden Agenda, explaining that we were in fact Mommy’s Best Games, and that we had a love for 2D video games and we wanted you to buy ours too. For years, this was linked from the 8 Bit Horse home page, and it is still linked from the articles I write covering our own games, for the sake of full disclosure.

There were two other entries, one of which was originally titled Why 2D is God (later renamed to Why 2D Rules), which started with one of my favorite anonymous quotes:
The problem with 2D is its lack of a third dimension.
The problem with 3D is… everything else.
This entry was meant to extol the virtues of 2D and push our original snarky notion of “2D is superior to 3D”. The entry has since been archived.

Finally, there was an entry explaining “Heritage 2D”. We liked the idea of using the term “heritage” to discuss classic 2D video games that were formative to modern 2D game development… and we stole it outright from Nick at Nite ads that talked about our television heritage. We still use the term today, and you’ll find a collection of these games at the bottom of our 2D Notables page.

The entry has since been archived because the website is no longer divided into heritage and modern sections. In fact, the website was originally intended to cover mostly heritage games, with modern 2D games interspersed here and there... but that plan went out the window once 2D games started arriving as quickly as we could play them.

We played around a bit with the logo and tagline for the site in the early going, and I’ve included some of the original banner artwork below, created by Nathan. Most of these banners were live on the site at some point, if only for a few days while we worked out the look and feel.

The “2D games will save your life” tagline arose out of the 2D vs. 3D concept and it was making a statement that there was something pure about playing 2D games, and that you should go back and do it from time to time because it was good for you. Ultimately, we settled on “Where 2D Lives”, which we used for many years. This was more about saying 8 Bit Horse was a place where 2D games continue to live on, and that there is still life in 2D gaming.

On October 17, 2009, we published our first article, featuring Jackal for the NES. For the next several months, I dedicated 20-30 hours a week playing classic games and writing about them so that we could generate enough content on the site for it to be “real”. Jackal was the trial article, and was followed by Cybernator, which is significantly more complex, giving us an easy-to-hard range for our articles.

The publication schedule in those first few months was intense. I was putting out an article every week, and sometimes 2-3 per week from October to December of 2009. We were getting ready for some undetermined go-live date when we would tell the world what we were working on. Until then, I was writing articles for no one. Most of the traffic to the site was our own, along with a couple of our friends, and a handful of people who randomly stumbled across it.

And then it happened… we got discovered.

Epic Battle Axe was a gaming site that ran from 2008-2014, and it was filled with a bunch of people who showed genuine excitement about gaming. In Episode 63 of the EpicBattleCry Skirmish series - which went live on February 15, 2010 - they covered 8 Bit Horse (still so fresh and new) and had great things to say about it. (Here's a direct link to the audio portion of the show, and the mention starts at 33:36.)

That day, I got an excited call from Nathan… “Have you seen the numbers!?” he asks me. I had pretty much gotten out of the habit of checking our site traffic since we were only getting like 50 hits a day, so my response was “What numbers?” Nathan told me to go check out the site traffic, and… oh my goodness. We were getting thousands of hits. People were hitting the site so much that you could actually press F5 and watch the numbers change. It was an exciting moment for both of us, and we agreed… “Well, I guess the site’s live now!”

And there was no going back.

Since that day, we’ve had a continuous stream of regular readers and followers on social media, and we’ve continued to keep up with a publication schedule to deliver regular content at a more reasonable pace (no more publishing three articles a week). We even wrote some guest articles on Epic Battle Axe for a while.

On top of this, we need to give a big thank you to Maurice at Fanboy Confidential, who worked with us on the 10 Questions developer interview series, and who frankly did all of the work to put that series together. I found all of those interviews to be insightful, and they were a great look into game development during the 2D gaming resurgence.

We also owe a big thanks to Kurt Kulata of Hardcore Gaming 101. And let us say this… we were huge fans of HG101 well before the idea of 8 Bit Horse came about. Hands down, there is no better resource for classic games than HG101. We've gotten a great response from folks who follow the HG101 Blog, and who found us from their link to 8 Bit Horse. You should totally buy some of their wonderful books!

A primary feature of 8 Bit Horse is that it was never built to be a review site. For one thing, I didn’t want to spend time playing crappy games just so I could give them a negative review, and writing about bad games also ran counter to the philosophy of the site, which was to showcase 2D games that were worth playing. As such, every game on the site is notable in some way, and articles are built around discussing each game’s mechanics and what works and doesn’t work in their implementation.

One of the problems we encountered, however, was how to find 2D games worth covering on the site. After all, we wanted to be the place where everyone went to find 2D games, and we already looked and didn’t find any other 2D-centric sites… so how to you become an expert when there’s no one to learn from? I bumbled around GameFAQs.

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I went to a couple of forums and just asked an open question about what 2D games people were looking forward to. I remember finding out about Spelunky, Shank, and Super Meat Boy, along with a couple of other games, and then I searched online for any websites that had covered those games. I then went through those sites to see if I could find any other 2D games.

I used this info to create a watchlist, so I could be ready when new 2D games released in order to cover them for 8 Bit horse. I had the list in a draft file on Blogger that Nathan and I could both see and contribute to as we found new 2D games. And then one day, Nathan asked me a good question… Why don’t you make the list public?

Originally, I was hesitant, because it was just a raw list. There were no details or screenshots or anything, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a great idea. Not only could we cover games on the market now, but we could offer a window into games in development, providing an even better showcase of promising 2D titles.

I went back through the list and wrote one paragraph for each game, and grabbed a screenshot for each as well… and 2D RADAR was born on October 27, 2010. The original list contained 23 games, and went on to grow beyond 100. Eventually, we spun the list off onto its own website at 2DRADAR.com.

So here we are, 10 years later! We’ve covered hundreds of games during this time, getting our start with Heritage 2D, moving quickly over to Xbox Live Indie Games, and then onto Steam and modern consoles as the wave of indie development finally washed across all the major platforms.

It’s funny that our site was originally built around going back to playing 2D games, and looking back fondly on the days when all of the best games were 2D… because there is no better time to be a fan of 2D games than right now. Obviously, we’ll always have the venerable classics, but new game developers are actively adding to that legacy and contributing to the fabric of 2D gaming as a whole.

When we got started, we could never have imagined that this is what gaming would look like ten years later, and we’re super excited to see where it goes from here. Thank you all for sticking with us!

  • October 5, 2009 – Site launched
  • October 17, 2009 – First article published (Jackal)
  • January 21, 2010 – Created the 8 Bit Horse Twitter account
  • February 15, 2010 - 8 Bit Horse mentioned on Epic Battle Axe
  • March 2, 2010 – Created the 8 Bit Horse Facebook page
  • April 19, 2010 – Created the 8 Bit Horse YouTube channel
  • June 12, 2010 – First video in our 10 Questions developer interview series published (Shank)
  • October 27, 2010 – 2D RADAR launched as a module on 8 Bit Horse with 23 games listed
  • May 8, 2011 – The first game we ever covered from Steam (Capsized)... for reference, Steam Greenlight started in August of 2012
  • June 16, 2011 – First video in our Oddities in 2D series published (Kururin Paradise)
  • June 8, 2012 - 100th 2D game article published (Velocity)
  • Jan 27, 2013 – Our first ever Game of the Year awards show (The Best 2D Games of 2012)
  • September 23, 2014 – Started the 8 Bit Horse Steam Curator page
  • March 30, 2015 – 2D RADAR launched as a standalone website (2DRADAR.com)
  • September 4, 2018 – First full graphical redesign of the website since it launched
  • October 5, 2019 – 10 YEAR ANNIVERSARY!