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Episode 9: 8-Bit Xmas 2020


Scrobins

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A Homebrew Draws Near!

A blog series by @Scrobins

Episode 9: 8-Bit Xmas 2020 (Dr. Covio)

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Introduction:

Video games are a lot like movies, an excellent effort can give rise to a sequel, potentially even a series, one which perfects a formula and offers something new and fun while retaining everything that made past installments worthwhile. It is a difficult tightrope to walk: providing more of what works without merely delivering a carbon copy, while also experimenting with new features without undermining the essential, winning formula. There may be missteps, but fans know the highs of a good series eclipse the lows, such is my devotion to the James Bond films, the Dragon Warrior/Quest series among licensed-era games, and the 8-Bit Xmas series among homebrew games, but I digress. For some, the holidays begin with Thanksgiving and the Macy’s parade, but for others the season begins when Brian Parker lists a new 8-Bit Xmas cart on RetroUSB, featuring a new game, some holiday chiptune, and blinky lights.

For this entry, I’m covering 8-Bit Xmas 2020: Dr. Covio, an arcade action puzzler for the NES, inspired by Dr. Mario, and developed by Brian Parka aka bunnyboy aka RetroUSB fka RetroZone. As of the time of this writing, the physical release of the game is available here on RetroUSB.

 

Development Team:

@retroUSB (Brian Parker): programming

@Peek-A-Brews! (Jon Piornack): graphical art

@zi (Thomas Ragonnet): music

 

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Behold the power of blinky lights

 

Game Evolution:

This particular holiday tradition traces its history back more than 12 years, when the first 8-Bit Xmas cart was released in 2008 during homebrew’s earliest days. The original 8-Bit Xmas 2008 served as a digital Christmas card, featuring snow falling on the letters “NA” in tribute to the NintendoAge forum, and holiday chiptune to accompany it. The cart was a fun homebrew alternative to the burning yule log that you might play in the background of holiday festivities.

In the ensuing years, more entries to the series were added, including two 16-Bit Xmas carts, each now featuring a playable game and more holiday chiptune. The series was immensely popular, and the rarity of older games made them highly sought collector’s items, with 8-Bit Xmas 2008 becoming one of the Big 3 homebrew grails.

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8-Bit Xmas 2008: cart, pinup insert, and both box variants

Brian shared early news of 8-Bit Xmas 2020 on VGS’ Brewery Discord on July 25, 2020 when he solicited the community for Dr. Mario-related game ideas. More news came to the Discord on August 19, 2020 when Brian shared a beta rom for bug testing. As the game’s development continued, Brian announced the rest of the development team on September 22, 2020, with Jon providing art and Tom providing another dose of Christmas chiptune cheer.

On November 2, 2020, RetroUSB opened sales of 8-Bit Xmas 2020, and began shipping carts later in the month. Also, as per tradition, NES-City, led by our own Francis Spedafino aka @fsped09 designed and sold a box for the game so CIB collector’s could get their fix.

 

Gameplay Overview:

Given its inspiration from Dr. Mario, 8-Bit Xmas 2020 would best be described as an action puzzler in the falling block tradition. If the Dr. Mario theme during COVID-19 seems apropos, the timing of the release right as vaccines are receiving emergency use authorization is especially uncanny.

You control the movement of capsules (two tiles wide) as they fall down a large beaker, with the goal of matching colors across capsules and viruses in rows or columns of at least 4 in order to remove tiles and get rid of the pesky viruses scattered throughout the level. Clear the viruses, clear the level (and notch a big score and an even bigger password). Controls are straightforward: the A and B buttons rotate the capsule you control, left and right on the d-pad move the capsule accordingly, and pushing down on the d-pad speeds up the falling process.

Before starting the game proper, you can customize the game through an elaborate menu. Options include setting the number of players (up to 4), the width of the beaker/game’s field of play, capsule fall speed, relative number of viruses, number of upcoming capsules you can see in advance, and color scheme, featuring Christmas (red, green, and white) and classic (orange, blue, and magenta) options.

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Pick your poison

Meanwhile in the background are 4 new holiday chiptune tracks compliments of zi. This year features The 12 Days of Christmas; Baby, It’s Cold Outside; Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer; and Happy Holidays.

 

Writer’s Review:

8-Bit Xmas 2020 offers a fun, Christmassy homage to Dr. Mario on steroids.

