Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Ten questions with Christophe Galati, maker of Save me Mr Tako

I had a keen eye on Christophe Galati's Save me Mr Tako: Tatsukete Tako-San long before it hit Steam and the Nintendo Switch eShop this time last year.

To put it another way, I drooled over this adorable, octopus-starring platformer back when it was still a Wii U title. And when it was being considered for the New 3DS, too.

In the end, neither of those now-defunct systems were blessed with Save me Mr Tako. Why? Sadly, I don't know. I rather stupidly forgot to ask Christophe about those planned-but-canned releases when he agreed to answer a few questions about the game a couple of weeks ago.

I asked him a number of other intriguing questions, though. Or at least I hope they're intriguing. You be the judge.

The Gay Gamer: How long have you been making games and what prompted you to start making them? Also, what kinds of games did you make early on?

Christophe: I was really into JRPGs and retro games growing up, as my brother was a game collector. I started to create games when I was 12, after discovering RPG Maker with a friend. My first attempt was a Pokémon fan game. It had a Final Fantasy-like battle system and a very dark story with Mudkip sacrifices.

I learned a lot, then decided to make more personal projects, learn pixel art and write stories. I continued using RPG Maker, and showed my work in online forums. At 18, I went to a game school--Isart Digital--in Paris, where I learned more about game design and programming while also working in the industry.

Christophe Galati sporting a Zelda tee

The Gay Gamer: I'm guessing Save me Mr Tako was your first "big" game--or at least the first one that was picked up by a publisher, made you money, etc. How did you go from developing games for fun, or on the side, to this?

Christophe: Correct, Save me Mr Tako is my first game as an indie. I started to create it in 2014, at a time when I was very depressed by the game school I was attending and the internship I had (where I was making a game for a French cheese company). It was the GameBoy's 25th anniversary year, I ate takoyaki for the first time and got the vision of an octopus character. All of this merged in my mind, along with my JRPG inspiration, and led to Tako.

I started with a small prototype that I published in September of that year, and it got a lot of visibility, especially in Japan. It gave me the motivation to make a full game of it, even though I was 19 at the time. I worked on it in my free time for three years, with the help of the composer Marc-Antoine Archier. Then, the game was selected for the Tokyo Game Show in 2016. It was like a dream come true. That’s where I met Nicalis. After that, I decided to leave my job and go full-time indie. The game finally released last October, after four years of hard work.

The Gay Gamer: How was that experience for you overall, now that it's behind you? Are you happy with how Save me Mr Tako turned out and how players responded to it?

Christophe: It’s never behind you. There are still many things I want to do with the game. I’m glad I was able to follow my vision and make the story come to life, as my first goal when designing a game is to tell a story. I’m proud to have made such a large game, but I’m kind of sad it has some balancing issues, as it was never my intention to make a hard game. After four years on my own, I couldn’t feel the difficulty anymore. Hopefully it will be patched soon so more people can enjoy the story.

I also learned a lot by working with a publisher, and feel prepared for what will come next. I’m glad players liked the game and identified with the characters, that it got the "hidden gem" aura and is considered one of the best GameBoy tribute games.

A scene from Save me Mr Tako

The Gay Gamer: Kind of an aside here, but Save me Mr Tako features drag queens. What made you decide to include them in the game?

Christophe: You can thank my friend Mirage for that! She introduced me to drag culture around the time I started development, and brought me to a few drag shows in Paris. It was so much fun! I’m all for making games more inclusive, to help the representation of LGBT characters--that’s something I want to keep doing in my next creations.

The Gay Gamer: Do you think you'll ever return to that world, perhaps with a sequel to Save me Mr Tako? And if you did ever return to it, what do you think you'd add to or change about it? Would it even still be a platformer?

Christophe: I hope I can return to that world someday. Now that I have more distance with it, I realized there were a lot of elements and ideas that came from the projects I made when I was a teenager, with an octopus twist. I guess it’s my own universe, and I want to keep expanding it.

But I don’t want to do a platformer again soon. My goal is to lean toward the JRPG genre, which is more suited to the stories I want to tell. I love to write universe and lore documents, so I may also create new worlds. Who knows what projects I will have the chance to work on in the future?

The Gay Gamer: You recently completed a five-month artist residency program in Kyoto. How did that change how you think about and make games? What are some of the things you learned there that are impacting your next game?

Christophe: Earlier this year, I got the chance to become the first game developer to be selected in a French artist residency. It’s something I've had in mind since seeing a documentary about Villa Medicis a few years ago. That made me think it would be great to have these kind of places open for game creators. When I discovered Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto, I had to apply. It was perfect for my needs, as my games are very inspired by Japanese culture.

Another Save me Mr Tako scene

I really think I grew up during those five months. It gave me more confidence as an artist and in the messages I want to express in my games. Being able to work in such a cool environment, surrounded by artists from very different fields and experiencing life in Japan--all those things inspired me a lot. It also gave me time to take care of myself after crunching on Tako, to get in better shape, to do research and a real pre-production this time.

The Gay Gamer: Speaking of your next game, it seems to be something you're calling the Himitsu Project. It appears to be inspired by Famicom games rather than GameBoy ones this time around. Is that the case? If so, why are you going for a Famicom aesthetic with it?

Christophe: Himitsu Project is a code name. I always saw Tako as a first step in a journey of paying tribute to and mastering the aesthetic of games that inspired me growing up. I started with the GameBoy, and am now moving on to the GameBoy Advance. I agree the current palette of the prototype is very limited, making it look like a Famicom game, but this way people understand it’s a prototype and that nothing is final. (That’s also why the character is still naked.) I hope that in future projects I’ll be able to explore aesthetics like the PS1 and DS, too.

The Gay Gamer: What else can you share about the Himitsu Project at this time? Does it fit into any particular genre or genres? Have any existing games served as inspiration for it? How far along are you in its creation?

