August 10, 2012 3:00 AM | Staff
Bring up Shinobi III, Strider, or a number of other classic action titles to veterans of the 16-bit console game era, and you're likely to see a spark in their eyes, a fond remembrance for the good old games that the industry once produced -- 2D titles that demanded precise attacks, prescient acrobatics, and the sort of time investment that few adults could spare.
"A lot of people look at those games with nostalgia, but they don't really identify the fact that those games never actually stopped being fun," says indie developer Kris Durrschmidt. "These games aren't outdated. The game mechanics aren't outdated. People just stopped [making them]."
Durrschmidt, along with programmer Taron Millet, recently formed a startup called Crazy Viking Studios to create games that look and play like those action titles they remember from the Super Nintendo and Genesis' glory days, the kind of experiences that big publishers have, for the most part, since left behind.
The two have a history producing action-heavy sidescrollers; before forming Crazy Viking, they worked on a number of handheld licensed titles with cult followings at Griptonite Games, such as The Legend of Spyro: The Eternal Night (GBA), Spider-Man: Web of Shadows (DS), and most recently Shinobi 3D (3DS).
When Glu Mobile took over Griptonite last year and transformed it into a smartphone/tablet-focused studio, Durrscmidt and Millet decided it was time to strike out and create something unburdened by someone else's license or the often times irrational demands of IP owners.
Their first project, Volgarr the Viking, promises "16-bit style action from the golden era of arcade games, reimagined for today." To the untrained eye, it looks just like an SNES or Genesis title -- it even comes with a throwback box (provided you pledge enough money to its Kickstarter campaign) -- except the game's releasing for Windows PC.
Beyond getting the look right, Crazy Viking has needed to put itself into the same mindset as those designers from decades ago in order to get Volgarr's gameplay right, without forgetting the lessons developers have learned over the years. It hasn't been easy for the pair, but they have advice for anyone who wants to try their own hand at making 16-bit action games.
1. Focus on perfecting primary mechanics
From the beginning and all throughout development, developers need to constantly ask themselves, "What is this game really about?" and stick to those simple ideas. Too often, when developers or publishers feel a game isn't compelling enough early in its development, they'll want to throw in other mechanics for a quick fix.
Dursschmidt points out, "In older 2D games, the design philosophy behind them was 'Okay, let's give this guy three really tight, really sharp, really precise mechanics, and then we're going to find out how many interesting ways to use that mechanic, and make that game awesome. It's a very tight, precise experience because of that.'"
With Volgarr, for instance, Crazy Viking has spent a lot of time tweaking the game's fixed-trajectory jump system, which is very much inspired by Capcom's Super Ghouls'n Ghosts. The team modified this essential mechanic by making double jumps also serve as an attack, and designed the game's platforming challenges specifically around this system.
2. Simple, easy to learn controls
Durrschmidt advocates giving players their characters' entire movesets from the beginning, allowing them to discover how to use the tools they have through level design and enemy placement, and forcing them to master their movements and attacks without any involved tutorials that delay the fun parts of a game.
His goal for controls is identical to his philosophy for mechanics: keep them simple and tight. Make them as precise and predictable as possible, and try to design your game entirely around a single button, only adding another when absolutely neccessary.. Players need to concentrate on timing jumps and dispatching enemies, not fumbling with controls.
3. Difficult but not unfair
One of the biggest appeals of 16-bit action games is their often challenging design, their refusal to mollycoddle players. A player might die at the same spot a dozen times, but that feeling of reward they get after finally passing that area (or mastering an enemy's pattern to the point where it's no longer a concern) more than makes up for it.
And while the difficulty of those old games were a major part of what made them so fun, it's important to realize there were a lot of antiquated mechanics -- like traps that killed players without warning, and pits that weren't visible until players commit to a jump and it's already too late -- that Durrschmidt says are best left behind in that era.
Designers must also balance the tension that comes from fearing in-game deaths. Offering only three lives and a few continues was the standard two decades ago, but sending players to the beginning of the game once they've depleted all their lives seems unreasonable now. The same is true with not implementing checkpoints for players to continue from in a big stage.
Indies Zero's cult DS release Retro Game Challenge is an excellent example of how developers can create a retro-style game with modern conveniences -- the game collection's Dragon Quest-inspired old school JRPG, for instance, has a handy save anywhere option, an auto-battle system, and fast text scrolling.
4. It's okay to cheat
As you can probably already tell, Durrschmidt doesn't believe it's imperative to adhere to the design and presentation of older games. "We are cheating," he admits. [Volgarr] is not a true 16-bit game. We have a lot more colors in the sprites. We have alphas. We're throwing all kinds of particles out there. We have multiple scrolling layers."
Crazy Viking didn't feel uncomfortable cheating because at the end of the day, it made Volgarr look better. Durrschmidt adds, "A lot of folks look back on those old games and remember them fondly, like 'Oh, this game looked really awesome.' But you go back and play it, and there are things where you're like, 'Well, you know. This could've been a little nicer here.""
When you take too many liberties, however, the game ends up looking sloppy, with certain anachronisms standing out like a sore thumb. Figuring out whether you've crossed the line can be a process as simple as playing through the game yourself and deciding, "That doesn't look right at all. We should take that one out."
That strategy applies to music, too. Volgarr's over-the-top orchestral music wouldn't have been possible on 16-bit systems, but Durrschmidt and Millet found the idea of attaching an epic score to it hilarious -- after testing the idea as a gag, they realized that it added a lot to the game's atmosphere and tone.
5. Don't just make another Castlevania
"Don't just re-skin Castlevania," advises Durrschmidt. "If you're going to go back and make a 16-bit game, try to approach it in a way that you're in that era, you're trying to compete with Castlevania. You're trying to compete with ActRaiser and Ghouls'n Ghosts."
Though Volgarr cribs a number of ideas taken from Super Ghouls'n Ghosts, Rastan, and, yes Castlevania, Crazy Viking tries to make sure it builds on those borrowed mechanics and make those features its own.
Developers need to remember that the goal isn't to make a game that plays just like those old 16-bit titles; it's to create a great game that harkens back to those classics.
[Eric Caoili wrote this article, which originally appeared on Gamasutra.]