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Dexamethasone to be specific

Depending on your selections in the extensive pre-game menu, the game can take the same size as Dr. Mario’s beaker or much, much bigger, offering the temptation of even higher high scores for arcade junkies. While the original Dr. Mario included a similar menu to set the game’s difficulty, Dr. Covio’s selections create a more bespoke experience, and thus a more replayable game that will bring players back again and again to experiment with different setting combinations to see how it impacts their high scores. The key word for this 8-Bit Xmas entry is MORE. More options, more customizable, more players. More fun. While gameplay in both Dr. Mario and Dr. Covio is simple and addictive, the 8-Bit Xmas treatment elevates this cart to party game status.

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You can cooperate to fight a virus in a way our state and federal government didn’t!

Adding to the visual charm of 8-Bit Xmas 2020 with its deathly cute virus sprites is a detailed background from Peek-A-Brews! that frames the beaker, presenting a laboratory setting that one-ups Dr. Mario’s simple checkered pattern background. Meanwhile, the game is also wrapped melodically by the chiptune stylings of zi, who continues to pull our nostalgic heartstrings with his 8-bit covers of holiday classics. After playing the game for awhile, I enjoyed putting the controller down just to sit back and enjoy the music.

 

Interviews:

I convinced Santa’s elves in the game development department to take a break from their work to talk to me about the holiday homebrew on everyone’s list.

 

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bunnyboy

@retroUSB

-Before we dive into 8-Bit Xmas 2020, I would love to talk about you and your background. What first inspired you to become a homebrewer? What is the origin story of RetroUSB?

My parents never let us have a NES, but my best friend had one and we played at his house all the time.  Lent was the best time for me because he had to give up the NES and it came to my place!  After college he requested a USB NES gamepad to play emulators, and I didn't have a job because I went to college for supercomputer architecture and all those companies disappeared.  RIP Cray/SGI/IBM/HP/etc.  I figured selling gamepads to them would pay for a new bike frame until I got a real job.  17 years later the bike is still my primary one, but I never got that job...

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And the dream lives on…

 

-What is the significance of the bunnyboy and RetroUSB names? What brought about the name change of your website from RetroZone to RetroUSB?

bunnyboy goes back to 4th grade (~1990), when I was a boy with pet bunnies.  No relation to furries or Playboy.  It came up again in college when I needed a username with 8 letters and everything with Brian was already taken.  

The RetroZone to RetroUSB switch was because when I started the company I wasn't expecting to go so long and I never did a check if retrozone.com was available.  Turns out a random HVAC company was already using it and had no interest in selling.  Always check the URL before naming something!  I still have some labels that say RetroZone because I ordered too many, and I am too lazy to change it.

 

-Looking across the entire 8-Bit Xmas series, you have developed homebrew games that feature a wide variety of genres and gameplay mechanics. Beau and Kevin mentioned on The Assembly Line that you like to set yourself a technical challenge and then program a game around it. Is there any truth to that? What is your inspiration in deciding what a given game will feature?

Yeah now it frequently starts as a tech concept and a game builds around that.  Sometimes that means the game isn't very good...  For 2014 the goal was more than 4 players, which took 2 PowerPads and made the game confusing.  Sometimes the programming challenge isn't obvious.  The isometric background of 2018 was very tricky to get right, but the effect on the ski speeds didn't really work.  This year was going back to the original Xmas idea of 4 player games while making something that didn't feel like a mini game.  Next year, who knows?

 

-Despite that diversity of game features, do you feel your games have a unifying aesthetic that define them as yours?

None at all!  Other than not wanting to program a platformer, I just go with whatever seems interesting at the time.  Each game had different artists so that isn't a connection either.

 

-What does the development process for an 8-Bit Xmas game look like?

November - "I am going to get started now and have something huge!"

I am now in this stage for 2021, but I bet the normal process will continue.

April - "I should get to work and have a special Xmas in July"

July - "Hey wouldn't it be cool if..."

Inspiration randomly strikes.  This is the part where the project is interesting for me, so it’s 1-3 weeks of mass programming to go from nothing to a playable game.  For 2020 my family was gone for a week so almost all coding was done July 28 to August 1, that made my hands hurt.  It has been a few years since I have had a block of time that big dedicated to one thing.  Then it's weeks/months of much slower testing, debugging, and adding features. 

September - "Oh no, this needs to be finished asap"

Music, graphics, label artwork, any other content is added here.  This year I was late getting the labels ordered, then they were delayed, so ship date is a few weeks behind the normal target.  PRGE has typically been a deadline to add pressure in previous years.

