Homebrews in Focus - 001 Unexploded Ordnance (UXO)
Looking at how Minesweeper was finally brought to the Nintendo and what its development was like. Let's take a dive into this homebrew game that is much more than a port of a computer classic, but a game that stands on its own. The mine detection and disarming puzzle logic game, Unexploded Ordnance.
[Regular Edition, Special Edition Cart in NES Front Loader]
3. Minesweeper The Game
4. UXO Development
5. UXO The Game
Minesweeper for the NES! I mean Unexploded Ordnance. Luckily its acronym caught on and it is almost universally referred to as UXO. You may be thinking why a homebrew computer port? Well actually, the Nintendo had its fair share of computer ports, over a hundred in fact. The ones that may come to mind might be the early RPGs, like Ultima, Wizardry, or The Bard’s Tale. Or you might recall text adventure games, like Maniac Mansion, Deja Vu, or Shadowgate.
However, one category that did not get enough ports was logic puzzles. Sure, we got Tetris and Pipe Dream, but overall I think we missed out, especially with some of the “classic” windows games. I like to think that is why Neodolphino Productions stepped in as a homebrew developer with a mission to bring this genre to the Nintendo. Freecell and Minesweeper are checked off that list. Can we expect Golf or Jezzball in the future… perhaps a downward skier?
I think we lucked out. Out of all the Windows Entertainment Pack games that could have gotten ported, the team picked the game that ultimately became UXO to develop and release. UXO, at its core, is fundamentally Minesweeper. It does add some unique things and improvements on top of that Minesweeper foundation, but we will get into that later. Before we do, I think it is important to go back to the source material and talk about the history and impact of Minesweeper.
In concept Minesweeper has some origins in the 1970s with Jerimac Ratliff's Cube, a game for mainframe computers, but more directly with Relentless Logic . There were other mine and bomb games between, but Relentless Logic, released for DOS in 1985, was more or less the predecessor to Minesweeper. It was a mine detection puzzle game played on a grid. It was eventually cloned and released on the O/S2, an early GUI operating system by IBM and Microsoft.
[Relentless logic 1985]
Eventually that clone became Minesweeper. The source code of that O/S2 clone game, with the creator’s permission, was used to develop a minesweeping game for Windows (WinMine), which became known as Minesweeper at release in 1990 on Windows 3.0 with the Microsoft Entertainment Pack 1. Microsoft needed to boost the appeal of the operating system going forward. They saw that Minesweeper could offer them something. With the release of Windows 3.1, Minesweeper became standard with the operating system. Since then, Minesweeper has more or less remained the same game.
3. Minesweeper The Game
You start the play session with a blank grid of covered tiles. You can start on beginner mode, 9x9 grid, intermediate mode, 16x16 grid, expert mode, 30x16 grid, or custom mode, where you can set the grid size and number on mines. You are presented with a top status bar of number of remaining mines, an avatar (a smiley face that changes based on your actions), and a time elapsed counter. You are given puzzle clues while flipping tiles over and your goal is to uncover all the “safe” tiles, leaving the mines covered and more importantly unexploded. (Nudge nudge, your unexploded ordnance….I couldn't resist. Please forgive).
[Minesweeper in Windows 3.1, Gif Credit: Iain Mew - Medium]
How deep the challenge and skill goes reminds me a lot of the community scene around Tetris. Just like Tetris, there is a large competition and community behind the game with advanced strategies, legendary players, and world records.
With the minesweeper backstory out of the way, let’s get into the nitty gritty of UXO.
4. UXO Development
Production - Neodolphino Productions [Justin Orenich - @neodolphino]
Programming - Fg Soft [Antoine Fantys - @Vectrex28]
Graphics - Fg Soft [Antoine Fantys - @Vectrex28]
Music - Bleep Bop Records [Thomas Ragonnet - @zi]
Theme Design - Retrojan Designs [Eric.of.Troy Eichelberger - @eric.of.troy]
Testing: Matt Beppler, E.B.D. Holland ( @SoleGoose )
[Limited Edition release pictured above]
Two editions of UXO were released in 2016. A limited edition (LE), pictured above, and regular edition (RE), pictured at top of article.
The limited edition included a camo painted metal case with a complete in box copy of the game, letter, land mine technical manual, ID badge, USB on dog tags, Charms candy, and a toy metal detector. There were 25 limited editions made and sold out soon after initial offering.
