a NEW title for the NES.
This interview is a result of a chance meeting at 100% ELECTRONICON, the world’s first Vaporwave music festival hosted by 100% ELECTRONICA last year in Brooklyn, NY. The festival was a blast. Vapor95 Inc. set up shop by the rooftop stage and spent the day listening to amazing music by some of our favorite artists and making new friends.
One such friend was Donny Phillips who mentioned that he was in the process of finishing a brand new game to be released as a physical cartridge for the NES. The game, Project Blue, was conceived by Donny, and developed in collaboration with Ellen Larsson. Per Project Blue’s Kickstarter page, “Donny did all of the codings, wrote the music, worked on level design, and came up with the initial idea for the game.” And Ellen, “did all of the pixel art, worked on level design, and helped shape Project Blue from a vague idea into a more fully fleshed out world.” While the two have never met in person (Ellen lives in Sweden and Donny in the USA) they have managed to share the effort and make an exceptional game.
In Project Blue, you play as Blue, an orphan who fights to escape imprisonment and mistreatment at the hands of an evil mega-corporation in Neo Hong kong. While Mega Man and Super Mario Bros. are listed as important influences Project Blue is, in fact, not a side-scrolling platformer. Rather, the game moves through 256 fixed screens, each richly drawn in a distinctive dystopian/cyberpunk style by Ellen. Acting as the connective tissue between each screen is Donny’s music, which strafes seamlessly between retro and (perhaps) more contemporary musical gestures while using the expected 8bit range of the NES hardware.
A few months after 100% ELECTRONICON Donny and Ellen generously agreed to answer some questions about their work via email. I wanted to know what inspired Project Blue, what it was like to work on, and hear their thoughts on retro gaming today.
The KS campaign page lists Mega Man and Super Mario Bros as influences with regards to the physics and gameplay of Project Blue. How do you see those influences showing up most clearly in the game you’ve made? Are there specific examples you point to?
Absolutely—the physics engine is inspired by Super Mario Bros., probably the most influential platformer of all time. The way that Mario moves is very intuitive, so much so that most people have never bothered to really analyze it—it just ‘feels right.’
For example, Mario has acceleration and deceleration, which means it takes a moment to reach full speed when running, and it takes a moment to come to a complete stop. When Mario is running faster, he can jump higher. Mario can also control the height and length of his jumps with careful use of the jump button—when the jump button is pressed, Mario is not affected by gravity as much as he usually is, which gives the jump a 'floaty' feel, allowing the player to carefully plan the landing position. When the jump button is released, normal gravity returns.
These are all examples of where we've taken strong inspiration from Super Mario Bros.—the physics engine of Project Blue has all of these characteristics as well. Many early games do not have these features, and the controls can often feel a bit clunky by comparison—examples include Castlevania, or even earlier Mario games such as Donkey Kong.
As for Mega Man, the inspiration is more from a design perspective. Our hero, Blue, is in many ways a combination of Mario and Mega Man—you move like Mario, you shoot like Mega Man. You also collect health like Mega Man, so you can take more damage, unlike Mario who dies quite easily by comparison. So you get some of the best elements of both characters.
What I think is fresh and new with Project Blue, on the other hand, is that the Super Mario Bros.-esq physics are applied to a very different set of features than you see in the classic library of NES games. In Project Blue, you go from fixed screen to fixed screen, rather than scroll—a bit like Solomon's Key, but more fluid, fast moving and not nearly as puzzle-like. The scale of open spaces, platforms and obstacles is, as a result, more zoomed out and more detailed, compared to both Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man games. There's definitely an element of problem solving in there too, and many rooms have several working "solutions" to each platforming problem. This allows for a game experience which I feel—and I hope others will feel, too—is different from both Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man.
About Castlevania, the more stiff controls have their beauty too. The focus, however, is a lot more on timing, rather than fluid jumps. There's a deliberate delay between pushing the attack button and seeing the whiplash out at full length. If you jump to a platform that’s lower than the one you started on, you will be forced to recover for a short while before taking further action, but the character is also kneeling which minimizes its vulnerability during this period. It's all very well thought out. Castlevania rewards tactics and timing, whereas Super Mario Bros. rewards agility and reflex. There is often talk about Castlevania being clunky, but it is exactly that which makes the game great feeling. I think the takeaway here is that each game needs [to operate within] its own logic to be at its best, and there's no single recipe for a good platforming experience.
Would you mind describing a bit of your own professional backgrounds in video games, and how your own background has informed your work on Project Blue?
Although I've occasionally been an audio programmer, I've never worked in the video game industry. Actually my main inspiration for making a video game was to write music using the NES.
For me, Project Blue is an art project as much as it is a video game. The technical side of programming everything is honestly not something I enjoy a whole lot—it is an interesting exercise, but it can be frustrating to program in a language that's older than you are. The artistic component of envisioning a world, and characters, then trying to bring them to life within a given medium, is what appeals most to me.
I just enjoy game design as a hobby (system and level design in particular) and have never worked in "the industry" in any capacity. The closest I’ve come, commercially speaking, is that I've designed user interfaces and mini games for museums, exhibitions and the like, which requires a skill set that overlaps with game production, or product development in general for that matter.
What was it like to work together for so long without ever meeting in person?