 

-How does coordination work with the development team you assemble for each game?

The development team is mostly friends in Discord having early ROMs forced upon them often.  Any missed bugs are their fault, or they are features.  Usually by the time the other artists are involved the project is mostly done.  This year the artwork was so amazing that we kept adding more art, which needed some reprogramming to get it to fit.

 

-What tools do you use to code and compose?

NESASM forever!  I am still mostly on the same tools I used 15 years ago.  Xcode for writing, NESASM for assembling, and FCEUX for testing.  There are better choices for each one of those, but transitioning to them would be time that could be spent developing.  Same with all my hardware dev tools.  Get off my lawn!

 

-Which is your favorite 8-Bit Xmas game? Favorite 8-Bit Xmas chiptune?

2015 (Twelve Seconds) is the one I played most, but 2020 (Dr. Covio) might beat that soon.  If there are friends over then 2011 (Quadralords) is still the top pick.

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Screenshot from 8-Bit Xmas 2015 aka Twelve Seconds

 

-You released two 16-Bit Xmas games in 2011 and 2012, what led you to start and then stop a parallel SNES series?

Before that era I wanted to do EVERYTHING and making SNES boards was easy.  I figured eventually I would have Xmas carts for Gameboy, N64, and other sucky Sega systems too.  Afterwards I shifted to only working on things I was actually interested in, instead of whatever would make money.  SNES sux, so 16-Bit Xmas and SNES PowerPak were dropped.  Repros are boring so those went away too.  I still have the same mentality of only doing projects I will use myself which is why there has been nothing like wireless SNES gamepads.

 

-Your creativity isn’t limited to gaming either, with fun blinky lights across the series, the LCD screen “label” on 8-Bit Xmas 2017, the RetroVision, the PowerPak, and the NES knitting machine you brought to PRGE 2018 where I first met you in person (you even gave me a piece made with the machine featuring a Goldman from Dragon Warrior). What drives your experimentation in hardware in addition to coding?

The hardware is the part I want to do, there just aren't that many possible NES hardware projects!  Any piece of hardware also needs a large amount of software.  New parts for ROB should be next...

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Now you’re knitting with power!

 

-I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the AVS, with its audio and video output over HDMI, USB power supply, wireless gamepads, and a line of games to accompany it. What drove you to develop the AVS console?

As kids we designed new games and even new consoles in 4th grade so once I got started on the path of NES hardware those seemed obvious.  It just took years of learning through projects like the PowerPak to have enough skills to do it well.  That same friend who wanted the gamepad now does industrial design, so he did the physical design of the AVS and many other concept renderings.

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The future of retro

 

-You participated in the 2011 Annual NESDev Coding Competition with Panesian Power, which was Zapper compatible. Do you have a different attitude toward working on a compo entry as opposed to something on your own timetable?

The competition deadlines are always a problem and seem to come up when there's no inspiration.  Has to be the correct mix of a good idea and enough time to actually do it.  If the theme or focus of the type of the game was narrower it would probably help me, but not the competition.

 

-You are one of the first publishing platforms for the homebrew games of others, helping to grow the community and with all new parts. How did you develop those relationships? Did you take on any additional roles in those games beyond publishing?

I went after the first one (Sudoku 2007) but after that it was always people coming to me.  NintendoAGE (RIP) being welcoming to people at all levels was the more important community part.  I helped some people with programming but that was unrelated to the publishing part.

 

-The COVID connection for this year’s game needs no explanation, but were you already thinking of a Dr. Mario-inspired game before the pandemic?

Nope!  I first started thinking of the game in June or July.  Before that I had no real ideas and no time.  The desire to do an RPG comes up every year but there is just too much content for it to happen.  1942 style scrolling shooter is still on my list too.

 

-What about Dr. Mario resonates with you? Are you a fan of the other NES Mario puzzle games such Yoshi, Yoshi’s Cookie, Wario’s Woods, etc.?

We never really played puzzle games as kids, so I have only done a few minutes of the Yoshi ones.  I like Tetris but I am not fast enough to be good.  Somehow Dr. Mario doesn't need the same mental speed.  The puzzle game I have done most is Tetris 2 with my wife and she still wins.

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Screenshot from Dr. Mario

 

-What new challenges or surprises surfaced in developing 8-Bit Xmas 2020 as opposed to previous years? What lessons did you learn that you would like to share with the people who aspire to follow in your footsteps?