The regular edition included a complete in box copy of the game with randomized special edition cart (landmine and counter inside shell).
5. UXO The Game
[Left - UXO title screen, Right-Easy difficulty gameplay GIF]
So back to Unexploded Ordnance for the Nintendo. Justin from Neodolphino worked with programmer Antoine and musician Thomas to bring his concept to realization. The team implemented a series of improvements and unique features to the project, making the game fitting for a console release.
Looking back at Minesweeper, besides the tile graphic of a mine, there isn’t really anything that leans into the theme of a person tasked with a mission to recover unexploded mines. That is the kind of mission that would be tasked by a trained elite military ground trooper. However, there are no such elements apparent in Microsoft’s Minesweeper. No military graphics, no fitting music, nor rewards to come with the successful mission as a person risking their life in the line of duty. Even the face you see on screen reacting to your inputs is a nondescript face.
UXO corrects these issues on the console with a more fitting and surrounding world. You have a selection of camo themes to choose from, several military themed music tracks, a soldier avatar replaces that smiley face one, and for your success, a medal of valor is your reward. In addition, you have a scoreboard to best your own times and a secret minigame.
[Left - Theme options, Right-Medal of Valor]
To get deeper into the gameplay, it plays much like Minesweeper. You pick your difficulty, which dictates the grid size and number of mines, and you are off to mine detection. Your goals are the same as we discussed above in Minesweeper. Uncover all the safe tiles while leaving the mines behind, unexploded. You flip the tiles with the A button and mark the suspected mines with a Flag by pressing the B button. As you uncover the safe areas, you are presented with tiles that have numbers on them. The number indicates how many mines are touching the tile in the eight directions around it. This varies in difficulty and complexity with the grid szie and number of mines.
This is where the logic puzzle comes into play. You use these numbers in combination with other numbered tiles you uncovered in the play field to figure out the puzzle. You either avoid the mines or you can “flag” them. The flag is for you to mark it and keep track of where you believe the mines are. Once all the safe tiles are flipped, leaving only unexploded mines remaining, you win the round.
The draw of the game is that logic puzzle aspect. As you become proficient in it, you increase the difficulty by increasing the number of mines and grid size. As you do this, the complexity ramps up and is no longer a fly by the seat of your pants kind of game.
[Play through of Easy and Medium difficulty boards with light commentary]
Well is it enjoyable?? I certainly think so. If you like Minesweeper, you will enjoy it. If the world of Minesweeper never drew you in, perhaps the improvements and surrounding world that the UXO team implemented will draw you in. Those improvements and additions really correct what was missing from its computer classic origins. Out of the options available to you, my preferred presets are Navy theme and Music type B and I hope you like them to because that is what I use in the play through video above, hahaha.
Besides the enjoyment factor, two questions may come to mind for someone who has not played UXO before. The controls, switching from a mouse to a D-pad, and the cost. I got used to the d-pad very quickly. You are not controlling a mouse pointer on screen, that would have not been successful in my opinion. The position is fixed to the grid. One d-pad press, moves one grid tile. Holding the d-pad, moves the position faster. Antoine got this right. It never feels tedious or as if you are not in control. As far as worth it, the cost of ownership of the regular edition is lower than most homebrews. $35 for a CIB game. Very affordable compared to the more or less standard $60. Much like Tetris, many hours of entertainment can be had many times over.
Now that we got the history, the game play, and my opinions out of the way, it is a good time to talk with the development team. What are things to clue us into how they got from concept to completion, what tools did they use, and what problems did they encounter along the way.
Chris: Before we get into UXO and its development, I was wondering about the origins of Neodolphino Productions. You have been in the NES homebrew scene for a number of years now. Whether it has been showcasing homebrews on convention tours or developing your own games. What drove you to become this involved and not just a fan and player of the games?
Justin: I originally became involved in the homebrew community in 2013, after discovering the KHAN Games ( @KHAN Games ) release of Study Hall – a fantastic, original homebrew game. This sort of launched me off into the deep end of NES homebrew. It started with avid (or perhaps rabid) collecting, but eventually a desire to do a bit more developed. I did do some beta testing, which was great, but that also wasn’t enough. I was in medical school at the time, and as many others have said, I just didn’t feel like I had the time or background to program my own game. I did, however, have small chunks of time I could devote to learn more about how the games were made, and decided I wanted to work on a project where I could learn to build carts, and get a bit creative with putting them out.
