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002 Nebs 'n Debs


Deadeye

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Homebrews in Focus 002 - Nebs ‘n Debs

Platforming games, oh my!  In this episode, how this platforming homebrew made a big dash and won the praise of many.

CIB available here: https://shop.dullahansoft.com/products/nebs
ROM available here: https://dullahan-software.itch.io/nebs-n-debs

420189811_NEBSNDEBSTOASTER-REDUCED.thumb.png.26ca755da34eb825f2d91ffe65da8e42.png
[Limited Edition, Clear Cart in NES Front Loader]
 

Contents:
1. Intro
2. Origins
3. Nebs 'n Debs the game
4. Development
5. Marketing
6. Review
7. Interviews
8. Closing

 

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[Art from manual]

 

1. Intro

Our first heavy hitter covered on Homebrews in Focus, Nebs ‘n Debs.  A side scrolling platformer akin to Super Mario Bros or Super Mario Land.  Albeit with a unique action technique and an addictive pace.  Like so many other NES games, the background and story is within the manual.  Well, what does it say?  I’ll save you from breaking the manual spine and give you a quick rundown so we can take a deeper dive into the development and marketing that made this homebrew such a success.
 

CRASH.png.affb7ee4ccfd42c0b14b0e011482686a.png
[Art from manual]
 

The story opens, while on your journey back home, you crash land your spaceship and emerge from wreckage with a crystal hungry octopus, named Nebs, attached to your head.  In order to get home, you will need to find ship parts in this unknown landscape.  However, that octopus lives off a depleting reserve of crystals and now your lives are linked together.  Luckily for you, Nebs embodies a special ability at your disposal, the air-dash, which allows you to better navigate this foreign and unknown planet.  You will need this to traverse the landscape searching for crystals.  The crystals are not plentiful, but available, and you will be watching the counter tick down as Nebs eats your reserve of crystals, with you worrying the entire time if you are going to stay alive.  If the counter reaches zero, you die.  Horizontal air-dash your way through the levels, killing enemies, avoiding pits, and breaking through barriers, while keeping Nebs fed.  Once you get all the ship parts, you are home free.  

It is not an easy game, far from it, but at the end you will be greeted with a message.  “Well Done.  You escaped too easily” Too easily??  That’s right, the game will loop to an optional hard mode, a la Super Mario Land, and you will now face an even greater difficulty, all to get the true ending, the true escape sans too easily.  In the hard mode, there will be no extra life pickups and everything will be faster, including the pace at which your crystal stockpile is depleting.

Now that we got the basis of the game covered, how did the project get to this final product that we can play?  Let's take a step back and look into the origin of the game and how it evolved.

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[Art from manual]

 

2. Origins

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[Left - Nebs 'n Debs Prequel, Right - Nebs 'n Debs]
 

Before we dive right in we should address that Nebs ‘n Debs wasn’t always the same game that was commercially released.  It started out as a NESdev 2016 competition entry, which was vastly different.  I don’t want to sway you into thinking one was a point n’ click and the other was a platformer, for realms of differences.  The competition entry is the same genre, has a dashing mechanic, and also has the same main characters.  However, I would wager you can play both versions and walk away saying that there was a fundamental shift in the game design approach going from the first game to the second one.  The developer, Dullhan Soft, titled the NESdev entry as "Nebs ‘n Debs Prequel", which makes a clean break from the game that evolved from the competition.  To make things easier going forward I’ll refer to Neb’s n’ Debs Prequel as “Prequel” or “the prequel” and the commercial sequel as “Nebs ‘n Debs” or “the commercial release”.  

In some ways the prequel is a stripped down version of Nebs ‘n Debs.  On the surface, the graphics and mechanics are simplified, using stacked uniform blocks and a less robust dashing ability.  With the dash in the prequel feeling like an item you are trying to conserve rather than the super ability that is apparent in Nebs ‘n Debs. Going beyond what’s at the surface, the game play is more casual, similar to picking up some coins and making it to the end. This evolved into a fast paced survivor game with the commercial release.  

Now, let's talk a bit about the dashing ability before we get ahead of ourselves too much, and you are left wondering why I am making this out to be the be all end all of the game.

I think a way we can bridge this is by juxtaposing it to something you may be familiar with already.  Mario's jump.  As the jump is the main ability to Mario, the dash is to Debs.  Instead of jumping on your enemies, you need to dash through them.  When you reach a distance too great to jump past, you need to dash in the air extending your jump’s reach.  And when you reach a barrier that is impassable, you need to break through it with your dash, destroying certain blocks in the process.  The comparison is to Mario’s jump rather than Mario’s fire or leaf power up because, well, it is not a power up for Debs, but rather your base ability and it becomes so integral to navigating the landscape in the game properly.  In this regard, I think it is fair to compare the dash from Nebs n’ Debs to the jump from Super Mario Bros. in this way because the dash feature is an integral part in the design of the entire game.  

Going past the base dash ability, there are upgrades to pick up that don't give you new abilities, but rather they increase the use of the dash.  For the prequel, this translates to how many dashes you get before a recharge period, and for the commercial game, it extends the distance of your dash.  In the commercial game, there are additional things to do with the dash and we will get into that in the next section, Nebs 'n Debs the game.  Let's continue back on topic and round out Origins.

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[Left - Super Mario Land, Right - Nebs 'n Debs]

The majority of graphics and mechanics in the prequel were fine tuned, expanded upon, or evolved in the commercial game, but playing this stripped down version allows us to see the game in a more simplified manner.  The influences that shine through are not of Super Mario Bros., but of the Super Mario Land series.  Mainly Super Mario Land and Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3.  The landscape is blocky, uniform, and a little sparse, but the purpose is clear.  Go to the end and collect crystals along the way.  To accomplish this, you will need to platform using a mix of jumping and dashing.  Going back to the point about the Mario Land series being an influence for a moment, the dash mechanic is like the Bull Wario power up combined with Jet Wario power up from Wario Land.  It accomplishes both in one mechanic.  It is also not a power up, but your base skill as we discussed.  Reading the manual from the commercial game, you learn this ability is given to you through Nebs, that octopus attached to your head.  You end the level by jumping to a large crystal hovering in the sky, kind of like jumping on the pole in SMB1 or getting to the door in Super Mario Land.

1391599189_bullwario.gif.069b17ad5db219bdaf922a29d96a6bf3.gif| 1785397388_jetwario.gif.60525c0f046d9d3faf80a46b51e25cda.gif|
[Left to Right - Bull Wario, Jet Wario]

DASH.gif.9103064318afbebe1ca251fa0f539e50.gif  273005907_LEVELDASH.gif.f9926476046a759825592566587026ba.gif
[Nebs dashing]

With the foundation of origins and influences covered, let's move on to discuss the commercial release more in depth.
 

3. Nebs ‘n Debs the game

Released 2018 / 2019 as a:

  • Digital ROM download (For Sale)
  • Limited edition (LE) complete in box copy with a poster*
  • Regular edition (RE) complete in box copy (For Sale NA / International)
    *The LE had a clear cart and the RE had a grey cart.