The lesson is always Nike, JUST DO IT.  Writing software only costs your time, and lots of hardware design is very cheap too.  The internet makes learning anything "easy" if you are willing to actually do it instead of giving up quickly.  For these games I don't do much planning, I just start coding it.  Finishing fast is more important than having beautiful code that nobody will ever see.  The challenge was having enough CPU time to have the music during the game so zi didn't kill me.

 

-As far as NES homebrew goes, you pretty much own Christmas, while Retrotainment and K3VBOT share Halloween, and GreetingCarts/Retroscribe covered Valentine’s Day and birthdays. Do you think there are any other holidays deserving the homebrew treatment?

Christmas in July is a yearly goal which never happens, and would also cover my birthday.  Maybe bday card for the NES would be cool.  I always wanted to do valentines with pink LEDs but that just comes too soon after the Christmas rush to find the time to do it.  Halloween is always a stressful time getting Xmas finished so they can keep it!

 

-Your 8-Bit Xmas games are so beloved that earlier entries carry 4-figure values on the secondary market and the release of a new game makes players giddy for the holidays. How does it feel to bask in such enthusiasm and support?

Just makes me wish I made more in 2008 and forgot them in a closet here.  Enthusiasm for the new games is cool (and this one is a really good game) but the values of old ones don't really affect me much.  I am not selling mine and I don't think they push new cart sales.  When shipping carts it is always great to see names of people I have lost contact with like mattbep.  I do miss the list of people who have the full set and wonder how few it is down to now.

 

-Are there any other projects you have lined up on the horizon, NES or otherwise? Any dream projects?

There are three projects at the top of the list, but there isn't any active work on them right now.  The portable AVS became too expensive, especially when the tariffs hit.  Still needs work on the analog audio which I don't understand.  My Dragon Warrior style RPG is forever waiting for people to do the content.  I can program, but not art.  Last one is a giant ROB model, which was my display idea for the cancelled PRGE 2020.  That mostly needs someone else to remove it from the expo because I don't have space for it afterwards.

 

-Are there any homebrew games in development that you are excited to play?

Sneak and Peek 2021 is going to be amazing!  I think the one I am excited about isn't public yet, which probably means there are a few more years of development.

 

-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?

Buy everything I sell!  I need to get more space in my office for whatever is next...

 

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Peek-A-Brews!

@peekabrews

-Before we dive into 8-Bit Xmas 2020, I would love to talk about you and your background. What first inspired you to become a homebrew artist? What is the origin story of Peek-A-Brews?

I think it was about 6 months after officially starting Peek-A-Brews that I read a post on Twitter by Kevin Hanley of KHAN Games. He was reaching out to any new or aspiring artists that might want to work on his next project. Having always been into art in some capacity and recently becoming obsessed with NES homebrews, I jumped for the chance at fulfilling one of my dreams. I am very glad that I sent him a message because it couldn’t have been a better experience.

Around the same time that I discovered homebrews, my friend Bryan and I were having these NES game nights after work. The idea was to beat as many 2-player games as possible and check them off the list starting with our favorites. This led to conversations about maybe doing YouTube or Twitch. We decided on YouTube because it was more feasible for us to make pre-recorded episodes on our own time. When it came to choosing content, we naturally landed on homebrews to keep it current and less predictable. There were enough channels out there focused on nostalgia.

 

-Do you have a favorite game that you’ve covered so far on your YouTube channel?

Oh, that’s a tough one. I don’t know if I could ever pick a definitive favorite. I will say that The Incident will always be in my top 5 because it scratches most of my itches. It’s a puzzle based, sci-fi mystery with great music. I can see myself replaying that game for years to come. However, the most fun I had recording an episode would probably be Super Russian Roulette. I could not stop laughing at Bryan switching between voices and accents.

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It truly was a rootin’ tootin’ good time

 

-Who are your influences? And whose work are you watching closely now?

When it comes to homebrews, it’s FrankenGFX. Ellen Larsson makes me want to quit! I mean that in a positive way, obviously. I really enjoy Zachary Curl’s work on all the Retrotainment games as well.

 

-You leapt onto the homebrew scene as a developer with your art in NEScape, do you feel your artwork has a signature aesthetic that is uniquely you?

I don’t know if I could even have a signature aesthetic yet. The few games that I’ve worked on have all been so different from each other which is perfect for me to home in on my own style. That would really be something though if, down the road, someone could actually recognize my work by the art alone.

