A Homebrew Draws Near!
A blog series by @Scrobins
Episode 40: The Meating
I keep a list of games and developers that I’m eager to write about and interview for this blog in the hope that we might connect, and I can eventually devote a post to them. The friendships I’ve developed in this community have gone a long way toward making some of these hopes manifest at the most opportune moments. People can be busy and may be slow to respond to a message, especially if they don’t know me well, but with good relationships built on a good reputation, others can connect you with people you couldn’t previously access. Or in some cases, they may bring you an opportunity before you’ve had the chance to put the word out; such is my happy friendship with Mega Cat Studios. I have wanted to cover this game for a long time and worried my chance had passed until I received an email from Mina Cat asking if I would be interested in interviewing the game’s developer…so here we go!
For this entry, I’m covering The Meating, a puzzle platformer for the NES, developed by Alexander Tokmakov. As of the time of this writing, the Kickstarter campaign brought by Mega Cat Studios has concluded, and backers will receive their pledged rewards around February 2024. In the meantime, new pre-orders for physical copies of the game will soon be available for purchase here.
Standard CIB art & glow in the dark standard edition cart
Alexander Tokmakov: developer
The Meating first went up on the chopping block with its Kickstarter campaign on October 27, 2023. However fans of Mega Cat may recognize this title as a prime-aged cut of beef, which has been fine-tuned over the years. I’ve played several demos of The Meating at conventions; this game’s development has also been the evolution of my friendship with James and Mega Cat. So seeing this steak come to my plate is a real treat, but I digress.
By season(ing)’s end, The Meating had 501 orders with more than $33,000 pledged. Backer tiers were organized in juicy meat themes, which included the game’s rom, cart-only, CIB, a limited edition meat cart, a Switch code for the Nintendo Switch port, a Gameboy Advance CIB, a digital soundtrack, poster, and game pin. The limited edition CIB sold so well and had supporters pounding the table so hard, that Mega Cat created a second limited edition CIB to sate their appetites, this one a glow in the dark ghost design.
The meat slab special edition, which sold out so quickly, a second special edition was created
The Meating describes itself as a puzzle platformer. You play as Konstantinos (Kon), a minotaur who won his freedom in the bullfighting world following his victory over the famed matador, El Culo Rojo. Kon spends his newfound freedom in the dating scene, but is ultimately catfished (bullfished?) by a butcher who promptly slaughters gullible ol’ Kon. Fortunately Gyros, the benevolent Greek god of meat, grants Kon a chance to find his scattered cuts of beef and get some reassembled revenge.
Controls are fairly straightforward, with some grade-A configurations mixed in for a meatloaf mixture of added flavor. Use the D-pad to move left and right, press the A-button to jump, press the B-button to charge attack, hold the B-button while midair to float, press Select to toggle through acquired abilities such as teleportation or telekinesis, and press Up and B to use the selected power.
Screenshot of The Meating
The Meating is the kind of puzzle-oriented platformer that you can really sink your teeth into. I remember being impressed with the game when I played the demo a few years ago, though I struggled with the special abilities. I can handle standard controls, but when a game does something different, I’m both fascinated and frustrated because my intuition is challenged, but I appreciate how more complex gaming mechanics can be incorporated. Truly the controls are where retro gaming can see some real creativity. I’m just a bad gamer. I know this. Once you’ve internalized charging, floating, and using special powers, the puzzle aspect of the game begins to eclipse its platforming. Levels are cleverly designed, utilizing enemies, blocks that can be overcome by your powers, the environment, the environment-changing blue buttons, and the finite amount of spirit energy at your disposal. Sometimes you can visualize your path right away, sometimes you have to feel your way through the level until the end reveals itself, but the taste of this game is never bland, always savory.
The graphics are colorful, dripping with meaty browns, bloody reds, and other vibrant colors as you progress. The animation is very dynamic from the beginning, as backgrounds flow and skeletons explode. Even items and enemies that are for all intents and purposes “idle” bounce and twist with life in a manner that leaves you questioning every aspect of this universe’s reality, but also nicely juxtaposes what you would expect from a game about being dead meat. The music has an upbeat, adventurous tone, with the title screen that channels the TMNT arcade games’ “let’s go” attitude. Meanwhile the individual levels convey a ponderous bop that combines thinking over the puzzles with fun for existing in this bright, silly place.
