Old School Gamer Magazine chats with Blake from Angel Star Studios, who discusses their new retro and experimental platormer, Mira’s Brush.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How was this game born?
Blake: I have been making games for fun since I was a kid in the 80’s, from Commodore 64 tutorials with my mom, Klik and Play in the 90’s, and lots of silly projects. I love making this stuff.
Around 2015, really enjoying being a dad and husband, I wanted to also start to create something that said something about me to the world outside. I started making music in Beepbox, an online chiptune tool, soon after, and really enjoyed the learning experience.I was bad at it, and knew it, but learning. I decided I would temper my tunes into something that could work for a new game, something my kids could play when they were older, and something interesting and challenging enough to hold the interest of me, a jaded old man with bad teeth.
Mira’s Brush specifically came out of my interest in classic “gimmick” platformers, like Jumpman Jr. and Mario Galaxy. I wanted to make something where each level had its own rules, bound by a single mechanic that I hadn’t seen so often. I wanted to avoid “bounce and kill” mechanics, and I love the idea of colour-based puzzles, so a game about colour was the natural choice.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What is your role in the game?
Blake: Mira is a pantologist. A kid handyperson. As Mira, your job is to return the stolen colours to Chromaland and defeat the evil Lord Blump using your magic paintbrush, power-stencils, and an almost unreasonable amount of jumping. Essentially it’s a fix-it gig.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What has development been like?
Blake: Making this game has been a harrowing rollercoaster. Long, bumpy, somewhat worrying, but real fun. I’m a working dad and not exactly the smartest coder in the world, so real life has often taken the front-seat, but five years and one strained metaphor later, I feel I’ve got something that genuinely surpassed my expectations in almost every way. I’m ready to get on another ride, which is very much the opposite of my approach to roller-coasters of the non-emotional variety.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What makes this game special?
Blake: Basically, the rules of the game are whatever I want them to be. Some levels the physics warp, or graphics shift styles, or trans-dimensional kittens teleport the player through time and space; I like to play with gameplay rules a lot, always have.
You’re not going to see a long stretch of the same mobs to bounce off of, the same spikes to tumble into, or the same wall-jump sections again and again. There’s a place for those games, they’re often awesome, but Mira’s Brush is more in the tradition of older experimental platformers; back when people didn’t know “the rules. Mira is a kid. She plays with what can be done, rather than refining a single formula.
That said, I’m hoping there’s enough balance to keep more traditional jump and run players happy. I mean, I’m no Shigeru Miyamoto, but I really want all types of players to enjoy the ride.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What games influenced this one the most?
Blake: Jumpman for the Commodore 64 is probably my biggest gaming influence. I loved how every stage had a different concept and playing the game was a process of working out what to do as you executed it.
De Blob was a small influence on the colour mechanics. That game was neat, but I really wanted them to throw the player more curveballs, more bumps in the track.
If you’re familiar with Nitrome, I also love how they would play with original mechanics in each game. That stuck with me.
I’d say the later 3D Mario games, Kirby games, and the Donkey Kong country series were the most recent AAA influences, for the world of secrets, collectables, and making these kinds of experiments flow. Shiggy is the king, really.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Any fun stories or wild moments during development?
Blake: I’ve had a lot of crazy things happen during development that aren’t really game related. Covid of course, my kids growing up, my wife was in a pretty serious car accident and that changed our lives a lot (she’s mostly recovered now, so you don’t need to send sympathies or anything). And of course I met all kinds of lovely allies along the way, but the dev process itself has been pretty straight forward.
I think people might find it fun to find out that the original first draft idea had the player being a pitcher of liquid named Paula Pitcher, who would collect abilities in liquified form. That proved beyond my abilities however.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What were the major lessons learned?
Blake: I learned every day on this project. I have done scripting and programming before, but I’m no polymath. I’m pretty bad, actually. However, over the course of development, I learned how to make chiptunes (getting better each week, I hope), learned a lot about programming and the Construct 2 language specifically.
I also learned a lot about planning. I actually like that I had an anarchic spirit to development on this game, it’s led to some really weird levels, but I’d like my next game to be better planned and have gameplay ironed out much earlier in the process. I was playing with basic jumping physics right up until the first demo came out, and even a few weeks ago I was tweaking movement speed and other dumb stuff like that. Definitely want to approach future projects with a better understanding from the get-go.
Oh, and don’t trust downloaded code/tutorials. I did, and mayn are great, but they’re often out of date by the time you get to them, and relying too heavily on that stuff doesn’t teach you how to fish, so to speak.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Do you think preserving older gameplay mechanics in new games is important?