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Portrait of the artist as a pixelated man

 

-In your opinion, what makes game art stand out?

You really know when someone has a handle on the use of color, especially with the limited amount of colors on the NES. I still have to push myself to experiment and not take the safe route all the time. Another thing that I really appreciate is when someone takes the time to blend things when they could easily chalk it up as it being a tile-based system. A clever use of shading or reserving a palette to house mutual colors is simple enough and goes a long way.

 

-Tell me about your creative process while working on 8-Bit Xmas 2020?

Playing a bunch of Dr. Mario of course! In all seriousness, I went straight to analyzing Dr. Mario’s viruses, the bigger versions on the side of the playing field to be specific. I was excited about creating my own cartoony viruses without totally ripping off the originals. The next step was thinking of a clever way to use them in the title screen while relating it to Christmas somehow. I’m really happy with the way all that turned out. When it came time for the actual gameplay, Brian already suggested the greyscale lab for a background so I didn’t need to waste time brainstorming what I would do. I just did a quick image search online for things like “science lab” or “chemistry set” to get me started. Everything just sort of fell into place from there.

 

-What was the working dynamic like in your collaboration with Brian? How did you two connect for this game?

Well, we did work together before on 8-Bit Xmas 2019. I made the title screen and updated a few sprites from the first Study Hall. For this one, I received an email from Brian deeming me his new artist and that he needed the graphics “yesterday.” I got a kick out of that. Brian is easy to work with in a way that he sends me a demo and some ideas, and then he just lets me do my thing. There’s a nice freedom to it.

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How long until we get 8-Bit Xmas cookies with our cart?

 

-What tools do you use to create?

I use Shiru’s NES Screen Tool. I tried a couple different programs when I first started but I felt most at home with that one. It’s been brought up a few times as a joke that I use MS Paint but I have never used it for a job. However, I may have used it to throw my hat in the ring for NEScape!

 

-Do you collect the 8-Bit Xmas series? If so, which years do you have, and do you have a favorite?

I have not gone back to hunt down the originals but I do have 8-Bit Xmas 2017 with the LCD screen. That thing is cool. I also have a copy of 2019 from working on it. Oh, and I left 2018 at an ex’s so I’ll probably never see that again.

If I were to choose a favorite right now, it would be 2011’s Fireplace Bash. I grew up with Warlords on the 2600 so it holds a special place in my heart. I also think it’s a clever adaptation into a Christmas theme.

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Screenshot from 8-Bit Xmas 2011 aka Quadralords

 

-Do you have any reflections on being part of a series that essentially kicks off the holidays for homebrew fans and is eagerly awaited each year?

Well don’t go making me nervous by putting it that way! It’s a series that started a decade before I even knew about NES homebrews so it’s an honor really.

 

-What new challenges or surprises surfaced in developing 8-Bit Xmas 2020? What lessons did you learn that you would like to share with the people who aspire to follow in your footsteps?

I’d say the biggest challenge I had with this game was the deadline. Other projects usually have wiggle room in the event that you want to improve something or try an interesting idea you had late in development. You can’t move a holiday so when it needs to be done, it’s done. Which sort of ties in with the next question.  Sometimes you just have to know when to call it. You can “improve” something forever but then it will never get out there into anyone’s hands. That’s a lesson I learn over and over again with every project.

 

-Are there any other projects you have lined up on the horizon, NES or otherwise? Any dream projects?

There is one project that Kevin and I are really excited for that we are not able to talk about just yet. It may, or may not, involve a TV show. Who knows, maybe it will have already been announced by the time this comes out so stay tuned! Other than that, I did start working on my own NES game that is a dream project of mine. It’s called Courier and it’s an homage to the SNES version of Shadowrun. Kevin Hanley will be programming it and Sergio Elisondo is composing the music and sound effects. I’m a little nervous because this one is my brainchild and the last thing I want to do is let those two down. Either way, I’m excited for everyone to see more of it.

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A homebrew draws near!

 

-Are there any homebrew games in development that you are excited to play?

Full Quiet. That Kickstarter campaign dropped right when I was falling down the homebrew rabbit hole so I have this sort of nostalgic memory attached to it already. I also played a bit of it one year at MAGFest. I can’t wait to get my hands on that one. Orange Island is another one that I’m looking forward to playing.