I then had the opportunity to inexpensively buy the rights for a very small, and extremely simple game – 1007 Bolts, released by Nemesis (the original version is available to place in Action 53 vol 2). I used this opportunity to have some modest improvements made to the game with the help of Memblers ( @Memblers ), and then produce a small, but pretty cool LE release. A good chunk of the profit went to NintendoAge, and the rest pretty much went back into feeding my homebrew collecting habit, and the development of UXO. I learned a lot (and made many mistakes) about making carts from donors, and making a simple NROM multi-cart (thanks to a tutorial by Callan Brown).
Chris: Did you have any inspirations as far as developers or games, either during the licensed era or in the homebrew era?
Justin: Aside from my obvious pilfering of the Kojima Productions FOX logo for my own, I’d say – regarding homebrew – that pretty much anyone who takes the time to build a NES game from scratch and put it out there Is a huge inspiration to me.
Chris: So let's look at Unexploded Ordnance, what was the inspiration or drive to bring Minesweeper to the Nintendo? It seems like there is a pattern here with the release of Free Cell as well? Are you working on a larger project or theme with these titles?
Justin: I guess overall it seemed like a relatively simple game that hadn’t been ported to the system yet. From this though, grew the idea to release a “Entertainment Pack” of sorts for the NES. This vision led to the production of Freecell and was eventually going to spawn another game or two in the same vein. I wanted to release them all together on a cartridge, modeled after the Microsoft Entertainment Pack. This eventually evolved into me wanting to dabble in Famicom Disk System development – and I had a plan to release a 2 disk compilation. This would have 2 games per disk (one on each side), or 3 games total, with a side of one disk reserved for a faux operating system for the NES. This eventually snowballed into me commissioning Vi Grey to build an actual operating system for the NES – the NEoS, as it is now called. There are plans for it to support the SNES/Hyperkin mouse, the Family Basic Famicom Keyboard (and hopefully USB mouse/keyboard), tape deck storage, possibly the Famicom Disk System, and several other things. It will be intended to be modable/hackable, and will hopefully lead to more development and evolution by the community. There is no release date/plan at this time.
Chris: That's a great backstory and what the larger project is, is very exciting. Let's take a look at the team. You had a pretty stacked team on this project. Antoine (Vectrex 28 / FG Soft) and Thomas (Zi / Bleep Bop Records) both of which have been on many projects with great success. How did the three of you come together for UXO? Was the game development process collaborative or was there a clear divide in tasks on the project?
Justin: I approached Antione with the project, and he seemed interested. He was well known for being able to pump out quick, efficient, and solid games, and pretty much took my ideas and ran with it. Thomas was working on music for a few different homebrew projects and was looking for more work on the side. He was very eager to join. Everyone pretty much worked in their own silos, and it just kind of came together with occasional input/direction from me. It was a great experience.
Chris: That came together nicely. What about the theme to UXO? Looking at what is shown in the game, It leans into military aspects, ones that would come with being tasked with mine detection and removal (also highlighted in the trailer for the game). These themed elements worked great and added what was sorely lacking with Minesweeper. How did these aspects become part of UXO?
Justin: Mostly from my military background – no I was not in EOD, but the concept came pretty naturally, and was an easy way to let it be Minesweeper, without directly calling it Minesweeper. It also let me and Eric come up with a fun little backstory to go along with the game. Of course you could just make a port, but what fun would that have been? I don’t know that many people really read into it much, but I hope they did.
Chris: What about the development, what did it look like? Was there a schedule of milestones and deadlines? Were there challenges that you did not expect? Any lessons learned during the process that you want to pass on to aspirating homebrew developers?
Justin: There really weren’t any specific deadlines. I kind just presented the ideas, would ask what was and wasn’t possible, and the programming came along. Same kind of goes with the music. I listened to what Thomas had, suggested some tweaks, and also gave some examples/descriptions on what I was looking for. Rinse and repeat again, for what Eric put together. I had a lot of ideas, but he really made the material shine. There were really no big challenges that stick out in my mind, other than the logistics of making the LEs carts an ammo cans. Drilling the holes for the mines, and finding the optimal locations for them. Dealing with pain peeling/flaking, making 20 something cans look different/unique, but still cool. That kind of stuff. Other than that, was maybe making a few too many copies up front.
Chris: What about the physical aspect of the project? I.e. boxes, manuals, shells, labels, PCBs, etc. How did you go about the sourcing of art and materials? Similar to the above, were there challenges and lessons learned?