 

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[Nebs n’ Debs Title Screen]


Riding off the success of the prequel, which won second place in the NESdev competition, Nebs 'n Debs really expanded in both mechanics and levels.  Looking at the levels, Nebs ‘n Debs spans across 12 levels split into 4 regions.  The levels are quick, so you may be inclined to call it a short game.  However each level is extremely well polished, minus some nit picks that we will cover in the review section, and the challenge is quite high.  There are no passwords, continues, or saves, so this is meant to be a one sitting game, so the length and difficulty is on par with that.  You will play it many times before you will master the game’s mechanics to ultimately finish the game.  I’ll wager you will return to it many times as the game is fun and addictive.  Beyond that, there is a hard mode to the game that ups the difficulty quite a lot.  It leaves little room for mistakes and because of that, I’d wager only the truly dedicated will complete the hard mode.  Not enough?  Dullahan Soft released a Kaizo level, which is just pure evil in difficulty and design.  

REGIONS.png.dafe922f1c7bf79d35097e7fe99a5675.png
[Regions, from Manual]

 

Nebs ‘n Debs’ levels are divided into 4 distinct regions.  Mountains, Mines, Forest, and Swamp.  Mixed in between the regions are “Boss” levels of sorts.  A similar tactic as how Super Mario Land bookends worlds with a SHUMP level to break up the game play.  In Nebs ‘n Debs, the boss level’s goal is to race the boss to the end of the level and dash through them before they go off screen, to get the ship part that they are holding, otherwise they take off with the precious part you need so badly.  

LEVEL.gif.7f960045fd97a4177f4c98f997c72add.gif BOSS.gif.a5838107837b450b6e4fc11ec5e09acf.gif
[Left - Level example, Right - Boss example]


Nebs ‘n Debs levels are of the platformer nature with a mix of pickups, called Artifacts, obstacles to get past, and enemies, called creatures, you must dash through, avoid, or manipulate in order to progress in the stage.  

ARTIFACTS.png.df56ef7979b286c28d13a5b09cf32d03.png  CREATURES.png.7c09c89a673aaf660cb300c682763efe.png  manual-11.thumb.png.ebcb962bfa43fa49be188c410d66a447.png
[Artifacts, Creatures, and Obstacles, from Manual]

 

These mix of elements are within the regular levels as well as the boss levels.  The goal of regular levels is to pick up the crystals, to keep Nebs’ reserve up, surpass the obstacles, and make it to the end by dashing through a turnstile sign (similar to how Sonic levels end).  

In the Prequel, you had a bank of dashes with a recharge period.  With the commercial game you have one dash that recharges when you touch the ground.  Those obstacles and creatures, mentioned above, can be taken advantage of or manipulated by the Dash, which is different from how the Prequel handled them. If you dash through an enemy or, as an example, a boulder you get an additional dash before you must touch the ground and recharge.  This sets up a game design where you must time your movement against creatures or objects so you can make use of multiple dashes to span great distances.  The dash is engaged by holding B and can be disengaged early by letting go of B.  There are times when you must make use of this to land on a single block that you would have surpassed with a full dash.  Furthermore there are three additional modifiers to the dash.  There are two Dash Potion upgrades that extend the length of Debs’ dash, a Dash Gem that makes Debs’ go into a timed berserk mode of unlimited dashing for a short time, and a Dash “Velocity” mechanic.  

2039228582_DASHBLOCKS.gif.f816dad23779c8da53f8f9991b619867.gif  DASH.gif.9103064318afbebe1ca251fa0f539e50.gif  993737972_DASHVELOCITY.gif.5132ee14e492675503d11c5540cef12f.gif
[Left and Middle- Dashing through blocks, Right - Dash Velocity]


The Dash Velocity is engaged by performing a dash while in vertical motion.  The dash interrupts the vertical motion being performed and continues after the dash is complete.  The Dash Velocity is performed mostly on Trampoline Plants.  Jumping on this creature shoots you in the air.  If you perform a dash, the vertical motion is paused while you dash horizontal.  After the dash is completed, the vertical motion is continued.  This allows Debs to reach areas she normally wouldn’t be able to.  

All in all it is very impressive that Dullahan Soft found a way to build a world around the game’s mechanics so effectively.  Besides the level design praises, there are no real throw away collectibles, because crystals are tied to your life in a depleting nature.  So the crystals become the level “timer”, doing away with how clocks for levels can feel arbitrary at times.  The speed aspect of the game is reinforced by the quick dash mechanic.  Each level makes use of the dash in progress steps, ramping up the difficulty as you advance in levels.  The game is intuitive all along the way, except for the “dash velocity”, which may require reading the manual or watching a video.  Let’s talk about the game’s development some more.     

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[Art from manual]

 

4. Development

Going back a bit to the regions we talked about above, the levels are quite detailed.  The graphic artist, Anders, did a great job, and there were many transformations over the development phase.  Some of that was a result of level layout revisions, going from more branching paths to more linear ones.  Other changes seem like they may be for color conservation (either due to technical limits or aesthetic reasons).  On the other extreme, an entirely different look was also tested, more of a Super Mario World vibe, with stacked platforms and turtle-like enemies on them.

EZnaZ_wUEAElilD.png.6da1cbdac9032e63065c73502a6661c8.png  EZnaZanUMAEvJD7.png.b6f28e53adda00eba5a5c18c4b1a8b9c.png  test-scene-nebs-debs2.thumb.png.8793768a4f51a61a356ec3d5870b0931.png
[Graphic development, Source: Dullahan Twitter]


We can also get a glimpse at the development of the creatures, obstacles, and artifacts, which were more fine tuned throughout development rather than a redo / revamp compared to the level graphics.  

EZndhauVcAEe_0n.png.d699a2683cc75805dc65a0f86b495d9c.pngdebs-enemies2.png.2bbaafa840b6e08608832bcc43b4ad4b.png  490493529_EARLYDASH1.gif.deb6ce4492ff001ad6db39e4dc31780e.gif  1696348519_EARLYDASH2.gif.3dfac0cad4ef886c6dd0b749331542e8.gif
[Sprite development, Source: Dullahan Twitter]

 

Dullahan Soft was quite open about the game’s development and we got to see some things that many other projects haven’t been so public about.  Below is a pie chart that the developer prepared to figure out the memory allocation space they had to work with on the NROM board.  This data is actually from the prequel, but you can see how one would need to plan ahead to meet the data caps form graphics (CHR) and program data (PRG). 
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[Top - CHR memory, Bottom - PRG memory, from Dullahan]
 

These part charts are directly related to the mapper chose of the game, NROM mapper.  I don’t think I need to take a deep dive in NES mappers, but a short summary would be that NES games came on a multitude of different cartridge hardware.  Some boards had additional memory, rewritable memory (as opposed to read only memory), and or memory banking, along with other features (like HUDs and diagonal scrolling).  These mapper advances, along with talented programming, was an ingenious way to extend or enhance what was possible on the base hardware of the console.  

Nebs ‘n Debs used the base board that had no additional features on it, which is the no mapper board (NROM).  NROM was used for many of the original NES games (Super Mario Bros., Balloon Fight, Donkey Kong).  Compared to the enhanced mappers with the memory management controller (MMC), as in the MMC3 (Super Mario Bros. 3) or MMC5 (Castlevania III Dracula’s Curse),  NROM is very limiting, but many current homebrew developers see this as a challenge they want to strive to tackle.  Morph Cat, homebrew developer that released Micro Mages, used NROM as well and put together a great explanation video of NROM challenges and how they overcame the memory limitations on Micro Mages.  

Dullahan Soft talks a bit about those challenges of working on NROM as they developed the commercial game in the interview portion below.  Needless to say, they kept hitting the limits and needed to optimize or make cuts along the way, saying it was a battle to fit the game in NROM, but that they would work on NROM again.