I think I’ve hammed it up enough, so let’s get to the interview. I spoke with the developer of The Meating to learn about his stories behind the game, whether there are any deep cuts, or if there’s any beef after his experience. Alex was a real lamb…
-Before we dive into The Meating, I would love to talk about your background. What first inspired you to become a homebrew game developer? What is your origin story?
Oddly enough, my main inspiration was... games. I was 15 years old when I got my first home computer, it was a Soviet BK-0010, and another one later - the ZX Spectrum. My peers also owned other devices, such as Atari 2600, Atari 800, NES. And all these computers and consoles have enabled us to play games.
One day I became interested in how these games work from the inside. This is where my home computer came in handy, which allowed me to write programs in BASIC. Also, in my time, computer science was a compulsory subject in our schools, so we could use the school computers to improve our skills and also play games.
In Soviet Russia, BK-0010 compute you!
-Who are your influences? And whose work are you watching closely now?
I am a relic and besides the 1st-4th generation consoles, I am a big fan of arcade machines, and I believe that these were the best games, since many of them were created by professional artists and musicians, unlike home computers games. Many games on the BK-0010 I mentioned above were clones of arcade games. Some of these arcade games have been ported to well-known consoles.
Modern games for modern hardware are not interesting to me at all, it looks like a race for realistic graphics, except for indie games. The romantic period of video games ended in the late 90s due to the increasing of technical specifications. No longer a revelation, they became just another part of everyday life.
But retro games make your imagination work and if you hear the sound of the surf and feel the warmth of the sun when you play Dizzy-2, then this is your game, and it is really good. The list of arcade games is huge, so I continue to explore arcade romset in the MAME emulator.
-How would you describe your design aesthetic, and what to you are the hallmarks of a game designed by you?
At first glance, The Meating is a dark fantasy platformer. But this platformer has some non-typical mechanics. The player must not just shoot the boss but use special abilities.
-What tools do you use to code and create?
I use cc65 for the codeб if we talk about NES/Famicom. This is a great tool for those starting to learn 6502 based platforms. Assembly language can be difficult for beginners, so cc65 is a pretty good C compiler.
As for graphics, there is an excellent utility called NESST (NES screen tool) allows you to import graphics from any modern graphics editor and work with tiles and sprites. Now a fork of this tool got a new life thanks to one of the retro enthusiasts and is called NEXXT.
We used FamiTracker to create music and effects.
Tiled for editing game level maps.
And a bunch of self-made utilities and scripts for parsing, sorting, converting and packaging data, created with Delphi, Visual Studio, Python etc.
-How did you connect with Mega Cat Studios, and how has working with them been?
I came across their ad on Upwork. There are usually no vacancies for retro game developers on this site, and I found this strange. Anyway, I couldn't create the code, music and graphics by oneself, because I would burn out quickly. So I contacted them and offered to be a part of any of their projects, and that project became The Meating.
-What was the inspiration for The Meating?
This game was originally a testing ground. Of course, I know several programming languages, but at the time when we started, I did not know the console architecture well enough. So, to improve my skills, we decided to make a non-release mini game.
-Tell me more about your role in the game’s development.
I had the idea of creating a game for the NES for a very long time. However, it was very clear to me I can't do this alone, since I would need to create not only the code, but also the pixel graphics and music. Even a small project would take up a lot of my time, and most likely I would burn out before I finished with the last pixel, the last line of code and the last note in the soundtrack. Too many people have tried this way, but only a few have reached the end.
So, I decided to work on the code, while the musician would work on the music, and the artist would work on the pixels.
-And what has the development process been like?
At first, we made some very simple puzzle games, coming up with it on the fly. The game no longer fit within the selected mapper (CNROM) fairly quickly and we moved the project to another one (UNROM) and upgraded it to the current one (UOROM).
-How does The Meating distinguish itself from other games of its genre?
The high storyline. Also, additional mechanics make this game something more varied than the classic shoot-and-jump pattern found in platformers. I think it needs more than one attempt before you defeat some of the bosses of the game, but things will fall into place if you remember what powerups are intended for.
-Ever since my first episode, M-Tee planted this idea in my mind that a game’s protagonist, who serves as both the player's point of immersion in the game as well as a reflection of its designer. What was the intention behind Kon’s design, do you identify with him at all?
