In the three years since the console launched, the Nintendo Switch has firmly established itself as the king of the hill when it comes to local multiplayer gaming. There's certainly no shortage of great co-operative games on Switch, and the ability to slide off Joy-Con anywhere at any time makes it ideal for enjoying with friends and family. The latest co-op game to arrive on the system is Vitamin Connection from WayForward, the studio probably most famous for the excellent Shantae series of platformers, although their back catalogue contains a trove of retro-inspired gems from Mighty Switch Force to The Mummy Demastered.
We caught up with Vitamin Connection's director James Montagna to chat about the Switch exclusive, his role on the project and how he maintains his energy and enthusiasm for games and game development.
James Montagna: Sure! Vitamin Connection is a Nintendo Switch exclusive game in which players take on the role of characters Vita-Boy & Mina-Girl, either playing solo or with a friend, to copilot a vitamin capsule ship and embark on a journey to fight bacteria monsters and cure the world! The story follows the Sable family, and each member of the family has an instance where they either swallow the vitamin, or interact with it in some meaningful way that sets the course for the story. The game itself makes a lot of specific use of the Nintendo Switch Joy-Con, and when playing with two players, each player has their own role in both steering the ship and firing. This asymmetrical experience means players will have to really cooperate with each other well to succeed! In fact, the asymmetry is reflected right down to the fact that each player even holds the Joy-Con controller different from each one another.
we all adore Nintendo Switch at WayForward and I wanted to make a love letter game for it
Were there any specific influences you had in mind while developing the game? How long has it been in development?
The direction I gave to the team was to look closely at games like Jet Set Radio, and the Katamari series. At first glance, it might appear that these games don’t have a whole lot in common with Vitamin Connection, nor each other. But both share a very distinct core concept in their gameplay, a strong identity in their visuals, and importantly, an emphasis on a soundtrack that stands alone as incredible music just for listening to. So really, our goal was to create a game like one of those, but for a new generation.
As for the timeframe… We started development in 2017, but it took a bit longer than other projects to get off the ground since there was a period where Vitamin Connection wasn’t funded yet, so I was working on other projects. That’s why there’s a gap of almost a year from the first prototype to full production.
Has working on this game been much different from working on Shantae or other WayForward projects?
Quite a bit! With Vitamin Connection, we were creating a new WayForward property from scratch, so there was no existing guideline to look at… not only for what the gameplay should be, but for the world and characters of the game as well. There was an opportunity there for our team to express as much creativity as we could possibly throw at it in establishing what we hope can go on to be something greater than just this one game alone. Another point is, we had a relatively small and tightly knit team for this game, which, of course, has good and bad points. In our case, one great benefit is it provided a lot of flexibility. A lot of the best features were just myself and the similarly passionate lead programmer chatting back and forth like “it would be cool if it worked like this…”
Can you give us an idea of what the ‘average’ day of a Game Director entails? What are the pros and cons of having that role over a pure design role on a project?
On a project like Vitamin Connection, I’ll even get very hands on and adjust some things myself, including creating artwork, sound effects, and tweaking level design.
At WayForward, it’s typical for the lead designer to also be the game’s director. In fact, the title on my business card reads Designer/Director, and I’m constantly doing both roles. Therefore, figuring out the pros and cons is a bit tough since it all blends for me.
My day usually begins once I’ve got my email out of the way, where I’ll prioritize a list of what needs to be done that day and address things accordingly. One of my primary tasks is writing up content for the Game Design Document (GDD), which serves as a blueprint of sorts over the course of development.
Next, I’ll check in with the staff who are building the game based on the GDD, and provide specific feedback to guide things more in line with the vision, or revise the design where necessary if things aren’t working out the way they were planned. From there, when those tasks are covered, I’ll get my own hands-on time with the game.
Finally, I’ll make notes and provide feedback on things like the gameplay interactions for programming, level design notes, etc. I also assign out tasks based on what needs to get done, writing out emails to illustrators, musicians, and more, explaining task details. On a project like Vitamin Connection, I’ll even get very hands on and adjust some things myself, including creating artwork, sound effects, and tweaking level design. This time around, I even set aside some time to compose a bit of music, which was made to sound awesome by our collaborators, the Mint Potion music team.
The first trailer gave us a glimpse of some mini games – can you tell us a bit about them? Are they tied into the main game or totally separate?
These are what we refer to as Sub-Games. You can think of these as little boss battles of sorts. Their primary purpose is to break up the moments of core gameplay with thrilling bursts of a totally unique play style, sometimes complete with a new way to control the ship. In the overall narrative, every time you reach a “vital location” inside of the body of the host, a Sub-Game is played to cure it. Sub-Games will be unlocked gradually for free play as you progress through the main story mode. As you unlock them, each gets treated as its own self-contained little game, complete with its own title screen. We get extra mileage out of some of them by remixing the contents to make spin-off Sub-Games as well.