 

5. Marketing

There is another aspect of the project that, all though it is not game creation related, it is a vital portion of the success of any game.  That is the marketing.  It should never be overlooked, as you can have a great game, but if very few know about it, the success would be very hampered not drawing a player market.  Given this, the question being begged to be asked is, does marketing start when you are ready to sell a product or before?  

I believe in most cases, in very successful products, it starts before.  Taking a look at Super Mario Bros. 3, the marketing campaign was massive including television ads, magazine articles, and a frickin' movie tie with The Wizard.  Is this a fair comparison? No, as this was already an established series by a first party company, but looking at the success (in sales) of SMB3, you would have a hard time arguing that marketing didn’t play into it being massively desired at the time.  Looking at other NES games that were at an equal tier of quality gaming, but did not invest in marketing, did not do so well in sales.  The same can be said for homebrews as well.  There are plenty of homebrew games that are awesome, but are rarely talked about as they were released too quietly and have not established a player base as a result.   

Going back to Nebs ‘n Debs, if you look back at the kickstarter campaign, it turned out to be very successful.  The campaign closed with almost 500 backers and was funded in a very short amount of time.  There are many factors that may have contributed to its success.  The game was almost complete, fulfillment was scheduled for a short time after, tiers were on par or lower in cost than the current going rate, digital ROM was an available tier, art work was topnotch, and of course, the prequel was well received, any or all of these could have been the factors to its success.
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[Nebs 'n Debs Kickstarter, source: Kickstarter]

 

The kickstarter platform does allow for a certain push to back a project, with climbing numbers, a deadline, unlocking tiers, and searchable marketplace, and I don’t want to discount that, but I think that is a different conversation.  I think the conversation to be had are about two other aspects that I believe were the driving force; using GIFs, in place of static images, and using long term pre-kickstarter marketing.  

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[Early Development, Source: Dullahan Twitter]


Its marketing in a sense started before the kickstarter and even before the NESdev competition.  Anytime a developer posts about a game they are working on, it is a form of marketing, even if that is not their foremost  intention.  By posting about development, sharing images, or even talking about the game, a seed is planted in the minds of the viewer/ reader.  If you really scroll way back in Dullahan’s twitter, you can see the beginnings of where it started for the project.  The developer was very public about the game’s development, even when not many people were paying attention, and they kept at it, while using animated GIFs for almost every post.  This is important for a game that at its foundation is its dash mechanic and its speed, the only sure fire way to capture that, in a way to communicate in a bit size manner, is for the media to be animated.  This really translated what Nebs ‘n Debs was about, even when it didn’t have much graphics, but oh my that dash!  It was very captivating and kept people interested in the project and growing in followers the entire time.  

 

6. Review

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[Art from manual]
   
Needless to say, I am a big fan of this homebrew. I think it is fair to say this was reflective in various aspects of the conversation while we discussed origins, game play, and development.  You could see where I would land before we got here.  

The development team got so many things right for this homebrew.  Nebs ‘n Debs has a clear foundation on which the entire design was built around.  When we get into the interview portion, Dullahan touches upon this aspect, noting that success is partially owed to good research.  Adding, that they spent time looking at other highly praised platformers, analyzed their game physics and mechanics, in order to deem what made them so good and highly acclaimed.  In the end, the team produced a game that is fun, addictive, and doesn’t overstay its welcome with extra filler.  There is a fine balancing act to make something that has just the right amount of the experience, not having fluff that just draws it out until you never want to return to it.  The fast paced and challenging aspect that Nebs ‘n Debs brings to the table, will keep you coming back again and again. 

Looking a bit more, the development team did things that may seem subtle, but required a lot of thought and good execution. The title screen is playable, enemy sprites are small, but have expressive animations, collectibles were given purpose, and color palette various throughout the game, to name a few.  We spoke about the dash many times, but never really expanded on what made it so good.  The simple answer is it is fun to use.  The deeper answer of why that is, is more complex and hopefully I don't lose you along the way.  It has a lot to do with making a complex dash seem simple and easy to digest.  I say it in this manner because there are a lot of things happening during the dash action, that if you sit down and break it apart, it is rather impressive.  So lets take a deeper look at it.
2015578595_DASHSEQUENCE.gif.e37490ce4e586c30a003a292d3234552.gif
[Dash Sequence]


The dash, is actually a sequence of events that are divided up with markers giving sensory information to the player.  This is impressive and important because it helps the player receive feedback along the way in real time rather than a single event in retrospect.  Overall, in my opinion, this method provides a pseudo-tactile feel due to these markers and what they communicate.  The best way I think to discuss this is to split up what the markers are in the sequence followed by what those markers are communicating to the player.

Markers (steps in the dash):  Communicating (marker feedback):
As Debs performs her dash, the screen subtly shakes vertically. The game environment is feeling the effects of the dash with the vertical shake.
A black and white flash animation occurs on the protagonist. The character has received the command with the flash animation.
A sound effect is played as you dash through an enemy or object.  You receive auditory feedback as you complete the dash. 


These three markers, and their feedback communication, divide up the sequence for your brain to analyze the process in steps while giving the player visual and auditory information before moving on to the next marker.  A very subtle, but also very effective process.

An alternative approach to this dash sequence, could have been a visual wind effect and enemies flashing as they die, lacking markers and intermediate steps along the process.  This way would be much more condensed, which is harder to mentally split up in real time.  The player would most likely take the event as one whole piece, to be analyzed at the end retroactively.  In my opinion, this alternative approach would not be as effective in how good the dash mechanic would feel for the player.  When so much of the game is about the dash, getting this feeling just right, can not be understated.

Depending who you are, the dash sequence approach with the markers and feedback communication, may seem minimalist compared to a big explosion, or HD rumble, but those are crutches in my opinion, to a well thought out feedback design.  The big explosion or HD rumble, will lose their impact to the player from sensory overload when they are continually used, thus losing their effectiveness in the process.  There is a place for them, but they are not replacements.   

1585164968_earlygraphics.png.fccb0d05d8db244ac96111ec51bc463b.png696112490_finalgraphics.png.c6fb8725b32ce458b6603654e2f70269.png
[Left - Development graphics, Right - Final (Screen capture)]

Taking a look at the graphics, I did like some of the development graphics a lot on their own, not taking into consideration the game as a whole.  They had more colors and branching paths, but the changes to the final version did make a more unified game and overall it was the right decision when taking the entire experience in.  That foresight to not isolate aspects of the game is what will improve the entire experience.  The regions are more unique from each other by having a restricted color palette to differentiate them from each other.  Reducing branching paths also went with the flow and speed of the game better.

There were additional graphic items that I didn’t touch upon in the conversation about the game, regarding the level start transition screen and the character death animation.  The transition screen between levels was a nice touch.  It gives you a window to look ahead to the next level, a picture of the character, and remaining lives.

TRANSITION.thumb.png.8d6adee42ea6bf9c49d70b6371cfa972.png
[Transition screen]


These screens as an experience, give the player a moment to breathe and a glimpse of what environment is next.  Also they display the amount of lives left with a large character sprite.  Another nice touch in the game is the character death animation, with its oh no! look.  That animation ties well to the actual act of when a death occurs, which is almost always due to a player's mistake.  That oh no! animation is Debs jumping in the air with her hands and feet out, accentuating “my mistake” with its over the top animation.  The music tone plays into this act great as well.  

