In the heart of Japan's former capital Kyoto, Q-Games founder and former Argonaut programmer Dylan Cuthbert and his team are putting the finishing touches to the sequel to popular tower defence game PixelJunk Monsters.
Ten years since the original title and several ‘canon’ games later, PixelJunk Monsters 2 is a gorgeous mix of lush organic environments, cute characters and unique charm, and brings the series right up to date with fully rendered areas and creatures in high definition.
Dylan kindly took some time to talk about the game's upcoming launch and the series' decade-long history.
Nintendo Life: The demo for PixelJunk Monsters 2 just dropped on the Nintendo eShop. What's the early reaction been like?
Dylan Cuthbert: Very good. Loads of people are posting about how the game looks amazing, which is great to hear as we tuned it to match the richness of the screen, and it really 'pops'. Social media has been full of positive comments.
Would you regard this as the full realisation of PixelJunk Monsters?
I suppose so; a few years after the first game, we did some 3D modelling for PS Home, and we had a dedicated PixelJunk area on there. The characters and environments looked really good and we started wondering if we could do a sequel. What has been great so far is that no one has said it doesn’t have the same design or things look out of place. I think we’ve done a really good job of translating it from 2D to 3D and being able to keep the atmosphere and the essence even though there’s that technical jump. We’ve been really happy with the 'lack of response'! Normally, there’s some backlash when other games make that transition, or when they radically change the style.
It was actually a tricky process because when you’re drawing something in 2D you can omit a lot of features and things don’t have to connect perfectly, or it may be possible to leave a gap in certain places. When building the 3D models, we went back and looked at the original drawings but sometimes there just wasn’t anything there, so it was a painstaking process.
We might go back and do 2D games again but we have a good strength in 3D - it is where we started, after all, and it has always been in our heritage. It’s good fun.
Can you talk about the inclusion of the cinematic camera?
We suddenly realised that when we put the camera down there (at ground level), it actually looked really good. Initially, we were just going to use it for cutscenes but it also is available to the player to scout out things in the distance. There’s also a focus button just for fun, so you can choose where to focus and you can get some pretty action-packed shots from it. In fact, all of our posters and publicity is taken straight from the game. There’s no re-rendered stuff, it’s all rendered in Unity normally (just at a higher resolution for printing) and used 'as is'. We’ve got that quality without re-rendering in a separate program.
Would you describe PixelJunk as a series? A franchise? A brand?
Essentially, it’s a brand - It’s not really a series because every game is different, but it’s a brand because when I started thinking about 2D hi-res nostalgic games, I thought, I don’t want to make the same game over and over again, but to re-market it completely as a new game every time for a small company was difficult.
We were also doing other projects that weren’t indie, so we decided that this is our indie brand, call it 'PixelJunk', get a logo, make it work and get people to recognise it. We labelled things numerically, almost like pieces of art and we knocked up all these prototype (about 20) sketches, picked the ones we would most like to see made and then looked at figuring out an order in which to make them.
So the brand has been around for over ten years. Has it always been in your mind even while you were doing other things?
To be honest, I’d like to just make our own games from beginning to end with our own money, because with larger projects such as those that involve a lot online support we had to have a partner, but it does take a lot of the control out of making the game and there are challenges when dealing with a publisher. With the PixelJunk stuff, there was a lot more freedom and we could do more because it’s our own game, but we can’t say to a publisher that we want to change a big part of the game because to a certain extent there’s a conflict. They might not see the entire vision of the game. After all, they can’t see into my (or the team's) mind.
They aren’t around every day to see what everybody’s thinking so there is a bit of tension and a barrier there, but it’s definitely a lot more fun when you can just run with things and change what you want - which is what Nintendo does, and things just get done. There’s a lot of Nintendo’s stuff that never sees the light of day, games or ideas that they just thought weren’t quite there.
Where did the initial ideas for the game and characters come from?
It’s two parts, really. The concept where it all started from was from old 2D ZX spectrum stuff, like Sabre Wulf because it was it was a classic back in the day and it was fun running around in a colourful environment. We thought about what we could do in 1080p and even better colours and even better art, so we knocked up a rich pastel scene with lots of trees and a path and walls (as a nod to Sabre Wulf) and you were this 'Red Riding Hood' character which was much more in tune with that game. The thing was we couldn’t see our own game in there, but the picture and environment were very nice.
