A Homebrew Draws Near!
A blog series by Scrobins
Episode 35: Sly Dog Studios & The Candelabra Epic
Once a developer decides to make a sequel to follow up on a previous game, there is the inevitable question of whether the next entry should offer more of the winning formula or strike out for new territory? On the one hand, by sticking with what's tried and true, you run the risk of becoming stale, and on the other, by wanting to innovate and stay fresh, you risk alienating fans who liked what you did before. If you’re Sly Dog Studios, you don’t have this problem because your fans love your games because each entry is a different game using a different genre to introduce creative gameplay mechanics that challenge your assumptions about how to play a game of the genre, as well as what can be done with a game of that type on the NES.
For this entry, I decided to spend the dog days of summer catching up with Rob Bryant aka Sly Dog Studios to see what he’s been up to and share his stories about the famed Candelabra series. Rob’s games are longstanding favorites since the early days of NES homebrew, and I got the scoop of kibble on what’s brewing in the doghouse.
Not too far off from reality
@Rob Bryant (Sly Dog Studios): programming
Sly Dog & Evolution of the Series:
Rob’s games run the gamut, beholden to no genre. Like many early homebrewers, Rob’s first works show off his developing skill as it dovetails with his creativity. One such example, Tic-Tac XO, awards power-ups depending on the outcome of previous games, which makes future matches very interesting. A known presence on NESdev, Rob took Clik!, a mini game developed for the first NESdev compo and expanded it into a complete game. Also a huge personality on NintendoAge, Rob was instrumental in building a permanent reservoir of knowledge for aspiring brewers to access the Nerdy Nights tutorials, in addition to sharing updates on his own work, and answering the questions of others. You might even remember The DogCast, in which Rob posted bite-sized updates on whatever he was working on at the time, alongside snippets of his everyday life. His ever-growing skill and support led him to release what may well be his masterpiece: Black Box Challenge, an RPG in which you collect all the original black box NES games, playing 1k mini games of each to unlock abilities that open more of the surrounding world so you can continue your quest and defeat the Evil Overlord.
Screenshot from Black Box Challenge
But Rob is most famous for the Candelabra Epic, an ongoing saga that has cemented Rob as the homebrewer’s homebrewer. The first entry in the series, The Mad Wizard, is a puzzle-based platformer, whose rom was released in 2014, and sold on cart in 2015. Immediately distinguishing itself, its gameplay lacks a jumping mechanic, instead relying on your character’s (Hekl) mystical hover. Your ability to navigate the world, fight enemies, and acquire new abilities opens the wider world in your battle against Amondus, and it all begins with the basic assumption-breaking fact that you can’t jump. The next game, The Rise of Amondus, sees you playing as the previous game’s villain as you collect minions to build your army. Also released in 2015, this worthy follow up is a sort of horizontal shooter with the ability to have a second player join in for some couch co-op. Not content to be a straightforward shmup, this game includes a separate mechanic in which you abduct goblins on the ground while clearing the path ahead of enemies, a true multitasker’s game.
For the next entry, Estoscerro, Rob teased a twin-stick 3D dungeon crawler in a demo released as early as 2013! Updates trickled out on NintendoAge and NESdev, but Rob keeps many plates spinning continuously as progress on several games edged closer to the finish line. Given the tidbits shared, I hope one day Rob writes a book about all the stories behind this saga; he takes his time on what are clearly labors of love, and when a new game is ready, it lands with a huge bang.
Whereas the first two entries of the Candelabra Epic were physically released on cart by RetroUSB, with boxes by Uncle Tusk, the third entry reached audiences by a different route. Estoscerro launched on Kickstarter through fellow homebrewer K3VBOT on March 22, 2019. Within 48 hours, the project had met its initial funding goal. By campaign’s end, 301 supporters pledged more than $27,000 toward the game. Backer tiers included the game rom, cart only, CIB, or combination packages with T-shirts, stickers, posters, and a cloth map of the first level. Depending on your selection, you could receive a traditional gray cart or a translucent yellow one. Even more exciting, there was a tier that offered everything plus re-releases of The Mad Wizard and The Rise of Amondus (with new box/cart/manual artwork) since both games were discontinued through RetroUSB a year or two prior. Backers received their games by spring 2020, and Rob released the Estoscerro rom to the public for free on February 4, 2021.
