We’re not sure that there are many people on Earth that love the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis more than John Springer.
The Fort Wayne local caught our attention earlier this year when he enthusiastically announced that his company I Heart Pizza was working on a new fighting game for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, called “Go For It”. But what we didn't know at the time is that this new game reveal was actually part of a much larger plan — one he came up with during a period of immense personal struggle.
In 2007, Springer was diagnosed with Stage 4B cancer, causing him to undergo an uncomfortable treatment of chemotherapy and radiation. Thinking over all the things he still wanted to do with his life, he made himself a promise. If he survived, he would realize his dream of opening a new retro-themed pizzeria and use it to share his love of pizza and his favourite video game console ever (the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis).
It's been almost sixteen years since then, and Springer has made a tremendous recovery in that time, but hasn't forgotten that promise he made to himself. In the years since, he has secured a location for his pizzeria and put together a business plan. He's also been working with a bunch of developers around the globe to rescue and restore old Mega Drive/Genesis games (mostly unlicensed titles from countries like Taiwan and Brazil) and is creating a bunch of entirely new homebrews, which he intends to put on display in the restaurant once it finally opens.
Time Extension spoke to Springer recently and he shared with us his incredible journey so far: from why he initially wanted to start a retro-themed pizzeria to his countless adventures in homebrew.
As Springer tells us, it was on the morning that he had to file his Canadian wife's papers at the US consulate in Calgary, that he first discovered a grapefruit-sized bulge beneath his left armpit. Shortly after, he got it checked out and was diagnosed there and then with Stage 4B cancer, starting chemotherapy right away in order to help treat the condition. Understandably, it wasn't the easiest news to process, but during this time, Springer did what he always tended to do during the difficult times in his life, turning to his favourite video game system, the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, for comfort.
Springer had been a fan of video games ever since the days of Atari 2600 but had fallen head over heels in love with Sega's 16-bit machine in the late '80s after he first read about it in Electronic Gaming Monthly. Some of his favourite memories to date are of the countless pizza parties he had with his friends growing up in Fort Wayne, playing games like Altered Beast, Star Control, and Sonic the Hedgehog. So, while sitting around one day in between treatments, he got thinking about the idea of opening his own retro-themed pizzeria to try and bring that experience to people in the modern day and give him something productive to focus on while recovering.
Springer tells Time Extension, "For me, pizza and games are really [about] bringing people together and creating happy memories. If you grew up with that, then you know. But there are a lot of people who haven’t had that opportunity yet, and for me, that was such a powerful thing. [...] We had a pizza chain here – and it was a big chain here – called Showbiz Pizza. And it had the animatronics. And we had Chuck E. Cheese with the animatronic band and all that. People now look back on it and say, ‘That’s incredibly creepy!’. But no, it was actually incredibly wonderful back then, because you’d go there, you’re eating pizza, you’re seeing this goofiness all over, and my god, we had Pacman, Ms. Pacman, Galaga, Dig Dug. There they were. There it all was. And it was new at the time! It was new!"
For me, pizza and games are really [about] bringing people together and creating happy memories. If you grew up with that, then you know. But there are a lot of people who haven’t had that opportunity yet...
He continues, "Now here we are in this day and age where we have the internet but we’re kind of like disconnected when it comes to physical space. And there’s something magic about getting everybody in the same room and just that co-op or couch experience."
After landing on the idea, Springer threw himself into researching possible menu items as well as potential games that he would like to include in the restaurant when it opened. This is how he first came across the unlicensed Mega Drive/Genesis title Magic Bubble, from the Taiwanese game company C&E — one of the many games he claims brought him "incredible peace" during the uncertain period in his life.
According to Springer, he immediately knew that this was one of the titles that he would love to have on display in his restaurant, but he was also curious whether it would be possible to try and acquire the rights too, in order to remaster the game and bring it to a wider audience.
"It’s the true definition of a hidden gem," says Springer, "Where you have to sit down and you have to play it for about three-to-five minutes to like really let it fit because the first time you play it, it kills you. It’s a classic puzzle game and it’s tough as nails. You will lose immediately, but as you play it, it just sort of reveals itself and opens up. And the music, the sound effects, the art — it’s just wonderful, quirky, and full of heart, and I fell in love with it. It actually brought me incredible peace while I was doing chemotherapy and radiation. Without exaggeration. To the point where I was like, ‘Hey, this game hasn’t been [re]published yet, why? People need to play this.’"
...it’s just wonderful, quirky, and full of heart, and I fell in love with it. It actually brought me incredible peace while I was doing chemotherapy and radiation.
As Springer discovered, after conducting some research into the game, another company named Super Fighter Team had beaten him to the rights, but it didn't put a stop to his plans. Over the next 15 years, he not only acquired Magic Bubble from the developer, but a bunch of other unlicensed games from elsewhere, with plans to improve them, publish them, and feature them in his restaurant.
It wasn't just other people's games that he wanted to put on display in the pizzeria either, with Springer becoming more and more acquainted with the Sega homebrew community on the Sega-16 forums, and curious about the possibility of making his own games. Then, one day, while out eating with us mum, she reminded him of a dream he once had as a kid about making his own game set in Fort Wayne and this idea eventually became I Heart Pizza's first original homebrew title: the beat 'em up Summit City Showdown.
