Old School Gamer Magazine chats with Ellen Larsson (FrankenGraphics) and Donny Phillips (ToggleSwitch) about their awesome upcoming retro adventure.
About Project Blue:
Hidden in the outskirts of the Dezone, a secret bio-weapons lab is conducting unspeakable experiments on the homeless youth of that concrete wasteland. The most promising test subject, codenamed PROJECT BLUE, manages to break free following an overly successful bio-energy augmentation. Now it’s up to YOU to help Blue escape from Theta Lab and bring down the shadowy multinational conglomerate running Neo Hong Kong!
Put your skill, wits and reflexes to the test as you jump, swim, and blast your way through four massive areas in this exciting new action platformer.
ABOUT 8-BIT LEGIT:
8-Bit Legit is a pixel partnership between Mega Cat Studios & Retrotainment Games, who share a passion for quality retro games.
We are committed to keeping cartridge gaming alive both in physical form and through modern digital publishing. 8-Bit Legit curates and publishes the best new retro experiences. We wish to satisfy your appetite for pixels on classic cartridges and modern platforms. 8-Bit Legit is headquartered out of the Steel City, Pittsburgh, PA.
ABOUT ToggleSwitch & FrankenGraphics:
ToggleSwitch and FrankeGraphics are veterans of the #indieNES development community, teaming up to create Project Blue.
Stemming from a shared passion for the NES, the duo set out to create something special for the console, mixing shared inspirations and tones to deliver a licensed-quality #indieNES game for people to enjoy in the modern era.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How was this game born?
Ellen: We were both on the NESdev forums, this place where NES tinkerers & developers talk. This was in 2017, and I had been sharing some of my graphics. I had just posted a ‘looking for collaboration’ notice for a game jam when Donny DM:ed me within a day or so, fully prepared with a playable tech demo.
Donny: I had actually been developing that tech demo for a few months, with the specific intent to use it to entice Ellen to work with me. We had never interacted at that point, but luckily she agreed!
Old School Gamer Magazine: What is your role in the game?
Ellen: I made the graphics, about half of the level design & testing duties, and the jingle that plays when a new game starts. We also hashed out design choices together as we went beyond the initial demo.
Later on, when it became clear we were going to sell the game to finance our time making it, we hired the artist M-tee to make illustrations, layouts and much of the text for the cartridge, box and manual.
Donny: I wrote most of the music, did the other half of the level design and testing, and did all of the programming – both of the game itself and the level editor we used to lay everything out.
We both worked together to get the gameplay mechanics down, from the types of enemies and objects available, down to the way that they interacted with each other.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What has development been like?
Donny: We live nearly 5000 miles apart, so all of our work together has been done over the internet. One of us would use our bespoke level editor to create part of the game while the other would focus on their ‘main’ duty (art for Ellen, programming for me).
Then, we would take turns testing each other’s levels. Any areas where it was too difficult or otherwise felt tedious, got nerfed during these testing runs. Many rooms had to be tweaked several times before they reached their finished state.
Ellen: Donny’s editor had this smart feature, where you could graft a level onto an already assembled ROM file. That made it possible to make changes to the game as it was live tested in an emulator. It felt like surgery, with the game as patient.
With the final 10%, we also had huge help from a speedrunner called WhiteHat94, who recorded his test sessions. He broke the game in ways I think we could never have predicted. A few sequence breaks he discovered were left alone or even designed around because we thought they were too cool to seal away.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What makes this game special?
Ellen: It combines a simple control scheme with deep possibilities of mastery. There’s always room for more finesse. I think the game encourages you towards that. It’s also unusually rich in visual detail & soundtrack for an NES game. Some rooms were designed mainly as visual rewards for overcoming a stretch.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What games influenced this one the most?
Donny: Since our main character is dressed in blue, lives in the future, and shoots projectiles in a straight line, the game draws a lot of comparisons to Mega Man. But as far as gameplay is concerned, Project Blue is actually more strongly inspired by Super Mario Bros, which was the first NES game I ever played. The physics are very similar, and several of the enemies are sort of analogous to Mario baddies like Goombas, Flying Koopas and Buzzy Beetles.
Additionally, once you know what you are doing in Super Mario Bros, you can run through a lot of the levels quite quickly – and it feels very rewarding to do so! Project Blue has a similar feel once you are proficient with the controls and familiar with the space.
One other game I would mention is Battle Kid, which I have never played, but its mere existence was inspirational to the creation of Project Blue.
Ellen: Both also happen to feature a sugar cube sized boy with a pea shooting ability.
I also took some inspiration from the 00’s indie game Knytt Stories by Nifflas. But knytt is an atmospheric, serene and exploration focused metroidvania, so it’s quite different. The sort of thing that I took to heart was adding a pinch of secrets and treats, or breaking up the course in different moods & paces, so it’s not just one long continuous gauntlet.
Sometimes you get a rush of free wind; like there’s a stretch in the first zone, which feels a bit like coin heaven in SMB1; just a little bit riskier. Sometimes there’s something to please the eye. Sometimes a choice, but whichever way you go takes you forward.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Any fun stories or wild moments during development?
Donny: As much as I enjoyed the process of making this game, most of it probably doesn’t make for a very interesting story. Lots of sitting and listening to music while you work. But taking the game to Portland Retro Game Exposition (which can draw up to 10,000 people) and letting passersby test it, really brought a smile to my face.
Ellen: The night before we were taking the NES version to kickstarter, I was still rendering the campaign video on my old, wheezy, dust ridden and critically hot laptop. It had given up a couple of times before, so I sat there, sweat beads on my forehead, and sprayed it cool with a dust cleaner as it rendered. Luckily, it finished rendering on time.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What were the major lessons learned?