Christophe: The game is an action RPG that's inspired by many games, including Illusion of Gaia, Golden Sun and Secret of Mana. The main themes it will deal with are secrets, how our society and people are built on traumas and how that consumes the world from the inside. It will follow several characters, including a drag performer.

Christophe Galati's Himitsu Project

It’s still the beginning of the project, I think it will take at least three years to develop--if I manage to not only work on it in my free time as I did with Tako. That’s what I’ve been working on since I returned to France--applying for funding and creating opportunities for the project.

The Gay Gamer: You say on your Patreon page that you want to form your own company at some point. Why is that?

Christophe: That’s also why I opened a Patreon page recently. It’s part of creating the good working conditions I’d like to have. I was able to develop Tako mostly alone, but in the future, I’d like to work with a team. That will benefit the quality of the final game and allow me to make even more ambitious projects. Starting my own company will help with funding, too, and that will provide even more opportunities. I’m just at the beginning of my career, and I want to see how far I can go to make my dreams come true.

The Gay Gamer: You also say you eventually want that company be seen as a modern Quintet. How exactly do you hope to follow in the footsteps of that company?

Christophe: For me, Quintet will always be a company with an aura, which made meaningful games. That is kind of what I aspire to--I want to create masterpieces, games that will inspire people as those games inspired me growing up.

My goal is not to revolutionize the game industry, but to explore new subjects, use gameplay to tell stories that will reach the heart of players, create great adventures that will make them understand things and help them in their own lives. I see games as an artform, and I want to defend that view. I believe our generation is the game industry of tomorrow, and I want to help make it less abusive and more inclusive.

See also: 'Ten questions with the guys behind the best GameBoy game you've probably never played, Tobu Tobu Girl'

Monday, September 16, 2019

Ten questions with Drew Mackie, host of the Singing Mountain podcast

I've got a confession to make: although I dearly love video game music (VGM from here on out), I pretty much never listen to it when I'm not actually playing a game.

Except, that is, for when I'm listening to an episode of the Singing Mountain podcast.

The thing is, I'd likely ignore Singing Mountain just I like ignore most out-of-context VGM if Drew Mackie weren't its host.

That's not just because of the dulcet tones of Drew's NPR-ready voice, by the way. You see, he and I go way back--in a manner of speaking.

Drew Mackie and Wario
I first became a fan of Drew's around the time I launched the blog you're reading right now. He had his own blog at the time, Back of the Cereal Box--it still exists, though it's been defunct since early 2018--that not only regularly covered video games, but regularly covered the kind of games I tend to enjoy.

In the years since, we've become friends via the comments sections of our respective blogs as well as on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Anyway, between our similar taste in games and my appreciation of Drew's way with words, you bet your sweet bippy my ears perked up when he announced in mid-2017 his next venture would be a VGM podcast.

Speaking of which, Drew recently agreed to answer a few questions not only about why he started Singing Mountain, but how he named it, why he likes 16-bit VGM so much and more.

The Gay Gamer: You launched the Singing Mountain podcast just over two years ago. What spurred its creation?

Drew: To be honest, I had my first podcast and I thought I might do this as a side project to draw attention to the main project--do short little episodes about VGM and then tell people at the end that I have this other nostalgia-based podcast about movies. Very quickly thereafter, Singing Mountain ended up being the project I enjoyed more and before long, I ceased that first podcast and started tinkering around with what I could do with this VGM podcast format. I actually didn't know much about the VGM podcast community and quickly had to educate myself.

The Gay Gamer: Why did you name it Singing Mountain anyway?

Drew: Chrono Trigger! The original OST for Chrono Trigger has one track that you don't hear in the game because that area ended up being omitted from the final version of the game. That's "Singing Mountain." And that name alone evoked something magical and made me wonder about what this lost area might be like. The song has since been used in subsequent ports of Chrono Trigger, but I would still like to see the creator's original vision for it.

This wonderfully beefy piece of cover art wasn't used
for an episode, but I'm including it here anyway

The Gay Gamer: What has been your favorite episode so far?

Drew: "Ric Ocasek in Moonside," an episode I liked so much I actually made it twice, just to iron out the kinks and make it as good as I possibly could. This episode is about EarthBound, but also me and the general way that music can linger in your head for years, unattached to lyrics or anything that could help you identify what song you're actually remembering. If that makes sense.

The Gay Gamer: Which episode do you think is most emblematic or representative of Singing Mountain or even of your taste in game music?

Drew: People make fun of my titles sometimes, but as a gay dude who likes pretty things, I gotta say that the most representative episode of my show is one is called "A Beautiful Place by Moonlight." A big theme throughout Singing Mountain is how I like softer, quieter, more relaxed music, and this episode was all about music that evokes the night but not in a way that's sinister or, like, dark, if that makes sense. It's about how sometimes things are prettier at night. I like thinking of a really abstract theme and then figuring out the weirdest collection of music I can get together that fits that theme. Also, the cover art made me happy.

Runner up: the one about VGM that sounds like italo disco, because I feel like people aren't aware of italo disco, generally, but would be into the idea of disco and new wave having a baby. They actually have an italo disco night at one of the gay bars in L.A. and this makes me very happy. (Not that I'm taking credit for it.)

Drew's Birdo-focused cover art for Singing Mountain's
"The Best Saxophones in Video Game Music" episode

The Gay Gamer: What is your favorite aspect of creating an episode?

Drew: Knowing that I'm my own boss and can do whatever I want. That sounds bratty, but I like that I can break format any way I want and it's OK. I've never had an in-office job where I had that much freedom.

The Gay Gamer: What's the hardest or most annoying part of creating an episode?