 

-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 that it’s been a blast so far and I’m excited to see where the community goes from here.

 

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zi

@BleepBopRecords

-Before we talk about 8-Bit Xmas, I want to talk about you and your background. What first inspired you to be a musician? What led you to compose music for games? What is your origin story?

I first played on my great-grandfather's piano which sat in the enclosed patio in Queens at the age of 3, whilst the family chain smoked in the living room in the early 80s. They were very supportive or just wanted to stop the constant bitching about Koch, but at the end of every piece I played they said “very good.” So, I kept making up songs as I began lessons in first grade - stopping formal instruction only a few years ago after a stint on a cruise ship and quickly realizing I needed to get a real job. As a kid I LOVED the vast NES library and the soundtracks (taped - yep, cassette tapes- whatever I could from any games I could get my hands on) and have always wanted to create for the system. It wasn't until 2008 when I realized people are using programs to create music on NES ROMs did I fully realize my dream.

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Zi’s family, like many New Yorkers, simply would not bear with Ed Koch despite his entreaties

 

-What is the significance of your Zi username as well as the Bleep Bop Records label?

It's pronounced z-aye. The last piece of being a game composer is being computer obsessed: you can check that box. I was deep into the text-based world of MUDs in college where, looking for a short name (they wouldn't let me enter Z) I took Zi. Bleep Bop Records came from the sounds a human makes when making fun of a computer, which isn't cool. They have feelings too. Also, it's kinda jazzy and I like the jazz music.

 

-Who are your influences? And whose work are you watching closely now?

This isn't a joke: Bad Religion, Yanni, Dvorak. Blend em up and you have short, in-your face, classical/modern sensibility, but then bit shift it down to some recognizable waves. I'm all over the map now as far as artists- I just spent a month to figure out what Rush was all about. Most of the time it's other chiptune artists where I'm either listening to the songs or taking a scalpel to them and trying to understand the progression, the movement, the effects, the tone, etc. I was just on a chiptune compilation album (Chip for Change 2020) and now have 24 new artists to enjoy!

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A whole month? No rush

 

-Do you feel that your music has any qualities that are quintessentially you? How would you describe your aesthetic?

In the early days, yep, I just qualified 2010 as early, I found chiptune to be sorta disjointed… technically impressive but not catchy, not a song. I try to get my music to be approachable (hopefully memorable) with a distinct feel- like if MegaMan had intro, verse, pre-chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro. With the progressing chiptune scene these days everyone's got that feel, but it wasn't always like that, and I want/hope my music has a smart yet poppy sensibility. Deep yet digestible? Open, yet conquerable. Removed, yet connected? Nope, spiraling and moving on.

 

-What tools do you use to compose, generally as well as for games?

For games, Famitracker is my workhorse. Not that fancy modded ODD one, but the OG FT. With the progression of Famitone and it's (sorta) easy integration into game engines, the workflow is much easier. For my regular stuff I love LogicPro. I'm currently going through a horn thing where everything has horns, so thank you everyone for dealing with this (started 2018-2022?).

 

-Tell me about the development of 8-Bit Xmas’ music, what is your composition process? Is the creative process different compared to when you compose more traditional music?

So. Damn. Hard. At least with game composition you can play the game, look at the stills/gifs, talk to the programmer, get a vibe, work on some stuff, figure out the number of levels, intro, credits, etc. That to me is easy. It's tough to do covers because, well, everyone knows the song. So do the song, but do it in your own way, but don't stray too far from the original, yet make it recognizable. BTW, it's July 4th and this is due Aug 1. The creative process is far more focused on style than creating a new and catchy song, because we’ve all been listening to that holiday song for 60 years now.

 

I have a list: song's I've done and want to do. I've settled into a sorta pattern of an upbeat Xmas song from the 60s, a traditional song, a quirky song, and a kid friendly/everyone knows song. I think I get weird with the traditional because we all know em- check out this year’s fun/mind-numbing rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas”!

 

-Which are your favorite holidays songs?

That’s a null set for me. Everyone holiday song has the high probability of getting stuck in your head because the catalogue is so limited, which leads to a very high rate of ear-worm recidivism. I'll wake up in the middle of the night and be humming “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”, and it's July 21st. Not cool, festive music world, not cool at all.

