A Homebrew Draws Near!
A blog series by @Scrobins
Episode 4: Trophy
The timeline for developing a homebrew is rarely brief. From a game’s first imaginings to its final publication and availability to fans, months, even years may pass. But some games can trace their history across decades to the developer’s childhood and the games that brought them joy. Though time and tide may occupy their mind for a spell, pulling their attention in myriad different directions, the memory of that dream game persists and it will not be ignored until life has been breathed into it at last.
For this entry, I’m covering Trophy, an action platformer game for the NES and love-letter to the Mega Man series developed by Gradual Games and released by the 6502 Collective. As of the time of this writing, the cartridge release is currently being assembled for its Kickstarter backers, and the game’s rom will follow. If you missed the crowdfunding campaign, you can pre-order Trophy on the 6502 Collective’s website.
Gradual Games (Derek Andrews): programming, music
Laurie Andrews: in-game art
@Peek-A-Brews! (Jon Piornack): limited edition art
Original concept art by Derek Andrews
Trophy’s story begins with a doe-eyed 12-year old named Derek, who sketches robots in his notebook as he pines over his enduring love of Mega Man. But the game began in earnest in early 2016, according to a September 2017 teaser posted on Gradual Games’ website. All the mysterious announcement teased was: 1) that work had begun on a third game (following Nomolos: Storming the Catsle and The Legends of Owlia); 2) the game would be a platformer with an amazing soundtrack; and 3) a Kickstarter campaign would launch in the coming months.
In August 2018, Derek officially announced in posts to NintendoAge and NESDev that the game would be titled Trophy. The posts also shared the game would feature 9 levels and bosses, horizontal and vertical scrolling, hidden upgrades, a password system, and a soundtrack that would make the Blue Bomber proud. Enthusiasm was immediate and widespread as fans waited for more news and prepared their bank accounts for the looming Kickstarter campaign.
Screenshot from an early tease of the forest level
News continued to trickle in slowly until Gradual Games posted an update in April 2019 to note delays in the game’s development due to matters both internal and personal, but that Trophy would continue in other hands. By June 2019, the homebrew community learned that Sole Goose Productions had acquired the rights to Trophy and the rest of Gradual Games’ catalog, and would finish production and publication of Trophy as a release under the 6502 Collective’s banner; joining such gems as Rollie and Candelabra: Estoscerro.
Trophy launched on Kickstarter on February 27, 2020, with a tongue-in-cheek funding goal of $6,502. The campaign was funded within 24 hours, and ultimately received more than 6 times its funding goal. Backers flooded in with support at all tiers digital and physical, including the limited edition, which featured a variant CIB (with foam block!), blueprint poster, signed letter from Derek, and 6502 Collective swag.
Kickstarter Regular & Limited Edition CIBs
Trophy presents itself as an action platformer in the spirit of the Mega Man games, but with its own unique flavor. You can pick up little trophies from vanquished enemies that restore health, and obtain health and weapon upgrades for an added advantage. However unlike Mega Man, upgrades are not gained following boss battles; instead these boosts are hidden, encouraging players to explore the furthest reaches of each level in search of secrets rather than rush to the bosses. At the end of each level, Trophy encounters more than themed mirror images of himself, but massive bosses that cannot be easily boiled down to predictable patterns of behavior.
Not pictured: the return of my Brave Little Toaster nightmares
Trophy’s story opens with two scientists, Jared Sword and Xella Quine discovering Gearus 9, a planet of peaceful robots. While Sword brings the robot Beeper back to Earth to showcase their discovery, Quine remains behind, where madness consumes him. Succumbing to his insanity, Quine takes over the planet and declares himself ruler, crowning himself Lord Q. Upon returning to Gearus 9, Sword and Beeper see for themselves what Lord Q’s evil has wrought and decide to fight back. However between Sword’s frailty and Beeper’s pacifism, neither is a match for Lord Q and his forces. The two would-be heroes resolve to use Gearus 9’s technology to fuse themselves together into a human-machine hybrid capable of saving the day: Trophy. En route to Lord Q’s lair, Trophy will fight his way through 9 levels (with ample checkpoints) as he slowly liberates Gearus 9…gear by gear.