Drew: Trying to decide between "I can make this work" and "maybe I can't, maybe I should go in another direction." I don't like putting something out there that I don't think is worth the listener's time, and if I can't deliver the goods, then I need to go with plan B. This last week, I actually ended up not posting an episode, just because nothing was coming together. I'm hoping the time off lets me come up with a good idea.

The Gay Gamer: I always look forward to seeing the cover art you create for each episode, and I'm sure I'm not alone there. I'm guessing you enjoy it too? How long does it usually take you to make a piece of cover art? And what's your process for making one?

Drew: Sometimes the pixel art takes me as long as the episode itself, but only because it's my favorite part. It's basically just doodling, really, because I'm taking existing, official pixel art from Spriter's Resource and then screwing with it and making it weird or taking stuff from two different contexts and making them exist together. It's weirdly relaxing, even when I'm doing it at 2 a.m. because the episode is done and I'm still trying to figure out the art.

The rad cover for a heart-pounding episode
called "A VGM Dance Party"

The Gay Gamer: You obviously have a particular fondness for game music from the 16-bit era. Is that simply because you grew up in the '90s, or is there more to it than that?

Drew: On one hand, yeah. I was born in 1982, so most of my video game playing happened in the 1990s. It's my pop culture sweet spot. However, there is a less objective reason why I focus on 16-bit stuff. Super Marcato Bros. is another VGM podcast, hosted by composers who can talk about music on a technical level. One of the hosts (I think it's Will) has said that he thinks 8-bit VGM is the pinnacle of the genre--and yes, it is a genre--because the technology with which VGM composers could make music was very limited. In order to make music sound good, those 8-bit composers had to be clever enough to work within those restraints and find was to make the technology sing. Alternatively, they could compose melodies that are so purely good and catchy that they'd sound good even being played with those limited means. Often they did both.

I totally think this is true. As video game technology evolved, the restraints gradually went away. So composers coming along later didn't have to be as clever or the melodies nearly as perfectly composed. Coming right after the 8-bit age, the 16-bit stuff is still feeling those restraints but also getting a little more wiggle room, technologically speaking. To me, 16-bit is the best, because you still had to be fairly clever but you could also benefit from a wider range of sounds and consequently do a little more. And then as you get into the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 era it kinda gets... less catchy, I would say.

Drew and his adorable pup, Thurman
The Gay Gamer: Regardless, what are your favorite 16-bit soundtracks?

Drew: EarthBound (because eclectic), Seiken Densestu 3 (which is Trials of Mana now and I'm so glad people get to hear how Hiroki Kikuta took his work from the first Secret of Mana to a slightly darker place), and Super Mario RPG (because I actually think Yoko Shimomura is the most versatile composer working today, having composed this and the original Street Fighter II and Kingdom Hearts and Mario & Luigi and a billion other things). Oh, and the Donkey Kong Country trilogy. And then Treasure of the Rudras would probably be the one less famous OST from this era. Also Lufia II is better than you might remember.

The Gay Gamer: Do you have any favorite game soundtracks or even individual songs that come from outside the 16-bit era? If so, what are they?

Drew: Samurai Shodown! Especially the first three. Because I feel like the SNK fighters aren't remembered necessarily for their music, but the composers really nailed the mood of these games. And the DarkStalkers games are where Capcom always liked to get weird and experimental and kinda gay, if I'm being honest. And that includes the music. And then Wario Land 4 is just.... fascinatingly bizarre.

See also: 'Ten questions with the guys behind the best GameBoy game you've probably never played, Tobu Tobu Girl'

Sunday, July 14, 2019

A whole lot of thoughts on Ever Oasis for the Nintendo 3DS

I bought a copy of Ever Oasis all the way back in early 2018--when Walmart was clearing out its stock of 3DS games for some reason or other. Sadly, it sat on a shelf, unopened and unloved, until a couple of weeks ago.

While considering which game I should take on vacation with me at that time, my stress-addled brain kindly reminded me of Ever Oasis. So, I stuck the cart into my trusty OG 3DS and tossed the whole she-bang into my carry-on bag.

Surprisingly, I avoided both like the plague on my nine-hour flight as well as throughout the rest of my two-week vacation. I came to my senses on the trip home, though. Not only did I start my way through Ever Oasis during this lengthy leg of the journey, but I put more than four hours into its desert-focused adventure before I landed in Austin.

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you may have seen the posts I've published in the week-plus since I returned home that extol Ever Oasis' virtues. None of them went into much detail about why I've enjoyed the title so much up to now (or which aspects have done their darndest to keep me from enjoying it), though, so I thought I'd rectify that here.

It's gorgeous--Visually, Ever Oasis reminds me of a trio of other games I similarly adore: Fantasy Life, Miitopia, and Secret of Mana. All three are cute as buttons and feature chibi-ish character and enemy designs, of course, but that's only part of what I'm talking about here. The main aspect that ties these four titles together for me is they all use warm, soft color palettes that call to mind sherbet and beachy sunsets. As a result, I basically never tire of looking at them--Ever Oasis, in particular.

The soundtrack gives off serious Secret of Mana vibes, too--And by that I mostly mean there's a breezy, laidback feel to the bulk of it. The rest is made up of atmospheric tunes and tunes that are bombastically epic. All in all, it's an pleasingly eclectic soundtrack that cuts its own path while also offering a bit of nod to one Hiroki Kikuta forged many years earlier.

Fighting in Ever Oasis is a ton of fun--In fact, combat in this game feels a lot like the combat that's front and center in another 3DS game I just mentioned, Fantasy Life. I'd argue it's even more satisfying here, though, thanks to the fact you typically control a three-member party, and each party member tends to hoist different weapons and have different abilities that can be put to creative use while exploring as well as in battle.

