We recently reported on the news that Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs is now on Kickstarter with a dazzling array of stretch goals following a troubled development history. The game has been in production - in some form or another - for almost a decade and most recently has undergone a drastic re-tooling with the 3DS assuming the role of lead platform.
We got the chance to speak to design and project lead Chris Strauss - a former Nintendo employee no less - about the game's inspiration, its protracted development and the new crowd-funding campaign - which includes that amiibo stretch goal.
Nintendo Life: What was your role at Nintendo when you worked there?
Chris Strauss: I started to work at NOE at the age of 18 in Product Localization, Testing and Support. It was an amazing time and I had the chance to try a lot of cool things and meet many nice people from all around the world. I was with Nintendo for about six years. Unfortunately I cannot talk about most of it because of the NDA. You know how it is.
Can you tell us a little about the team you've assembled for Saber Rider, and their experience?
Two of our team members, Ronald Koch and Philipp Horsch, are friends and colleagues I've worked with for a long time. We collaborated on certain projects together - mostly PC and DS/3DS stuff.
Philipp did most of the 3D graphics for the 3D version of Saber Rider. Unfortunately we cannot really use that any more but we're both very proud of the Saber Rider Ramrod video we did last year. That was just incredible!
Ronald Koch is our music composer and sound guy. He is also involved in the planning and he's a real doctor of medicine! That might just come in handy during crunch time!
Bernd Geiblinger joined us a few month ago as our Lead Programmer. He is a very cool and talented guy. He knows the Nintendo 3DS in and out. Bernd already started working on the 3DS version of Saber Rider. We already have a working build, but of course, it's still missing a lot of content - even basic things like the final graphics set. This brings us to Simon Butler. Simon joined us not too long ago; he will be our Lead 2D Artist. He is a real veteran in the games business and a very kind person. He will deliver most of the graphics for our game.
You've been working on this adaptation of the Saber Rider series for quite some time. What makes this show so special to you personally?
I've been playing around with this idea since 2005 - the 2D 16-Bit approach we are doing now was my initial idea from back then. The game was supposed to be a Game Boy Advance / Nintendo DS game with shoot'em up, run 'n' gun style gameplay and classic pixel art. The SNES Game Wild Guns is a good example for how our graphics will look in the final version.
What makes Saber Rider special to me? Well, as a kid, I liked the show very much and always wanted to play it as a video game on my Super Nintendo. Saber Rider is one of my all-time favourites. Ah, great memories. 'Power stride and ready to ride!'
Saber Rider isn't as well known as some other shows of the period, such as Voltron, Robotech, Battle of the Planets and Transformers. Are you worried that this could be an issue?
Actually, no. I even hope to benefit from that fact. The show is cool and features everything that's needed for a good, '80s-style adventure. There's an exciting story, brave heroes, bad ass enemies, big mecha action, great voice acting, an amazing Soundtrack by Dale Schacker and real handmade animations. The '80s and retro is a huge thing at the moment. And because Saber Rider is not so well known, it is new for most people and maybe they want to give it a try now. The series is available on DVD and Blu-ray in English and German, but it is very important to mention that you don't need to know the original anime series in order to play our game. Technically, we just borrow the content of the show to create a cool game, which has all the information the player needs. And just to be sure, the first episode of the show is included in every reward tier starting at just $5.
What led to your former studio Firehazard working on the game back in 2010, and why did that venture break down?
That was a sad thing. A publisher Firehazard worked with went bankrupt and Firehazard followed. However, it's not the name of the company that is important. It's important is that the resulting game is great. The main problem with the project was always the lack of proper funding so with Firehazard or without, we still would be on Kickstarter now.
Last year you looked set to reboot the project as a full-3D release, and even published screenshots and videos showing the progress of the title. Why did you change your mind and re-tool the game as a 2D title?
This is a good and very important question. Like I said a few questions earlier, the game was actually supposed to be 2D from the beginning. All our efforts on the DS started as homebrew, although later I got a Nintendo Developer license.
