SWA Hero 2

Ed Annunziata's career spans all the way back to the early '90s, and includes titles such as Spider-Man, Chakan: The Forever Man, Cyborg Justice and Kolibri, all games that appeared on Sega hardware. However, his name is most closely associated with the groundbreaking Ecco the Dolphin, a 1992 Genesis / Mega Drive release which established a best-selling franchise.

Annunziata's connection with Ecco could be seen as both a blessing and a curse, because it has arguably placed the designer in the shadow of his most famous creation, despite the fact that he has been involved with many, many notable games since then.

Annunziata is currently hard at work on Space War Arena, a Switch game which hits the eShop on February 14th. Keen to know more, we sat down for a chat with this legendary developer.

Nintendo Life: Before we get onto Space War Arena, it's worth touching upon your amazing career. What have been the highlights for you personally?

Ed Annunziata: I've been making games for a very long time, so there's been a ton of highlights. I'd say every single release of all the games I've worked on have all been highlights! Just getting the game into the endzone is always a victory. Sticking with the football analogy, it would feel so good I would totally do a touchdown dance on every game shipped!

Some individual moments that I cherish:

  • Doing voice over for Three Dirty Dwarves (Saturn). The whole team played roles, including the Hungarian-speaking Orcs! I never laughed so hard in my life.
  • When I met Micheal Jackson because he was friends with Tom Kalinske (President of Sega at the time) and was a fan of Ecco! I was showing him an early version of Tides of Time while we both sat on a piano bench. As I played the game, Michael started singing to the music of whatever level I was playing. I got goosebumps.
  • When we finished Tiny Tank (PS1) the team performed the song, "Up your Arsenal" which was just one of the songs on Tiny Tank's crazy soundtrack. I remember the moment with all of us in the studio singing our guts out. It was awesome!

You've created Space War Arena with a small team; have you found that your fame with other titles has helped gain interest in the game?

Well, you answered my email! Other than that, I don't think my track record helps one bit. For better or worse, only the game and how fun it is can gain interest if there is to be any. As for the team, it is still 'us', the original Ecco the Dolphin team! We have all worked together for the last 25 years. My development partner Laszlo Szenttornyai worked on many games with me, including Ecco the Dolphin. Laszlo the best Space War Arena player on earth right now. My secret plan: In the future, we are going to use machine learning to capture Laszlo's strategies and tactics and make an AI opponent of him in the game; the bot will be called 'I am Laszlo.'

What inspired Space War Arena, and what makes it unique in your opinion?

Little spaceships! When I was a kid the video games that appealed to me had little ships, like Defender, or Nolan Bushnell's Computer Space. And ultimately the game called Spacewar, the very first video game ever created in 1962 (the year I was born). What was interesting about Spacewar is it was it started as player vs. player from the beginning. I had a little ship, you had a little ship and we went at it until only one remained. It was awesome.

Space War Arena is a modern take on a real-time wargame with spaceships. On a very fundamental level, Space War Arena was designed as a two-player, head-to-head game. Like a real-time chess game, only the pieces are little ships that have different parameters and behaviours.

A natural component of this kind of game is its sci-fi theme; AI is emphasized. In the single-player mode, you battle against different flavours of AI. Even the little spaceships have their own unique AIs that drive them. As you observe how these machines think, you get better at playing this game. While designing all the AIs for the units, we discovered that there is infinite space for strategies and tactics.

What element of the game do you think players will find most surprising?

How solidly fun it is. One small indication of this is when you start a battle, it is very difficult to stop playing until someone wins.

What kind of modes will the game have, in terms of solo, local and online?

The premier mode is head-to-head, local. We don't support online yet, but it's coming. The game includes a story-based campaign mode where victories unlock new units. Also, 6 different AIs to battle are provided to level-up units you already own. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger!

How are you making use of the console's unique features, such as the Joy-Con, desktop mode, and the touchscreen?

I love the haptics on the Joy-Con. Space War Arena is a very explosive game! The visual effects are great for seeing the explosions, but the haptics let you feel them; very satisfying. We support the touchscreen as much as possible. We even support head-to-head touchscreen play on a single system, which is surprisingly fun!

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Space War Arena looks like as great new series, but do you ever feel like returning to the classics of your past?

One of the OCD characteristics of my personality is I never give up! When I was trying to convince Sega about Ecco the Dolphin it took me years to get them to bite. There are some challenges I need to overcome but eventually, there will be a new Ecco! Also, I am trying to find a way to port our Saturn game, Three Dirty Dwarves, to the Switch. I think that's an excellent game for the platform. Also, if I have it my way, modern versions of Mr. Bones (Saturn) and Tiny Tank (PS1) are heading over to the Switch someday!

You tried to crowdfund a successor to Ecco a few years back; what happened with that?

Ugh, I knew you were going to ask me this! Ok, the Big Blue failed as a crowdfunded project, not for only one reason. I know I did not do it well. I still very strongly believe in the story and the mechanics but it really can't be a spiritual successor to Ecco, it has to be Ecco! One thing I can say is in the future, people are playing this game. I never give up!