Blake: Not in itself, necessarily. I’m not trying to replicate my childhood, although that can absolutely can be fun when done right. To me, and this may just be me, what’s important is telling good stories, making fun music, and innovative gameplay mechanics, whether you’re working in a 2D pixel-based retro-style or immersive 3D. Games like Braid or Celeste or Shovel Knight FEEL familiar, but they all take the genre someplace new. If a game is just a bunch of guns and hallways, or a bunch of non-descript baddies to bounce off of, I give it a pass. If it plays with new mechanics, or unique music, or a great story, it’ll grab my attention.
I also like games, even silly ones like Mira’s Brush to have something to say. Not necessarily whom to vote for, or how to connect with your estranged grandfather, or which Prime Minister is the most racist, but *something*. Maybe about creativity. Maybe about art. Maybe just about how you feel on a daily basis. That’s the beauty of much of the retro indie scene. People put something from themselves in the game and they don’t have to say they’re sorry.
Old School Gamer Magazine: The marketplace is crowded. How do you think you stand out?
Blake: A lot of people love the chiptune music of Mira’s Brush, it’s maybe not the best in the world, but it is unique in a lot of the sounds, because I just didn’t know any better. It’s also a massive game with tonnes of paths to the end, and lots of unlockables throughout.
More than anything though, I think it’s worth anybody giving it a try because of the gameplay variations. You may not love everything I’ve thrown onto Mira’s pallette, but you’ll find plenty of unique ideas, and/or creative twists on old ones. I don’t know of any other platformer on Steam that does this to quite the degree of Mira’s Brush. It’s maybe not as out-there as something like Passage or Braid, but I’ve tried to play with as many new ideas as I can and still have the thing hold-together into a fun package.
Plus, if you don’t help Mira, you’ll never find out whether you’re afraid of the disembodied head of Ernest Borgnine!
Old School Gamer Magazine: How have your previous experiences in industry helped this game?
Blake: I love making games, probably more than playing them, but I’ve never worked for a corporation before. Even in my real-life, I’ve mostly worked for governments, non-profits, etc. This is the first thing I’ve really tried to sell, and that’s mostly because I want people to give it a try, and maybe make my costs back a bit.
I will say I’ve had incredibly positive experiences with the community, and that’s buoyed me up in terms of skill, and mental wellness.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How do you want this game to ultimately be remembered?
Blake: The first game I ever published, Flags of Doom, was a single-screen non-scrolling platform game with a similar “kitchen sink” approach to level design. It was pretty fun to dev (did it with a high-school friend around 1996-1997), though graphically it was abysmal, and sound-wise, it had no music at all (music created loading problems, if I recall).
For some reason, Flags of Doom ended up on those “2000 Free Games” CDs that come with magazines, except pretty much exclusively in Eastern Europe. I never sent it to them, it just sort of happened. Since then, I occasionally find folks who played it, and loved it, even though they usually found many aspects rightfully trash.
My second major release was an adventure game from a series started with the Adventure Game Studio (AGS) community in the early 2000s, started with such luminaries as Ben “Yahtzee” Crowshaw and Neil Cicierega. My game was the largest ever from that series, and possibly the longest and toughest adventure game from the AGS world at that time. It wasn’t “polished” but it was weird. Years later I’ve found walkthroughs from people who loved the game even though they stated it was too hard, and kinda stupid in places.
I want Mira’s Brush to have a better influence than that. Not necessarily a Cuphead or a Celeste, but fondly remembered by those who played it as a bit of a different experience. I hope at least one speedrunner breaks it completely and I hope some folks 100% it, because I snuck in a few big secrets for those that do. Basically, I hope it’s fun, that’s all.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What’s next?
Blake: Mira’s Brush launches October 15th. There’s a lot of fixes to do before then (though my list is being whittled away daily), and a few secrets to add as well. I also intend to keep improving it after release, assuming players find stuff I didn’t know was broken, or quality of life improvements suggested by the community. I want to invite speedrunners to take it on, maybe with some kind of prize.
After Mira’s Brush has been out, I intend to start work on my next couple of projects, a simple Tetris-meets-tower-defence mobile game (should be pretty simple), and a longer parody RPG along the Mario Superstar Saga/Goemon 64/Undertale kind of vibe. We’ll see how that goes.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Anything else you’d like to add?
Blake: Just that I’m immensely thankful to be allowed to chat about Mira with your team (and thankful to Angel Star Studios for getting me out there). If anybody out there wants to talk chiptune music, or ask questions about designing games for fun, feel free to reach out. If you wanna know why Rob Hubbard rocks, hook me up.
Oh and learn to juggle, it’s good for your brain!