It's hard to make games. When you have absolutely no idea how to actually make a game, that might seem like a naive understatement, but we imagine it's true. Games today are massive, epic ventures; collaborations between hundreds, if not thousands of talented individuals all striving toward a common goal. But what about making a game for a platform that's 30 years old? Would that be easier thanks to more basic technology, or harder because the tools you need are less sophisticated, and you're constantly running into limitations and roadblocks?
Bitmap Bureau is finding this out right now. This tiny UK studio is creating a new game for the 16-bit Sega Mega Drive / Genesis, but it is also porting the game to the NEO-GEO and to modern-day consoles, including the Switch. Talk about biting off more than you can chew. We sat down with Mike Tucker to discuss Xeno Crisis, creating 'new' old games, and much more besides.
Nintendo Life: Can you give us some background on your team? How many people are involved, and what projects have you worked on previously?
Mike Tucker: The Xeno Crisis team is spread mostly over Europe, with Matt and myself in Southampton in the UK handling the design, programming and production, Henk Nieborg producing the art in Holland, Savaged Regime creating the music and sounds in Sweden, and Catherine Menabde producing additional art from Slovenia. We also had our friends George Exley (UK) and Kristen McGuire (US) handling the voiceovers for us.
Henk is the most revered of all of us with a long history in the games industry going back to the Amiga days in the ‘90s when he worked on Lionheart, The Misadventures of Flink (Mega Drive) and The Adventures of Lomax (PS1). He also worked on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (GBA), Contra 4 (DS), Shantae 2: Risky's Revenge (DSiWare) and Shakedown: Hawaii. He’s recognised as one of the finest pixel artists on the planet and he’s able to work miracles with just a few pixels and colours; all of the in-game art – sprites and backgrounds – is Henk’s work.
Next up is Daniel Bärlin (Savaged Regime), who has spent the last decade or more mastering the Mega Drive’s YM2612 sound chip and refining his own style. I don’t believe Daniel had worked on any other commercially-released title before Xeno Crisis (although I believe he worked on Streets Of Rage Remake), so we were very pleased to have him agree to work with us.
We also have the excellent Catherine Menabde working on cutscenes, interstitials, and key art – she studied animation at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow before doing some work as a storyboard and background artist in animation, and then spending a year as a comic colourist.
As for myself and Matt, we actually worked together at a mobile game development studio called IOMO back in the early 2000s. There we developed some of the earliest mobile phone games and had considerable success, but we both went down different avenues when the studio eventually closed in 2008 – I started an indie studio called “Megadev” which concentrated on developing quality Flash titles, culminating in creating Adult Swim’s first Steam game, Super House Of Dead Ninjas, which was a big hit for them. Matt, on the other hand, formed a studio called Metismo which specialised in cross-platform mobile technology, and it’s thanks to his technical expertise that we’re able to bring Xeno Crisis to so many platforms.
What attracted you to working on vintage hardware, as opposed to simply producing Xeno Crisis for a modern platform in a retro style?
We’ve all long been fans of the Mega Drive, with myself having imported a Japanese Mega Drive back in ‘89 to play the likes of Thunder Force 2, Super Shinobi, Ghouls n’ Ghosts, Tatsujin and so on, and Matt having a keen interest in not only writing software for older tech, but also electronics. Henk is also a big Mega Drive fan, and Savaged Regime, the game’s musician, is probably the greatest exponent on the Mega Drive’s audio hardware around, so we were all very excited at the opportunity of making a new game for the machine.
Also, consoles from the 8 / 16 / 32-bit era each had their own characteristics and personality, with the Mega Drive being particularly distinctive because of its colour palette and FM synthesis – we took this into account before we even started developing Xeno Crisis, as we were keen to make a game that really took advantage of the Mega Drive’s traits. Some six years ago I made a Steam game with something of a Mega Drive aesthetic called Super House Of Dead Ninjas.
That was a lot of fun to make and it sold very well, but after myself and Matt teamed up, Matt was itching to make a game for the Mega Drive as he loves a technical challenge, and since I was a huge Mega Drive fan and had been making games in a ‘retro’ style, it made sense for us to give it a go.
What has it been like using SGDK to create a game for the Mega Drive?
Xeno Crisis wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the SGDK. It’s given us a really solid base to focus our game creation from. We’ve had to create a few custom tools for some aspects like the procedural level generation but the core of SGDK has worked great. Stephane Dallongeville, the creator of SGDK needs a tremendous amount of thanks – he recently joined Patreon and the more support he gets the easier it will be for Mega Drive game developers to create new games.
