A Homebrew Draws Near!
A blog series by @Scrobins
Episode 2: KUBO 3
Homebrew development can be as stressful as it is fulfilling. Between writing code, designing sprites, and storyboarding, all to produce a game that will appeal to a small, but devoted community, it’s an impressive feat when a homebrew crosses the finish line. Many homebrewers balance their passion projects with primary careers, families, and a host of other responsibilities that demand their time and attention. Sometimes the stress of it all means turning away from a game until the time is right to resume. And sometimes a game exists because the brewer bridged programming with another sphere of their life.
For this entry, I’m covering KUBO 3, an adventure game developed by the father & son team behind SJ Games: Dale Coop and his son Seiji, who have bonded over homebrew development since Seiji was just 6 years old. As of the time of this writing, the rom of KUBO 3 is available here, a cartridge-only release is available for purchase by PM’ing Dale, and you can also PM Dale to reserve a limited edition CIB to be released later this summer.
@dale_coop (Dale Coop): programming
Seiji: game design
@Raftronaut (Jordan Davis): music
To discuss the development of KUBO 3 and appreciate the enthusiasm that flows through it, I must begin with a history of its predecessors.
The KUBO Trilogy
Kubo’s story begins in the summer of 2018 when Dale and 6-year old Seiji created the first KUBO game as a fun summer project for them to work on together. Seiji learned to use the NESmaker interface while his father helped with coding. When they were finished, they could boast they had made a real NES game. The following September, Dale surprised his son with a birthday gift: a cartridge of KUBO that he could play on his NES console!
Pictured: a very happy birthday boy
The story was simple enough: battle monsters as you pursue a mystical gem. But ever since Dale and Seiji‘s code first gave rise to Kubo, they felt the itch to expand the four corners of his world.
When the New 8-Bit Heroes team announced the first NESmaker Byte-Off Competition in early 2019, Dale and Seiji seized the opportunity to create KUBO 2: L’Adventurier Courageux (as well as Underground Adventure 2019). By this time Dale had become a celebrity as a result of the tutorials and modules he created for the NESmaker community, in addition to helping others working on their individual projects. It’s therefore no surprise that Dale’s overall efforts were recognized by Joe Granato, Austin McKinley, and Josh Fallon when they awarded Dale with The New 8-Bit Hero Award.
Oh my gosh, it’s Nix! Nix, whose code are you wearing tonight?
And the Byte-Off Award (Bitey?) goes to…
It’s an honor just to be pixelated…er, I mean nominated!
Between the myriad ideas spilling out of Seiji’s imagination and the limits imposed by the Byte-Off Competition’s deadline, a third KUBO game was all but inevitable. Over the course of the next year, Dale and Seiji continued the story of Kubo’s adventures, finishing KUBO 3 in time for their visit with Joe Granato and Austin McKinley in Florida, where they played a cart of the finished game in the studio of NESmaker HQ.
Joe Granato & Dale Coop at NESmaker Studios
KUBO 3 blends genres, combining an overworld open to exploration with side-scrolling dungeons, creating a gaming experience reminiscent of Zelda II or Dick Tracy. The dungeons themselves represent a variety of themes, with layouts and hazards specific to each theme as you swim through underwater caverns and bounce between clouds in the sky.
KUBO 3 picks up where players last saw the heroic cowboy turtle in KUBO 2. The Evil Mole kidnaps Kubo’s friends and neighbors, demanding four hidden crystals as ransom. To save the villagers, Kubo must venture into the Kingdoms of the Sea, Sky, and Underground, as well as a spooky cemetery, in pursuit of the ruby, sapphire, amethyst, and peridot.
‘Cause this is Kubooooooooooooooo, Kubo night!
You might wonder what manner of cowboy turtle would set out on this quest unarmed, but that is no accident. This game favors the patient and curious player who wants to explore the overworld before diving into the dungeons. By that token you might argue the game begins on a more difficult setting, and the burden is on you to find the means to make it easier.
Now if I only had a compass…
KUBO 3’s world, like Zelda’s, gives you the freedom to explore its colorful world on your own terms, allowing you to decide which levels to tackle first. In addition to the four dungeons and final castle (all conveniently marked with signposts), the overworld holds a few secrets, ranging from hearts and medicine to Kubo’s pistol.
KUBO 3 Overworld Map
The dungeons themselves offer their share of challenges without being unfair; patience and persistence will carry the player safely through to the level’s boss, though you will take a few hits before learning the patterns of the enemies and obstacles you see, as well as the location of a few you can’t.
KUBO 3 controls well, and you’ll rely on those controls to jump across some wide chasms and shoot a few pesky monsters blocking your path. The graphics are cute, with a few clever touches to the animation such as when Kubo dips into the water when crossing a lake, or his swimming animation generally. But then again, he is a water turtle.