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Adapted into a WB animated film in 2000

 

I’ll tell you my least favorite songs: 1. “Wonderful Christmastime” [by Paul McCartney]- you can’t just throw sleigh bells into a song and repeat a noncommittal statement about a holiday moment. Well, you can, but there should be more blowback, even if you were in the world’s most popular band over a half century ago. 2. “Little Drummer Boy” - there’s a few horrific versions, one where the electric/synth bass moves either too early or way to late and the Bieber one. No, don’t look it up. 3. I’m stopping here- this is why people get depressed during the holidays.

 

-Are there unique challenges to adapting a recognizable song to chiptune?

The real challenge, for holiday tunes as well as pretty much any NES chipset chiptune, is finding space to build the sound you want. You're only given 3 channels that produce melodic tones, and that could come off sounding stark or empty. It's not all about building that wall of sound, but I believe there's an expectation of sophistication when it comes to music and throwing up a baroque-esque tune isn't going to cut it.

 

-Your work on homebrew games spans the 8-Bit Xmas series as well as a wide assortment of gems, including UXO, which Chris aka Deadeye interviewed you for. How has your approach to composition evolved over the years?

I used to wait for some specifics from the programmer(s) or producers, but now I’m not afraid to get elbow-deep in the project as it progresses. Musically, I try to envision what that music would complement the overall game and the immediate space (level/menu).

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An essential read for homebrew lovers, and other people sick of me

 

-What new challenges or surprises surfaced in your work on 8-Bit Xmas 2020? What lessons did you learn that you would like to share with the people who aspire to follow in your footsteps?

If you want a music job, especially in the game work, definitely have that portfolio ready to go (Soundcloud at the very least). Know a few different DAWs, and be fluent in the genre you’re targeting. Be organized, hit your deadlines, take notes/criticisms but not personally, and know all of your music nerd stuff (it’ll get you out of a jam about a billion times).

 

-How did you connect with Brian for the first 8-Bit Xmas game you collaborated on, and what is the working dynamic like as you work on your respective aspects of the game?

Kevin Hanley was stepping back from the Xmas series to focus on his programming and I must have been bugging Brian for years before he wrote back and said, sure, you can do this year's music. That was 2013, making this year the 7th year of the music tradition.

 

-Do you collect the 8-Bit Xmas series? If so, which years do you have, and do you have a favorite?

I do have a full set, purchased all at time of sale or given to me for my musical efforts! I think my favorite is 2017 (the multi-cart) even though I was sad I didn't have a chance to compose that year.

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Menu screen for 8-Bit Xmas 2017 multicart

 

-Do you have any reflections on being a consistent part of a series that essentially kicks off the holidays for homebrew fans and is eagerly awaited each year?

A few thoughts: 1. you won’t make money reselling these so buy em because they’re cool (that goes for all vidya games). 2. make sure you play em with your family, especially if you have kids or nieces/nephews during Christmas or whatever holiday get-together you might hold. They might be simple games, but playing them together really makes them more enjoyable and secretly unites families during the holidays, thus fulfilling your need for non-stop consumerism as well as memorable family time.

 

-You are also working on transferring Fie to FamiTracker for its cart release in addition to your work on the Quiet album and Retro Artists of the Future, Vol 1. Do you have any updates that you would like to share on these or any others on the horizon? Another dream project that you hope to bring into existence, video game or otherwise?

The Quiet Album (due out October - check twitter @bleepboprecords for updates or the site: bleepbop.com) is my main focus right now. It’s a whole thing to make a cart release, but it’s almost done! No dream projects yet, but I’m talking with a few (more than one, less than four) producers/programmers on their 2021 slate!

 

-Are there any homebrew games in development that you are excited to play?

There’s a wave of NESMaker games I’d like to try. It feels like the earlier days of NES homebrew, where there’s a lot of ideas out there at varying skill levels. I’m mapper 30 compliant and ready to dive into some wonderfully new and inventive worlds!

 

-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?

Thank you for the opportunity and PLEASE follow @bleepboprecords on Twitter, find BleepBopRecords on Facebook/Insta/SoundCloud, and always check the main site for posts, bonus content, and general musings: http://bleepbop.com

 

Conclusion:

Thanks for tuning in to another installment of the series that goes beyond the board to learn the about the latest and greatest in homebrew. What are your thoughts on 8-Bit Xmas 2020 and the elves who development this holiday treat? Which game in the series is your favorite? What homebrews are you eagerly looking forward to? Perhaps you’ll see it under your tree on Christmas Day when…A Homebrew Draws Near! Command?

 

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Merry Holidays everyone!

 

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