Before I begin my review of Trophy, I want to be as transparent as possible and state that I have not yet had the opportunity to play the final game, though I was fortunate to play an earlier build of the game at MAGFest in 2019. For impressions of the finished game, I am supplementing my older hands-on experience with the extended gameplay of @ecmyers, who posted a great livestream of Trophy that was helpful for my purposes here as well as enjoyable in its own right. Though the gameplay underlying my thoughts is second-hand, my opinions remain my own and are not drawn from others. I suppose with this blog series I might qualify as “press”, but I imagine advance press copies of games make more sense for people who can provide video footage of their gameplay to the wider public (besides, I’m not sure I would be comfortable asking for free advance copies of a game I pre-ordered anyway…not that I’d decline if offered).
Flash! Gamers go gaga for whole new homebrew!
Derek designed Trophy as an homage to Mega Man and it shows in the best possible ways. Levels are bursting with color, and the backgrounds are beautiful and dynamic. The environments feel alive as waterfalls flow throughout the forest level and you can almost feel the wind in your face as trees rush by on the train level. The physics of the levels vary with their themes, where gravity’s hold on you is looser on the asteroid stage and you struggle to keep from sliding on the tundra’s ice. It’s a good thing there are checkpoints throughout each level, because you might get killed for stopping to admire the view. This is Mega Man appreciation at its finest: Derek wasn’t content to build levels that offered merely the appearance of their respective themes, but the challenges within each stage varies accordingly. You must be mindful of how your jump is different on the asteroid with less gravity. Jumping off a waterfall includes blind falls which require you to use quick judgment in managing your trajectory. But you are up to the challenge because the controls are tight and intuitive, and they obey the physics of every level.
Screenshot from finished build of game…in spaaaaaace
I mentioned earlier that upgrades are hidden within the levels rather than awarded after a boss fight, which is a welcome departure from Mega Man. Although players can technically tackle the levels of each Mega Man game in any order, there is a path of least resistance in which bosses are particularly vulnerable to an ability acquired from a previously vanquished boss. I didn’t like the notion that adhering to a particular level order made the game substantially easier as it implied that the apparent freedom to choose whichever level I wanted to play first was an illusion, and that I was a less sophisticated gamer for not playing in the "right" sequence. I’m bad enough at games as it is, you know this. Trophy restores a true choice of level selection, and bosses are difficult because they are difficult, not because I chose its level too soon.
As the great Shao Kahn once said: “Choose your destiny!”
Speaking of bosses…damn! These bosses are not just evil mirror images of the protagonist with silly names and abilities. Trophy’s bosses are titanic; their sheer size in combination with their movement and attacks warrants careful strategy (and a whole lot of dying). Defeating any of the bosses is a proud achievement worthy of celebration, and beating the game merits an extra prize, maybe some kind of shiny, engraved commemorative token like a chalice…
Trophy is both an excellent throwback to a beloved series that represents the height of NES games and a marker of how high the homebrew community has risen to stand shoulder to shoulder with the giants of the licensed era. It reminds us of everything we liked about Mega Man and adds incredible new flourishes in NES programming. There is a reason Trophy met its Kickstarter goal so quickly; before the campaign ever launched, Trophy’s status in the pantheon of homebrew was already cemented. It is a game I know I will revisit time and again, that I will share with friends, and I don’t even have it yet.
Trophy has been a hotly anticipated homebrew for the past few years, and as the game comes closer to reaching an eager public, the stories behind it become more relevant. I spoke with Derek of Gradual Games and Beau of Sole Goose Productions/The 6502 Collective to learn more…
-Before we dive into Trophy, I'd love to talk about you and your background. What first inspired you to become a homebrewer? What is the origin story of Gradual Games?
I got started with game programming at age 13. My mother found a tutor in my hometown who introduced kids to programming by teaching them how to make a game in QBasic. I was instantly hooked. After that, I delved into the online world of QBasic which went so far as building things like RPG engines with the aid of some x86 assembly language for fast graphics on old Pentium machines, so I got a taste of assembly language and programming for old computers via DOS way back in the 90's.