To be honest, we came up with it on the fly. This was a simple test project to improve my 6502 skills, and not intended for release. But appetite comes with eating, and at one point we didn’t have enough space on the CNROM cart and moved the project to UNROM mapper, then came up with a storyline, added more mechanics, and upgraded the mapper to UOROM.
Anyway, we created this character and provided two endings. So every time I playtest a game, I try to complete it until the happy end, because:
"I and this entire world are nothing but a thought someone is thinking", the bear said in a quiet voice. — Victor Pelevin
Victor Pelevin, Russian fiction writer & my new spirit animal
-There has been a lot of support and enthusiasm for The Meating’s Kickstarter campaign. How does it feel to see so many people excited about the game?
There's nothing better than lots of positive feedback. This is motivation for the next projects, working on mistakes that many people certainly make, especially in early work.
-Do you have previous experiences with Kickstarter campaigns, if so, how has this campaign been different?
This is the first Kickstarter project I took part in, so it's unique to me anyway. I like the idea of a cart shaped like the ossobuco I had for dinner last night.
-Where does The Meating draw its inspiration?
A bunch of them. From Nuts & Milk to Mega Man. We tried to implement many things that a retro player is familiar with. This includes a password system and a starting script that introduces the player to the plot, attract mode. We learned all this from classic games.
-Do you have any fun stories or wild moments to share from development?
It was an international team. It's always fun for me to learn how people live on other planet's corners. I learned a couple of recipes for meat dishes and destroyed several myths and stereotypes.
-What lessons have you learned that you would like to share with the people who aspire to follow in your footsteps?
There is nothing wrong with making a game with the help of like-minded people. Maybe not all teammates' ideas will be compatible, but finished project are worth more than vainglory.
Sometimes it's necessary to hold a game before release, like a steak resting under foil. This allows you to look at your work from a different angle or find bugs that were not found before. I think I would fix a lot of things in this game now. But what's done is done, let the wasted enthusiasm build up again.
-Do you think preserving older gameplay mechanics in new games is important?
I don't think so. If someone these days could create a high class beat ‘em up like Battletoads, it would be cool, despite the old mechanics. Personally, I can play this game until the Second Coming.
-How have your previous experiences in the industry helped in your work on this game?
I haven't developed retro games before, but like other 80s kids, I'm interested in the demoscene a bit, and have been involved in the development of demoscene stuff a few times. Demoscene geeks are fans of optimization, and if they had their way, they would pack the whole world into one bit. The NES only has 2k of RAM, so I also optimized a few things in this game, like saving the states of the ice blocks in the meat freezer world.
-What’s your favorite cut of steak, and how do you like it cooked?
Medium well marbled strip steak. It's very simple. I heat the oil in a cast iron skillet and fry the garlic in the oil until it turns golden. Then I remove the garlic, add a sprig of rosemary and fry the meat for five minutes on each side, gradually reducing the heat on the stove from high to medium. Salt and pepper to taste.
-What new challenges do you hope to tackle?
Besides eating meat and gaming, I enjoy disassembling old games and making them run on different hardware than the original one. I'm currently porting an Arkanoid-like game from the ZX Spectrum home computer to the NES. However, this port will only work for the MMC5 mapper, so real carts are out of the question. But I believe homebrew software for this mapper will encourage people to learn it and make carts based on it. Otherwise, this mapper will be lost on the margins of eight-bit history.
-Are there any other projects you have lined up on the horizon, NES, or otherwise? Any dream projects?
It would be great to create a fantasy quest tale like Dizzy, or a really good and dynamic shoot 'em up. There are a lot of very good scroll shooters on the NES, like Recca or Zanac, but no one has reached that level in homebrew games at the moment.
-Are there any homebrew games in development that you are excited to play?
I recently came across a demo of The Trial of Kharzoid for the NES. This is an Arkanoid-like game with extended gameplay. I'll definitely be looking forward to the release of this game.
-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?
I would like to wish everyone to have a piece of meat on a pan, a roof and a peaceful sky over their heads, and many good games for their favorite console of childhood.
Screenshot from The Trial of Kharzoid, in development for the NES by Pascal Belisle
Thanks for tuning in to this latest episode of the series that shares the adventures behind the latest, newest homebrews making their way to you. Is The Meating on your plate? What homebrews are you eagerly looking forward to? Perhaps you’ll see it here soon when…A Homebrew Draws Near! Command?