I think it's really been great—it definitely required patience on both of our parts, as we both have real lives to tend to and have to duck out for weeks or even months at a time. And it required a lot of trust as well, that the other person is going to follow through on their responsibilities. It's the sort of thing that's hard to trust even when you know somebody really well!
That said, I think it went about as well as it could have, we have similar attitudes on a wide array of subjects, and get along quite well. And I feel really lucky to have found somebody as talented as Ellen willing to work on my game!
It's been great. One of the advantages of finding someone like Donny, who I share a lot of ideas with and whose skill set is complementary to mine has been that it’s been easier to work together than working with someone else locally. We might not have had the same frequency of sprints than if we’d shared an office or met every week, but it has been good! Donny's been great to work with.
[Project Blue] is also moving a lot faster than my own personal little NES projects, since a team requires accountability. When I'm doodling graphics or writing code on my own, there's no one expecting a finalization, since it's more-or-less a hobby.
Why make a cartridge game for the NES today? What is it about the retro hardware that appeals to you?
One thing about retro—it never goes out of style! I think what really appeals most to me about the NES is that a small dedicated team can make a game that competes with many commercial titles from the console's heyday.
Something about modern video games leaves me flat. Ten minutes into the mandatory tutorial explaining how to use the 32 buttons on the controller, I start to tune out. The flashing icons on the screen telling you what to do all the time makes it feel like a choreographed Guitar Hero segment, grinding for cut scenes. I just long for the days of being able to pick up a controller and figuring out how the game works organically instead of being told what to do.
With that in mind, I did my best to design the first section of Project Blue to teach you all about how the game works without ever telling you how the game works. In this, I was particularly inspired by a talk by Shigeru Miyamoto about the level design of World 1-1 in Super Mario Bros.—the level is designed so that a new player will organically figure out how to play without ever being told what to do. The beginning of Project Blue was made to do the same.
You get to interface with the hardware directly. Everything, from programming to even graphics and sound design, is intimately related to various hardware registers, what they can do, and what they can't.
The processor, and various external circuitry, provides a frame. It's then up to you to negotiate that framework. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you might even exceed expectations. There's a thrill in seeking that out. And all the while it helps you keep the project focused.
Then there's also the cultural and social aspect. We get to change what something as (still) culturally important to the gaming scene as the NES means. The NES was my first console and it shaped part of my childhood. Decades later I get to shape its meaning in turn. Lastly, there's something thrilling about making content for a platform that never was intended to be open to any except a few, select developers. In fact, [Nintendo] took serious measures to make it difficult to make something for the NES.
There are also a lot of holes in the NES library to cover. Both in terms of game titles and designs. But there is now an exciting field where you can let modern design sensibilities and historical hindsight meet within the exact same limitations developers like Capcom and Konami faced back in the 80s and 90s. They might have had the market window, but we have access to more examples, design references, and experiences. Even the system documentation is better today.
On your KS page it mentions that after the initial idea for the game had been hatched by Donny you both worked together to flesh out the concept and story. How did you tackle that work together? And, did the game undergo any radical changes with regards to story and concept in its journey from initial idea to the final form?
The initial pitch I sent to Ellen changed substantially over time. Originally, the game had a much brighter aesthetic and story—about a young boy in Pixel City who saved the city from a mostly undefined evil named Omnicorp. It was a paper thin concept, and pretty much the only thing it had in common with the final product is the names of the protagonist and antagonist.
In its final form, Project Blue is a fairly dark story about an orphan in war-ravaged Neo Hong Kong, who is kidnapped by an immoral group of scientists working for an unethical corporation, and subjected to horrific experiments as part of a military research project. He breaks free, and exacts revenge. This is a fairly gritty cyberpunk setting, with the standard anti-capitalist themes, and the lore hits many other popular cyberpunk tropes as well, while the initial concept was much glossier and had a more cartoon-ish quality to the story and themes (borrowing heavily from Mega Man in particular, but also bearing resemblance to the homebrew classic Battle Kid).
It was Ellen who originally suggested a more realistic tone to the game, which placed it in the real world and made it darker almost by default (as the real world doesn't have fanciful places called 'Pixel City'). From here, the story changed in order to fit the visuals we wanted to create and the enemies and objects we wanted Blue to interact with. For example, we wanted to show the contrast between the squalid ruins where the poor lived (the Dezone, level 2) and the sparkling downtown of Neo Hong Kong (level 4), walled off from the outside world. So those both became levels. And we needed a way for Blue to get from level 2 to level 4, so we created an underground passageway for him through the tunnels beneath the city.
If I never told anyone probably no one would notice, but the first area I drew graphics for was under the influence of reading The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, and maybe in particular the description of the "red coast base," which is a secret computer/radar lab in rural china at the center of the story. When this area was designed, we had our sights on participating in the NESDev competition. I think Donny had originally proposed that Blue would infiltrate this base and stop some madman down in a control center. Gradually during the graphics and level design process, it became more of a story about escaping, instead. It just sort of happened. Part of it is also that we couldn't really afford any outdoor scenes within the limitations of the competition rules since I had spent most of my graphics memory on interior details already. An initial idea about forest hillsides was scrapped and eventually forgotten. After the competition, it became clear to us that we wanted to keep working on it, and so the other bits fell in place by necessity. The starting location moved from mainland China to a factory complex just outside a place we call Neo Hong Kong.