DEATH.gif.6f5be05623b59ab7a083b1faa4f750e3.gifDEATH2.png.db46adf70f1c497c93b448b8c90bf2cb.png
[Death example]

I wish I had music training to really dive into the music and analyze it, but I lack that training.  However, as a layperson, the music is excellent.  It is upbeat, flows well, and I don't get tired of it.  There is not a ton of tracks, but enough to match the length and varied regions of the game.  The fading to transitions are done well.  I never get a jarring effect when the level ends or from looping a music track.  All and all I have positive things to say about the music.  Most importantly to me, the tempo matches the game play very well.  Kulor, has tracks up on his site to listen to.  Check them out here.

As far as negatives to say, I only have a few.  They are more nitpicks than anything else, some hiccups or missteps if you will.  As good as the dash is, the last power up, with the longest length of dash, gets unwieldy.  The environment is not an exact fit for the longest dash length.  You may often blow past your target because of that.  Which makes single block landings even harder, which is counter-intuitive to a power up.  Compounding this predicament, if you die, you lose all the power ups and are now starting with the shortest dash.  It can be better to not upgrade to the last dash length at times due to this.  The areas in which this dash length is critical are not all the time, mostly it is critical at the last stretch of the game.  Going back to the topic of single blocks, adjusting your position on them can be deadly, as single taps can either not move you or send Debs off like a rocket.  Basically, try not to adjust Nebs on single blocks.

There can be dead-ends in the game as well.  Like in Super Mario Bros, there are areas where you can get above the top row of the blocks and skip portions of levels.  In a couple areas this tactic will end up with Debs being trapped and you waiting out the clock for her to lose a life.  Luckily this only occurs in a couple of spots.  A similar condition can happen at the boss levels.  If the boss gets off the screen before you dash through them, you will need to wait out the clock instead of a death automatically happening.      

Overall these nitpicks are small and easily overshadowed by the other and more impressive aspects of the game.  To me Nebs n’ Debs is in the top section of best games on the NES.  With the origins, 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.

 

cover.thumb.jpg.30512317c9335efa059ccdc32805bea6.jpg
[Art from manual]

 

7. Interviews

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Developer / Programmer - Chris Cacciatore

Before we get into Nebs ‘n Debs and its development, I was wondering about the origins of Dullahan Soft.  If I recall correctly, you are a programmer by trade, and began working on projects in the homebrew scene with graphics, is that correct?  What was your drive to get involved in pixel graphics and then development?


Yes, on both counts. A few years before I started Nebs ‘n Debs I decided to pixel a piece daily in order to improve my pixeling. There is a community of pixel artists on Twitter called Pixel Dailies where—you guessed it they do daily art! Well, specifically a theme is tweeted out and then everyone has a day to reply-tweet their work. I met a number of people through Pixel Dailies. Such as Anders Gullmarsvik who went on to pixel most of the art for Nebs ‘n Debs and Mr. Sole Goose of Sole Goose Productions.


At some point Beau of Sole Goose Productions sent me a message about the possibility of doing pixel art for a NES game. The game he was working on was a Robotron-like called Spookotron. In the end I signed on to do the sprite work for Spookotron as well as other art for him.  


As for development that kind of happened concurrently to my pixeling work. In 2014 my wife and I lost a baby and took a couple months off from work and pretty much life in general. During that time so as to distract myself I completed a couple long-put-off projects including finally finishing the Nerdy Nights tutorials.

 

1092899726_PIXELDAILIESCHRIS02.png.7e7720333f43cc4eeb3b34dd20f45421.png  1924864028_PIXELDAILIESCHRIS06.png.613858501555d48f6f0b2f6cca537bbd.png  1172170943_PIXELDAILIESCHRIS09.png.5e3baa71c3812ccd92bc740334aea122.png
[Pixel Dailies, Source: Dullahan Twitter]

 

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[Spook-o-tron, Source: Sole Goose Productions]

Sorry to hear about your loss.  I am glad you found outlets that were meaningful to you though.  

Can you expand on the Pixel Dailies? Just like almost everything in life, the best way to improve is practice and more practice.  Were your improvements noticeable to you during the act of pixel or only when you looked back at all your pieces in retrospect? 
 

Yes, I noticed improvement during the process and can see it now too. Beau from Sole Goose I think once called my style of art as a kind of Gameboy-color/NES cross-over. I can definitely see what he meant.  I like strong dark outlines on sprites and toy-like shapes. I think the best advice I ever read about low-resolution pixel art was to study physical toys. Generally with toys someone has already distilled the import and necessary features of the object that make it that object; be it a toy car, train, or action figure.


When you have a limited number of pixels to convey meaning to the viewer you are in the same business.

 

 

Going back to your development that you were doing concurrently, were there stepping stones before you began working on your own projects?  Or were you always working on your project privately?
 

After I completed Nerdy Nights, I finally had an idea on what developing a NES game might

look like. I have been making games or more specifically bad games for awhile. In the late 90’s and early 00’s I learned how to program from reading books. I started with C For Dummies of all things and moved on to game programming books like Tricks Of The Window Programming Gurus and Programming Role Playing Games with DirectX. Basically whatever I could find in the small game programming section of the local Borders book store.


I stopped programming for a couple years when I was in college studying other subjects, but of course came back to it when I went back for a Computer Science degree. You kind of have to program then…

Around that time I also started participating in game jams. Again making bad games. My games were often retro-inspired, but I was always frustrated that they were not the real thing. So it was natural that I eventually tried to make the real thing.

 

It is interesting how people put aspects of life on hold and then pick them back up later in life.  I too had C For Dummies and later took a required programming course in C++ in college.  I ultimately left that behind me for now (still keep it on my list to continue though), but you picked it back up and are releasing games. 
Going from retro-inspired to the real thing, did you have any projects or developers that inspired you to make that transition?

Sivak Games’ Battle Kid 2 and Morphcat’s Super

bk2boss.png.03aa02967d12f25e6a96d90aacfa1950.png  sbp1.png.d7007a176df70f61854e7a4b6cd6ae5b.png
[Left - Battle Kid 2, Right - Super Bat Puncher, Source: RetroUSB / RGCD]

 

Though the expansiveness of the two games are different, the worlds in both really draw the player in, I can see why they are inspiring.  Why were they important to you?
 

Battle Kid 2 was the first physical homebrew I purchased. I played it and knew that I had to try making a NES game myself. Morphcat’s Super Bat Puncher like their hit Micro Mages feels like a modern game, but is still a NES game. They are succeeding at what so many retro-inspired games attempt, and yet they are actually using the real hardware.


Morphcat is the studio to beat when it comes to great NES games. Dullahan Software will do just that.
 

 So let's look at Nebs ‘n Debs,  I think many people may look at it / play it and have Super Mario Bros. come to mind, as it was a defining moment for platforming video games that is associated with many platformers going forward.  However, I am going to take a stab that Nebs ‘n Debs was more influenced by Super Mario Land and Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3.  As an example, the air-dash mechanic seems to be a hybrid between the Bull Wario and Jet Wario power ups (from Wario Land).  Also the 12 levels with the following hardmode (from Super Mario Land).  Are those influences fair to say?  Can you explain the influences of Nebs ‘n Debs? 
 

Good guesses! I was in fact playing through Wario Land 4 while making Nebs ‘n Debs. As for Super Mario Land that was a favorite of mine as a kid and likely influenced me. Of course, Super Mario Bros as you already mentioned, but also Mega Man, and Ducktails. I studied all the mechanics documents I could find for Mario and Mega Man on ROM hacking and speed running sites in order to figure out what made those characters so fun to control. Ducktails was more of an aesthetic influence.


That is a great approach, as those games all have great mechanics.