Estoscerro Kickstarter banner
Like many fans would, I took the chance to hound Rob about his development work, and when he thinks the next games in the series might be let off the leash. I was fur-tunate to hear his tails, er tales…
Sly Dog Studios
-Before we dive into the Candelabra series, I wanted to check in. Last year I polled members of the community, and one question asked who they missed hearing from. You were a frequent answer. So for the many who miss hearing from you, how have you been?
I really had no idea I would be mentioned as someone that others had missed hearing from, so that’s kinda nice to learn. As for how I’ve been, I’ve been alright. A lot of family stuff has had its ups and downs in the past couple of years haha My kids are getting bigger, and they’re amazingly crazy. They are definitely hard to keep up with. I wouldn’t trade what I have for anything, even with rough times. So, life is good overall. None of us are starving, thank God.
-I would also love to talk about you and your background. What first inspired you to become a homebrewer? What is your origin story?
Good Lord. I’m not really sure what inspired me to create games in the first place, but I always knew I wanted to make games on the NES, if I could. I always loved playing games, but I always really loved the library on the NES, and thought it would be awesome to make games on the same platform that harbored some of my favorite games of all time. One of those things where you’re like, “Yeah, I was able to create a game alongside the likes of Ninja Gaiden, Friday the 13th, etc.” Not that I’m saying they’re as good as those games, but that they are in the same library. You could counter that that very same library has some snoozers. It doesn’t matter though. Take the nostalgia of loving the system, and creating something that would necessarily make it on a list of games that were on the system? Haha Sounds kinda stupid, but I think it’s awesome.
-What is the significance of the Sly Dog Studios name as well as your Roth username on NintendoAge and NESDev?
This is definitely a double-pronged answer, because neither has to do with the other. Sly Dog Studios is really interesting, because it has something that deals with a game that I envisioned a long time ago, coupled with the guy I used to create games with. So, my friend Shawn and I had “created our own systems,” by which I mean, we came up with specs, didn’t understand them, but ran with them. Then, we each came up with our own games for those systems. In my case, the system I “created,” was the Machina (pronounced mak-in-uh). There was one game in particular that I came up with called Sly Dogs. It was supposed to be something like Mission: Impossible on the NES, but you could switch from each character to the other, and they all banded together to perform certain tasks. This was when we were little kids.
Fast forward, many, many years later. I was playing in bands a lot, and Shawn was a keyboard player. We never actually played together in any live bands, but he would sometimes record live shows or even practices of bands I was in. At one point, I was in this band called Badge. He recorded some of our stuff, then actually had a CD maker of some sort. He pressed a copy and gave it to me. On the outer rim of the CD it said “Sly Dog Studios.” It was one of the coolest things ever. And then whenever I decided to actually slap a name on programming ventures, I thought it was more than appropriate to use that moniker. Even later than that, Shawn was the one that came up with the logo of Sly Dog Studios.
The name Roth was something I came up with when I was playing AD&D when I was younger. I just thought it sounded cool. And so, whenever I joined forums in the early days of NES discussions, I used that. The answer about Sly Dog Studios is totally more interesting than the name of Roth haha
-Who are your influences? And whose work are you watching closely now?
The more I think about things like influences, the more I believe it’s everything I’ve ever taken in. I could tell you that *such-and-such* is a major influence, but I really don’t think I can do that these days. I honestly believe that everyone influences everyone in some sort of way; that it is difficult to ascertain who is a more readily spoken of in influence than the next. Even random encounters of people you’ll meet only one time seem to sometimes have big impacts in ways I think of things, and perceive things.
If you want me to talk about who/what I admire? I would say any game that has a story, and whomever the people behind that game are. I couldn’t tell you who worked on The Adventures of Bayou Billy, but holy cow. They took a regular damsel-in-distress story, and built a game with multiple styles of play, with multiple kinds of villains, and mashed it together and made something cool. Same with Golgo-13: Top Secret Episode. Really cool games, and those that worked on them, I tip my hat.
