Last year Natsume announced details of a new Indie developer partnership program with 2D revolving shooter Cosmic Defenders (originally Cosmos Defenders) the first title scheduled for release this year. The game charges you with defending the universe from chaotic aliens who want to steal the Tree of Life. With 96 levels across a solo or co-op multiplayer Story Mode, plus bonus challenge levels, Survival and Versus Modes, it's shaping up to be a fun little Switch shooter and we're eager to give it a blast.
The game is still in development with a planned Fall release, but we had recently had the chance to ask Henry Fernández - the one-man team behind Fiery Squirrel - about developing Cosmic Defenders while also working on a PhD, his partnership with Natsume and the experience of living in Japan as an indie game developer.
Nintendo Life: Firstly, for anyone who might have missed the announcement of Cosmic Defenders, tell us a little about the game and what makes it a good fit for Switch.
Henry Fernández, CEO of Fiery Squirrel: The prototype of the game was single player, but involved 4 different characters (1 player and 3 CPU-controlled characters). After a lot of testing, getting people to play it, and receiving feedback, I noticed that people enjoyed the interaction with those CPUs very much; the little AI in the game would do things such as help you when you were in trouble and you were required to work together to finish a level. I thought it would be a great idea to put all those new mechanics in a game where your team was made up of real people too.
I really love “old-school” games, especially 2D platformers [...] those games somehow shaped my generation of developers with a great influence on us
The original idea of the game was heavily based on co-operation, a meaningful message, and a lot of action. Due to the nature of the Switch, I thought that a game with these characteristics would be the perfect fit for the console: a simple game you could play with your friends, either cooperating with them to achieve the same goal, or fighting against them just for fun.
By the way, even though playing with other people is a lot of fun, the game can be enjoyed in single player mode as well. In the final version, the only mode that requires at least two players is the Versus Mode, but the Story Mode and Survival Mode can be played alone as well.
We’ve read in the PR that you love “using old-school elements in a modern way” – what games or other influences were on your mind while creating Cosmic Defenders?
Yes, I really love “old-school” games, especially 2D platformers. The first console I owned was a NES, as it was for most of the current indie game developers, and those games somehow shaped my generation of developers with a great influence on us. I think that we all have learned a lot from that era, and all those games contributed enormously to what we are today.
To answer your question, one of the games that served as an inspiration and gave ideas to include in Cosmic Defenders was Contra: one of the core mechanics of the game was inspired by that game. Also, even though it’s not explicit, the Super Mario series was part of the inspiration, as well as Mega Man, Dig Dug, etc. In addition, there are some more recent games such as Super Mario Galaxy, Super Smash Bros. and Wario Land: Shake It! that I also used as inspirations.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced throughout development?
The whole Natsume team has been amazingly helpful with a lot of aspects of the game, including testing, advice, promotion, and the like
I think that the development of a multiplayer game is considerably harder than a single player game. The amount of features (especially those related to players) gets multiplied by the number of characters that you have in a game.
Something specific in my particular case is that I do not have a lot of experience with art. Even though I like it a lot and do my best to make things that are somehow appealing, art is not my strongest skill, and I actually don’t have any background in it. My major is programming related, so it takes much more time to get something that looks decent and can fit the game well.
Finally, testing a multiplayer game is also difficult if you are mostly working on your own. With a single player game, I would be able to find and fix most of the important bugs by myself. When working on a multiplayer game, it’s very helpful to include more people when debugging and testing.
Not only are you a one-man team but we understand you’ve also been working on a PhD alongside Cosmic Defenders. Was it difficult to juggle your time between the two? How long has the game been in development?
Yes, that’s correct! I would also like to point out that even though the majority of the production side has been done as a one-man team, there are aspects of the game, such as the music, sound effects, and art for which help from other people has been crucial. The music of the game was created by Aidan Faas and Stefano Merino. The whole Natsume team has been amazingly helpful with a lot of aspects of the game, including testing, advice, promotion, and the like. Gabriel Balda created the logo of the game, and has been helping from the beginning of production on the art side too.
Juggling time between development of the game and my PhD, yes, it has been difficult to handle both during the same period of time. The good part is that my PhD’s research is about games too, more specifically game design, and I really love working in this field, so at least I am kept really motivated during the whole process. In addition, I had the flexibility to decide how much time to dedicate to both, which also helped a lot.
Being in Tokyo has been a great advantage in many ways. There are meetups organised by different people for the community, in Tokyo and also Kyoto
The development of Cosmic Defenders started back in September 2017. Before that, there was a game jam, (Ludum Dare) in 2017, which was where the game idea was born. So, the whole development time was around 2 years and 5 months (plus the game jam days).
How did you become involved with Natsume’s Indie Program? What was the idea behind the initiative and, as an indie developer, how has this partnership helped you?
The game was exhibited at some events in Japan (which is where I’m living at the moment): Tokyo Sandbox, Bitsummit and Tokyo Game Show. I think that I was really lucky to have the opportunity to show the game at those events, because they were very helpful when playtesting, meeting people from the industry, and giving the game some exposure. In addition, I met with Taka Maekawa (Natsume’s Producer) at one of those events (Bitsummit) and had the chance to show it to him.
