Old School Gamer Magazine chats with NEScape! creator Kevin Hanley, who discusses the game and what it meant to be a part of the entire development process.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How was this game born?
Kevin Hanley: Every year my friends and I go to an escape room on my birthday. It’s been a recurring thing for about 6 or 7 years. Something about entering a room with literally no direction and trying to figure out how things go together is really appealing to me. After we finished the room one year I got to thinking about how an escape room might translate into an NES game. I kept the idea in the back of my head for a while, but finally decided to bounce some ideas off of a friend of mine, Kyndal. I had intended to just get the ball rolling to get an idea or two, but we wound up designing the entire game in one night. It’s fun to look back on the sketches from that night’s discussion, because the game’s final design stayed very true to them.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What is your role in the game?
Hanley: I created the puzzles with my friend Kyndal, I programmed the entire game in 6502 assembly language, and I did all the sound effects. Then of course I worked with the wonderful people at 8 Bit Legit to bring the game to modern consoles. That was really a dream come true.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What has development been like?
Hanley: Development went pretty seamlessly. It was the first game in which I sought outside help on graphics, which really freed me up to focus on the programming. Since this game has so many different “puzzle types” I basically had to program game engines for every single one. It was a daunting undertaking, but with the incredible music and graphics that were sent to me I was constantly motivated to keep going. Each time I added another piece to the game it really hyped up the entire team and that encouragement and motivation propelled the game to finish really quickly. I think from start to finish it took us around 5 months.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What makes this game special?
Hanley: This game is special for a number of reasons! It was the first game everyone else on the team had ever worked on. Jon and Travis, my artist and musician, respectively, replied to a call for help on Twitter. They had never worked on anything before. Jon honestly had no idea how to make NES graphics, but I could tell he had true talent, so I was happy to show him the ropes and get him started. I’ve worked with him exclusively ever since. It was also one of the first commercially released NES games to allow use of the SNES mouse. Using a SNES peripheral on an NES console was incredible, and it felt like the game was made with that in mind. It was so well received that it was nominated for an award at IndieCade, in the adaptive category. Plus it was one of the first NES games to make it to modern consoles, so that’s been really rewarding, like I said.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What games influenced this one the most?
Hanley: We combined a lot of influences from games we loved growing up. Jon and I share a love of old PC point and click adventure games, so we took a lot of the sensibilities from that style of game and incorporated them in NEScape. I also wanted to keep the interface and controls incredibly simple, so in that sense I borrowed a lot of design choices from mobile games where you just sort of tap where you want to do something. It wound up working out incredibly well I think.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Any fun stories or wild moments during development?
Hanley: A couple moments come to mind. When we were implementing the infamous slide puzzle, Jon initially sent me graphics that had the puzzle with 9 different sliding blocks. When looking at the image it seemed too simple for me so I asked him to adjust it to use 16 blocks, not knowing it would become the biggest roadblock in the game. I’ve gotten so much flack for that puzzle since release! Sorry everyone, my bad!
The second moment that comes to mind doesn’t necessarily have to do with development, but the first public reveal of NEScape was at Magfest in 2019. Kyndal and I flew up to Maryland from Florida, and it was the first time we got to meet Jon (graphics) and Travis (music) in person. Having the whole team together was a really special moment that I will treasure forever.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What were the major lessons learned?
Hanley: I think the biggest lesson that I learned was that just because I think something is simple doesn’t necessarily mean other people will feel the same way. For puzzle games you have to find a balance between not too difficult and not too easy, and that scale is different for literally every person. So you have to make a decision on how true you want to stay to your desire for something to be challenging while not alienating other people in the process. I don’t know that we 100% succeeded for NEScape, but I am really proud of the game that we released. I’ve taken this lesson and applied it to games I’ve made since. It’s made me a better game designer for sure.
Old School Gamer Magazine: Do you think preserving older gameplay mechanics in new games is important?
Hanley: I actually think doing the opposite is more important. Since I focus on making retro games, I think taking modern gameplay mechanics that weren’t considered at the time and implementing them in a retro game is really interesting. Things like not punishing players for dying a certain amount of times and having to make them start again from the start of the game. As adults we have limited time to play games, so being able to continue as many times as we want, or having the game save your progress so you can turn the game off, but start back at level 4 the next time you turn it on is really nice. Quality of life improvements are really exciting to bring into older style games.
Old School Gamer Magazine: The marketplace is crowded. How do you think you stand out?
Hanley: If I had the answer to this I would be much better off haha.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How have your previous experiences in industry helped this game?
Hanley: I think the biggest benefit to my previous experience is just the connections I’ve made over the years. Knowing which people to send review copies to, knowing who to contact about bringing the game to modern consoles… those types of things. I’ve been doing this since 2009, so I’ve put in a lot of work and met a lot of people and it’s nice to benefit from that in small ways as we release better and better games.
Old School Gamer Magazine: How do you want this game to ultimately be remembered?
Hanley: I’m hoping that this game is remembered as a quality release on a classic console. We really tried to pack as much content in the game as we could, and I think it really pushes the boundaries of what an NES game can do, both in content and in peripheral usage. I also hope that it’s remembered as a pioneer title in propelling NES homebrews into a modern audience. Seeing groups of people sitting around all shouting at the person holding the controller telling them to try this or that is a lot of fun, and knowing that I helped bring joy to people is a great feeling.
Old School Gamer Magazine: What’s next?
Hanley: Our new game is called Courier. It’s a cyberpunk adventure game where you can take on jobs to make money to purchase upgrades with hacking minigames throughout. The game is finished and we’re currently working with a publisher to get the game out. We’re excited for people to get their hands on it. Hopefully 2024 is the year!
Old School Gamer Magazine: Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m truly happy with the support that ID@Xbox gives indie games like ours. Being able to put a retro style game in front of a large audience is huge, and I feel like the big companies have made tremendous strides the past few years in giving smaller indie devs a large platform to showcase their work. It means a lot and makes the long nights that we put into developing these games after spending all day working at our day jobs totally worth it.
I’m eager to watch the NES homebrew community grow as more and more people are exposed to them thanks to these modern releases and interviews like this. Thank you so much for giving me an opportunity to talk about the game. We had a blast making it and we love all the support it’s been given over the years.