Let’s go back further, Nebs ‘n Debs Prequel, from the 2016 NESdev Competition, is a very different game.  The level design is scaled back, the physics have less friction, crystals are not tied to Nebs, and the dash mechanic worked differently.  How did this project start and develop?
 

I knew I wanted a small scale project so as to increase the odds of my finishing it. On top of that I knew I wanted to make a platformer since that is what the NES does best. Given those requirements I went about building a simple 1-way single scroll platforming game engine. A lot of my early work was on making the asset pipeline (the way you jam in graphics, sound, and level data) as powerful as possible. I knew being able to swap or change assets easily would result in a better game.


At some point I decided that a horizontal dash would be the primary game-play mechanic. The

protagonists Debs and Nebs didn’t come along until later though.  I had this pixel art piece I made for my daughter that had the alphabet and under each letter a kid with an animal on their head. The name of the corresponding animal started with a letter above it. I thought to have one of these kids be the protagonist, but which animal would bestow the ability to dash? For some reason “S” for squid-kid made the most sense to me. The squid morphed into an octopus over time. The mollusk always had an attitude though.  

 

The later stages of development were mainly me scouring the ROM for optimizations so I could free bytes and make more space for the awesome scores kulor had composed.

ALPHABET.png.53f8247fc4420830ae16ecf9cbfdeb34.png 
[Chris' Alphabet, Source: Dullahan Twitter]

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[Early sprites, Source: Dullahan Twitter]
 

What about how you end the stages going from the large crystal, like the pole for Super Mario Bros to a sign post, like Sonic?
 

I like how Super Mario Bros has you end the level with a final challenge. A jump that depending on how well you did awarded you points. It reinforces the primary game-play mechanic—jumping! So with Nebs ‘n Debs I wanted you to end the level by dashing. Unfortunately, I never figured out a good way for the player to demonstrate their dashing skill while finishing the level like Super Mario Bros, so I settled on having the player dash and make a sign spin. This ended up feeling pretty good at the end of a level I think.  


We did try a couple other ways of ending levels. I flirted with the idea of gambling slots like at the end of Super Mario Bros 2 and we also tried just having the player walk off the screen, but that was anticlimactic. I think you can still see some mocks of those 2 efforts on my Twitter somewhere.

 

That was a smart move, it does reinforce the speed aspect of the game.  How did it feel for the project to be so well received during the NESdev Competition?

Awesome! Our showing at the NESDev Competition was motivational and I would not have finished Nebs ‘n Debs otherwise.

 

That was a tough year, the competition was fierce with many strong entries.  You finished in second place (very close to the first place score) and went forward with the commercial game.  How did the transition go from prequel to commercial game?  Did you always have that break in mind or did that happen during the prequel development process?

I knew I had to bring more people on to the project. There was just too much to get done and I didn’t want to be working on the game for the next 5 years. After the prequel was finished, I lucked out and found great collaborators. So, no I didn’t have a particular break in mind.

 


Let’s bridge the two projects by taking a look at the level graphics, there were many theme changes, at one point looking closer to Super Mario World.  What was the driver for the changes and did they have an influence on the game along the way?  By the way, the graphics ended up looking so good in the final product. 


Thanks! I think Anders did a great job with the pixel art. His art is unique and has this lushness that almost makes it seem like art from a later-gen console rather than the NES. His art really meshed well with the existing sprites we kept as well.


The driver was mainly Anders. I would send him loose specifications. E.g. tiles for a mountain terrain and usually what he sent over was perfect. Some of the enemies such as the “oil lamp” were all thought up by him if I remember correctly.


What about the change for the crystals going from a collectible like a coin, to being tied to the game play experience.  It was such a smart move.  It gives the player a purpose to collect them and really drives the speed to which you play the game.  How did that change come about?

Thanks! I feel like pointless points is a common complaint for NES games especially earlier games when developers were still trying to figure out how to port arcade titles to home consoles. I am not sure when the idea hit me, but I do know that fast action is what I wanted from the beginning and tying crystals to your time seemed to support that feeling. Having another variable to tweak when designing levels was great too. Later levels are harder because there is a drought of crystals so players need to plan ahead and collect crystals in earlier levels.

 

You were pretty open about the project’s development on NESdev and Twitter.  Did you find that helpful to the project’s success, both in terms of development and marketing?

Yes. Posting progress is motivational for me and generates interest and sales. I think a good chunk of the community likes behind-the-scenes content which luckily I like to share. Also, Twitter appears to be where much of the community who buys or is interested in homebrew games hangs out.


 

There were some changes suggested along the way and some of them made their way into the game, i.e. Frankengraphics suggested color changes and stepping a block pattern down with some leaves to avoid players thinking an area was a stair.   Did those graphic insights influence the game further than that area?  Was this the type of feedback that drove you to be open to criticism during development?

 

There are many knowledgeable and intelligent people in the NESDEV community so I try to ask smart questions and listen to what they might say.


With feedback in general, I took an approach which I think I first heard about from the author Brandon Sanderson. He was talking about how to take input from alpha readers and writing groups. He said something to the effect that you should ask questions like “What was confusing or doesn’t make sense?” “Where did the story lag?” You are mainly looking for how people felt at different parts. You want to measure their emotions like when were they excited, frustrated, and bored.


Now during all that people may have suggestions for how to fix this or that perceived issue. They may say how to make it better and they could be right, they may be wrong, but ultimately that doesn't matter because all you have to do is note their input and thank them. Don’t argue with their input. Don’t try to clarify or defend your decisions or your work. Be thankful someone is taking the time and effort to give feedback, then later on, on your own time and depending on how many people had the same feedback or problem, you decide if it really is a problem and how you’ll fix it.


As you might guess this also applies to games.

 

The game ended up with four different world themes.  How did that come about?

As long as I can remember Nebs ‘n Debs was going to have 4 world themes. I like how the change in themes conveys a sense of progress to the player and also keeps gameplay interesting.

 

During development did you scale up or down the project?  Or was the released game the scale you had planned from the start?

We down-scaled all the time. Our approach to bosses was down-scaled, the number of music tracks, the number of levels, cool animations and art was cut, and probably many other things I can’t remember. It all comes back to NROM. With a limited amount of space, you constantly have to make difficult decisions about what stays and what goes in your game. It’s tough, but the process I think lends itself to better games. We always felt like we were making an NES game. We felt like we had this connection with developers from 30 years past. We had a shared pain.

 

Did you find NROM to be too limiting?  Or will you develop future games with it?

Too limiting no. kulor might say otherwise though. 🙂 Yes, I would make an NROM game again.

 

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[Nebs 'n Debs testing, Source: Dullahan website]

 

 

Can you expand about the down-scaling of the bosses?  What was your original plan for them?
 

My original plan was for bosses to be more in line with the Koopalings or Mega Man robot-masters. In the beginning Nebs ‘n Debs had a more undersea vibe. I pixeled enemies such as seahorses and starfish to match Nebs the octopus. One of the bosses I had pixeled was a shark with an eye-patch. This shark levitated along the ground in a flying saucer. I programmed a simple pattern for the shark and did a couple test runs against him, but it didn’t feel right.


Ultimately, I dropped the idea of bosses with active combat because the dash didn’t feel good when combating things that didn’t perish immediately like every other enemy or object in the game. The coolest part of the dash is that once every frame the game checks to see if you are near an enemy. If you are, the game increases the duration of dash for you and maximizes your velocity upon hitting the enemy. So dashing through an enemy is the quickest way to reach top dashing speed and makes you dash longer. I think the actual boss levels that ended up in the game promote fast-paced action and can really get your adrenaline up. Constantly looking down to see where the robot with the crystal is, then looking up quickly to see where the heck you should jump or dash to next...well I think that’s fun.