I love the unique weapon designs--I'm especially smitten with the hammers wielded by Ever Oasis' portly, frog-like Serkah characters. One has a spiky cactus for a head. Another is capped with a giant pinecone. All of them put a smile on my face. The same is true of many of this game's other weapons, too--from its bolas, to its bows, to its magical wands. Sadly, only Serkahs can use the aforementioned hammers, but that's a pretty minor complaint, all things considered.

That said, I think there are too many weapons in Ever Oasis--I can't believe I'm saying such a thing, to be honest. Usually, I welcome any and all weapons an RPG is willing to throw at me. In Ever Oasis, though, you have to craft--or "synthesize"--the vast majority of them out of materials you collect while in the field. Only a select few can be bought from one of the game's rarely encountered merchants. As a result, you quickly build up a sizable cache of weapon "recipes" that overwhelms more than it impresses.

On the flipside, I wish there were more outfits in the game--I've found about seven turbans so far and maybe 15 coats or robes. That's not a whole lot, especially compared to the slew of weapons Ever Oasis offers up. Still, I'd be fine with this dearth of clothing options if what was available were more useful. Instead, the coats and robes and turbans are purely superficial. Accessories like anklets and rings and mirrors do boost your defenses in a couple of ways, but they're not visible during play--another big bummer for me.

The strategic aspect of the dungeon-crawling here is surprisingly engaging and intriguing--It's quite Zelda-esque in this regard. In fact, one could argue it one-ups Nintendo's classic series now and then thanks to the vast number of ways you can solve its puzzles. An unfortunate downside of this aspect of the game: you have to switch out party members with annoying regularity. Doing so is a lot easier than it could be thanks to the game's "aqua gate" function, but it's still pretty exhausting.

Speaking of which, I'd like this game even more than I do now if I could switch out party members via the pause menu--Considering the "aqua gate" mechanism I just referred to is far from realistic, I wish Ever Oasis' developers had taken things one step further and let players change party members quickly and easily via the game's pause menu.

That seems to be Ever Oasis' only missing "quality of life" component, however--Ever Oasis may fumble a bit with the above, but it makes up for it elsewhere. Don't like gardening? Ask some of your residents to handle it for you. Restocking their shops--or "Bloom Booths"--with materials you gather while spelunking is made similarly easy after a certain point. Early on, you have to go door to door to accomplish this task; later, it requires little more than the press of a button. The game is full of such shortcuts, and they help make it as tedium-free as possible.

I could do without a lot of this game's town-building and NPC-pleasing--Many like to describe Ever Oasis as a spiritual successor to Square Enix's Mana series. And while that makes some sense--especially since Secret of Mana's director, Koichi Ishii, also served as this title's director--it only tells half the story. That's because overworld-stalking and dungeon-crawling are just a part of Ever Oasis' gameplay loop. The other part focuses on town-building, material-gathering, and NPC-pleasing. Those actions are a nice diversion at first, but for me they became increasingly tiresome and time-consuming as I delved ever deeper into the game.

It's a crying shame you can't recruit any of the adorable Noots as party members--As much as I like the designs of most of Ever Oasis' controllable characters (of which there are many), I can't help but feel sad the developers of the title didn't allow players to add even one of the game's cute-as-hell Noot beings to their dungeon-crawling parties. Maybe they saved it for a sequel?

Note: the screenshots showcased here are from this wonderful Ever Oasis walkthrough and guide

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Manual Stimulation: Gunpey (WonderSwan)

Considering how much I usually love portable puzzle games, I am disappointingly inexperienced with and uneducated about Gunpey.

On the one hand, I can understand it. Gunpey isn't the most interesting looking puzzler around--despite being one that's played with the WonderSwan turned sideways, in so-called "portrait mode."

On the other hand, I can't understand it, as the game was made by the esteemed Gunpei Yokoi.

Not that he made it himself, of course. He made it with a number of former Nintendo colleagues who helped him start a company called Koto.

At any rate, their maiden release hit Japanese store shelves alongside the original WonderSwan model on March 4, 1999.

Unfortunately, Gunpey's status as an early WonderSwan release is reflected in its rather ho-hum instruction manual, scans of which can be seen throughout this post.

This manual also reflects what I said earlier about Gunpey being far from an eye-popping puzzle game.

How so? Well, most of the acreage here is covered in text. The rest is covered in black-and-white screenshots. A pop of color can be seen now and then, but that's about it.

Which is strange, as Gunpey stars a small handful of mascot-y characters that could've livened things up a little--or a lot.

Instead, the designers who worked on the Gunpey manual ignored them almost completely.

Oh, well. At least a number of screenshots included here showcase them. (Click on and zoom in on the scans immediately above and below to see what I mean.)

What else is there to say about the Gunpey instruction booklet? Not much, if you ask me.

A bit more can be said about Gunpey the game, though. For example, although it began life on the WonderSwan, it eventually made its way to the WonderSwan Color, the original PlayStation, the PlayStation Portable, and the Nintendo DS as well.

Also, a few months after the original iteration released, a version featuring San-X's Tarepanda character released for the WonderSwan, too.

Finally, some of you might like to hear how Gunpey is played. The gist: you move line fragments vertically along a grid in order to create a single horizontal line that stretches from the left edge of the WonderSwan screen to its right edge.

Like I said earlier, hardly the most thrilling of premises for a puzzle game.

Still, my limited time with it has been enjoyable enough, so if you have a WonderSwan and you're itching to play a puzzler on it, you could do worse than pick up a copy of Gunpey.

See also: 'Manual Stimulation' posts about other WonderSwan games, including Crazy Climber, Lode Runner, and Engacho!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Five reasons I would've paid full price for the Switch version of Dandy Dungeon if Onion Games had forced me to do so

I downloaded and started playing Onion Games' Dandy Dungeon the second it hit the Apple App Store in early 2017. (OK, so maybe it wasn't the exact second. I certainly bought it that same day, though.)

