Retro gaming is an increasingly growing industry, and custom consoles are ever more in demand. We speak to a leader in the customisation game – Ryan Spence, founder of Ultimate Customs who specialises in retro console concepts and modifications.
Why have a plain NES when you can have a spectacular NES? Ryan Spence is passionate about customising retro gaming consoles and his work is exceptional. We speak to the man whose motto reads:
‘I take old shit and make it better‘.
So first a little about you for those who don’t know: Name? From? What do you do?
My name is Ryan Spence, I’m everything from the CEO to the janitor at Ultimate Customs, specializing in custom retro gaming consoles, primarily NES. I’m from the Boston, MA area, and have been making custom consoles for nearly 10 years now.
You must be a big gaming fan but what got you making the consoles in the first place?
My love of everything retro was a huge driving force in taking me down this unusual, but fun road of customizing consoles.
Having grown up during the golden age of the 80’s, the NES was a huge part of my childhood, just like so many others. I think the battle so many of us have is, as we grow older, we depart from elements of our youth even if we don’t necessarily want to. For me, although I had to grow up just like everyone else, I felt it was important to keep something from our generations early years relevant, especially in the face of the endlessly evolving technology we are surrounded by today.
The kids of today have so much thrown in their faces by the big gaming console companies that as soon as they are settling in to a new console, the next generation is already rolling off the line; we never had that. Our generation saw the roll-out of NES (amongst others), and lived with those base consoles for years (nearly a decade in some cases), unheard of by today’s standards. There’s a lot to be said for that, especially because it became so engrained in our culture as kids that we all remain so incredibly fond of it all these years later; I don’t think the kids of today will enjoy that same fondness for the PS4, or Xbox One. My loves of nostalgia, the importance of the NES in our childhoods, and the desire to take it and make it relevant again, were the forces that pushed me to pursue this.
The skill set and knowledge base grew accordingly as I chased this dream further. Truth be told though, going into it at the beginning, I only knew as much about electronics and circuitry as the next guy, but in pushing myself to become better at it, I was able to grow both my capabilities and desire for experimentation. All those factors hugely contributed to where Ultimate Customs is today, as well as where I’d like to see it go in the future.
What was your first build?
The first NES build I ever embarked on was a Hulk Rules concept (a nod to the Immortal Hulk Hogan). It was as basic as basic can be, and when it was all said and done, it looked absolutely awful. It’s absolutely vital to suck at first I believe, and I sucked in spades. Sucking is a great motivator, probably the best motivator, at least for me. Seeing how terrible the Hulk NES turned out pushed me to do better the next time. Not willing to accept defeat after just one console, it forced me to strategize, evaluate the flaws, and formulate a stronger plan and approach for the next build. I still feel like I should track down the guy that bought the Hulk NES and apologize to him!
Explain a little about the basic process for making these?
The process is akin to a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book from back in the day. At the base is a general idea of where I want to go, but everything between that point and the finished product is widely variable. They truly grow from themselves.
What I mean by that, is certain themes call out for certain features, and the question of “what if I did this….” is something I ask myself a thousand times over during fabrication. When I sit down to build a console, I can see a vague picture in my head of the finished product, but by the time I reach that point of completion, the project almost always has evolved drastically from the initial idea because of all those moments of “what if” during the build.
That Choose-Your-Own-Adventure concept is the essence of Ultimate Customs; never be afraid to turn to page 65 and chase the robber! As for specifics on how I do this or that, I would tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.
Are there any that posed more difficulties than you first expected or you wish you hadn’t started?
The timing of this question is perfect because I just completed a Jurassic Park build, that just like Jurassic Park itself, started as something grand and amazing and spiralled into an out of control disaster!
I wanted the Jurassic Park Nintendo to be as epic as the movie, complete with music, sounds, lights activated by those sounds, all kinds of over-the-top functionality. However, true to Jon Hammond’s legacy, even when you spare no-expense, you can’t control the forces of the world that work against you.
The console would do things it wasn’t even wired to do! Activate sounds that shouldn’t be activated, lights functioning out of order; it was evolving into something I couldn’t control. Like Malcolm says, life finds a way. Despite the disasters, the Jurassic Park Nintendo is finished and working beautifully, let’s just hope it’s not on a Jurassic World type arc!
This is the most common question I get asked about what I do, and unfortunately my answer is lame, but honest. I hate them all equally. While many of the people that view my pages and support what I do look at the broader idea and finished product, I struggle immensely to see past flaws or things I wasn’t 100% happy with or debated doing differently; should have had that be this color, should have had this light up instead, etc.
Gun to my head scenario, I think I would probably pick the giant NES controller / console as my true favorite, finishing that project up was an incredibly satisfying moment and I remember celebrating loudly when I finally plugged it in and played it. That beast was a learning experience from beginning to end, tortuously so, however taking a 5in controller and blowing it up to a functional 32in version is a pretty awesome feeling I will admit.
I’ve had quite a few builds that have gone so poorly they never are seen through to completion. The one that sticks out the most in my head is a concept I had called the NintenPhone. It was a fully functional NES that also doubled as a functional landline telephone complete with controller handset. After months of fiddling with wiring and things just not coming together the right way, I had to abandon the project entirely which was devastating considering the amount of hours that went into it.
It’s hard to abandon a concept especially when you become very determined to see it through, it’s failure, and for me that’s a hard pill to swallow. I never say never on trying again, but for now, the Nintenphone remains a bygone dream.
What’s the strangest request you’ve had?
I get a lot of requests that make me laugh, and honestly only because I think people are giving my abilities far too much credit. Everything from, systems that transform from an NES into an SNES (a la Transformers), or NES box that houses a PS4. I love hearing what people can dream up even if it’s way beyond my current reach; those same strange and crazy ideas are what Ultimate Customs was built-on.
So while many of the things people pitch me I can’t do, they push me to hopefully someday get there. Looking at where I am today, 10 years ago I never though I’d be able to create some of things I have. Repetitive requests don’t make you grow, the strange ones do, so while many of them make me laugh, they ALL make me think, and without that, there’s no innovation.
Any big plans for the future?
I’m always dreaming and pondering the next big idea. In terms of something specific, I’m kicking around concepts like a Flux Capacitor NES, a giant SNES controller, maybe something crazy with an N64.
With regards to the bigger Ultimate Customs picture, as long as I can keep pushing the bar higher with design and concepts, I will keep pushing to bring new ideas to life. More importantly than that though, as long as people are still feeling what I do, I will keep pushing.
While the consoles are the most heralded aspect of Ultimate Customs, for me the supporters are the most important part. They are the ones that drive me to stay innovative, humble me, and also tell me when something sucks if it does. I need them, they are such an important part of the formula whether they realize it or not. They bring new ideas and new visions to the table constantly, that’s such a vital ingredient. They are like family to me.
I get messages frequently inquiring about having a console made, but just as often I get messages from followers that just want to talk gaming, tell me they love this console or that, give me an idea, I’ve even had people send me their old Nintendo to use for a project down the road that’s not even for them! It’s really awesome that people are so excited by what I do to that they give me their old NES expecting nothing in return.
In the future, if I can keep people excited in what I do and I can inspire either their own creativity, or inspire them to dig out their old NES and just play it as is, I’ll feel like I accomplished something with this. If Ultimate Customs pushes somebody out there to get into this job and they can grow to do even bigger and better things than I can, what an awesome impact to be able to have.