 

 

So let's look at the larger team.  You ended up with many people involved.  Dividing up programming, graphics, music, packaging, and illustrations to individuals.  How did that come about and how do you feel the process went?
 

I can’t compose music. I am middling artist. I’m an OKish programmer. What I am good at

though is working with others. This unfortunately, is not always a skill that is valued in my line of work as a software engineer. However, when it comes to making games it may be the most important skill I’d say.


So, I knew I would need other’s hard-work and talent to make the game I wanted to make without

taking a million years to do it. The process went great. I lucked out and found individuals who did great work and who I could trust.

 

 

What about the overall 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?
 

Since making NES games is somewhere between a hobby and a part-time business for me I try not to stress myself or collaborators too much. I had some internal milestones, but if I missed one I would just reschedule and move along.


As for development challenges, I knew I would be up against that same old foe COMPLEXITY!

Managing complexity is the hardest part when working on big software projects. Writing software for the NES is no different. There are still huge benefits to keeping code and logic isolated when possible.  Breaking up big gnarly subroutines into smaller subroutines. Remember you can always optimize these things later.


As for advice for aspiring homebrew developers – focus on your asset pipeline! Make it as easy as possible to add new assets to your game be it levels, music, or graphics. If it takes 2 hours to add new sprite-sheets to your game, then you will be reluctant to revise and experiment. This is how you improve your game.

 

So you wrapped up the game close to being finished and went to Kickstater for the campaign.  What drove you to this route over sale on your website or on a forum?  Do you feel kickstarter was worth the time investment and marketing time?

To bring down prices for customers with economies of scale and to ameliorate the risk of a physical release for myself. Fronting $15-20K in material costs on-top of the development costs I had already incurred is a tall order for an individual. Yes. I would Kickstart a project again.

 

You implemented using [GIFS], during development and marketing.  Was this to demonstrate the game’s mechanics or do you think this is generally a superior tool over say showing a static image?

Yes, animated GIFS all day everyday. They stand out on people’s feeds. They give a sense for the feel of a game. They are dynamic. People always react more and better to GIFs over a static image in my experience.

 

The campaign ended with almost 500 backers!  How did you feel about the game’s success at that point?

Proud. Scared. Excited.


 

I believe you were the first homebrew to offer ROM downloads as a tier option, and many have followed suit, what were your thoughts about offering it for the campaign?  Were you worried about piracy then or now? 
 

I always knew I would have a ROM-only option. Here is what I believe. I believe when you buy a game it’s yours. You can play it on an emulator. You can play it on a flash-cart. You can play it however.


When a game limits the media or platform on which you can play it or requires some kind of DRM that phones-home, then your customers are no longer buying your game, they are renting it. One day the platform or console will stop being manufactured. One day the server plug will be pulled. Now, maybe that isn’t for 5, 10, or 20 years; but at some point you will no longer be able to play your game. Your game dies barring some heroic acts of reverse-engineering.


I wanted to sell copies of Nebs ‘n Debs not rent them.


There has been some piracy. When it happens I find that our community reacts swiftly though. People reach out and notify me. They report the content on the corresponding platform. They contact the pirate themselves in some cases. The feeling of 100’s of people having your back is pretty great!

 

That is a very healthy outlook at ownership and that is true, the community really does try to stamp out piracy along the way.

The game was released early 2019 and has been in the hands of people for a while now.  What have you thought about its reception and feedback since release?

Seems a long time ago that I released Nebs ‘n Debs! I think the reception continues to be great.

 

In retrospect, are you happy with the finished product?  Or is there something you would have changed?

Yes, I am happy with the final product. Maybe the setup for the first dash with a trampoline plant on level 2. Generally player’s figure it out and we tried to put in a couple hints on how it works (e.g. the crystal path and lowering the ceiling to discourage a normal jump and dash), but there was probably a better way to teach that mechanic without frustrating players.


 

I have heard you like to hide secrets in your games.  Has everything been discovered?  Or are there still some still left to find?
 

Yes, I love secrets in games. Maybe?


I can tell you that my favorite hidden items are on the first Forest level there is a chest which I’ve

someone find on stream and a chest in the last boss level which I haven’t seen anyone find yet. I know some of the retro-achievements on Retro Achievements are for finding all chests on the levels and people have completed those achievements so maybe all my secrets have been found...I will have to hide things better in my next game.

 

 

The game ended up being picked up by the speedrunning community with some crazy time scores.  Was this something you envisioned or did you make efforts to reach out to their community to spark interest?
 

Yes, I love watching speedruns and hoped people would run my game. I especially love runs that expose the shape of the underlying game engine or compose and stack glitches to great effect. For example, Final Fantasy 6 Any% New Game+ (Link).


 

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?  Were there challenges and lessons learned from this aspect of the project?
 

For the shells and PCBs I knew I wanted to work with Infinite NES Lives. Paul is a great person and super supportive of homebrew. For the printed materials I heard Frank Westphal was who I needed to talk to and am glad I did. Both of them contributed to the success of Nebs ‘n Debs. The physical cartridges and CIBs turned out better than I could have imagined!


As for lessons learned, I would do everything the same again. Hopefully, work with Paul and Frank.  Oh, and definitely, definitely hire a graph designer for laying out the copy and artwork on stickers, manuals, and boxes. Heather Klinger our graphic designer did an awesome job. I think her work makes Nebs ‘n Debs stand out on a shelf when compared to other game boxes.


Oh, and a game doesn’t feel like a complete game until you have box art. I am so happy with what Kaela Agustin created for Nebs ‘n Debs. Again the art makes the game stand-out. When I see pictures of people’s NES collections I can spot Nebs ‘n Debs immediately. It is unique.

 

BOX.thumb.png.c4638d086ab98086d45519da1c34e04f.png CARTS2.png.8abd284f4ca006e5037edd0b8505aad4.png

[Left - Box, manual, and label, Right Carts (LE)]

 

You have moved on to a new project, named Janus, which we will talk about next, but before we do, I wanted to ask about the greater Nebs ‘n Debs franchise.  Do you have any plans to return to it for a sequel?  Maybe a different genre or just picking up where Debs left off?
 

At this time I am not planning on making another Nebs ‘n Debs platformer for the NES, but

perhaps for another console like the SNES. I am interested in Nebs and Debs appearing in my other games and have plans to do so.

 

So what about Janus?  You have been fairly open about its development on Twitter.  For people who are not up to date or for those looking for more, anything you can tell us?

Hmmmm, Janus is a Zelda-like that will run on VRC6 hardware. It takes place in something like late Antiquity. You play as a heroine who is recruited to investigate local structures built by a fairy-race called the Veilings. No Veiling has been seen for over 20 years. Oh, and our heroine is good with traps and really really good with a slingshot.

 JANUS.png.78d21549c7b5cd345ce2aee803784501.png
[Janus, source: Dullahan Twitter]


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 Dullahan Soft in the future?

Expect more games!

 

Anders-small.png.2cca43e31c8a196c5a0c51f401905a42.png
Pixel Artist - Anders Gullmarsvik

Before we get to talking about Nebs ‘n Debs, tell me a bit about yourself.  Are you a graphic designer by trade?  

Yes, I’ve been working as a 2D artist in the games industry for a while now. I used to work mostly with Flash games back when they were all the rage but made the jump over to pixelart I think almost 10 years ago and been sticking to it ever since.