Justin: I leaned pretty heavily on Eric for the sourcing of boxes, manuals, and labels. He, again, did a great job on that front. As for shells, I loved the shells that Beau from SoleGoose Productions was using, and decided to get some of those. The PCBs I got from Second Dimension, as it was a simple NROM game/board, and they had outstanding prices. The stuff to populate the boards (EPROMs, etc) came from what was cheapest, but seemed quality on E-Bay.
Chris: One of the end products was a limited edition, which was something special. CIB, letter, land mine technical manual, ID badge, USB on dog tags, charms candy, and a toy metal detector, all packed in a camo painted metal box. How did you come up with the package idea? It also seems like a ton of work. Did you enjoy making these packages?
Justin: Once again, it mostly came from my military background. I thought it would really be fun to make up a little package to sort of play along with the plot/theme of the game. It certainly was a lot of work, but was extremely fun, and I felt like it was delivering something that the homebrew community hadn’t seen before. I am aware that I don’t produce the most advanced, or original games, but one thing a really pride myself on, is the uniqueness, quality and presentation of the LE (and still to some extent, the regular editions as well).
Chris: That is very true. Your special editions have been unique and top quality. You don’t really see special editions to this caliber anymore. Why do you think that is? Do you think there is still a market for them?
Justin: I just think there isn’t a huge market for them anymore. The effort and cost seem to outweigh the benefit in many instances (unless you are just doing it for the heck of it). The collecting scene has changed a lot over the past few years. There are now many more people buying homebrew, but fewer willing to shell out large amounts for them. Making enough LEs to satisfy demand, that will sell at a price to justify them being made is very difficult. It’s hard enough to make a game, let alone devote a lot of money and resources to make the release of it elaborate. Also, these things tend to take up space, and it may not be desirable to have tons of elaborate LEs taking up valuable space in a collection.
Chris: So lets dive into a component of what's in the game. And I don’t want to give too much away or give a how-to of how you access it, but there is a secret mini game within UXO. I am going to include a clip of the mini game in the article's video, an on rails side scrolling jumping game. Did you know that a mini-game made its way into the final game? Or did you and Antoine work on it together?
Justin: I certainly was aware it made it into the game, and greatly encouraged it. I can’t recall if it was my idea to put a hidden game in, but it was certainly Antione’s idea for the gameplay/design (which is pretty obvious from the scrolly message… haha). The secret is able to be accessed by gameplay, but there are also a couple of interesting places the code can be found. One has to do with the insurance letter included in the LE, and the other one can only be found by taking something from the release apart – which would likely ruin it. That’s all I’ll say about that. Also of interest, is that there is a mini game hidden in Freecell as well!
Chris: Stepping back to the present, UXO has been out for a while now. Are you happy with the release? Do you think it was successful? Anything you would change about either the development, the game, or the release?
Justin: Overall I’m happy with the release. I think we had fun and succeeded in trying to make a Minesweeper that was a bit more than Minesweeper. I feel it was generally successful in retrospect, for what it is, but I do wish I would have sold out of all of my stock. That would be about all I would change – not making so many up front (which is one of the things that makes Kickstarter so appealing – you know almost exactly how much you have to make to supply the demand).
Chris: Sounds like UXO still available for purchase. Which editions and where can someone order a copy?
Justin: I have a box of regular edition copies sitting in my attic, that I suppose are available for purchase, but there isn’t a specific place they are listed for sale. I guess if someone would like one, they could always reach me in Videogamesage (user name is @neodolphino), or e-mail me at email@example.com.
Chris: Anything you want to leave the readers with before we close the interview? Advice? What homebrews are you looking towards? Or what to expect from Neodolphino in the future?
Justin: I guess just please keep supporting NES homebrew (heck, all homebrew for that matter)! It’s a great community, filled with all sorts of ingenuity. Every time you think the system has reached its limit, something new and exciting comes along.
As for upcoming homebrew, I’m really looking forward to Full Quiet by the Retrotainment guys. I also can’t wait to see the NES side of development on Orange Island by Ted Sterchi. There is also a lot of buzz about internet support for the NES, which has been elusive for years, but finally seems like it may be within practical reach.
As far as Neodolphino Productions, keep an eye out for NEoS, as well as some US localizations of Japanese homebrew games that have come out recently!
Chris: Speaking with Justin, he had a lot of praise for you and your work. Saying you produced solid and efficient games fast. I can understand why he approached you with the UXO project. What made you want to join the project and work with Justin?
