The list of games overtly inspired by Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda franchise isn't small, but it's nevertheless impressive to see what some of the smallest development teams, in particular, can achieve. Ocean's Heart is a recent example on the Switch eShop, a game that's been upfront in acknowledging its sources of inspiration.
With attractive pixel-based visuals and plenty to discover in its world, we gave Ocean's Heart a recommendation in our review. Most impressively, though, it's largely the work of a solo developer, Max Mraz. The core game was a one-person endeavour, though its path to Switch has been an interesting one too, as it's a trailblazer for the Solarus engine, which has been used for a significant number of Zelda fangames. Ocean's Heart is the first time that engine has been utilised on Nintendo's hardware; it was also the first game using the engine to be released on Steam.
It's a game with an interesting history, so we caught up with Max Mrax to learn more about his creation, the route to Switch and what's coming next.
Nintendo Life: First of all, can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your background in games and development?
I’m Max, I’m ostensibly a game developer. Development is just a hobby I do on the side, but as it turns out I do a lot of it since I can sleep when I’m dead. I started trying to make video games when I was 11 and a kid at school told me about RPG Maker, back when Don Miguel’s pirated version of RPG Maker 2000 was going around the internet. Then off and on, I’d try to make Zelda fangames throughout my school years, which never works in RPG Maker because that’s simply not what it’s for.
Can you take us back to the beginning of Ocean's Heart development? When did the project start and how big was the team?
Back in 2017 I was building a Raspberry Pi thingy to play old games, and stumbled across the Solarus engine and a couple of Zelda fangames. The concept of a game I made myself being on my own TV was wild and exciting, and I figured I was in my mid 20s, it was time to learn to code anyway, so I started teaching myself. I figured I would make a really small game, just a couple of little islands and a couple tiny dungeons, and it would just be for myself. The team then is the same as it is now, it’s just me. Which meant there was nobody to stop me when I kept accidentally making the game bigger and bigger.
You've described it before as a 'love letter to The Legend of Zelda'; when you started, was there a particular Zelda game, or set of gaming concepts from the series, that inspired you the most?
Visually, I’ve always viewed Zelda: Minish Cap as the height of pixel art. The Game Boy Advance had some of the best pixel art ever, because after that console, unfortunately, most major companies pivoted toward 3D models whether or not they looked good. So that’s been my visual inspiration.
In regards to gameplay, what draws me to Zelda is the exploration - particularly the way you pick apart the overworld in between dungeons. I love talking to people to find new quests that get you to new locations, and I love how the overworld teases me with glimpses of places I can’t go until I have some weird contraption that turns trees upside down or whatever the new item will be.
I love talking to people to find new quests that get you to new locations, and I love how the overworld teases me with glimpses of places I can’t go until I have some weird contraption.
What aspects of Ocean's Heart set it apart from that source of inspiration, what do you consider to be the biggest parts of its identity?
Compared to Zelda, Ocean’s Heart is much more focused on side quests and optional content. If you only follow the main story, you’ll miss the majority of the world. There’s secret dungeons, hidden quests, and remote towns to visit. All of that is done at the player’s prerogative, if you want to explore, you will find cool stuff but I’m not your mom and I won’t make you. Another point of divergence is Tilia, the main character. Rather than a silent, sincere protagonist, Tilia has a character and communicates her attitudes. While she will take the time to help people out (because she often needs the money to fund her quest), she won’t hesitate to call anyone out for getting themselves into messes, or acting a fool.
The game arrived in early 2021 on Steam; what were your takeaways from the reaction of players on Steam, and did any feedback then influence updates and the eventual Switch port?
The Steam players definitely managed to find some obscure bugs which was very helpful, but the majority of feedback was immediately countermanded by someone else - for example, the music is reportedly repetitive and grating, but also a highlight and where can I buy the soundtrack? Mathematically, the positive opinions outweigh the negative ones though. What PC players can agree on is that keyboard control rebinding is mandatory, as are Steam achievements. Obviously neither of those carry over to Switch, but I did glean lots of small tweaks and improvements; things like certain quests being slightly unclear, or small areas being too easy to miss, that kind of thing. The Switch port definitely benefited from the vetting of thousands of players on Steam.
It is hard to remember I made this game when I see it on my Switch screen next to Hollow Knight and Breath of the Wild.
How was the experience, technically, for you in bringing this game to the Switch?
I knew nothing about porting before this, since Ocean’s Heart is my first big game. However, this is also the first commercial release of a game made with the excellent Solarus engine, so the engine’s developers were also excited to get to port to Switch, and were heavily involved. I was just the lucky intern whose game happened to be going along for the ride in some senses. So the technical work was a lot of messaging back and forth with the Solarus engine team, like, “Max, can you try running this?”, “sure, but literally I can’t find the ‘go’ button where is it help?”. One of the greatest parts though, is that the work we did should allow future Solarus games to be ported smoothly. I hope this can encourage more people to make games.
Emotionally, was it a particularly special moment to release Ocean's Heart on Nintendo's hardware?
Absolutely, it is hard to remember I made this game when I see it on my Switch screen next to Hollow Knight and Breath of the Wild. But then I start playing and I’m like, “no this is definitely my game because I have fought this dumb bat enemy 50 thousand times while testing”. While I expected it to feel exciting and special to release on Switch, and it does, what was unexpected is how much distance came between finishing the game for me, and release. Between QA, the certification process, marketing, and everything else, I’ve largely been working on other projects for the better part of a year. So the excitement certainly is there, but there’s also some readiness to move on to something else.
Are there future plans for Ocean's Heart, either in terms of content for this game or new games / a sequel?
I definitely have churning plans for new games, but haven’t committed to a single big one yet. Right now I’m working on a small game meant to be used as free resources for other developers using the Solarus engine. Graphics, code, sound effects, that kind of thing. The idea is that you could pull whatever you want from it and it will speed up development by having prebuilt, modular systems, and development on that is going quite well.
There’s still a lot I’d like to explore in the top-down, pixel-art, action RPG space. Ocean’s Heart didn’t really reinvent any wheels or beak any molds- which was by design, I was literally teaching myself to code while making it. But now that I have some experience, I want to try exploring new mechanics and make something more unique.
Do you have any final messages to share with our readers?
I’m never sure what kinds of messages the readers need to hear, so I’ll add some advice? Be careful not to accidentally start making games, it’s hard to quit, and it’s just so so much work. Also if you like exploring in games, your city probably has some parks, and they don’t tell you but you don’t necessarily have to stay on the trails. You can literally just wander off into the woods and you’re almost guaranteed to find a cool rock or something. Hopefully that is helpful!
We'd like to thank Max Mraz for his time.