It's all about the Pentiums, baby
Then I went to college. Near the end, my peers kept telling me I should make games for the XBOX 360 using C# and XNA. I wasn't interested though---I remembered how much I enjoyed the simplicity of DOS. I found FreeBASIC, which is a modern variant of QBasic, and I found Andre Lamothe's retro DIY video game system the xGameStation, and the UzeBox. The only one of those I played around with was FreeBASIC. Eventually, my co-worker Bill Roberts told me about NESDev. Eventually I decided to give it a try since I had a background in assembly language from DOS. I found I was able to pick up 6502 pretty easily, and the rest is history. I called my game company Gradual Games because I was inspired by a quote from Pavlov, which goes: "From the very beginning of your work, school yourselves to severe gradualness in the accumulation of knowledge."
-Who are your influences? And whose work are you watching closely now?
My influences for my NES work were primarily games like Mega Man, Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, StarTropics and Zelda. These days, I'm kind of avidly following the PICO-8 community as well as continuing to follow and support the NES homebrew community.
-Your work on Trophy spans the game's programming and music. In developing the game would you say it has any qualities that seem quintessentially you? How would you describe your aesthetic?
I almost viewed Trophy as a vehicle for my music. I've adored Mega Man music since I was a little kid, and always wanted to write my own. Making Trophy gave me a chance to do that. I could have written the music on its own, but there are so many people around who can write good chiptunes, but not as many people can both compose and build a game. So I felt a better way to get people to listen to my music was to make a game that would hold them captive while they listen to it MUAHAHAHAHAH.
Portrait of the artist as a young, maniacal man
-What tools do you use to code and compose?
To code I just use Notepad++. For composing, I use FamiTracker.
-Trophy’s Kickstarter page says the game traces back to when you were 12 years old. Tell me about what your imagination conjured years ago.
I liked to draw robots around that age. Trophy was one of the main ones I drew---I drew at least two versions of him. I still have the originals.
Original concept art by Derek Andrews
-Tell me about the evolution of Trophy, what was your process for taking an idea and manifesting it?
Pretty random---basically just use Mega Man as a reference for general level biomes and then create levels that felt good to play. I tend not to plan things---almost everything in my life is an improvisation of some kind.
-I’ve argued the protagonist represents the player's point of immersion in the game, and how we perceive the protagonist contextualizes how we perceive the game's world. I also believe that the protagonist’s design serves as a reflection of its designer, which would be especially intriguing considering Trophy is a fusion of two characters: Sword and Beeper. What was the intention behind the design of Trophy’s character, and how did he evolve from your initial demos to the final game with The 6502 Collective’s tweaks?
I honestly don't put that much thought into things. Haha! I just took the first sketch and ran with it...honest! My only goal with this game was to shamelessly rip off Mega Man without violating copyright. I probably invested more of "myself" or "my soul" or what have you into the music.
-What was it like working with The 6502 Collective? How did you connect with them for this project?
I've known Ernest Holland (Beau) for quite a few years now in the NES homebrew scene. He eventually joined 6502 Collective. I can't remember exactly how I became aware that he/they would publish others' games, but once I knew I decided to sell my I.P. to them. I did this because of my divorce. My artist was actually my wife. So, to make the divorce simple we sold all of Gradual Games I.P. to Sole Goose Productions. I'm very happy about that move and it is in good hands. I really needed to restart my life and not worry about taking responsibility for further sales, releases, or Kickstarters.
-You said on NESDev that Trophy is a love-letter to the Mega Man games. Was about that series do you enjoy so much that you built your own game as an homage to it?
MUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUSSSSSSIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIICCC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! He wasn't called Rock Man by accident. I used to turn on Mega Man 5 and go into Napalm Man or Crystal Man and just stare at Mega Man not even moving, just listening to the song for a few minutes before actually playing. I actually didn't fall in love with games and game design till well into my NES homebrewing career if you can believe it. I did always like games, but I REALLY like them now and know a lot more about the craft.