Antoine: I thought UXO would be a fun, smoothgoing small project. I knew Justin a bit already and I knew he was a good chap, so I ended up rolling with it. Getting a copy of Panic Restaurant as a reward might'e helped things a little, too
Chris: What was it like working with Justin? And Thomas as well?
Antoine: Justin was pretty smooth to work with. While the records I would've had checked (our UXO private thread on the late nintendoage.com) are sadly not available anymore because of a certain someone I won't name, what I can remember is that Justin and Thomas were very fun to work with, and the atmosphere was very relaxed. I'm actually getting the same vibe with my current NES commission, Eyra the Crow Maiden, and a relaxed environment like the one I got in UXO is a plus for me when joining any NES dev project.
Chris: Talking with Justin, I got the impression that the three of you divided the responsibilities and mostly worked independently. Do you prefer to work like that or do you enjoy a more collaborative team project?
Antoine: I do like having freedom to work by myself, but on a team project, collaboration is necessary. I'd like to especially thank our tester mattbep who went above and beyond when testing UXO! Having someone else test your game is the biggest plus of any group project IMO.
Chris: Very true, collaboration is necessary even when responsibilities are divided. In the larger context, lets look at the NES development scene. From the outside looking in, out of all the aspects that it takes to develop and release a homebrew, it seems that the strongest community is for programming. You can go on NESdev, VGS, or on the discord Brewery section and it mostly discussing and sharing programming tips, tricks, and questions.
Do you agree? Does that community drive you to keep working and becoming a better programmer? Do you lean on others for help figuring out a problem?
Antoine: I think every programming community fits a certain niche of programming. VGS (formerly NintendoAge) I feel is mostly for people wanting to release games and wanting to learn 6502 (I'm looking at the Nerdy Nights in particular, which used to be hosted on Nintendoage.com), whereas the VGS Discord is more of a casual place for discussion amongst fellow NES devs, and NESdev being the main hub for the more technical side of the hobby, so each place I feel has a very specific purpose in the NES world. I do think the community as a whole is helpful to newcomers, and has been helpful to me in the past, even though I like to challenge myself to solve my coderelated problems by myself.
Chris: You made a name for yourself doing many tech demos and made your way into full games. What drove you to make NES games?
Antoine: As a kid, I always had a fascination with retro gaming. The NES was my favourite console, but at first I never thought I'd make actual games for it. However, when I found a Commodore 64, through the builtin BASIC I found out that you could actually make games for those old machines, and that people were still making them! So the NES being my favourite console, I eventually did the Nerdy Nights and started making games for it
Chris: Very cool. So you went with it and now you are making games. What was the development of UXO like? What tools did you use?
Antoine: As I said before, development went pretty smoothly. I used the usual tools Notepad for the code, TileMolester for the graphics, and Famitone2 for Thomas's music.
Chris: What about challenges, did UXO present new challenges for you?
Antoine: I think the biggest challenge was figuring out the positions of the mines adjacent to a certain square. I tried calculating them in real time as you uncovered the squares, but I found out that it was much more efficient to precalculate them beforehand, which is what I ended up doing
Chris: What about taking the controls from what would typically be a mouse for minesweeper, to a d-pad for UXO? (BTW, I think you nailed it. I never miss not having a mouse in UXO. The movement is never slow or tedious and you are never not in control). Was that something that came easy or did it take a lot of adjustment?
Antoine: The controls came out great mostly thanks to mattbep, who seemed to be very wellversed in Minesweeper. He actually taught me a thing or two about the game, and that made me become muchbetter at it hehe.
Chris: Let's take a look at graphics. I am assuming you did the graphics for the game as well. You have a certain style that you carry through many of your games. What tools do you use and what was that development like?
Antoine: I did all of the graphics myself, in TileMolester, yes. Graphics is probably my favourite aspect of retro game development, so much so that I'm sometimes just doing art pieces for old computers such as the C64, Speccy, Amstrad, MSX, etc.
My style is very much inspired from the games made for those old micros, and I often get that my games have an Amigaish or Spectrumish vibe, which I believe is very true. Being European helps in that regard, too...
Chris: Diving deeper than what is front and center in the game, there is a secret mini-game within UXO. Pretty well hidden. Tell us about your thoughts behind the mini-game.
Antoine: That was Justin's idea I believe. I think it's a fun little easter egg. The game itself is nothing special imo, but it has its charm. I liked making it.