Why? Because Yoshiro Kimura--of Chulip, Little King's Story, and Moon: Remix RPG Adventure fame--not only had a hand in designing it, but served as its director, too.

Also, Kazuyuki Kurashima acted as Dandy Dungeon's art director, and Keiichi Sugiyama handled its music and sound design.

If those names don't mean anything to you, Kurashima previously crafted the character designs for games like Freshly-Pickled Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland and UFO: A Day in the Life, while Sugiyama worked on such classics as Daytona USA 2001 and Rez.

Sadly, although I adored most of the handful of hours I put into the mobile version of this roguelike puzzler, some of its "free to play" elements eventually got on my nerves.

Fast forward to a few months ago when word started spreading that Dandy Dungeon was Switch-bound. Despite my mixed reaction to the original release, I couldn't help but get excited about the prospect of giving it a second chance on what's currently my go-to game system.

Thankfully, those murmurings proved to be true for a change, and Dandy Dungeon is now due to hit the Nintendo Switch eShop on June 27. (Heads up: if you pre-purchase it before that date, you'll only pay $17.50, or 30 percent less than the usual price of $24.99.)

As you've hopefully gathered from this post's headline, I won't be paying anything for it. That's because the folks at Onion Games kindly gave me a free copy.

That's awesome, of course, but even so I'm here to say I would've paid full price for this Dandy Dungeon Switch port if the company had snubbed my request. Why? Here are five reasons:

It's deliciously simple--Dandy Dungeon's gameplay basically consists of being sent into dungeons made up of five-square-by-five-square rooms and then drawing a single line that takes the digital representation of the game's protagonist, Yamada-kun, from their entrances to their exits. There's a bit more to it than that, but only a bit. Such straightforward simplicity may sound boring, but it's not. Helping matters immensely: each room of each dungeon is randomly generated--or at least they seem to be randomly generated. Also, you can finish one in seconds at best or minutes at most.

It's crammed full of content--I can't tell you how much, sadly. That said, I've put just over 20 hours into this iteration of Dandy Dungeon so far, and I have a feeling I've got at least that much more to go before I hit its end credits. (Assuming it has a credit roll, of course.) Granted, some--maybe even a good chunk--of that time has been spent grinding, but I'd argue that grinding in Dandy Dungeon rarely, if ever, feels annoying. On the contrary, it's often surprisingly gratifying, as every trip through a particular dungeon leaves you a tad wiser about its (and your) strengths and weaknesses.

It's cute as a button--Kurashima-san sure knows how to make sprites adorable, doesn't he? That was true in Super Mario RPG, it was true in LIVE A LIVE, and it's true in Dandy Dungeon as well. And the sprites here aren't just statically cute, either--they bounce and lunge and wiggle in ways that'll put a stupid, sappy grin on your face, too.

It's completely bonkers--If you've ever played any of Kimura's other joints, like one of my favorite games of 2018, Black Bird, you know they tend to be bizarre. Dandy Dungeon is no exception. You may have already heard the game's story, which focuses on a 36-year-old guy who hates his job, loves his much younger neighbor, and turns to both for inspiration as he makes his own RPG. At home. In his underwear. That's just the start of Dandy Dungeon's journey to Weirdo Land, however. Its enemies, bosses, even its armor and weapons regularly qualify as eyebrow-raising--though rarely in a scandalous way.

Its soundtrack is subtly incredible--Those of you who played and loved Black Bird might approach Dandy Dungeon expecting a similarly "out there" soundtrack. That's not exactly what you'll get, but don't let that stop you from looking forward to it anyway. What's so subtle about this game's music, you ask? Mainly, it's that most of Dandy Dungeon's tunes are wink-wink-nudge-nudge riffs on classic Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy tracks. They're great and all, but they're unlikely to blow you away. As for what will: the handful of fully original compositions, like the Middle Eastern-esque one that plays whenever a rare monster appears on a stage.

See also: 'Onion Games' Black Bird is the dark Fantasy Zone clone I didn't know I wanted or needed'

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Five (more) questions with the makers of Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe

A little over a week ago, I published an interview with Simon Larsen and Lukas Erritsø Hansen, the two guys who, along with musical artist potato-tan, made the homebrew GameBoy gem known as Tobu Tobu Girl.

If you read through that interview, you know that I conducted it over a year ago. I conducted this one, which focuses on the GameBoy Color-compatible Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe, far more recently--just a couple of days ago, in fact.

Speaking of which, you can learn more about--and back a boxed release of--this colorized and otherwise enhanced version of Tangram Games' flagship title via the Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe Kickstarter that ends on May 4.

Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe title screen

The Gay Gamer: What prompted you to make a deluxe version of Tobu Tobu Girl? Also, when did you make the decision to go this route and when did you get started on it?

Simon: We had been toying around with this idea all the way back when the game was early in development but never went beyond some some colored mock-ups. Tobu Tobu Girl was our first GameBoy project, so we already had our hands full making it work on the DMG.

It wasn't until First Press Games approached us in late 2018 suggesting a "deluxe" version to go with the physical release that we actually started working on it. The (non-GameBoy) game we were working on at the time was not really working out, so this seemed like a nice distraction. As much as we like the original grayscale version, the DMG screen is not very suited for the fast gameplay of Tobu Tobu Girl, so we always felt like the game was best played on a GameBoy Color or Advance anyway. That seemed like a good reason to make a proper colored version.

Early Tobu Tobu Girl color mock-up

The Gay Gamer: Is Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe simply a colorized version of the original game, or is there more to this project than that?

Simon: Besides the obvious addition of colors, a lot of the in-game graphics have been overhauled, both in the grayscale and color versions.