Screenshot from The Adventures of Bayou Billy
About people’s work that I’m watching closely… I am not going to lie. I am severely detached from the whole homebrew scene right now. I have no idea about anyone that exists outside of Kevin, Beau, Tim and Joe Parsell, my Yoda. And even there, I have no idea what they may or may not be working on right now. I remember that Damian was working on Full Quiet. That’s about the extent of what I know.
-How would you describe your design aesthetic, what to you are the hallmarks of a game made by you?
I used to jam in this death metal band. I remember having a conversation with the drummer about a certain way I approached making riffs much of the time. It was basically something like, “I like to play the same thing twice, then change it up on the third time, and then play the first thing one more time.” So it’s like an A-A-B-A riff, if that makes sense? And I think that is kind of what my design for gaming is like, but not necessarily like that. I haven’t quite figured out what it is that I like to do when making a game, but when I make a certain thing, I know that that is the thing that I want? Basically, I feel like there is a formula that I like to use, but I haven’t quite put my finger on what that is yet.
If I were to put a “hallmark” on what these games do, it is that the player starts off with diddly-squat, and by the end is over-powered, but the powers are increased in such a way that you don’t realize how great your character is until close to the end of the game. Something like that maybe?
-What tools do you use to code & compose?
For coding I use a text editor, and build with CA65 and LD65. I also use NESST for seeing how things could look. I use GIMP for all of the graphics work I need to do before transferring it to something NESST could use. I use a modified DragNSF 1.0 for compositions. I also use my bass and sometimes my own voicing on recordings so that I don’t forget something that’s musically in my head.
-You started developing games for the NES around 2008, and playing in assembly for a few years before that. Has your approach to homebrewing changed over time?
I’m going to say no, but I wish I could say yes haha I’ve noticed that I tend to have an idea, start on the game, and then keep adding ideas. I don’t think I’ve ever had a game where I pre-planned and stuck it out to the end, never changing anything. I always seem to keep building on what I originally saw, and only stopping when I think that it’s “good enough,” which I don’t usually think it is.
-What have you observed about the evolution of the homebrew scene as a whole over the years you’ve been a part of it?
I once wrote an article called “Why Most People Don't Finish NES Homebrew Games.” It is no longer a relevant writing.
-You are also an avid musician, who composes the music in your games. Tell me about the development of Candelabra’s music, what is your composition process? Is the creative process for developing music different compared to your game programming?
It’s not different in terms of a “means-to-an-end.” Just like how I program, I kind of write music by the seat of my pants, and don’t have a particular end-point until I feel like I’ve reached it.
But, I will say it’s different in that, I’m more musically attuned to what I would like to do than I am with a game as a whole. I think music is really great, but it’s a far more simple beast than encompassing a vision of an entire world. The music is only a portion of that world, and I feel like the little bits of music I write are only one part of the tale of a world.
-How would you describe the vibe of your music?
Rock/Metal Meets *insert game genre*
-How did you first conceive the Candelabra series?
I originally wanted to make a 3D maze style game that was something that could be beaten in around 20-30 minutes. That was the original vision of Candelabra: Estoscerro. When the game was around 75% or more finished, I really actually got cold feet. At the time, there were people releasing platformers and getting tons of notoriety. I talked to my buddy Shawn, and told him I wanted to make some sort of platformer, but I couldn’t actually make sprites jump at that time, only move them. So he and I talked a bit, and decided to make a game of a wizard that could levitate. The sprite could be moved, but no jumping involved. This would end up becoming The Mad Wizard. As we got more into development of the game, we talked about this wizard maybe being the third character in Estoscerro, and tying it together. And that’s what eventually happened.
-Tell me about the evolution of Candelabra, what led you to decide each entry would essentially be a different genre?
I used to play all of my RPG video games with a certain character set. So, for instance, I would play Final Fantasy with Roth, Han, Hubs and Hekl. Roth as a fighter, Han a red mage, Hubs white, and Hekl black. I did this with other games too, like Ultima: Exodus. Except Roth would be a barbarian (like my AD&D character), Han a fighter, Hubs a white mage, Hekl a black mage… or whatever it was they were called on that game. So, because Roth was my forum name, I was discouraged from using that due to feeling like I would look like I was being non-humble(?) and putting myself in the games. So I went with Han, Hubs and Hekl as being the main protagonists. Sometimes on these games, I would have a character named Sven, who would be a thief. He worked his way into being the main guy in The Tenth Knight, but not as a thief, and spelled as sVen haha
There’s even more to it than all this. There was a PS One game called RPG Maker. I never came CLOSE to finishing the game, but I had started trying to make a game with that. But many ideas I thought of have carried over, at least in principle, and I was calling it Candelabra.