I think my favorite Sub-Game might be “Dance Festival.” It’s a rhythm game with a variety of songs, each with a unique dance step routine. The Capsule Ship is placed amongst other ships. Dance steps are then provided for the ship, which you and your partner must follow closely on the beat when the music starts. When played just right, the result is like a synchronized swimming performance with the other ships, twirling and gliding in unison, perfectly choreographed. If you make a mistake and bump into the other ships you’ll take damage and throw everything off… So be careful!
we use the HD Rumble feature heavily, motion controls, and even the seldom-invoked IR Motion Camera
Many of your recent games have been multiplatform titles - besides the obvious good fit, what was the thinking behind making Vitamin Connection a Switch exclusive? Does it feature any unique gameplay that couldn’t be replicated on other platforms?
This might be the question I get asked the most about this game, and I don’t ever have a great answer for the thinking behind it besides the fact that we all adore Nintendo Switch at WayForward and I wanted to make a love letter game for it. Along with the unique use of the Joy-Con held in varied orientations for the Together Play mode, we use the HD Rumble feature heavily, motion controls, and even the seldom-invoked IR Motion Camera. It’s possible the experience could be sort of replicated elsewhere with some changes to be honest, but when you get hands on it, it’s really easy to tell why it’s such a perfect fit for Switch.
You’ve been at WayForward for a good while now (14 years, we believe?) and have a sizeable collection of your own independently developed games in addition to your work at the studio. With work/life balance being a hot topic in game dev for years now, how do you find the time and keep up your enthusiasm for independent projects while working full time on games at your day job?
I think it’s just relentless passion on my part; perhaps foolishly so depending on who you ask. But I just really love creating things and entertaining people. So, I go to work and make WayForward games like Shantae and Vitamin Connection, and then I go home and work hard on my independent projects. It’s been this way since I started, and I still love doing it. I’d be lying if I said working this way doesn’t take its toll sometimes, but when I think I’ve gone overboard, I try to do things to maintain a healthy balance again, like making time for family and friends. However, right now I’m doing fine, and I’m really quite thankful that my work allows me to offer enjoyment to so many people!
What would you say was the biggest challenge you came up against during development of Vitamin Connection?
For me personally, the challenge was one of ideas versus feasibility. I think there were a ton of concepts we wanted to work into the game that for one reason or another couldn’t be realized during the course of development. But, this isn’t really unique to Vitamin Connection. I’ve come to realize there’s always going to be things like that, no matter the project. When you’re making something, not everything goes according to plan. The only thing to do then is embrace the unexpected, and turn your focus onto making the next thing the best it can be.
Even though it’s tough to set aside time for gaming in the name of entertainment, I feel it’s really important. Some of the sensibilities of works like Smash Bros. rub off on the designs we create, sometimes even subconsciously.
The Switch is a great fit for co-op games and there are lots of excellent examples already available – what would you say sets Vitamin Connection apart from the pack?
It’s true — there’s a lot of great cooperative games on Switch right now! I feel the experience that Vitamin Connection provides is a fairly unique one in the way it asks players to coordinate. I’ve previously referred to it as a “virtual three-legged race,” which is somewhat uncommon to games. To progress successfully, in many instances of the game, you and your partner will need to really communicate and guide each other to steer the Capsule Ship. There’s other instances where you’ll both have to just focus on fulfilling your unique role the best you can, with the best results being a melding of your combined skills. The end product of our design approach is this game that makes for a really great ice breaker, and often creates a bond between players in a way that is decidedly different from other cooperative game experiences.
Finally, are there any Switch games in particular that you and the team have been enjoying when you’re not hard at work on Vitamin Connection?
There are quite a lot! We all have a burning passion for games, so we do our best to play what we can set aside time for. If I had to pick one title that is true for the majority of our team… We’re enormous fans of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate! There wasn’t much in the way of time to take breaks while work on Vitamin Connection picked up, but we’ve occasionally managed to fit in some heated matches, and at one point an internal WayForward tournament for the game. Even though it’s tough to set aside time for gaming in the name of entertainment, I feel it’s really important. Some of the sensibilities of works like Smash Bros. rub off on the designs we create, sometimes even subconsciously. Hopefully we can put a spark of inspiration into the world with our own craft as well.
Our thanks to James for his time - you can follow him on Twitter. Vitamin Connection is out now and we'll have our review ready soon, so check back for our verdict. In the meantime, feel free to share your thoughts on Switch's latest calamitous co-op adventure below.