We are also working on some larger additions to the game that we unfortunately can’t reveal too much about yet since some of it is tied to the Kickstarter stretch goals. But we promise there will be some really cool new features regardless of whether any of the stretch goals are met.

Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe "Clouds" stage

The Gay Gamer: Have you encountered any problems or issues while turning the original game into Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe? If so, can you talk about a few of them and how you overcame them?

Lukas: While at first glance it might have seemed pretty straightforward colorizing the four-shade graphics of the original game, it did come with its share of challenges. Since no (eight-by-eight-pixel) tile can consist of more than four different colors, and no more than eight unique four-color palettes can be present at any time, I had to rework a lot of the tile-based assets from the original.

Especially the score tally screen illustrations were heavily altered to fit the color restrictions, as you would have a tile consisting of the background color, outline, skin, skin shade, jacket, and the shading on the jacket. In the grayscale version, these are just four colors, whereas in the color version I would often end up having tiles like these with five or six different colors.

Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe "Space" stage

Another problem was the issue of choosing colors that would present well on the GameBoy Color screen. The RGB colors do not translate to the GameBoy Color screen like they would on a standard monitor and generally look more washed-out. Although most emulators have ways of emulating this effect, none of them really seemed to emulate it that closely, so this led to a lot of trial and error.

Simon: On the programming side, this process has mostly been fairly simple. Most of the effort went into writing and rewriting tools for getting the assets into the game. All the new assets increased the amount of data in the game quite a bit, so we had to restructure the ROM’s layout to make everything fit nicely. This hasn’t been a major issue though, since cartridges for the physical release--and any decent flash carts--have way more memory available than we’d ever need.

Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe "Dream" stage

The Gay Gamer: Tobu Tobu Girl was made to the original GameBoy's specifications. Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe is being made to the GameBoy Color's specifications. Surely this means your next project will be Tobu Tobu Girl Advance, made to the specifications of the GameBoy Advance? Seriously, though, do you ever see yourselves making a proper sequel to Tobu Tobu Girl?

Simon: For now, I doubt we will ever make a sequel. We have already put more time and energy into Tobu Tobu Girl than we ever planned to, and I think I speak for both of us when I say we’re ready to do something else. Overall, we are also pretty happy with the final design: each enemy serves a specific purpose and I think the game allows a decent amount of player expression with only a few core mechanics. If we would ever decide to make a sequel, it would be because we wanted to make a fundamentally different game.

Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe menu screen

The Gay Gamer: Can we ever expect to see Tobu Tobu Girl or Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe for sale on the Nintendo Switch (or even the 3DS) eShop? If so, when? And if not, why?

Simon: While that would be pretty cool, it is highly unlikely. I don’t think Nintendo would ever allow any emulated games on the eShop. And even if that was the case, I hear getting games certified for consoles is also huge pain. We are making games for fun, not for profit, so we would rather put that energy into making something new.

See also: the Tobu Tobu Girl review I wrote for Hardcore Gaming 101

Friday, April 19, 2019

Check out the Tobu Tobu Girl review I wrote for Hardcore Gaming 101

To those of you who are sick of me writing, tweeting, or otherwise chatting about Tangram Games' Tobu Tobu Girl, I'm sorry.

Don't worry, I'll return to blogging and blathering on about other games soon enough.

In the meantime, please consider reading the Tobu Tobu Girl review I wrote for Hardcore Gaming 101. I think it'll help you understand why I adore the game so much.

Speaking of which, one of the reasons I love Tobu Tobu Girl is that it reminds me of Nintendo's Balloon Kid. As I say in my HG101 review of the former, "both [games] star plucky girls. Both begin with loved ones--a brother in Balloon Kid, a cat in Tobu Tobu Girl--carried away by balloons. Both feature gameplay that regularly makes you feel like you’re a pinball ricocheting around the screen."

That's where the similarities end, though. Again, from my review: "Whereas Balloon Kid is a unique spin on the side-scrolling platformer genre, Tobu Tobu Girl is an arcadey, twitchy, high-score-chasing affair that’s akin to Ferry Halim’s Winterbells. Much like that 2006 effort, the main objective in Tobu Tobu Girl is to quickly climb the screen by bouncing off anything and everything in your path. In Winterbells, that means bells and birds; in Tangram Games’ title, it means birds, bats, ghosts, and even aliens."

On a related, note, Tangram Games recently teamed up with First Press Games to launch a Kickstarter for Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe, a GameBoy Color-enhanced reworking of the original.

Although a free, open-source ROM of Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe will be released in a few months, backers of this Kickstarter will receive physical (boxed) copies of the game.

See also: 'Ten questions with the guys behind the best GameBoy game you've probably never played, Tobu Tobu Girl'

Friday, April 12, 2019

Ten questions with the guys behind the best GameBoy game you've probably never played, Tobu Tobu Girl

Back in late 2017, a little two-man company called Tangram Games released a homebrew GameBoy title called Tobu Tobu Girl.

I became aware of Tobu Tobu Girl just before it hit the internet (digitally) and Tangram Games' shop page (physically), but ignored both iterations for some time after that because I assumed it wouldn't be very good.

In the immortal words of Vivian Ward, Julia Roberts' character in Pretty Woman, "Big mistake. Big. Huge!" You see, after I finally got around to trying Tobu Tobu Girl, I basically spent the next six or so months slapping myself silly for failing to nab a boxed copy of it.

If only I'd watched GameBoyle's BoyCurious Tobu Tobu Girl review earlier. In it, host Mat declares this to be one of the best titles he's played on Nintendo's first handheld game console. That sounds like a ridiculous claim, I know. But after putting more hours than I'd like to admit into it, I can say with some confidence that Tobu Tobu Girl actually is one of the finest GameBoy games around.