Springer tells Time Extension, "I always thought about [making] a localized Double Dragon. Maybe I’m weird, but when I was a kid, I was like ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if it was our city?’ and it was Double Dragon or whatever. I thought, ‘Geez, that’s the best idea I’ve ever heard Mum, but I haven’t got a clue. I haven’t gone to school for this, I don’t code, I can’t draw, I can’t do anything. I don’t have that skillset.’ The idea stuck though, and it turns out I was able to develop enough to be dangerous, but really the credit goes to the incredible developers in the Mega Drive homebrew scene […] who are just unbelievable."
Summit City Showdown was in development from 2009-2012 and was created in collaboration with individuals around the globe. It stars John and his wife Alia as they beat up snowmen, zombies, ninjas, and a bunch of street punks, who are threatening the peaceful midwestern city, and features a selection of real landmarks and businesses. Though the premise is admittedly rather silly at face value, Springer's main hope was that it could contribute to the city's culture and gives residents another reason to be proud of where they grew up.
"Local art is emerging and we’re starting to find our identity a little more, but we’re very much a city where we’re not really known for too much so to speak," Springer tells Time Extension."[With Summit City Showdown], I kind of wanted to take it in another direction; there’s a lot of hip indie stuff going on downtown, but we’re not cool. We’re not hot. We’re warm. Our character is fun. It’s video games, it’s approachable, it’s fun, and it’s meant to be for everyone."
After Summit City Showdown was completed in 2012, Springer sat on the game for six years, before reuniting its small development team to do one final update. Then, the following year in 2019, he took the game on the road, showcasing it at several cons like Fort Wayne's comic book and pop culture event Fantasticon. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, especially with children.
Local art is emerging and we’re starting to find our identity a little more, but we’re very much a city where we’re not really known for too much so to speak. [With Summit City Showdown], I kind of wanted to take it in another direction.
"It’s astonishing, you put the Mega Drive in front of these kids who have never touched it and they love it. It’s funny, I’ve heard from many cynical adults like, ‘How is it ever going to work with kids?’ I’m like, ‘It will work, don’t worry!’ Just the joy of that. It’s great for mum and dad. And it’s great for old farts like me who grew up with this stuff, but for the kids and for people who are not even in the retro games scene to just be able to be like, ‘Oh, that’s really cool!’ And it’s genuine. I’m not saying that to promote it. You can really see it in their eyes and hear it in their voice, and it’s this really genuine, ‘Oh man, this is really kind of fun and interesting!’ So, I love that, and I really want to pay that forward for as long as we can. That’s really the end goal here."
Following the modest success of Summit City Showdown, Springer and Co. have turned their attention to creating their next original homebrew. This time it is a straightforward fighting game — a genre that Springer has loved ever since playing Konami's Yie Ar Kung Fu in the arcades. But he doesn't just want to make a cheap knock-off or a copy of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat and call it a day. No, instead he wants to build one of the most approachable fighting games ever made. The name he settled on for it was "Go For it".
"I wanted to create a fighting game for people who suck at fighting games. Because with all of our Mega Drive homebrew, who is my audience? Yes, it’s retro gamers and the retro gaming community. I’m part of that and I love that scene and I’m passionate about that for sure. But we have a pizza place and when people walk in off the street, they may have never touched a Mega Drive in their life. And so, we want to make an inclusive game where folks can pick it up and have fun right away: without any experience or knowledge of the console, fighting games, or anything. So, to be candid with you, I was inspired by games like Smash and the simplicity of their design."
With respect and admiration, there’s no Ken, Ryus, Scorpions, or Sub Zeroes. They’re not here. They’re not happening. Because how many fighting games do you go back to and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s that character’.
In Go For It, players are able to activate specials with just a single press of a button, meaning that anyone — no matter how familiar they are with fighting games — can pick it up and won't have to memorize an encyclopedia's worth of information before beginning to play. It’s a bold strategy that will likely attract newcomers but could potentially turn off some more experienced fighting game fans who are specifically seeking for that deeper kind of experience.
In addition to simplified specials, Springer also set out specifically to avoid falling into the same repetitive character stereotypes that many Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat clones have fallen into. As a result, his small team put a ton of time into coming up with new and distinct character types, which should hopefully be a refreshing change of pace from those we've seen before.
"I want to have the most vibrant, diverse, fun, unique rosters with rich personalities and backstories," he tells Time Extension. "I did a very deep dive into 2D fighters and even 3D fighters. I spent god, way too long, researching that to the hilt, and it really struck me that yes, there’s some diversity here, but maybe in the 90s we weren’t so attuned to that trait. With respect and admiration, there’s no Ken, Ryus, Scorpions, or Sub Zeroes. They’re not here. They’re not happening. Because how many fighting games do you go back to and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s that character’. It’s the derivative of those. We’re not going that route. There are enough of those games already out there."
Development on Go For It is still ongoing but it will be coming out in 2024, according to the recent Homebrew Summer Games Showcase. Springer, meanwhile, has previously stated he plans to open his restaurant in late 2023 but has since gone on to claim that there is no definitive date set just yet.
Springer's homebrew journey started in one of the darkest periods of his life but from this devastating event, he has worked towards an admirable goal — to share his appreciation of the Sega Genesis with the rest of the world.
"It sounds so cheesy, but I feel honoured and humbled," he tells us. "That’s probably what I’m [most] excited about — to be introducing my favourite console of all time to a whole new group of people from all walks of life; young, old, it doesn’t matter."