The first real tower defence game that became really popular was browser-based game Table Tower Defence. We looked at that and thought it was quite 'raw', but it’s a quite addictive idea - like a casual RTS; we took the raw elements of the game and thought 'what would Nintendo do with this?'. As we were designing for a console, we couldn’t really use a mouse to position weapons, so we had it so you could only build on the trees. That gives us that level design but also controls the design and channels the experience, which is very 'Nintendo'.
As I said, there’s no mouse control, so we needed an avatar to be running around. Suddenly one of the artists said ‘I really want to make this rotund, cute and masked Tikiman', then we used elements from the forest-type environment, such as walnuts and rocks, to make the enemy monsters. We decided to animate them with masks on as if they’ve been taken over by the 'evil spirit of the forest', and little by little it formed from there.
The other reason was that we wanted to have the towers upgrade by the character dancing on or around them. It was one of the original ideas before we even started programming, because he doesn’t have any real direct action; he can’t attack the monsters (very much), so we wanted more stuff for the player to do. We thought about what kind of character dances - we thought maybe tribal, so African Polynesia, Micronesia or Pacific Island-style. The character itself in effect came from the requirements of the game design, having this guy to dance in order to generate towers, almost like dancing to the rain gods!
Could you explain the juxtaposition of the gorgeous organic environments and adorable characters against the chaotic, sometimes brutal nature of the game?
Yeah, there is a lot of cartoon violence! It does get quite hectic and the game doesn’t pull any punches. There are some nice tough levels in there and the easy ones can still be a challenge. There are a lot of natural elements that add risk to the action such as volcanoes and snow, as well as boulders to use if you feel the need. To make things a bit easier there’s also a warning to let players know about timing and location of incoming waves of enemies.
There’s a lot more variation in the enemies this time around, and we changed up the boss monsters, so one type of weapon might damage it but then it might change how it moves. There’s constant resource management going on.
The route of the monsters changes and there are things such as rivers that might be another hazard, so the placement of weapons may knock out enemies affect where coins drop - and if they fall in the wrong place, they’re essentially wasted.
How does it feel playing it on the Switch?
Great. The old version was released (and was really popular) on PSP and Vita, so people really liked to play it on the go and we shortened the stages a bit to make it easier for people while travelling. The original stages were 30 minutes, which was a bit long. It was more 'acceptable' in gaming at the time for stages to run up to half an hour, but modern gaming demands a shorter time frame. You still have a bit of freedom there.
Are there any features of the Switch you’re keen to experiment with?
We’ve been playing with the Labo stuff at home - I have a six-year-old and I tried to give him some pointers but he could do it all himself. The IR camera, in particular, is really interesting and I’m not sure if we can find any uses for it yet but in a future game, there might way to use it. The amazing thing about the Switch is the simplicity of things like the kickstand and the separate controllers. Mario Odyssey used them for a lot for gestures and I’d like to see other games use the controllers out of the grip. I’d also like to experiment with the HD rumble because that’s pretty good. You can generate a lot of interesting sensations and with the Labo and it even gets things to move with it. It’s incredible.
It’s very 'Yokoi'-like [Game & Watch / Game Boy designer Gunpei Yokoi]; it's the 'old Nintendo style' and that’s one of the greatest strengths of Nintendo; the large screen of the Switch is great, and the Joy-Con colours give a bit of style variation.
Are you bringing anything else coming to Switch?
Yeah we are; we are definitely thinking about at least two new things in the pipeline, at least two more titles.
We are talking to companies about merch; a lot of software is now digital, but you still want something in your hand, maybe a toy or something. We started the store at Christmas last year and it’s been popular. We have a physical version coming through Limited Run Games and there is a board game that we’ve been playing in the office which really captures the essence of tower defence - but in a board game, it’s two / four players and a six dice game which is really interesting. Both Monsters and The Tomorrow Children have generated a lot of fan art, so we definitely want to do more, and if people from Nintendo start playing it and it hits the right people at the right time, you never know.
We’d like to thank Dylan and the team for their time.