Tobu Tobu Girl both looks, feels, and sounds--this last bit is thanks to artist potato-tan--like something Nintendo or maybe HAL Laboratory would produce. Every single aspect of it is as clean and tight as can be. Even better, it's endlessly enjoyable and entertaining--quite a feat when you're talking about a title with just four stages, each of which can be finished in under a minute.

Now you know why I can't seem to shut up on Twitter about the recently launched Kickstarter for Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe, a GameBoy Color-enhanced reworking of the original.

In an effort to raise awareness about both Tobu Tobu Girl and the just-mentioned Kickstarter for its colorized follow-up, I'm finally publishing this interview I did with Tangram Games' Lukas Erritsø Hansen and Simon Larsen well over a year ago.

The Gay Gamer: You first started work on Tobu Tobu Girl back in 2014, as part of the third GBJAM game jam. Did you come up with the idea on the spot, specifically for that event? Or had you been thinking of it for a while beforehand?

Simon: The idea was something we came up with during the jam. We wanted to make a game with a musical element, where everything in the game would be synced up to the music and parts of the music would be produced by player’s actions. Sort of like a 2D platformer meets Rez. Though what we ended up submitting for the jam was nothing like that. In the end we didn’t even manage to put in any sound at all.

The Gay Gamer: The version of Tobu Tobu Girl you produced for GBJAM 3 was pretty different from the one you made available to the masses in late 2017. Why did you change it so drastically? Were you unhappy with how the GBJAM 3 version looked or played?

Simon: I think the main reason was simply that the initial idea wasn’t very fun. We initially wanted everything to sync up to the music, but that quickly proved too restrictive so we moved in a more puzzle-like direction. After the jam, we still weren’t very happy with how the game played and kept tweaking the design until we at some point decided that a more arcadey and twitchy gameplay style was simply more fun and closer to something we’d enjoy ourselves.

Lukas: Regarding the look of the game, we did intend to keep the style and assets from the jam version. However, during the time that we were working on the game I was at a point of rapidly improving my drawing and spriting skills. About two years into the project, I just couldn’t stand looking at the game, and as such redrew just about every sprite.

The Gay Gamer: Can you explain some of the biggest changes you made to the game from its 2014 build to its 2017 one? For instance, the early version was kind of like a single-screen puzzler, while the latest version is more of a twitchy score-attack game. Also, the early version didn't have an HUD, while the latest one does--and you moved it from the bottom of the screen to the side during development. How did you settle on those alterations?

Lukas: We early on decided to change the core concept to something more akin to Winterbells. I think having some kind of scrolling was important to us at the time. In the early version you navigated the screen by simply bouncing on enemies, like in the jam version essentially. At some point we decided to add power-ups to the game, an include that on one hand added a lot of variation to the game but also muddied the concept a bit. In the end we took the power-ups we found added most to the game and incorporated them into the set of core mechanics, the dashes and “boosting.”

Simon: The HUD was added when we introduced power-ups. The player would collect orbs scattered throughout the level, and once they had gathered enough, they would be rewarded with a random power-up. The HUD was added in order to show the player how many orbs they had collected, as well as their progress through the stage. Problem was, the HUD covered more than 10 percent of the screen vertically, which made the game significantly harder, so we had to move it to the side instead. Luckily, this also made the progress tracker much better, as it would now move up vertically along with the player.

The Gay Gamer: Did you look to any existing games for inspiration while creating the first version of Tobu Tobu Girl? If so, which ones?

Simon: I think I’d been playing a lot of Rez and Electroplankton at the time and was in love with this idea of the gameplay influencing or possibly even creating the music as you play. However, in terms of the actual gameplay I don’t think we were really inspired by anything in particular.

The Gay Gamer: And how about the current version of Tobu Tobu Girl--did your sources of inspiration change at all when went to alter its gameplay?

Lukas: I was playing a lot of Ultra Street Fighter 4 at the time. There’s a character in that game that relies heavily on these sort of teleport-like dashes. I really wanted to try to imitate the snappiness that I felt playing that character. As strange as it may sound that ended up being a defining point in the design process. When it came to the actual implementation of that core mechanic, that took quite a few tries and approaches before arriving at what ended up in the game.

The Gay Gamer: The first thing that struck me when I saw footage of Tobu Tobu Girl was how much it reminded me of Nintendo's Balloon Kid. Specifically, your game almost seems like a sideways take on that GameBoy classic. Is that connection intentional or accidental?

Simon: Completely accidental. Neither of us actually knew about Balloon Kid when making the game, but I can definitely see where the comparison is coming from. I think Upwell--as in, Downwell but upwards--is more fitting, though that wasn’t something we were really aiming for either.

The Gay Gamer: What does the "tobu tobu" part of this game's name mean? A quick check of says "tobu" usually means to fly, soar, or jump. Did you have any particular translation or localization in mind when you came up with the title Tobu Tobu Girl?

Simon: We don't really have an “official” translation but it is supposed to mean something like “Jump Jump Girl.” The title is an homage to Japanese titles like Noby Noby BoyDoki Doki Panic, ChuChu Rocket! We are obviously very inspired by Japanese games in general and we wanted the title to reflect that. Same goes for the box art--both for the jam version and the final release.

The Gay Gamer: Did you encounter any particular problems or issues while making either version of Tobu Tobu Girl? If so, what were they--or what were the worst--and how did you overcome them?

Lukas: Graphics-wise the main challenge came partly from the limited sprite and tile count, and partly from the limited color palette. Making sure the sprites are easily readable from the background was a problem and something I don’t think we entirely succeeded at. In regards to the sprite count, I don’t think there’s any animation used in the actual game that has more than two frames. Due to the limited tile count, I probably spent more time reducing and keeping each background to the allowed amount of tiles than I spent drawing them.