778658459_ANDERSSPARKLITE.png.71617e08e30a138a59d7822b2bcfd4c6.png1294340183_ANDERS3DFOREST.png.10c9709cc496d32a1e1e108c81987cc2.png
[Anders work examples, Right - Sparklite,  Right - 3D Forest, source: Andres website]

 

How did you get started doing pixel graphics and then to be working on NES projects?

It started out as just making artwork for my own small games and projects I did together with my brother. Then by chance I discovered pixel_dailies on twitter and started participating in that community which led to some opportunities and kind of got the ball rolling. What I really like with pixelart is experimenting with different sets of limitations, so making artwork for the NES was something I jumped on as soon as I had the opportunity.

 

Where do you draw inspiration from?  Is it other pixel art or something else?

It can be anything really. Other games, movies and other artists. Older games in particular plays a huge part for me, usually things from the 8-bit and 16-bit era.

 

So let’s get into Neb’s ‘n Debs.  How did you get involved in the project?  Did Chris Cacciatore reach out to you or the other way around?

Chris reached out to me, I think he had seen some pixelart I had posted on Twitter. He pitched his project and I thought it sounded fun and I was already very curious about working with NES restrictions so it was a no-brainer for me to get involved with the project.

 

What was it like working with Chris Cacciatore on the project?  Was there a lot of give and take or did you have a lot of freedom to work with?     

Chris is great to work with. He had some guidance initially on what mood he wanted the game to have and what feeling he was after and that leaves a lot of freedom so that's a nice premise to work with, it suits me well at least. Plus there was already a design for the game's main character so the environments had to work well with that design as well.

 

Before you were brought on board, the prequel game was light on environmental graphics.  Was this more or less blank slate easy for you to get started with or did the uniform stacking blocks lead you astray at first?  

I love making game mockups in general so this sort of exploratory work within NES specs was right up my alley. There was some back-and-forth between me and Chris C initially of course but working with these strict limitations made mocking up levels so fast that it wasn't much of a hassle.


Over the course of development the graphic themes of the project went through many iterations.  Can you expand on what that process was like? 

Sure! Early on it was mostly just about getting a feel for what direction Chris wanted the visuals to take and from there try to see how far we could push the memory space limitation to make it look as good as we could. Once the first area mockup was done and we had a look we liked, it was fairly easy to create mockups and tilesets for the other three areas.

 
Did you have any inspiration from other NES games for the graphic tileset or themes?

Mostly just NES games I played as a kid, some specific ones that come to mind is Castlevania and Little Nemo.

CASTLEVANIA.thumb.png.7493f25bc62f8dd3b74c1558a1be5049.png Little-Nemo-The-Dream-Master-U-31.png.d93f312b9f6170d018afa20ad9343278.png
[Left - Castlevania, Right - Little Nemo the Dream Master]


What tools did you use?

I use Aseprite for sprites and animations, and PyxelEdit for tiles.

Aseprite.jpg.238ec4504246296c51a2fec40a53ddd1.jpgPyxelEdit.png.0e2c388ce236a55982038aabfda8c8f8.png
[Left - Aseprite, Right - PyxelEdit]


Did Nebs ‘n Debs present any new challenges for you?  What about the limitations working with NROM / memory space?

Yes! I had dabbled a bit with NES limitations before but never worked on anything that actually had to run on NES hardware. So there was definitely some getting used to it, luckily Chris C was there to help with what works and what doesn't. The memory space limitation was by far the biggest challenge to me. My mockups for each area were all pretty optimistic in terms of how many tiles we could use per level. Chris always had to cut some stuff.

 

Looking back on the project, are you happy with the end product?  Anything you would do differently now?

I'm still very happy with it, especially considering how limited the space was. I think it's in the nature of these things that there are always things you'd like to go back and change. I would say I'm the most pleased with the mockup of the mines and that's probably where I'd change the least.


 Are you working on a new project now or are you looking for one?

I'm working on a few different projects right now. One I can't say much about, the other is Songs of Conquest (a spiritual successor to Heroes of might and magic 2 and 3), and the last one is actually another NES game made by Chris Cacciatore. This time with a ton of NROM space so visually there are a lot more things we can do which is nice.

SoC-tavern-in-the-woods.thumb.png.d05e574ccdc4395d9c2a7dc2e5e95663.png
[Songs of Conquest - https://www.songsofconquest.com/]

 

Are there any other pixel artists either in the homebrew scene or elsewhere whose work you admire?

So many! Probably too many to list here so I'd rather not I don't want to leave anyone out. Even though I mostly just see the ones that are active on Twitter, there's a ton of talent in the pixelart community at the moment and it's both intimidating and inspiring. It's for sure a great time to work with pixelart.


Anything you want to leave the readers with before we close the interview?  Advice?  What homebrews are you looking towards playing?

Just to stay safe and be kind. I don't follow the scene closely enough to keep up with what's happening now, I think the last one I saw that I really liked was Micro Mages.

 
 

kulor.jpg.761793640307d1eb6818dcb9b46d7bff.jpg
Music Artist - Kulor

Before we start talking about your workflow and Nebs ‘n Debs, tell me a little bit about yourself.  Have you always been a musician or is this something you got into later in life?

I think I first really got into music when I was about 12 years old, with MTV Music Generator for the PS1. Me and a couple of friends all had it, and we would get together and make really terrible music which was basically just the built-in loops stacked together, we would listen to eachothers' stuff, it was good times. I didn't really get into composition in any serious capacity until a bit later, when I started trying to make games using RPG Maker 2000. At first, I would just grab MIDI covers of video game music from vgmusic.com, but eventually I wanted some song that nobody had made a cover of, so I ended up discovering Anvil Studio and diving into making my own MIDI covers, and it all sort of took off from there.


2C50D4N.thumb.jpg.2600a0008dec7cfd7fa1967f9bacd786.jpg  Screen11.PNG.58d07b2e8f8f7de7db26330777a8109e.PNG
[Left - MTV Music Generator, Right - RPG Maker 2000]

 

That is very interesting, that your music entrance was through a console rather than a computer or instrument and then ultimately through creating games.  What about chiptunes, did that follow suit soon after or right around the time you started composing for NES (Nebs ‘n Debs, Altered Ego and Super Painter).  Have you worked on other systems besides the NES?

Chiptunes are something I had always wanted to make, I grew up on the NES and Gameboy and have always really enjoyed the unique sound they had. Even when I was making original music in Anvil Studio, I would often limit myself to just using the most "square wave" sounding instrument, in an effort to pretend I was making 8-bit music. By the time I was asked to contribute to my first NES homebrew project (Alter Ego), I had been making NES chiptunes for a few years, and it was really a sort of cold call; Shiru just reached out and said "if you want to make music for this game, you have a week to get me a soundtrack" and I did it. Really grateful he asked me, as it seems to have lead to all of my other homebrew projects so far! As for other systems, the only other system I scored OSTs for was the ZX Spectrum 128; I scored Carlos Michelis IV many years ago, as well as a very impressive game that came out last year called Redshift. One of my very old Atari 2600 songs was also used for the title screen of a modern conversion of Star Castle, though that wasn't written specifically for that game. And it's probably worth mentioning, I've totally had my music stolen as well! I believe at least two of my Sega Genesis tracks found their way in a very odd Russian bootleg Felix the Cat game, which is pretty surreal to me because it's actually an attempt to port the NES Felix game, which I've loved since I was a kid.


