It used to require a lot of time and effort to play old-school retro games, but things have gotten a lot easier. It's as simple as picking up a retro game console or an emulator, or downloading your favorite classic collection on your PC and console. However, reliving golden gaming moments isn’t just about getting your hands on the games.
Some of my fondest memories feature friends and family playing together on the big tube TV or gathering into a room for LAN parties. Sure, these days you can still trash talk each other, coordinate team maneuvers, or chat and joke with gaming headsets over the internet, but it doesn't quite feel the same. There’s something about seeing the horrified face of the person you just blasted into oblivion, witnessing their protracted victory dance after a win, or just laughing together that elevates the whole experience. That's what Piepacker wants to tap into.
It's a new browser-based platform that combines retro games with video chats to re-create that couch co-op vibe. You can join up to three friends to play a growing library of retro games such as Sensible Soccer, Worms World Party, and Micro Maniacs Racing. It’s free to sign up for a Piepacker account and create a room for the game you want to play. Send a link to invite others to join, and all they need to input is an email address. There’s nothing to install, but Piepacker only works with Google’s Chrome browser for now.
“Piepacker’s vision is to be available to the widest audience possible, allowing gamers to hang out and play together,” writes Benjamin Devienne, cofounder and CEO of the company, in an email. “Being accessible in one click, for free, is part of our DNA. That’s why we designed it free from day one, and we aim to keep it free forever.”
Licensed Games and Low Bandwidth
A part of the reason Piepacker can do this is thanks to its cloud technology and approach, which Devienne says requires, on average, 27 times less bandwidth than traditional HD cloud gaming services. “It means it’s much cheaper to run for us, but it’s also much more accessible for our users with more modest internet connections,” he says.
Small video windows on the right of the screen ensure you can see the people you’re playing with, though you can turn your microphone or camera off. Shy gamers also have the option of applying digital masks, and there’s a text chat window too.
Piepacker contains more than 60 games with the promise of more to come. There’s a mix of retro classics from game developers like Codemasters, Piko Interactive, and Team17, but most of the games available at the moment are from modern-day developers like Mega Cat Studios and Bitmap Bureau that specialize in the retro look.
Every title is fully licensed, and they span the arcade, PlayStation, NeoGeo, NES, Genesis, and a few other systems. I recognized Earthworm Jim, Glover, and Rage of the Dragons, but there aren’t many familiar names.
I shared links with my family and we started with Arsene Lupin: Gentleman Bomber, a Bomberman clone developed exclusively for the platform. If you’re unfamiliar, the game dumps you in a maze, and you drop bombs to explode bricks and reveal power-ups with the ultimate aim of blowing up your rivals. The action alternates between hilarity and serious competition, but everyone agrees it’s enormously fun.
As you probably already know from the last year of Zoom meetings, video chats can’t match being together, but the ability to see instant reactions and pull silly faces adds something. Piepacker's 3D masks are fun too. There are pirate hats and alien faces, though they're a little glitchy and sometimes appear floating on shoulders instead of heads.
The service is still in open beta and it shows. Playing fast-paced multiplayer games, at least one person I played with complained about lag every session. I also sometimes had to restart games to get everyone on board. And it’s irritating you can’t hop into a different game with the same group—you have to create a new room and share the link again.
Devienne promises the ability to switch games within the same room is coming this year. “As our platform is continuously improving and we are still adding more features to enhance the experience, we believe the beta label is still relevant—at least until we are completely confident that Piepacker reaches the quality standard we are aiming for."
Piepacker is designed to support any gamepad or keyboard. We tested it on a variety of laptops and PCs with different keyboards and controllers and found it worked well. Some games are best suited to a gamepad, but regardless of what you use, there’s currently no option to remap buttons or keys. It's a feature that has been widely requested and Devienne says it's coming soon.
Single-player feels more fluid and stable, but there’s less to tempt you into playing Piepacker on your own. Games have their original save systems, but Piepacker's cloud saves are very handy, particularly for tougher titles. The ability to play in a browser anywhere is also a hook, but the game library needs to grow.
“We plan to continuously expand our catalog on a monthly basis with new games," Devienne says. "We’re having positive discussions with legendary game publishers and studios to bring their all-time classics to our platform. Beyond retro games, we also plan to offer board games, card games, as well as more modern games in the foreseeable future.”
How does Piepacker make money? It all started with a successful Kickstarter campaign. Early Kickstarter backers were able to get six months of Premium membership for $40 or a lifetime membership for $100 (the final cost is still under review). Premium membership lets you bring your own games by dragging and dropping any digital ROMs you own into Piepacker to play them online. All the platform shares is a video feed from the game owner, not the ROM, so the other players are technically joining a virtual desktop, and the legality is the game owner’s burden.
Premium membership also includes extra 3D filters for video chat, enables upscaling, unlimited save slots and other advanced features that have yet to be implemented. There’s also mention of a rewind function, something I found very useful in Capcom Arcade Stadium when I revisited the unforgiving Ghosts ‘n Goblins.
There's also a hardware component, the Piereader, which has not yet shipped. The idea is that you can plug in your old physical game cartridges from the NES, Super NES, Sega Genesis (Mega Drive), or Game Boy and Game Boy Advance and play multiplayer with friends through the browser. Imagine dusting off those old Mario Kart, Street Fighter 2, or Secret of Mana cartridges and using Piereader to relive your youth with old friends, no matter where you all are now.
It's a unique proposition, though how well it will work remains to be seen. Devienne says it should ship in October, but the company is focused on fulfilling Kickstarter orders first and there are no plans to sell it at retail. One nice perk? The company doesn't serve up ads at the moment and says it will never sell or share your data.
Full of promise, Piepacker isn’t quite there yet, but there’s enough fun to be had to make it worth a look, especially since it's free. You can still find great couch co-op games, but they are increasingly few and far between, so the option to revive old favorites and play them with friends or family around the world is enticing. It just needs to iron out a few wrinkles.