Simon: Perhaps the biggest challenge was getting the physical edition ready. You obviously can’t just call some company and have GameBoy cartridges made in 2017, so figuring out how to do that in a feasible and affordable way was quite difficult, and at some point we were convinced it would never happen. Even something as simple as getting high-quality manuals and cardboard boxes manufactured in such a small quantity was not trivial. These challenges are ultimately the reason why the game was so long in the making. In the end it was definitely worth it, though.

The Gay Gamer: What are the main challenges of making a GameBoy game that plays on actual hardware? 

Simon: The main challenge was definitely to make sure the game ran at a nice and stable frame rate. Tobu Tobu Girl game is fairly fast-paced and even the slightest slowdown is very noticeable and is likely to throw you off and kill you. Often we would add some new feature only to have the game suddenly slow down. Then we would have to either optimize it, remove it, or get rid of something else. This can of course be quite frustrating, but it also helps you prioritize which elements are really necessary.

Another big challenge was the music and sound effects. The GameBoy does not really have any functionality for this--you can only tell it to play a certain frequency with a certain wave form at a certain volume. In order to add music, we had to implement a sequencer, which is basically a small program responsible for playing the right notes at the right time. potato-tan, the game’s composer, would write all the music in some weird music notation language we based on MML (Music Macro Language) that we could then convert into something the sequencer understands.

The Gay Gamer: Are you two GameBoy fans yourselves, or did something else spur you to develop a GameBoy game in 2017?

Simon: I used to be a pretty big GameBoy fan. I rarely play on it anymore, but I still adore it quite a lot. It was the first console I owned, so there is obviously a fair amount of nostalgia involved as well. However, I think the main reason is simply that it seemed like a fun challenge. I had played around with making GameBoy homebrew all the way back in 2010. Later in 2013, we wanted to participate in the second GBJAM game jam and decided it would be more fun to make an actual GameBoy game. We ended up making an (also unfinished) prototype of a GameBoy game called Super Catacombs. About a year later, we once again participated in GBJAM, this time working on what would become Tobu Tobu Girl.

Lukas: I’ve only very recently acquired a GameBoy, though I did own one as a kid. In that regard I’m not much of an actual GameBoy or even retro fan. The main draw was the challenge of making the game run decently on actual hardware. That meant seriously limiting frame count on animations and very laboriously reducing the count of unique tiles on each background.

See also: previous 'ten questions with...' posts featuring auntie pixelante, Peter Bartholow (of Indivisible fame), Dudedle Studio, the guys who created Wizorb, the guy chiefly responsible for the English fan translation of Ripened Tingle's Balloon Trip of Love, and the makers of THE 'DENPA' MEN 2

Friday, April 05, 2019

Don't miss your chance to own one of the best GameBoy games around: Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe

I haven’t said much (if anything?) about it here, on Twitter, or on Facebook, but I absolutely love Tobu Tobu Girl.

If this is the first you’re hearing of it, Tobu Tobu Girl a homebrew GameBoy title that was made by Tangram Games--though potato-tan produced its brilliant soundtrack--and released back in late 2017.

In a nutshell, Tobu Tobu Girl is an old-school arcade-action game. I like to think of it as Nintendo’s Balloon Kid turned on its side, although that description isn’t entirely accurate. Still, hopefully it puts a pleasant picture in your head.

Why am I bringing up all of this now? Because the guys at Tangram just launched, with the help of with First Press Games, a Kickstarter for Tobu Tobu Girl DeluxeTobu Tobu Girl Deluxe basically is a GameBoy Color-esque reworking of the original title--though like any GBC game, it’ll play on original GB hardware, too.

Anyway, between now and May 4, people can pledge money toward physical copies of Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe via the Kickstarter in question.

For $55 or more, you can secure a “Regular Edition” copy of the game, which includes a cartridge, a cartridge case, an outer box, an inlay that holds the cartridge and case, an instruction manual, and a collector’s coin.

For $70 or more, you can secure a “Limited Edition” copy of Tobu Tobu Girl Deluxe. This version includes all of the above plus a double-sided poster and potato-tan’s marvelous soundtrack pressed onto a pair of mini-CDs.

Not quite ready to drop that kind of cash on a game you’ve yet to play? Go try the original release of Tobu Tobu Girl. The ROM is free and should be playable on any GameBoy emulator.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Manual Stimulation: Hoshi no Kirby (GameBoy)

I don't know about you, but something I expect from any Kirby game manual is a ton of adorable illustrations of the pink puffball himself.

Sadly, the Hoshi no Kirby instruction manual disappoints mightily in that regard.

Sure, it offers up a few nice Kirby drawings, but I thought I'd find a lot more than a few in this particular booklet.

Oh, well. It's still worth ogling. One case in point: the rather fabulous border that lines each and every page of the Hoshi no Kirby--Kirby's Dream Land elsewhere in the world--manual.

Seriously, it's bubblegum pink and it's filled with stars. What more could you ask for in this kind of situation?

This booklet is similarly filled with screenshots of the game, of course. Normally that would prompt an unenthusiastic yawn from me, but here they're colored to complement the rest of the manual's color scheme, so instead it produced a mildly appreciative nod of the head.

This next page, on the other hand, is like a stab through the heart. No one at HAL Laboratory or Nintendo could be bothered to whip up some line drawings of Hoshi no Kirby's items?

The game only has a handful, after all. Plus, I can't imagine reproducing them in illustrated form would be much of a challenge.

To be honest, the only illustrations that impress here are found on the Hoshi no Kirby instruction booklet's last couple of pages.

These pages detail the game's five stages, by the way. Speaking of which, I love their names--especially "Float Islands" and "Bubbly Clouds."

Now that you've taken a gander at the Japanese Kirby's Dream Land manual, what do you think of it?

See also: my Hoshi no Kirby review, some photos of the Hoshi no Kirby GameBoy cartridge and box, and scans of the Hoshi no Kirby Famicom manual