Wulverblade is a game that is three years in the making, and was originally supposed to come out on the Xbox One to spearhead (no pun intended) Microsoft's indie drive. However, fast forward to 2017 and the situation is slightly different; this gorgeous-looking hack and slash title is going to hit Switch first, and we were able to sit down with creator Michael Heald to discuss the game, how it ended up on Nintendo's portable and why he thinks the Switch is such an amazing platform for his lifelong vision.
Nintendo Life: For those readers who aren't familiar with your studio, can you give us a little background?
Michael Heald: Well, Fully Illustrated is actually just me and for the better part of the last 10 years I’ve been providing various creative services to games companies around the world. I’m an illustrator, animator and designer and during this time have worked on a many different tiles. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some truly great companies like Klei Entertainment, thatgamecompany and Giants Software, to name but a few. My ultimate aim was to one day bring my dream game to life, but 10 years ago that seemed like just that: a dream.
Down the line I teamed up and partnered with my good friends at Darkwind Media just over three years ago to help bring my vision of Wulverblade from concept to reality. We’d worked together on various projects over the years for our shared clients, so it seemed like a really natural fit. The guys at Darkwind are programming wizards, they really are. Everything I wanted Wulverblade to become it did - and then much, much more by their skilled hands!
The whole Darkwind team have pitched in, in various capacities but the core team has been Brian Johnstone the lead developer and Evan Doody, the lead technical artist. We also have Denis Davidov over in Russia who’s our lead animator, so the four of us make up the core, day-to-day team.
Wulverblade was first announced for the Xbox One quite a while back. Could you talk us through what has happened since then?
The realities of independent development are what happened since then! We were announced for Xbox One right back when the console was first announced but little did we know just how much work was ahead of us to flesh out the rest of the game and craft it into my lifelong vision.
Every element of Wulverblade is hand drawn - every single bit. As an example, each environment took 1-2 months to illustrate from beginning to end and that was just the artwork, never mind building, testing, adjusting, tweaking and re-drawing. The bottleneck was me. Wulverblade is my baby; it's been in my mind for decades and I was determined that I would illustrate every last inch of it. The downside to that is easy to imagine! With just one man to create everything, delays soon creep in.
As a good example, as an illustrator or designer you naturally improve in your ability as time goes on. When we’d got to year three of the game, I was looking at the first level drawn three years prior and was holding my head in shame. I just had to redraw and re-paint the whole thing. Added to that, I changed my mind on how I wanted the game to sound and sat down with our sound designers - the amazing Verbal Vigilante - to work out a new soundscape for the game and we went back and re-wrote all the music. I wanted a more tribal sound with real earthy instruments being recorded live to get that all-consuming ancient feel. It was expensive as hell, but wow, it was worth it! Me and the Verbal team took many trips out to locations in the north (Castlerigg Stone Circle and Hardknott Pass are just two, shown below) so that they could soak up the world I was creating and also take environmental recordings too. It all adds to the magic in ways I can barely express.
I was then banned by the rest of the team from changing anything more! In short, the delays have come from a quest for making this utterly wonderful from beginning to end. Everyone that has sat down and played the campaign has stated how it's given them chills! It's a pretty incredible experience.
Yeah these titles were the inspiration for everything. The core underpinnings of Wulverblade’s combat engine is inspired directly from the greats of this era. I spent weeks breaking down the animation and frame timing of all the great (and also all the terrible) side scrolling brawlers to learn what made each one what it was. When you play Wulverblade you’ll hopefully ‘feel’ the traits of Axel, Cody, Haggar, Blaze and Guy. Lots of side scrollers have come and gone since then and few have ‘felt’ meaty. I wanted to ensure that Wulverblade had that special feeling that made those games great. But equally, I didn't want to simply re-visit and rehash what had already been. So we set upon vastly expanding the combat in a way that added to the experience but didn't detract from that classic feel.
Stylistically, Golden Axe inspired me greatly. Whilst being a Japanese game it had a very European feel to it. The game felt as though it was almost set in ancient Britain; the intentionally drab colours, the mood, the music, it all felt very much like home. I loved that and it's a feel you don’t get in many titles. So when starting Wulverblade, I was set on exactly how the game would feel.
What aspects have you added to Wulverblade to bring the scrolling fighter bang up to date?
Our combat engine takes what we believe was great from back then and adds lots of meaty modern extras. We have rolls, counters, combos, blocks, air combos and many other features that weren’t around then. We’ve also put a big emphasis on projectiles and weapon pick ups. So as you hack and slash through your enemies, they come to pieces! Not only do their weapons drop but so do their body parts and almost everything that falls can be picked up and used as a weapon! So yes, head-throwing is an actual thing! And this isn't just gore for gore's sake, this ties into the cult of the head! In ancient Britain, the heads of the fallen enemy would be taken home as a trophy and in some cases, embalmed and kept for many years. We didn’t fancy putting severed head collecting in, but we thought using them as weapons was fair game!