What games inspired Xeno Crisis in terms of gameplay and tone?
I think anyone who’s familiar with '80s and '90s gaming will notice that Xeno Crisis is heavily inspired by Smash TV from the legendary Eugene Jarvis, which was, of course, a sequel of sorts to Robotron, which itself took inspiration from Berzerk by Stern Electronics. On top of this the gameplay and visuals also owe a lot to the likes of Outzone (Toaplan), Mercs (Capcom), The Chaos Engine (Bitmap Bros), Alien Syndrome (Sega), Skeleton Krew (Core), Alien Breed (Team 17), Doom (Id Software), Granada (Renovation), and of course many of the Contra games!
What kind of issues did you find working against the limitations of the Mega Drive hardware, which, lest we forget, is now 30 years old?
Most issues are ones that are well known: limited VRAM, RAM, DMA bandwidth, CPU, ROM size and so on. With modern hardware, you rarely have to concern yourself with those types of limits unless you’re working on a cutting edge AAA 3D title. For Xeno Crisis, however, we had to be very precise, so we’ve got a lot of spreadsheets! We had to pre-calculate and plan nearly all aspects and sections of the game to ensure we could squeeze it all in. It’s a constant juggle of those factors and they’re all interlinked. The hardest day to day issue is the limited hardware debugging options. Fortunately, emulators are getting very accurate, so the likes of Blastem have been invaluable through development for quick iterations and testing.
The game was expected to be finished last year – what happened?
Two things. Firstly, we added so much more to the game that it naturally increased the development time. Secondly, the biggest cause of the delay has been Matt’s injury last summer. Matt hit his head suffering a severe concussion at the end of June last year, leaving him struggling to talk and walk. The initial diagnosis was that it should clear within three months but a year later he’s still relapsing – fortunately much less frequently. It’s just one of those things we couldn’t plan for, but we’ve worked through it and we’re excited to be so close to release. We’re also so grateful for the amazing Kickstarter community and fans of Xeno Crisis for bearing with us and for their kind comments of support.
You smashed your Kickstarter goal pretty comprehensively. How has that cash helped you realise your ambitions, and has it been enough to get the game fully created? Have you had to seek funding from elsewhere?
The Kickstarter was amazing and we were blown away by how much the community responded to Xeno Crisis. The result was that we’ve been able to add more content and at an even higher quality to all aspects of the game. Shortly after Matt’s injury last year when it was apparent we would face some delays we secured funding to complete Xeno Crisis, which has been great as it’s allowed us to focus on creating the game and adding all of the extra content.
You're also releasing the game on the equally old NEO-GEO. How are you using the additional processing power that machine affords?
The NEO GEO, as well as having a faster processor, allows us to use more sprites and doesn’t have the VRAM limitations of the Mega Drive, which gives us scope to add in a lot of the little flourishes which we were able to add to the modern version, like bullet casings flying around when you shoot. It also has some neat tricks like scaling and we can also use all of the art assets and frames which couldn’t quite fit on the Mega Drive. It also allows us to refine Xeno Crisis into a true arcade game experience, which we believe suits it well and it’s how we designed the game from the start.
How easy has it been to port the code to modern systems, like the Nintendo Switch, and will you be including any new features or modes which take advantage of the Switch's unique features?
We actually have two separate code bases: the modern one and the retro one. We had to develop a strict set of limitations to ensure that the core of the modern version didn’t exceed what would be viable in the Mega Drive version. This then allowed us to very rapidly prototype and develop the game on the modern codebase, then bring those features and functionality over to the retro codebase when more stable and complete. We’ve actually tried to keep the experience on modern systems as close to the Mega Drive as possible for a true retro feel, but we have layered in more modern day features like Achievements just to polish the experience on modern systems. The Switch display really shines with Henk’s amazing pixel art and Xeno Crisis is great fun to play on the go if you’re not lucky enough to own a Nomad!
What's next for you guys after Xeno Crisis is complete?
We will definitely be developing more titles for retro hardware such as the Mega Drive and NEO GEO, whilst also continuing to bring them to modern platforms including the Switch, and we currently have several ideas that we’re considering. As soon as we have Xeno Crisis wrapped up we’ll probably be making an announcement - people can follow us on Twitter or Facebook to keep informed.