Ability acquired from defeating Music Man, infamous for selling trombones to untalented Iowan kids
-You also mentioned on NESDev that the game originally used vertical mirroring, but that you spent 3 months rewriting the engine to use horizontal mirroring because you wanted the same attribute glitches as Mega Man 5 and because you wanted bosses that could descend from the top of the screen. Are there any other coding tricks you applied to the game for similar reasons?
That's the main one. I wanted it to look and feel like Mega Man 5 right down to the flaws like the attribute glitches.
-In a teaser on your website, you said that in addition to coding and making games, you are a musician, and you are really excited for Trophy’s soundtrack. Tell me more about your musical background, and what has you especially excited for this game’s soundtrack.
I got into music near the end of the few years I was dabbling in game programming as a teenager. Got into guitar and keyboard simultaneously. I eventually met a man who had an enormous impact on my life musically who is my friend to this day, and this led to me recording hundreds and hundreds of recordings of piano improvisation. These improvisations got complex enough that I eventually attained a good understanding of how to compose music, even though I don't tend to write them down. I applied this experience to writing music for Trophy as well as The Legends of Owlia. Nomolos by contrast was all public domain classical music. I'm excited about Trophy's soundtrack because I made a big effort to make the most Mega Man-like tunes I could come up with. They're not quite as complex and interesting as my favorite Mega Man tunes, I don't personally think, but I'm happy with them nonetheless.
Screenshot from Nomolos: Storming the Catsle
-What new challenges or surprises surfaced in developing Trophy as opposed to Nomolos and Owlia? What lessons did you learn that you would like to share with the people who aspire to follow in your footsteps?
MMC3 splits are tough to get right. MMC3 in general is a little complex to work with because its got so many more features than say UNROM (mapper 2). In fact, any raster effects are hard to work with. Owlia had a hard-coded raster effect to hide scrolling updates at the top of the screen. That was a huge, huge, HUGE timesink. Somewhere in my NES homebrewing career I really fell in love with the craft of making an interesting game rather than doing something impressive programming-wise. So I'd say to aspiring homebrewers---if you're feeling tempted to impress people with programming---don't. It's dumb. It's way more satisfying to craft an interesting gameplay experience. You can do this with many game genres and gameplay styles without taxing yourself in the programming department. For instance, it is much simpler to program a screen-by-screen game with no scrolling. In retrospect, I wish I had built Owlia this way, as I would have been able to cram in much more interesting gameplay as a result instead of sinking so much time into tweaking a stupid raster effect.
Screenshot from The Legends of Owlia
-Social media has been buzzing with excitement for Trophy! How does it feel receive such enthusiasm?
It feels pretty good. That doesn't replace the joy that I experienced during the actual act of creation however. That's what keeps me going---the act of making anything, the feeling of mental flow, is why I do it. Praise is fleeting.
-Is there another project after Trophy on the horizon? Another dream project that you hope to bring into existence, NES or otherwise?
I have no more dream projects. Game development is now just a hobby or a craft I enjoy pursuing in the small. I have a very long list of quirky little ideas I might build in PICO-8, and I'm kind of working my way through those slowly. Though, I actually am working on a big port project right now. There's an old indie game called Lynn's Legacy released almost 15 years ago. You can actually still download and play the win32 binary. But it's so old, it can't play fullscreen without being blurry anymore because of outdated apis and compatibility problems. The game is public domain and open source so I'm taking it upon myself to fully port the game to a modern game framework called Love2D. The project is well underway and I'm hopeful to have it complete in approximately 2 years.
Screenshot from Lynn’s Legacy, made with FreeBASIC by Cha0s and Josiah Tobin
-Your more recent posts on Twitter and the VGS Discord center around your PICO-8 programming. Tell me more about PICO-8 and what you’ve been doing in that realm.
PICO-8 is a fantasy console. It's basically an emulator for an 8-bit computer that never existed. It is intended to feel like working with an old computer when you write software for it. The way in which it produces this feeling is that when you program, the api is very simple and modeled after the memory map of an old computer like a Commodore 64 or NES, and has many functions named after old BASIC functions (for example, PEEK and POKE are the same idea as LDA and STA from straight 6502 assembly coding). So, it creates instant nostalgia for folks who got their start in BASIC, like I did. But, it's not just nostalgic---it makes for an environment that is truly excellent for beginning programmers and game developers as well.