Donny: Personally I learned a lot about how to create a game engine, mostly by doing things wrong and regretting it later!
Ellen: I learned a thing or two about killing your darlings. We had to be ruthless from time to time, selecting which tiles should fit in this or that set, focusing on what wished-for features were actually important to the design, and then wringing out every last drop of interesting combinations of those features in the level design.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Do you think preserving older gameplay mechanics in new games is important?
Ellen: Not necessarily, but if you make a game that targets the NES, it comes with material conditions. How many sprites you can display side by side. What buttons you have on the controller, whether or not to dedicate memory for text graphics. Whether or not to have scrolling, which impacts performance as well as the amount of determinism in the level or scene. That sort of thing. It all informs your choices.
Designing for the NES fosters directness. You need to focus on what you believe is going to be core to the experience. But there are decades of collective design wisdom since the NES came on market, you might as well make use of some of it.
Project Blue is a mix of both worlds. I think we were at least in part inspired by fairly modern games, but it’s also classic in the sense that it’s more or less about testing your skills and overcoming challenges and feeling the thrill of becoming better, while the story is subdued and in the background. It’s also built around being beatable in one sitting once you’ve had enough practice, and doesn’t allow saves. That feels decidedly old school, like the first Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, and so on.
Donny: I think if you are trying to create a game that feels like it comes from a particular era, it’s essential that you look at the best games from that time and at least try to do something similar.
At the same time, we would be remiss not to recognize that there are some things that made those games frustrating and trying to cut down on that sort of design. You don’t want to do something that isn’t fun for the sole purpose of authenticity.
Old School Gamer Magazine: The marketplace is crowded. How do you think you stand out?
Donny: If you mean the video game market in general, I think we stand out by being what we are – an authentic NES game that really seeks to capture the essence of platforming games from the 80s; all the way down to the box art and manual, which were beautifully done by M-Tee and really do a lot of work to flesh out the game world.
If you mean, the market for NES and other retro-style games, which is also becoming a quite crowded space in itself, then I think we still manage to stand out. In my opinion, Ellen is one of the best pixel artists out there when it comes to NES art. We also have a huge soundtrack and a lot of content (256 screens per difficulty setting). The box art, the game art, the soundtrack, and the gameplay all form part of a cohesive package that I think is compelling and fun.
While tools like NESMaker have made it much easier to create NES games, the fact is that making a good game is still a lot of work, and a lot of that is making sure that the entire package is done right – it’s not enough to have a game that plays well. It also has to look and sound good! To be honest, I think there are a fair number of games coming out right now that aren’t putting in enough effort when it comes to things like box art, and that can really affect the way the people perceive the game itself.
Ellen: I’m just a hopeless detail maniac, and I think I can say we were diligent in polishing this game. Hopefully the fruits of that will still assert itself now that the game potentially meets a broader audience on modern platforms.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How have your previous experiences in industry helped this game?
Ellen: Before Project Blue, I had never worked on a game meant for the market. But I’ve been in adjacent fields. For a few years, I was contracting for museums, where I gathered visitor experiences with digital installations, analysing how to improve them. It could sometimes get pretty technical, and eventually evolved into developing thematic touch screen solutions, where I teamed up with a coder.
We went with C++ and a minimal linux distribution to boot straight into the application. A typical project, I’ve realized now, was not unlike game development. One even was an arcade game in the full sense. Apart from that, at the time I had done my own little practice projects. I think it helped my part in bringing the game to completion, I knew it’d take commitment to finish a game of this scope.
Donny: The closest relevant experience I had prior to working on Project Blue was programming synthesizers and audio effect plugins. Which honestly doesn’t really translate at all – the programming language for the NES (6502 assembly) is archaic and quirky, and the NES hardware is also unlike anything I have ever worked with. So the whole process had a very steep learning curve, but I at least had some basic programming experience.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How do you want this game to ultimately be remembered?
Donny: As you noted above, the market is pretty crowded right now, so to be remembered at all would honestly feel like an accomplishment! Dreaming bigger, I would hope that we will be remembered as one of the early high-quality homebrew NES games that helped to inspire other creators to contribute to the scene, ultimately playing a minor role in kicking off a new golden age for the NES. Project Blue itself would not exist without games like Lizard and Battle Kid that came before it, so hopefully we can provide that same inspiration to others.
Ellen: We’re both into making more NES games, so hopefully it’ll also be remembered as our personal respective starts in making full-length games in that format. It might be interesting to see it as part of that journey in a decades’ time.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What’s next?
Donny: As a team, we’re still hoping to make a sequel to Project Blue, titled The Violet Sequence, which will be about Blue’s older sister, Violet. I’ve got the engine for that mostly built, and a level editor as well. So the parts of the process that I consider to be the least fun, are mostly done. But we haven’t actually started working on the game itself yet, as we are both in the midst of other projects.
Ellen: Yeah, lately I’ve been mired in graphics tool development, which two other NES titles in my pipeline depend on, all while I’ve needed to teach myself C to get it going.
It’s been a ride, and I suspect I’ll never get that time back in terms of efficiency, haha, but it’s not just for me. The NES homebrew community benefits from having more and better tools.
I hope to get Halcyon, one of those two games I’ve been involved with, out soon. It’s been delayed long enough and I long to see it finished. That would also mean there’ll be enough time in the week to really focus on making a worthy Project Blue sequel.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Anything else you’d like to add?
Ellen: I’d like to thank the NESdev community for all their work on gathering and disseminating the know-how, and the backers of our original kickstarter who helped us manufacture the first batch of cartridges and enabled additional time to really polish the game.