When we pitched the 2D idea back then to publishers, they were not interested because it was not 3D. I think it was in 2007, when they all wanted to have some kind of 3D content. 16-Bit Pixel Art was just out, nobody cared about that anymore! So we went ahead and created a 3D Engine for the DS.
A bit later, publishers only wanted Brain Training and casual stuff on the Nintendo DS and the Saber Rider game was on hold. When the Nintendo 3DS was announced, I thought Saber Rider in 3D would be great on it, so I started working on it again. We almost had a publisher for it, but only almost. We spend a lot of work on the 3D build. There is even a playable prototype in our vault. Unfortunately, the budget needed for such a game in 3D is just too high to do it alone, and working with a publisher is out of the question these days. Even with Kickstarter, that would have been impossible to fund completely. After all, we are not Yu Suzuki, IGA or Playtonic!
But we still have the license and we still wanted to do a cool game, so we went back to our old 2D concept. We had always bad luck with the timing, but this time, retro gaming is a trend and our 2D Saber Rider fits perfectly! Also, the 2D approach is much more affordable and funding on Kickstarter is very possible. And not everybody liked the 3D idea. A lot of people wrote to us and wanted the original anime style back. So here we go! The series anime style and 16-bit pixel art works out great.
You've promised an amiibo figure as one of your stretch goals. Have you discussed this with Nintendo? What happens if Nintendo decline the figure?
Nintendo has guidelines for all their products, which you have to follow as a third party developer. If you do so, chances are high that your product gets approved. So unless they change their policy, our mecha amiibo has a good chance. And we know that Yacht Club Games also make their amiibo without the help of Nintendo. We have our amiibo already planned and are creating it as 3D model right now. The first prototype will probably be a 3D print.
The retro formats you've included in your Kickstarter include the SNES, PC Engine and Dreamcast. Isn't it going to create something of a headache re-tooling the code for these outdated formats?
For all these systems there is a great homebrew community. Because of these talented communities, there are many great tools, docs and libraries out there to make the work easier. There are many great Dreamcast titles from indie developers. The same goes for SNES and PC Engine. One SNES game was even funded on Kickstarter not so long ago - they made $40k with that. This retro trend won't last forever but at the moment it works and it helps us to bring back the original idea. This won't be retro gaming anymore, this will be classic gaming.
Why did you pick the 3DS as the lead platform?
The Saber Rider Game was always meant to be a handheld game in the first place.
The 16-bit approach fits good on a handheld and I wanted to use the 3D feature so it became the 3DS and Steam as lead platform. The 3DS also offers us the perfect arcade resolution of 320(400)x240. Besides that, I am just a huge Nintendo fan.
How has the team been keeping itself afloat over the past few years without a game release? Are you guys working on other projects at the same time?
All people on the team are freelancers, so everybody also works on other projects. At one point we worked on Saber Rider in our spare time. Saber Rider made no money for us so far - all of it went into the project. If we get funded, our project gets full-time attention of course and hopefully, we earn a little bit with it.
The sheer amount of stretch goals attached to this project has resulted in a bit of scepticism from some people. Do you honestly think you can pull all of this, should funding be secured?
It is true that we have a good amount of stretch goals available. A lot of them however are not complicated in order to pull them off. All we need for this is the budget. A good example are the voice recodings from the original cast or Peter Cullen. Same goes for Dale Schacker. This is all doable if we can pay these guys.
For the PC Version, we are using Unity engine. This makes ports to Wii U, PS4 or Xbox One less complicated. In the end, everything is possible if the proper budget is available. Personally I would love to see the SNES and PC Engine versions happen so I can put these into my collection!
Everyone in the team would like to see this project become a success. But we cannot do it alone. That is why we use Kickstarter to fund the budget our game needs. If we cannot reach that goal, the license will go back to the licensor and there won't be a Saber Rider video game. However, we are very confident that with the help of the community out there, we will make it. Maybe we will even hit some of the stretch goals. A big thank you goes out to all the backers who supported us already. You are awesome!