The PICO-8 community is enormous and attracts a ton of insanely talented people who make absolutely charming gems for the system---all for free (though a few notable games eventually were made into larger games such as Celeste---the PICO-8 version of Celeste is an easter egg within Celeste itself!)
When you distribute your game, all your code, graphics and sound get crammed into a single .PNG image file that looks like a game cartridge. So it produces a psychological feeling that you "own a cartridge." It's not a zip file. It's not an installer. It's not a folder with a big mess of files. It's a single PNG image---that's your game!
I can't stop talking about PICO-8 itself because I'm such a fanboy. As for what I've done with it---I've made a handful of small games in it so far, and I have a list of over 100 ideas of what I'd like to build in it. I feel as though it is my final destination as a game developer. I never actually wanted to sell anything I made---the fact that I have done so with NES is very cool but really a means to an end. If I could have distributed cartridges without spending a penny, I would have. Haha. I really just create games for the innate satisfaction and joy I get from the craft.
Hobobot, a PICO-8 game developed by Gradual Games
-Are there any homebrew games in development that you’re excited to play?
I'm pretty excited about Full Quiet, Halcyon, and that new adventure game Chris Cacciatore is creating. The sad thing is though there are so many games these days, and I'm distracted by Zelda: Breath of the Wild right now. I still haven't even played all the NES games I own which were made back in the day. Some day, I hope.
Chris Cacciatore’s in-development project, Janus
The 6502 Collective (E.B.D. Holland aka Sole Goose Productions)
-Before we talk about Trophy, I'd love to talk about you and your background. You already program and publish homebrews in your capacity as Sole Goose Productions. What first inspired you to found The 6502 Collective with Retrotainment Games? What is the origin story of The Collective?
Well, the Retrotainment fellows were building the Mega Man 2 and Mega Man X re-releases for IAm8Bit and they asked if I’d come lend a hand. I lived in Tim’s basement for a couple of months and although we spent the better part of each day physically building games, there was plenty of time before and after work to work on projects. Between those times and then spending eight to ten hours working together and dreaming up ideas, we decided to undertake a collaborative project. At the previous year’s PRGE Tim had noticed the CTWC selling an empty cart with a label on it in commemoration of that year’s event, and he had reached out to them about giving it some actual content moving forward. It was kind of a simple project, not really a game, but it was a great place to start. We talked over the general design together, but Tim did most of the layout and graphics. I did the programming, and humanthomas did the music. It was the first time that Thomas and I had worked together, which has proved to be another lasting relationship.
And from a collaboration, a collective was born
-Who are your influences? And whose work are you watching closely now?
That’s going way back! I’ve been doing this for over seven years now, so who was around back then… Hanley of course, and also MRN; they were the two biggest influences on me getting started, beyond the Nerdy Nights anyways. Kevin was very approachable, but even from afar he was working on interesting things like Study Hall and what looked like it might be the first NES homebrew RPG: Unicorn. Just seeing that one screen of Unicorn was enough to give me the motivation to say, “I can learn to do this too.” MRN was doing some neat stuff as well at the time with Nightman vs Justice Incarnate, and he was also rather active on the forums. He also had those tutorials that went further than the Nerdy Nights, and started to build the type of game that I got into homebrewing to build, an overhead action adventure. Both of them were very helpful privately, in addition to their public support.
These days I’m watching Ted’s work on Orange Island pretty closely. Even though the PC version is first, the NES port looks to be amazing. Plus, he has adhered so closely to the system specs that the two versions should be pretty close; very similar to how Brad Smith built Lizard. A lot of the work of my close friends I keep tabs on daily or weekly, and it has been nice seeing Halcyon, Unicorn (finally!), The Scarlet Matron, Full Quiet, and others come together.
-What services does the Collective advertise to potential clients? Who does the Collective wish to attract with its services?