One point I do want to mention is that we’ve kept the core of the game classic in its approach. I was adamant from the outset that this wouldn't be a game where you constantly unlock new moves, level up, craft new stuff and so on. I wanted the player to be awesome right out of the door, just like the classics. In the classics you didn’t unlock or build your moves, you already had them and in many cases, it took several plays to learn where to use them. You built your experience and your skills. That was satisfying! When you play for the first time, level one is tough going. When you play with some experience behind you, level one is much easier. It's all about honing your abilities.
Wulverblade doesn't hold your hand; it kicks you face first into trouble and forces you to learn fast. I know that approach sounds harsh but I grew up in the arcades and the only way to get good was to play and build your skills and I loved that.
Given Wulverblade's lengthy development period, have you added any features or content that perhaps wasn't planned at the very beginning?
More than I’m probably willing to admit! Originally Wulverblade was all about Caradoc (who is still the main protagonist) and it was set to be a single player adventure all tied around his story as a tribal warrior in his bid to unite the north against the Roman threat. But as time drew on we realised that this was a nice idea conceptually but a poor idea from a gameplay perspective. So Wulverblade drew in Caradoc's siblings and the story became about the adventure of the trio instead of just a solo story. So multiplayer was added which obviously tripled the playable character work and all the other trappings that come along with that.
We also added in a swathe of unlockable content. This content is tied into my in-depth research into the history behind the game. I spent years travelling to ancient ruins, forts, stone circles and museums to gather all the reference material I needed for the game. So that all got brought together in location reports, photos, drone footage and history notes. As you play through the game you unlock all this content. If the desire takes you, you can read through and discover everything from my experiences down to real battle reports from people at the time. There’s even a collection of local folk tales that originated during these times and are still with us now. There’s some magical stuff in there!
How do you plan to use the unique features of the Switch in Wulverblade?
The main feature that drew us to the Switch - other than it simply being utterly awesome - was the fact that it fits Wulverblade like a glove! Our whole direction from the outset was to encourage players to do it the old school way, team up with a friend and play side-by-side. All the magic happens that way. Elbow digging each other, working together, laughing and just being social! The Switch is the only device that really pushes that angle and we love that. This is as close to an arcade experience as you’re going to get in the modern day. You can leave the house, pop off the controllers and play side by side wherever you like. It's just ace.
What's it been like working with Nintendo, in comparison to other platform holders?
A breath of fresh air, to be honest. All the platform holders have been nice, but nobody has come close to how personal, friendly and helpful Nintendo have been. We really feel like part of the Nintendo family already and we’ve not even released yet! The team we initially spoke to actually snuck up on us at PAX East dressed in ‘none Nintendo’ gear, so we had no idea who they were. They then introduced themselves and we were somewhat awe struck. It was great to be meeting face to face. The whole experience so far has been so well communicated. It's been a breeze!
It's such an honour to actually be releasing on a Nintendo console; I have to pinch myself at times, it's my childhood dream coming true. I can’t wait for release day!
The Switch seems to have found favour with many indie developers; what do you think Nintendo has done right this time around that it perhaps didn't do on the Wii and Wii U?
The Switch finds favour with anyone that touches one! It's almost freaky how attached people become to this little console within minutes of experiencing one. Every person I know that’s played one goes straight out and buys one. It's just magic. A portable home console, that description is the reason its doing so well.
As far as a direct love from Indies, I’m not sure specifically, it's just somehow become this beacon of light and everyone wants to have their game on it. As soon as I played mine on release day I was all ‘I have to get Wulverblade on this amazing thing right now!’ Just being able to take Indie games around on the go is a really big deal. In fact, the new line you hear from everyone when speaking about almost any game is ‘This needs to be on Switch!’.
What's your favourite thing about the Switch from a pure player's perspective?
Two points for me. The form factor being one and the obvious point of being able to take it anywhere. And two is the immediacy of it. It just feels fast, unhindered and light. You touch a controller and its on. The UI is so beautifully minimal and you’re playing games within seconds of switching it on. It's not bogged down with massive updates every two seconds. You put a new game card in and pop, it's almost instantly on, no massive patches that take an hour to download. I love how I know I can pick it up and play when I don't have much time free. That’s magic in a busy life!
What's next for Fully Illustrated? Do you have other titles planned?
I know this sounds mad but the idea that within a matter of a few weeks I won't be working on ‘making’ Wulverblade anymore actually makes me really sad! I could have quite happily kept on making Wulverblade until I retired I think. It's been amazing to work on. So on that note, the next thing will be extra content! I don't want to leave the world of Wulverblade, I don't like the idea of my days not being filled with ancient Britain, so if the world appears to love it as much as we do, we’ll be adding all manner of new story lines, characters and maybe the sequel could happen, too. Now that would be magic if that could happen!
I hope folks enjoy the game and get to see just how deep this game goes. There’s a lot to it once you dig in!