The game’s soundtrack has a wonderful story behind it, which I’ll let Dale and Seiji share, but the tracks themselves are fun and well-woven into the game’s environment. Seiji’s melodies may well earn him the distinction of being a rising Mozart of homebrew.
I don’t envy whoever might be the Salieri of this analogy
But significant credit goes to Raftronaut for taking Seiji’s inspiration and transforming it into the engaging set of chiptunes we hear. If KUBO 3’s soundtrack is any indication, Raftronaut’s own upcoming homebrew, Space Raft should be another homebrew to keep on your radar (and hopefully a future entry in this blog series)!
KUBO 3 is the kind of game many of us envisioned when we were Seiji’s age: pulling together our favorite elements from a number of NES classics to make something new and fun. And I can’t express how jealous I am toward Seiji for accomplishing it three times over. Considering NESmaker emerged as an extension of Joe Granato’s development of Mystic Searches, his own childhood dream game, it is hard to imagine a more fitting example of what the program was meant to inspire than KUBO 3 and the father & son who created it.
Kubo’s world is colorful and inviting (as long as you steer clear of the Evil Mole), but I can’t begin to appreciate this series of game without talking to the SJ Games team. Dale Coop is certainly an effective hype man, but his young son Seiji is the creator of this universe. To learn more about the heart and creativity poured into KUBO 3 and its predecessors, I spoke with Dale and Seiji to learn more…
dale_coop (DC) & Seiji (SJ)
-Let’s get to know you and Seiji better. Tell me about yourselves.
SJ: I'm Seiji, I'm 7 years old, I'm French-Japanese and I live in France. I've been loving video games since I was 4 years old. I started playing on the family Wii U and on the Arcade cabinet we have at home. I like to live adventures and discover new worlds. My other passion is drawing and building origami, paper objects. Since 2018, I have been creating homebrew games for the NES console, with the help of my dad.
Fun fact: Dale saved an old European arcade cabinet from destruction, and made a MAME cabinet with a Dreamcast inside
DC: I'm dale_coop, Seiji's dad. I'm French and I have a love for video games from the 80s. I grew up with an Atari 2600, my dad bought one when I was around 4 years old. When I was teenager, I received the NES for my birthday. Those are my favorite consoles. At that time (we're talking about the early 90's), I also played a lot of Arcade games: Xevious, 1943, Shinobi, Final Fight, Street Fighter 2…
-Which video games did you both enjoy playing before you started designing your own?
SJ: The games I've played the most are Splatoon on Wii U, I like the idea of doing a battle with paint guns, also, Zelda Breath of the Wild; there's adventure, the freedom to go wherever you want in the game. And also, I will say Kirby on NES, I like his mechanics to absorb the abilities of the monsters and especially the mini stages where Kirby has to shoot like a cowboy!
DC: I guess you can find some aspects of these games in KUBO. On my side, it's the Arcade games of my childhood, like Xevious, Pacman, Moon Patrol, Adventure, Galaxian, Galaga; it was a time when graphics weren't everything, the game universe was in our imagination. There's also Street Fighter 2, my favorite fighting game, I spent countless hours on Arcade cabinets and, later, on SNES (one of the only games I had on this console was Donkey Kong Country, my favorite SNES game).
On the NES, The Legend of Zelda, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Super Mario Bros are still my favorite games, even if I'm not good. But they represent what I remember from my childhood, and these games are fantastic.
More recently I loved Zelda Breath of Wild, the huge size of the world, the feeling of freedom you get when you play it, without feeling lost. I hate when I'm lost in games and don't know where to go/what to do.
Finally, I'll say that Micro Mages, Twin Dragons are recent games that are models for me: excellent gameplay, great graphics, and very addictive. Very good examples of what you can do nowadays on this old console.
-What inspired you to develop games with your son?
DC: I think Seiji wants to reply first to that question.
SJ: I've always wanted to make video games. When I found out that my dad knew how to make them, I wanted to make one right away.
DC: When I started making my first NES projects (prototypes or demos), Seiji got interested and watched how I was doing it. He naturally wanted to do the same. So we started to organize small NES dev sessions together, 1-2 hours, during some weekends or the holidays. It's a very fun and, at the same time, instructive activity.
Seiji knows work doesn’t stop for the holidays
-What is the significance of the name Kubo?
SJ: "Kubo" comes from the combination of two French words "cube" and "eau" (pronounced "o", which means "water”) because NES games look very cube-based (like Minecraft) and the character is a turtle (a water turtle). So, "cube" + "eau" became "cubeau"/"cubo", then "Kubo" to have a more Asian look and sound (my mom is Japanese).
A young Kubo leaving home to set out for video game stardom
-Did you create Kubo for the game, or did he already live in your imagination?