The Collective takes on various responsibilities depending on the situation. Publishing is one of our main tasks, with the goal being to help devs when they need it most. After working on something for years, who wants to take another six to twelve months to figure out manufacturing and distribution? Eh, some do, I’m one of them after all, but it’s not for everyone. We also try to help games get to the next level in terms of polish and refinement, taking into account the dev’s own goals for a project. That may mean further beta testing, level refinements, graphical changes, or simply professional grade packaging. We try to make all of that as easy on the developer as possible.
From time to time we also undertake commission work, such as the CTWC project mentioned above, or last year’s Convention Quest. These generally target an event, are programmed in-house, and develop in conversation with a client. That causes them to grow in unique ways, and the results have been interesting. Tight deadlines probably help in that regard as well!
The last thing, so far, that we have dabbled in, is music albums. Thanks to Memblers’ MP3 GTROM boards we are now able to have CD quality audio playing out of the NES. To date we have released Zao: Reformat/Reboot and Goofy Foot. Both were great experiences, with Tim doing design, layout, and graphics, and myself covering programming.
Promotional image of Zao’s Reformat/Reboot
I guess we have a little something for everybody, whether devs, those wanting commission work to accompany an event, or even bands. Who knows what’s next!
-Do the members of the Collective have particular roles or specialties? What does the division of labor look like on a given project?
It definitely changes by the project, but we each have our areas of expertise. For the CTWC Tim handled coordination, design, layout, and even graphics. I did the programming, Thomas did the music, and then Greg took a look at the end result and made sure that we weren’t completely off the mark. Zao and Goofy Foot followed a similar pattern, though obviously we did not need NES music for those projects.
For The Convention Quest I came up with the idea, drew most of the graphics, and programmed it. Tim helped with design and graphics, coordinated with the client, and he also did the sfx. Thomas did the music. Greg made sure we weren’t crazy and completely off the mark.
Trophy was entirely different since we each got to lean into our strengths on that one. Since we were working with another programmer it made some sense for me to handle those interactions (plus Derek is a good friend and we have talked for years). Greg and I looked over the game as a whole, decided on some improvements based on playing the game and observing public feedback, and then I implemented those using Derek’s working method. Greg also handled any art changes, and worked with an artist to get them into the game. Tim got to go full blast with marketing, which really showed in the campaign’s success, up to and including building The 6502 Collective website in time for the launch. It was a project that really forced us to get all of our ducks in a row, which makes the future a much smoother prospect.
Each project tends to be different based on who has an existing relationship with whoever we are working with, and also who has the vision for something. For the CTWC, Zao, and Goofy Foot I had nothing in my head about what they would look like, not even a vague idea. Tim on the other hand had all sorts of crazy ideas, I just had to rein him some to save my own sanity. So too with the Trophy art revisions; that fell to Greg and he did an amazing job. Tim also tends to do most of the physical assembly of games, although I tend to handle the board flashing for the time being.
Promotional image of Goofy Foot: Power Chiptunes from Steve DeLuca
-Is the Collective hiring? Are you looking to bring on more partners, generally or with particular skills, to expand your capabilities?
I wouldn’t say “hiring” per se, but we are always looking to work with new folks. We are more of a collective in that sense, not a corporation, which is why we settled on that name. The range of projects we end up involved with demands that we have a variety of talented folks that we can turn to for art, music, programming, packaging, or whatnot. We do tend to seek out those who are easy to work with and who share our community values, but the door is always open to meet new contributors. As far as publishing, we always have our eyes open for new projects that may need a bit of help to get into the hands of gamers, or to make the jump from good to great.
One of our big goals when working with devs is to connect them to resources. They show us a solid game, but the music or art is lacking and it really shows. Based on our personal experiences at Retrotainment or SGP, we can then connect them to artists or musicians, and at times cover the costs on this side of a game’s release. It is not always a lack of time or connections that hinder a game, as production and asset costs can quickly accumulate. Like I said, our goal is to make things easy on the dev, and that includes all aspects of a release.
Long story short, we are always looking for new people to work with, whether developers, programmers, artists, musicians, or whomever. The people in the community are what make programming for the NES an amazing experience, and who knows who we will meet next.