Chris: I am thinking you often put secrets in your games. Is that true? What makes you do that?
Antoine: I do put easter eggs in my games, usually for cheating purposes, but it's also a good excuse to add a silly little scrolltext to the game, again going back to European microcomputer games and demos.
Chris: So looking back on the project, are you happy with the end product? Anything you would do differently now?
Antoine: For the time I think it was pretty good. If I could go back to it, I'd update the graphics a notch since I've gotten better since (though to be fair a Minesweeper game does not really need very fancy graphics does it :P), and I'd also try adding a questionmark tile to the game (you can only add flags on the tiles).
Chris: What about the catalogue of the rest of your games, what are you most proud of?
Antoine: That's a very good question... I feel like every game I've released was a stepping stone to the next level. I don't think I have a favourite release, though I suspect Space Soviets would fit that once it's released as I have yet to release a full, largescale production.
Chris: Anything you want to leave the readers with before we close the interview? Advice? What homebrews are you looking towards? Or what to expect from Fg Soft in the future?
Antoine: My words to anyone reading this are: Keep the NES alive! The homebrew scene is great and without passionate NES fans' support it wouldn't be where it is today. Stay awesome!!!
Bleep Bop Records
Chris: Looking at the past years, you have gone all in on NES chip tune music. You have four NES music albums, music tracks on many games, and convention appearances. Also you are always on the lookout for more projects. What drew you to this style and medium of music production?
Thomas: First of all, please call me Tom. Or Admiral Tom. Whatever sounds the least formal whilst giving an air of playful reverence. Is this... are you printing this? Oh no. Okay ignore what I just said. Look, right from the jump I want you to know I never edit myself in an interview. Also, you've put on a few pounds. As a friend, I'm telling you this. And are you using whitening toothpaste or... okay. So, yes. I make chip tune music. Why? It's a long story of music practice, appreciation, and an interest in computer science. And it's a great mix of punk and classical. Everything is a mix of classical, I guess, except those prog-rock bastards. Ugh, right? Abhorrent.
Chris: Okay, Tom it is. How do you go about the composing and production of your music? What tools do you use? Give us an example of your typical working day.
Tom: I'm a Famitracker guy- using a Mac, so right off the bat things are needlessly complex. Running Parallels, Windows 10, I work with FT, and not the ghost version, which has some nice features, but once you have your shortcuts set it's tough to move to anything else. I really want Famistudio to work, but I'm having problems with the UI and am patiently waiting for clearer documentation.
As far as workflow, sometimes it's playing songs on the piano and recording live or using LogicPro to capture an idea- then working out the rough song in FT. Then there's an instrument pass, a clearer definition of intro/verse/sub-chorus/verse/sub-chorus/chorus/bridge/verse/chorus-outro (that part takes the longest). Sometimes I get stuck, hell, a lot of the time I get stuck, so I return to a different medium and mess around with chords or melodies, or move to a different song and work on the minute details like mastering, reverb, effects, transitions, etc.
Chris: Do you find the restrictions for music on the NES to be stifling or to be empowering for your creativity?
Tom: A little of both- it's annoying to want a second line to fill in a little of the chord for the melody and that runs over the atmospheric arpeggio or runs- but at the same time you can drive yourself mad with arranging when there are no restrictions.
Chris: I can agree with that. There is a fine balance of freedom and restrictions in great creativity. Looking at how to begin composing, I recall an interview with Rob Bryant on the NES Assembly line, where he stated sometimes he just picks a random note to start the music with, and goes with that for his creative process. As an outsider, that was a little shocking. Do you have some of your own tricks to get the ball moving creatively wise?
Tom: That is categorically insane. Everyone knows you smash down all the keys on a piano and then listen... hear it? The key, even the melody, it's right there. And, like a good woodcarver, you chip away the notes you don't need and then you're left with a song. I do, however, try not to settle into Cmaj or Amin for every song and try to make the conscious effort to explore other keys and modes. If you get stuck, music theory always helps- it's a functional tool that can assist in exploring interesting emotional turns in a song. Keep a tape recorder/phone close when you're playing, you never know when inspiration strikes.
Chris: Hahah, I hear it now. Let's look closer at the topic at hand, how did you approach UXO as a project? Where did you look for inspiration or generally what was the process like for this particular project?
