Commodore 64 puzzler Millie & Molly became one of Antstream Arcade’s first homebrew indie games in 2021. Antstream Arcade sent Graeme Mason to chat with its creator, Carleton Handley, about how this brilliant game came about.

The Game: Millie & Molly

Developer: Below The Tower (Carleton Handley, Saul Cross, Hans Axelsson-Svala, Chun Wah Kong, Patsy Chim, Steven Day)

Year: 2020

Platforms: C64

Genre: Puzzle

Story: Sisters Millie and Molly are trapped in a world of horrible, malicious monsters, and it’s up to us to help them escape by solving each screen’s puzzles. Fortunately, the pair can control time – if you mess up, simply rewind time and have another go.

Antstream Arcade: Hi Carleton! We know from our previous chat (https://www.antstream.com/post/dev-history-carleton-handley) that you began work in games development in the late Eighties, before spending some time outside the industry. Did you miss coding on the C64?

Carleton Handley: Hello! Absolutely – it’s why I started developing C64 games again. I had been developing games, mainly for mobile devices, until around 2012. The fun with those types of games is that they were developed similarly to games back then, IE small teams and quick development turnaround.

AA: Was it tricky going back to programming on the Commodore computer?

CH: Nah, it’s a bit like riding a bike. Despite a 30-year gap from my last C64 project, a lot of the techniques came flooding back. And many of the frustrations of coding back then are no longer a thing with excellent emulators, almost instant assembly times and a wealth of documentation, mostly available at the click of a button.

AA: An old Gameboy title called Catrap forms the basis for Millie & Molly. What do you like about this game?

CH: I like puzzle games with a fairly simple ruleset – even more so as I get older. It’s nice to pick up a puzzle game and have a quick five-minute play. Catrap also disposes of things like time limits and hazards, which can be needlessly stressful, and, for me, the best puzzlers are like doing a cryptic crossword. I’d bought Catrap on the Nintendo DS’s Virtual Console series and was playing through it again, but found it slightly hampered by having to scroll the view. I’d recently finished another C64 project and thought Catrap’s puzzles would fit perfectly onto the C64’s screen. I started playing around with a prototype.

AA: How did you go about designing Millie & Molly’s levels?

CH: I intended to use the Catrap’s levels, and the game was developed using that data. However, I decided to try and crowd-source new levels and coded the level editor. Sadly, there wasn’t a lot of response to that request, but an old colleague from my Software Creations days stepped in and created all the new levels. That was Chun Wah Kong, a lead designer on the PlayStation 2 game The Getaway, among others.

AA: What did you think of his levels?

CH: Actually, his wife also pitched in with some of the levels – clearly a talented couple! And the best part was that Chun withheld their work from me until it was complete. When I plugged his data into the code, I got to play it as a new player would, which doesn’t happen often in game development.

AA: How did you get Saul Cross (art) and Hans Axelsson-Svala (music) on board?

CH: I put a post up on the Lemon 64 forums about my prototype, and Saul asked if I needed someone to do the graphics. I jumped at the chance to work with him and think he did an excellent job. He also wanted to do the music, but Hans also got in touch, and I liked the slightly mysterious vibe his music gave to the game.

AA: The music reminds me of another time-shifting indie game, Braid.

CH: I’m a big fan of Braid, which I think is why I preferred Hans’s music. Otherwise, I don’t think it’s an influence – the rewind feature is in the original game.

AA: That feature presumably appealed to you?

CH: It allowed for quick experimentation of ideas without restarting a whole level. It also let Chun set little ‘gotchas’, which only become apparent later in the level – always a great moment for me.

[image] millie molly level 14

AA: Did you encounter any problems during development?

CH: Not in any technical sense. The main issue was everybody doing this as a hobby and finding the time. You can’t hassle people to provide you with levels, graphics or sound when we’re all doing it as a hobby. It was always a good day when I received new assets from my colleagues.

AA: Who came up with the characters?

CH: That was Saul Cross. I sent him my prototype game which had a sprite from Rainbow Islands. He sent back these cute sisters. In my mind, they were ageless, but I think the grannies tag has stuck now. Saul also named them.

AA: The early levels are quite simple and easy – did you consider making them a bit trickier?

CH: They’re meant as tutorial levels to teach you how the game works. So you have to use ladders, learn that you can fall from any height and that dropping boulders on your head is a good thing to do! It is probably a little easy, but the challenge soon ramps up!

AA: Indeed it does! Do you think too much?

CH: All the balancing was down to Chun, and I think he got it pretty spot on overall. Level 45 is notorious, but I never marked it as particularly difficult on my playthrough. I think the issue with that level is that you can make a mistake with your very first move and not realise it, and the layout of the level kind of encourages that error. Then again, I’ve seen YouTube and streamer videos where people start struggling at level 20.

AA: Millie & Molly has a real play-at-your-own-pace ethic – does that appeal to you?

CH: Absolutely. I play games to relax and often find time limits or boss fights stressful. Grid Pix is similarly stress-free, although I did add a clock to that game just to fill up the screen space! I kind of regret that now.

AA: Looking back at Millie & Molly today, is there anything you’d do differently if you had the chance?

CH: I think the need to complete each level to progress to the next in the C64 version is slightly frustrating, especially as people have told me they’ve spent 40 minutes or so on some levels. The change in the conversions meant you could take a breather from a hard level and return to it later. I also wish I’d made everything go black and white during the rewind effect. I think there was a technical reason I couldn’t then, but I’m sure there’s a way to do it.

AA: Presumably, you weren’t aware of the children’s books of a similar name?

CH: I think I found out about a week before release, which made it look as though we’d ripped them off. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as those characters actually stop us from getting search engine hits. So although I love the title, I think we should have maybe gone for something different. But it was too late.

AA: Finally, are you working on any C64 games today? And any chance of a sequel to Millie & Molly?

CH: Sadly, not for now. With my new job, I tend to have done enough coding during the day to want to spend my spare time doing it. However, I am playing a new puzzle game on my Nintendo Switch called Patrick’s Parabox, which is excellent. Every time I pick it up, I wonder how I’d implement a C64 version of it!

Our thanks to Carleton for his time. For news of weekly game releases and information on our tournaments and new challenges, visit our Discord, https://discord.com/invite/antstream. There you’ll discover a vibrant community of Retro Heroes chatting about Antstream Arcade games, high scores and more. And don’t forget you can play the C64 homebrew classic Millie & Molly, for free, on Antstream Arcade!

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This blog primarily written by Graeme Mason covers retro gaming and offerings of Antstream - and can be checked out at it's original published location of https://www.antstream.com/retro-gaming-news/