-The Collective has also been involved in some exciting hardware developments, such as the playable audio on Zao’s Reformat/Reboot NES cartridge release. What was the inspiration behind that project, and do you have other novel technical treats up your sleeve for the future?
This was another project that grew out of my time in Pittsburgh and working with Tim all day. When I told him that Memblers had mentioned that something along the lines of playable MP3s on the NES was possible, his eyes lit up, to say the least! We talked out a lot of ideas, and before long (and before he was supposed to!), he had started talking with a member of Zao about a possible project for them. The board only existed on paper, so the first major hurdle was convincing Memblers that it’d be worth the time and effort to finish the design. Since the boards would be modified versions of GTROM, Tim and I got started on the album content long before then. He did all of the design, layout, and graphics, and I did the programming. Once the boards arrived, then I had to figure out how to program for the MP3 portion. It was not too bad, but it was interesting to be working on something that did not yet exist!
As far as other technical treats, we have been toying with some internet-capable designs for what looks to be the biggest change in the future of NES development.
-What was the Collective’s role in Trophy?
Where do we begin with that!
For Trophy, the members of The Collective have served many roles; anything from tester, to publisher, to editor, and more.
For example, I was one of the initial testers for the project, playing it over at Derek’s house in front of him while he frantically took notes. I broke a lot of stuff in that build, which I think he appreciated.
I talked with him for about a year in regard to helping him publish it before that actually came to pass. From that point on we were 100% in charge of everything. We were handed a finished game, but felt that it could benefit from some small improvements, all of which fell to us to make if we wanted to see them happen. Derek was a real sport about that too, trusting that his dream would still be recognizable and intact after the changes. At the start he had asked for an unaltered version of the game come release time, but he messaged me at some point and said that he would rather have the version with the changes we had made. That was an important day for me personally, knowing that he more-than-approved of the things we had done to his baby.
This process put the success or failure of the project squarely on our shoulders. Luckily, this is where The Collective’s collaboration really shines, as we were each able to handle the aspects of the project that best suited us. Knowing that we were working with one of the true gems of the homebrew community meant that we didn’t have to focus on actual development beyond the few edits that we made, which was a nice change.
-What was it like working with Derek?
Working with Derek has been amazing! He was one of the first people that I reached out to in the community way back in 2013, and we have been friends ever since, so it was a true honor to help bring Trophy to release. He gave us total freedom to make it the best game that it could be, and that caused the game to become something different than it otherwise would have been.
-How has Trophy evolved since the Collective started its work on the game? I know there were tweaks to Trophy’s sprite, were there any other revisions you feel helped to further polish the game?
Having been familiar with the project for over a year, and part of the testing discussions, I had some ideas about potential changes. A new design for the character was sorely needed, and we got some proposals from a few artists about possible new directions. The old design was not terrible, but when you’re making giant six-foot standees for display at PAX you want to have a character that people can get behind! That also helped us to better align the in-game sprite with the packaging art; which was not something that we could have done with the old sprite.
Evolution of Trophy’s Sprite
In addition to that we reworked some of the levels based on player feedback. Beyond the beta testers, we had the reactions of hundreds or thousands of PAX East attendees, and also the impressions of a host of reviewers. People were jumping into pits that could be better marked, finding their way into potential soft locks, or generally breaking the game in ways that we had not envisioned. This led to some mild, but meaningful, level redesigns. We also asked Nathan Tolbert to add in a feature to the game, making the hardest boss slightly more forgiving. This continued testing also brought to light two significant bugs that Derek quickly fixed.
-Trophy represents Derek’s love-letter to the Mega Man games. What are your thoughts about the Mega Man series and how did that impact your work on finalizing Trophy?
Mega Man was probably the first video game character that I was really into growing up. Even without cartoons, action figures, bed sheets, lunch boxes, or what have you, his appeal and presence to a kid was strong. When we got our NES, Mega Man III was probably the game that we rented the most that first year or so. He was one of the first characters that I would draw and dream up stories about, in part spurred on by the article in Nintendo Power about Mega Man V boss submissions (issue 44 I believe). Working with a similar character/property was a great experience, and hopefully my own love of Mega Man helped in either the presentation or the game edits. Even if not, having a strongly character-based game made it easy to rally behind the project and get others excited.