Tom: I think I assumed I was on the project and told whats-his-face as much. You know, the dolphin kid. I'd give you my specific notes but I don't think I'm allowed on the old gaming site. I worked together on a few other projects with Vex and Justin and this time they wanted to port the windows game suite - starting with minesweeper. The original didn't have a soundtrack and Justin suggested a few different feels- I think that's all I got. Nothing specific, just different sounds like NES Tetris.
Chris: So you made your way on to the team and now it is complete and released for several years. How did you feel about the project overall? Was the development smooth or were their challenges?
Tom: There was nothing atypical about the project. Most of these are small groups who trust each other to work in their specific departments. I don't mind notes and made a few changes as we progressed. I knew they were planning for some palette options so I tried to do the same thing with the music (sand, ice, dark). I think after I turned in intro, 3 songs, and mission accomplished, Justin asked for a chill track. I was also told my "chill" was not chill. What can I say, it's tough to go under 180BMP!
Chris: Anything you would do differently looking back now?
Tom: I just listened to it and want to change so much. The intro should have drops at the end of some of those phrases and I'm not happy about the drum mix. I LOVE the ice and chill track- and am happy to hear I took instruments and styles from all the levels and incorporated them into the last track "mission accomplished."
Chris: Stepping away from UXO to look at your larger work, do you feel there are any aspects to your music that only you do that might be called your signature?
Tom: I think each album I have a through-line or vibe- there's a lot of change from (my second album) Fie to (unreleased) the Quiet Album, in tone, complexity, length. In Four, I only used the four duty cycles as instruments and the rest is effects and volume control stuff. I like the grittiness of that album but still love the pop vibe of Fie. Thornby turned out to be an entire album where songs rolled into each other (I hope) seamlessly.
Chris: Someone once made a comment about your series of work that really stood out. They said that you have released your chiptune albums in reverse order, starting with your latest work and then publishing your earlier work. Is this true? What was the reasoning behind that decision and how do you feel this presents you as an artist to your audience?
Tom: I think that's right. It took a second to figure out how to get these things on carts, but with the help of the immortal Khan Games ( @KHAN Games ) and production support from a whole bunch of folks, from INL ( @infiniteneslives ) to Sole Goose ( @SoleGoose ) and Memblers ( @Memblers ), I've gotten my music on carts out there. The decision was functional, as Silicon Statue was my fifth album but first on cartridge. I was very invested in Silicon Statue so it made sense for me to keep pushing and use it as the experiment to get it to cartridge.
Chris: Which of your works are you most proud of?
Tom: That's rough. It depends on so much, and changes. There's a year where I didn't listen to Thornby and then one night I was doing mindless work and put it on and loved it!
Chris: Taking a look at projects that you have announced or that fans hope will get a release, can you tell us more about the development of the compilation album? What about plans to release Fie and Level Zero on cartridge?
Tom: The compilation album now has a name! "Retro Artists of the Future, Vol 1." I think the virus messed up some of the deadlines, but we're slowly moving forward. I recruited 14-16 able-bodied chiptune musicians and the amazing Tyler Barnes to program the cart. Right now we have 4-5 songs and I'm chasing down folks to get a definitive commitment. No matter the length, it's about time Bleep Bop Records produced songs more than just me!
This summer I transcribed Fie from PPMCK to FamiTracker- which was sorta a nightmare but also fun, and am in NESST right now trying to make the album cover into its cool on-screen version. Look for Fie (on cart) in the fall.
Chris: Is there another artist in the homebrew scene that you admire their work? Or an up and coming artist that you are paying attention to?
Tom: Some of the folks that worked on the comp album were so creative and really pulled a meaty sound out of the chipset - Veridian, MiniMacro Sound, Raftonaut ( @Raftronaut ), and Tyler Barnes ( @TylerBarnes ) (who goes by Tyler Barnes). Follow em on Twitter!
Chris: What about any dream projects you hope that you get to work on?
Tom: Anything from Khan Games ( @KHAN Games ). I like working with first timers, as I do some Beta testing as well, and don't mind a longer timetable. I'm waiting on some MegaCat projects as well!
Chris: Anything you want to leave the readers with before we close the interview? Advice? What homebrews are you looking towards? Or what to expect from Bleep Bop Records in the future?
Tom: Create. You literally have one job on this planet- create. Art, relationships, hope, whatever. Create. Also, it's okay to say screw it, I'm going to try and play a game or two- there's more than just the music!
There you have it UXO. Its origins, development, and more. Thanks for tuning in and see you for the next episode.