Wow! Stolen work and a Felix tie in, you have made it! Though it's obviously a compliment in a way, that's such an unfortunate thing to have your work stolen. Speaking of your other work, last year you released an album, Soundchip Salad, which you described as touching upon two different aspects in your musical journey; hacking keyboards and programming for old consoles.  Tell us a bit about the project and the album that resulted from it.

So Soundchip Salad was a years-long effort to produce an album where every song explores a different piece of hardware/software. It starts out with the NES, hitting a number of various expansion chips used in a more-or-less standalone way, then branches out to other things, ending with my first efforts to hack MIDI control into old Casio keyboards. Along the way, I ended up programming what I will arrogantly consider the world's most advanced Atari 2600 music engine, as well as learning enough about digital electronics to create a breadboard that would allow me to replace the keys on virtually any old keyboard with digital switches, which can then be controlled either through scripting or with a MIDI. It's sort of funny, because you would probably never guess based on what they sound like, but the two Casio tracks (How Your Grandparents Met and Blend-o-Matic 2000) are by far the most technical songs on that album. The concept of Soundchip Salad is one that I'm still hoping to explore more with future releases -- there's still a ton of soundchips out there!

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[Soundchip Salad]

 

That is fascinating, the journey the creative process takes you.  I hope you do go back and see where the concepts can take you in the future.  What about the release of the album?  I saw you released it both digitally and on cassette.  I have been noticing releases on cassette have been a trend for chiptunes in the last few years.  What was the draw for you to pursue that?

It's funny, there's obviously the "retro appeal" aspect of cassettes, but I really believe there's a sort of practical advantage of cassettes as well, even in this day and age. Nowadays, everybody listens to music digitally, so the actual fidelity of the physical release doesn't really matter all that much. What's far more important is the quality of the media itself. I investigated doing CDs, which are slightly cheaper, but in order to be economical, I would have had to have ordered many times more CDs than I did cassettes, otherwise they wouldn't have been proper pressed CDs, but rather CD-Rs, which I thought seemed cheap and undesirable. I also looked into doing vinyl, but it was far more expensive, and I was concerned I wouldn't be able to sell enough units to make it worth it. For a project like this, where you're only producing 100 or so, cassettes really do offer you the best quality product at the cheapest price for a physical release.

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[Soundchip Salad Cassette]

 

Your twitter handle, CommodoreKulor, where did that come from?

One day a very long time ago, I was sick of the handle I was using for internet stuff, so I asked my friend to come up with a new one and he said "KUUUULOOOOORRRR" so I went with it. As for the "Commodore" part, someone else keeps beating me to the "kulor" name, and the Commodore 64 SID soundchip is my all-time favorite, so it just seems fitting.
 

Let’s dive into your workflow.  How do you go about the composing and production of your chiptune music?  What tools do you use? Give us an example of your typical working day.

Well, it can vary a lot depending on what I'm doing! I use very different tools for making music for different platforms. In the case of the NES, I use Famitracker, and that was how I approached Nebs 'n' Debs as well. There isn't really anything more to it, really; I produce a Famitracker module, send it over to Chris, and he converts it to the format used by the game. There were also a number of instances where we had to fiddle with the converter to get it to work properly, which were always "fun".

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[Famitracker]


Speaking of the NES, do you find the restrictions for music on the NES to be stifling or to be empowering for your creativity?

I'd like to make a distinction here, because making music "for the NES" and making music for a real NES game are very different experiences, with very different limitations. I've always enjoyed working within limitations, and all things considered, I don't find the NES to be terribly limiting for what I like to do with it. Famitracker has one of the best feature sets of any tracker, so you're really just constrained to the handful of channels and timbres the NES is capable of, and who really needs more than a couple square waves and a triangle to get by? Now, when making music for a real game, there are many other considerations on top of the usual NES audio hardware limitations: the music engine needs to be very lightweight, as most of the CPU time is spent playing the game, so you don't get most of the really nice features Famitracker usually has. On top of that, and what I find to be the toughest limitation, you oftentimes only have a handful of kilobytes of memory to fit everything into -- in Nebs 'n' Debs' case, everything had to be crammed into a meager 7KB! There were a handful of cases where there were many things I wanted to do in Nebs 'n' Debs which I couldn't because there just wasn't enough room. So, yes, doing real NES game OSTs can be somewhat stifling sometimes.


I always find the data constraints fascinating.  7KB, that is wild.  How do you approach these projects?  Where do you look for inspiration or generally what was the process like for this particular project?

Usually my approach to doing a game OST is to put together a small sketch, which is usually just a short loop, and throw it by the game designer to see if that fits what the song is trying to do in the game. If so, I finish it out; if not, I can start over without having lost much. My biggest inspiration for this project was Soyo Oka, the composer who scored Pilotwings, Super Mario Kart, and Sim City for the SNES, along with many other things.


Now that you can look back at your work in retrospect, how do you feel about the project overall?  Was the development smooth or were there challenges along the way?

There were definitely challenges, but Chris is really cool to work with, and it was one of my more enjoyable experiences doing an OST. Seeing the game do so well probably also contributes to that...!


Anything you would do differently looking back now?

A bit of a technical one I suppose, but we used the FamiTone music engine for this game, and I was under some false assumptions on how to save space effectively in that engine. I ended up doing a lot of pattern optimization which didn't end up actually saving space, but by the time I knew that was how FamiTone worked, it was too late to go back and revise things. I was also extremely close to not having enough space for a proper credits song, but fortunately we were able to slice off a handful of bytes and I was able to squeeze in about half of what I originally wanted to do.


Bytes!? Glad you were all able to fit it. 
Stepping away from Nebs ‘n Debs 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?

Well, I don't know about anything that "only" I do, heh. But I've always tried to emphasize jazzy harmonies, funky basslines, and neat chord progressions, all married with some degree of "trying to squeeze a lot out of the hardware".


Is there another artist in the homebrew scene whose work you admire?  Or an up and coming artist that you are paying attention to?
Maxo, whose album "Chordslayer" is legitimately one of my favorite things ever! I'll also give a shoutout to my oldest homie in the NES music and vgmusic.com scene, Dave "lunar" Harris, whose music has been a huge inspiration to me since forever ago.


Are there any dream projects you hope to work on?

I would absolutely love to score a game for the Commodore 64! Aside from that, anything on the Atari 8-bit computers would be great, as I've always enjoyed working with the Pokey soundchip. But possibly most of all, I would really love to get into some 16-bit stuff, and score a Sega Genesis or SNES game. Right now I'm doing a Genesis soundtrack for a game, but it's not a real Genesis game, so I'm hoping someday I'll be able to squeeze into one of those.


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 Kulor in the future?

Honestly, I always kinda hear about homebrew retroactively, it seems like I'm never following it close enough to know about something before it drops. I am definitely looking forward to Chris' next project, codename Janus, which is going to be a lot of fun to work on. I'm also looking forward to eggboycolor's JRPG project, as well as the incredibly endearing Orange Island, which even has some music by Soyo Oka herself.

 

8. Closing

And there you have it, Nebs 'n Debs, a fantastic platforming homebrew game.  Check out the prequel or the final game if you haven't already and let me know your thoughts.  See you again for the next episode of Homebrews in Focus.

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[Source: Nebs 'n Debs manual]

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In depth fantastic read and great interviews.  Thanks, Deadeye.  Nebs 'n Debs is some of my favorites.  

For my money, I'd have given it the top marks for the '16 compo.  Not to discount Twin Dragons.  It had a lot of polish and I can see how it won.  But Nebs is so damn fun to play.

Great write up on the mechanics in particular.  There's a bit more to the feedback system than I noticed.  It's very intuitive. 

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