Pictured: a spectacular issue of Nintendo Power
-The Collective has worked on a number of prominent homebrews from Convention Quest to Rollie. How has the Collective grown over the course of its projects?
Each project is different, and presents a new set of challenges. What started off as giving the CTWC something more than an empty cart to mark their event, has turned into publishing, pushing new tech, and ever more sophisticated commission work. Each project has also had different levels of input and involvement from Collective members, and we are dynamic in that sense. There are no set roles for us, or standardized ways of doing things with a client. Each project and game has to be figured out based on a variety of factors that are brought to the table.
-What new challenges or surprises surfaced in developing Trophy? What lessons did you learn that you would like to share with the people who follow in your footsteps?
With Trophy we knew that we had one of the highlights of the homebrew community on our hands, and the challenge came in the form of pushing the game as far as it could go. With zero work on our part the game would have been a success by homebrew standards, but could we go the extra mile? Deciding to show it at PAX East was a major decision with a lot riding on it if it was not received well by the modern gaming community. Over eighty thousand people had the chance to see it that weekend, and the response from those that stopped to play it was amazing! The Retrotainment guys are old hat at these industry shows, but for me it was a fresh challenge to promote something that I was personally involved with at this level.
I suppose that the biggest lesson from this is to try and gauge how much effort to put into something. I’ve published three other projects, and I cannot imagine putting this level of time, effort, and money into them. It is not because they are bad in any way, but I try to be realistic with myself in terms of appeal. I try to find that point where the returns diminish, or at least be aware of it, and then push toward that. Then again, don’t sell yourself short when it comes to who may be interested in something. The amount of love that I continue to see for Swords and Runes and Spook-o’-tron continues to surprise me, long after I thought that they had run their course. You just never know when or how someone might discover something.
Screenshot from Spook-o’-tron by Sole Goose Productions
-Social media has been buzzing with excitement for Trophy! How does it feel to bask in such support?
The support for Trophy has been amazing to see! It’s one thing to know your friend has made an awesome game, it’s another to have actually shown and communicated that to other people. That was our whole job, after all, and it has been wonderful to see Gradual Games get the recognition that they deserve for such a great game.
-Is there another project after Trophy on the horizon? Another dream project that you hope to add to the Collective’s catalog?
There are always more projects, whether in house or ones to potentially publish. We are in talks with a number of people, and are on the brink of launching an exciting new series. I can’t say more just yet, but I think that people will be pretty stoked for it!
-Are there any homebrew games in development that you’re excited to play?
Full Quiet makes the top of my list. I had to help demo it at PAX East in early 2019, but since then I have refused to let Greg and Tim show me anymore of the game; I want it to be a surprise! Dullahan Software’s Project Janus is another that I’ve been watching closely on social media. Unicorn, of course, has been great to see finally come together; we’ve only been waiting a decade for it! Tolbert’s Halcyon is one that I cannot wait to see completed. Orange Island is a strong contender for someday replacing Lizard as my favorite homebrew of all time, but we’ll see. It’s also great to see Rob back to work on some of his projects, and there are a number there that I cannot wait to see completed. I’m big on games that allow for exploration, if that isn’t apparent.
Screenshot of Orange Island
-I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me and share your experiences. Is there anything else you would like to tell readers and fans?
Just a big thank you to everyone, whether supporters or fans. I’d like to think that we’d be doing what we do in terms of development with or without encouragement, and simply for the love of the NES, but having support makes a lot of what we do possible. Thanks for keeping physical media alive, and here’s to another decade of trying to live those 8-bit dreams!
Thanks for tuning in to another episode of my blog series, which takes a deep dive into new and in-development homebrew, destined perhaps to be the next essential gem. What are your thoughts on Trophy and the catalog of homebrew from Gradual Games and The 6502 Collective? What other homebrews are you eagerly awaiting and what would you like to learn about your favorite developers? Perhaps you’ll see it here soon when…A Homebrew Draws Near! Command?