SJ: Kubo's character is a fusion of several ideas: he used to live in my imagination in a slightly different form than he does now. He's always been an adventurer living adventures, discovering treasures in various worlds, populated by monsters, which he has to fight with his weapon. But he wasn't a cowboy turtle in the beginning. I developed him as I worked on video games. And he will continue to evolve with future episodes.
-Tell me about your creative process and how you created this colorful world and the cowboy turtle at the center of it.
SJ: First I imagine the different characters, the monsters I want to see in my game. Then I draw them on sheets of paper, or in my sketchbook, with some indications about their main characteristics (movements, attacks, or weak points). And finally, I try to reproduce them in pixel art with my dad's computer.
-Did you have any prior experience in programming, or did you and Seiji learn together?
DC: Before 2018, I had never coded a video game. I started being interested in the NES dev. It wasn't very easy at first (and it still isn't, I consider myself a beginner, as I still have so much to learn). My professional experience helps me for the programming logic, the algorithmic part. It's fun to experiment and share my code with others. Seiji is still a bit young to understand the code. He gives me instructions, actions, or reactions he needs for his game and I code them for him.
Seiji supervising game testing
-What tools did you use to develop each game?
SJ: To create KUBO I used my notebook and pencils, and a software program called NESmaker (created by Joe Granato and The New 8-bit Heroes team).
DC: I discovered NESmaker at the end of 2017, a tool that claims to allow you to create a game without having to write a line of code. The reality is a bit different. It's a great tool for drawing sprites, designing objects, designing screens, but with the modules that come by default with NESmaker, you can only make basic games, such as tutorials. It's great to start with, I took it as a learning tool.
When you want more features for your game, like cutscenes, or a custom AI for your monsters, or different physics per screen, you have no choice but to code those things yourself. But on that note, I'll start. The advantage of NESmaker is that you immediately see the results of your coding experiments. All scripts are open for modification, you can completely modify and even add your own scripts.
The other strong point is its forum, animated by many enthusiasts who help each other and share everything to a lot of handy resources. In addition to NESmaker, we also use FamiTracker for music. But being a pretty bad composer, I prefer to ask for help for this part. Seiji has better basics in music than me, he composes some music on his piano or vocals, I record it with my smartphone and send it to my friend Raftronaut, who will transpose it to 8-bit for us. I also use Paint.net and Shiru's Screen Tool sometimes for title screens or some cutscenes screens.
-When you were developing the KUBO games, what were you drawing on for inspiration?
SJ: My main inspiration is nature, especially landscapes to draw the general atmosphere of my levels. I'm also inspired by some games I've seen or played on conventions I went to with my dad (games I didn't know but whose visual or mechanical universe I liked more).
You'll probably find some Zelda in KUBO, as well as some Super Mario and Ninja Turtles. But also some inspirations from movies and cartoons.
-Which aspects of development were the most challenging?
SJ: Pixel Art is the most difficult part. I am limited by the size of the drawings and the number of colors I can use. It's really hard. Several times, I've had to do a sprite over and over again because it didn't work. My dad gives me his opinion and a lot of advice.
Sprite design is nothing without a metric ton of graph paper
-Did your creative and development process change between KUBO, KUBO 2, KUBO 3, and Underground Adventure?
SJ: The first KUBO was a simple level, just a few screens with monsters, no bosses. It was my first game, I was just starting to create video games and learning about the software.
KUBO 2 was created in 1 month, for a NESmaker competition. We worked faster, we knew more about the software and my dad had more skill with the code. Moreover, the software had been updated, it had more default features, which gave us more ideas.
For KUBO 3, I knew the steps to make the game I wanted. NESmaker worked well, and I spent more time working with Dad. It took about a year, working on weekends and holidays from time to time.
DC: With each new game, Seiji was learning more, and his projects were getting bigger and bigger.
During the development of KUBO 3, after school or while I was at my desk, he would design new monsters or new screens. Another example, while for KUBO 1 and 2, we used music that comes with NESmaker, for KUBO 3, Seiji wanted something unique for his game and even had melodies in mind.
Seiji in development mode
For my part, I understood the ASM language a little better than I did at the beginning, which allowed me to help Seiji a lot more by integrating the features he wanted. I learned a lot during the year 2019.
I also took part in the NESmaker competition, submitting "Underground Adventure", a small arcade game where the player has to collect all the gems before the timer goes off. The main interesting point of this game is that you can play it with 2 players. NESmaker does not offer any module or script for multiple players, it's single player only. I wrote everything myself, the code to read the second controller, to manage collisions with the second player, when he is hurt or dead, ...This development has been very instructive. I also created a 2-player module for NESmaker and shared on the official forum. This module is now used in some projects.
I won "The New 8-bit Hero" award in that competition, for the help I gave to the community.