Since Bitsummit, we kept in touch through email, and I had the chance to show him part of the plan that was not presented at the show, some ideas that were incomplete at that time as well and the overall philosophy that was designed around with Fiery Squirrel when creating games. I think that we both liked the idea of working together to improve Cosmic Defenders and try to get the best out of it.
About the initiative of supporting Indie game developers, I think that Natsume could explain it in a much better way, but I can give you my point of view on this: I believe that Natsume understands that one of the most difficult aspect for us, as Indies, being small groups of passionate people that want to create interesting games, is to get the necessary exposure to reach the audience we want to reach. As a way to compliment that part of the process, that most of us are inexperienced with, Natsume thought it would be great to support Indies with their experience and audience, to help us get our games to that audience and, at the same time, to be able to present new experiences to their audience with the games we are making.
In my case, there are different aspects of the whole creation process that Cosmic Defenders and Fiery Squirrel have benefited from. It has been really helpful to have Natsume’s feedback about ideas related to the game during the process of creation, specifically game design, art, sound, etc. In addition, as I mentioned before that one difficult aspect of this kind of game was QA and testing, Natsume has also helped enormously with this part, debugging the game and helping improve its quality. Finally, of course, I think that thanks to their marketing experience and amazing audience, hopefully more people will know about the game and have a chance to enjoy it.
It has been really helpful to have Natsume’s feedback about ideas related to the game during the process of creation, specifically game design, art, sound
With events like Bitsummit in Kyoto, the Japanese indie scene is thriving right now, and from the outside everyone involved seems very friendly. Has living and working in Tokyo been advantageous in terms of interacting with the indie dev community?
Yes, totally. Being in Tokyo has been a great advantage in many ways. There are meetups organised by different people for the community, in Tokyo and also Kyoto (I think there are more places but these are the ones I know), attending these events is really good, because you have the chance to meet people from the industry and to have fun. You have the opportunity to show what you have been working on (prototypes, ideas, announcements), or to see what others have been doing. In fact, the first time I showed Cosmic Defenders (at that time Cosmos Defenders) was at the Tokyo Indies, which is one of the meetups I mentioned. If I wasn’t living in Tokyo, I would not have had the chance to attend these meetings.
In addition, events such as Bitsummit, Tokyo Game Show and Tokyo Sandbox are great to show gamers what we, indies, are making. The costs of attending these events when living in Tokyo gets reduced significantly: we don’t need to pay for an airplane ticket, and sometimes we don’t even have to pay for accommodation, which helps a lot.
I would also like to point out that living in Japan has been an amazing experience, and being close to the Japanese culture and people can help us learn a lot and improve when working. Not only from the game development field, but also from the academia and even personal life. With friends, you have the opportunity to see how different you are, compared with Japan and Asia in general and can learn a lot of things to combine them and make more interesting stuff.
The game started out as ‘Cosmos Defenders’. Why the change of title? Boring legal reasons or something juicier?
Mostly because the new title reflects better what the game is about. We decided to choose something that fits the mechanics of the game and its content in a better way.
We have to ask – where does the name Fiery Squirrel come from?
There is really no deep reason for the name, but I can explain to you how I came up with it. When I was about to release the first game from Fiery Squirrel, a mobile game called Fluff Eaters, I wanted to release it under a new name specifically created for making and releasing games, so I decided to search for interesting things (mostly nature related stuff) that somehow were related to me and were unique.
I thought that if I found a rare animal or not well-known animal that lived in Venezuela (my country), would be easier to have at least the unique part of the name I wanted. Among the interesting animals I found, there was the Fiery Squirrel, which inhabits around a very rural and wild place in the country. I started to read more about it and found out that the species is (according to Wikipedia) diurnal, territorial and solitary, which somehow resembles some aspects of my personality, I thought it was the perfect fit for what I was looking for.
In addition, the name (at least in Spanish) sounds hilarious, sometimes people laugh when they see it and I think it’s a good thing.
Cosmic Defenders is scheduled for ‘this year’ – any news on a more concrete release date? And what’s coming next in the Natsume Indie Program?
Right now we are tracking an early 2nd quarter release. As for what’s new with Natsume’s Indie Program, I will let Taka Maekawa answer that...
(Taka Maekawa, Natsume Inc.: Currently we are reviewing some exciting titles with a lot of potential. We hope to have some announcements in the near future.)
Finally, in between working on your PhD and the game, have you had time to enjoy any other games on Switch?
Yes. I wouldn’t say I’ve had a lot of free time, but I definitely play whenever I can! Among the games I’ve had the chance to try on the Switch are: Zelda: Breath of the Wild (amazing game), Cuphead (my god, this is gorgeous and super difficult), Celeste, Pokemon: Let’s Go, Eevee!, GRIS, and Super Mario Maker. I still have a long list of games I want to play, but I guess that it will be after the release of Cosmic Defenders!
Our thanks to Henry (and Mr. Maekawa!) for taking the time to answer our questions. We have edited the answers in a couple of places to improve readability. You can follow Fiery Squirrel on Twitter and we'll let you know when a firm release date has been set.
Do you like the look of Cosmic Defenders? Let us know your thoughts with a comment in the usual place.