As for why I wanted to make each game different from the last in terms of genre? Just so it wasn’t the same. Each character is different from the other, and I think if you’re going to represent a character in a game, it’s proper to represent them in a state of play that is more conducive to how you would like them to be portrayed.
Like playing God, but with pixels
-In addition to each game being in a different genre, each has unique control mechanics that expand players’ conception of how NES games can be played, such as Estoscerro’s dual controller format/Virtual Boy controller compatibility. What is your inspiration for such out-of-the-box game design?
Modern video games. I always appreciated things like Smash TV on the NES, where they went out of their way to make a totally different experience with the controls. It’s not always necessary, but if I can find a modern video game that has elements that haven’t been explored on the NES, I want to try and use those to create something new and interesting for the system. I think people find it refreshing. Maybe sometimes cumbersome, but if they actually put in the work like when they were kids to try and learn the controls for something, ultimately rewarding.
-The series includes a wide array of characters. Do you personally identify with any of them?
Haha! Not so much identify with them, as much as empathize with them. They all have these traits that I both love and hate, but I can look at them all with a certain regarded mix of admiration or adulation. I hope I can get the series to that point where people can see what I mean by that.
-What new challenges or surprises surfaced in developing the various Candelabra games? What lessons did you learn that you would like to share with the people who aspire to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t go with the flow of what other devs are doing. Don’t feel like “I need to make *xyz genre* because other people are making *xyz genre*.” Just make your games.
-Which is your favorite Candelabra game?
Completed? It has to be Estoscerro. I think The Tenth Knight will be my favorite once it’s completed, though.
-Do you have a favorite game of yours from outside the series?
Definitely Black Box Challenge.
-Currently, The Mad Wizard, The Rise of Amondus, and Estoscerro are out, with mentions at one time or another of The Scarlet Matron, The Warlord Slayer, and The Tenth Knight. Are there any other games planned in the series?
Yes, there are a multitude of games in the series that are planned. It’s just a matter of actually being able to make them. I would like to, at the very least, have 12 games in the series. There are ideas for each, but we’ll see if they pan out.
-Do you have any updates to share on the remaining games in the series? Are you thinking of launching a crowdfunding campaign? Do you have plans to sell those games? Are you open to someone else handling production & distribution?
I’m still working on The Tenth Knight. It is a labor of love, because I really want this to be better than Black Box Challenge, which I consider to be my magnum opus up to this point. I will not be crowdfunding, and I will not be selling any games. I will release them as ROMs. If there is anyone that will release my games on cart with no changes to the ROM at all, I may consider that as an okay thing to do. I’m not looking to even try to make money off of my games anymore. Well, unless some big ol’ company offers me hundreds of thousands of dollars hahaha I would change my tune then! We all know that won’t happen though, so it is what it is.
-Are there any other projects you have lined up on the horizon, NES or otherwise? Any dream projects?
Not really. I still want to finish Elusion of the Dead and NES Virus Cleaner+. Besides those, nothing that I feel the need to get out there. Well, I would also like to finish that Golgo-13 port to the NES from the SG-1000.
-Are there any homebrew games in development that you are excited to play?
I really don’t know of any right now. That’s how far gone I am from the development scene. I will still say that Full Quiet looks really interesting. And Neotoxin, but that’ll never happen.
-I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me and share your experiences. Is there anything else you would like to tell readers and fans?
Dear readers: Be a fan.
Dear fans: Be readers.
I’ll try to do what I can to finish my work, but no promises. I just hate to disappoint, but I’m trying not to. Life is hectic though.
Thanks for tuning in to this latest episode of the series that shares the latest homebrew essentials and the brewers behind them. What are your thoughts on Sly Dog Studios and the Candelabra Epic? What homebrews are you eagerly looking forward to? Perhaps you’ll see it here soon when…A Homebrew Draws Near! Command?