The alt text suggested by Word for this photo of the actual Byte-Off Awards was: a band performing on a counter
-In your VGS thread about KUBO 3, you wrote that you and Seiji visited Joe Granato in Florida. Tell me how that came about, tell me about your visit.
DC: We went to Florida last February, invited by a dear friend Artix I met while collaborating on NESmaker projects. How beautiful and warm Florida is! More than 30°C when we arrived, it's a change from the west of France where temperatures do not exceed 15°C at this time of the year.
As Joe Granato has his studio not far from where we are staying, I took the opportunity to ask him if we could come and visit the NESmaker studio. I know Joe a little bit. I have chatted with him several times by email, Messenger or via the forum. Seiji and I are big fans of Joe's work. Seiji has wanted to meet him for months, the excitement of coming to Florida and meeting him was so intense.
Seiji was determined to finish KUBO 3 in time to hand it to Joe! So one Saturday morning we went to Tampa where the NESmaker Studio is located (brought by my friend Artix and his son. And soon joined by Gilbert another member of the community). We were welcomed there by Joe and his son, and Austin and his wife. After a few minutes of greetings and introductions, he showed us around the studio, the office where they work, the classroom, and most importantly the 80's room: a shooting studio with an 80's lounge look, old CRT TV, couch, VHS, video games and vintage decor. A really awesome place! We spent a few hours there, playing, chatting, and shooting interviews. We all went to lunch together. And in the afternoon, we played again and finished with more interviews (especially about The New 8-bit Hero award and the next competition). A very nice meeting for me and Seiji.
SJ: Yes, it was an amazing day! My favorite moments: testing Mystic Searches (which is still in development) and of course, meeting Joe.
From one new 8-bit hero to another: Joe Granato and Seiji in the 80s room, complete with authentic wood paneling
-How did you connect with Raftronaut to collaborate for the game’s soundtrack?
DC: I met Raftronaut via the NESmaker forum, I helped him on his project (coded some scripts and fixed some bugs) and we quickly became very good friends. So, when Seiji expressed the wish to have an original soundtrack for KUBO 3, I immediately thought of Raftronaut. He's a talented musician (member of the band named Space Raft), I admire him. When I asked him, he immediately accepted. I explained to him the imagery of the game, sent him the recording of the melody that Seiji had imagined for the theme of KUBO, and an early-build rom of the game. And the result was beyond our expectations. Great soundtrack! Raftronaut and I talk every day about dev, NES games, or our lives (as well as his NES game "Space Raft" which should be released soon). He has become a very good friend.
Space Raft, an upcoming homebrew and future featured entry? Call me, Jordan!
-Who among your family and friends have you shared your games with? What have they said about your games?
SJ: After I created my first game, KUBO, I had a few family members, my uncle, grandfather, cousins, and some friends try it out. Everyone was amazed and very impressed by the fact that I created a game and a NES game. It was very nice to see that this little game, my first game (which is quite basic) could appeal to people.
It gave me a lot of motivation to continue making more games. A few friends played KUBO 3 and I got a lot of good feedback and congratulations. I smiled when I saw them falling into traps or when they had trouble beating the bosses. I'm very happy and also proud that I managed to do what I wanted (even if all my ideas could not be integrated in KUBO 3).
-Are there any plans for a KUBO 4?
SJ: I can already tell that there will be a KUBO 4. I have some drawings in progress and ideas for this project. It's possible that Kubo will do a little walk in space in the next episode...well, nothing is really decided yet.
-Are there any homebrew games in development that you’re excited to play?
SJ: I'm looking forward to the release of Artix's NES game "Dungeons and DoomKnights", which is a knight's adventure game, and also "Space Raft", Raftronaut's game.
Adam Bohn aka Artix, developer of Dungeons and DoomKnights
DC: As for me, I can't wait to get my hands on my physical version of "Project Blue". I also backed "Trophy" which looks to be an amazing game. I'm very interested in "Eyra-The Crow Maiden" and "Sam's Journey", which are still in development. Otherwise further on, "Orange Island", "Project Violet" and "Micro Mages 2" are already on my wish list.
You might have heard of Project Blue; I can’t imagine where
-Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?
SJ: Creating your own video games is possible (with tools like NESmaker for example); small games or big games, I think they will all be perfect.
I would add a tip: every time you play a difficult NES game, try the Konami code, just in case.
DC: These are great times, there have never been as many great NES projects as there are now! My small message for everyone, keep supporting all these beautiful homebrew projects, financially or just by sharing them on social networks. Thanks to all of you!
Thanks for tuning in to another episode of a series that takes a deep dive into promising homebrew games coming across the finish line. What are your thoughts on KUBO 3 and the father-son team behind SJ Games? What homebrews are you eagerly looking forward to? Perhaps you’ll see it here soon when…A Homebrew Draws Near! Command?