A Homebrew Draws Near!
A blog series by @Scrobins
Episode 10: Space Raft
Followers of this series have frequently read about brewers developing games inspired by the classics of their youth, such as Mega Man, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda. But we have yet to dip into our guiltier pleasures: the games lovingly inspired by the likes of LJN, with just as much heart poured in as any other homebrew I’ve covered. What if a homebrew emulated licensed game adaptations to deliver its own merchandise, a game that revels in creative silliness and a special layer of inside jokes for the fans best situated to appreciate them? If you didn’t know a thing about Milwaukee or the music of one of its most devoted sons before playing this game, you might find this to be a good first taste of both, and it tastes a lot like chicken sandwiches. It’s deliciously camp!
For this entry, I’m covering Space Raft: a hybrid top-down action/arcade and scrolling obstacle-avoiding driving game developed by Jordan Davis of the Milwaukee-based indie rock band Space Raft in loving homage to the blatant cash grabs of licensed properties of old. As of the time of this writing, initial Kickstarter backers have received copies of the game, and the rom and physical cartridge is available from Dusty Medical Records here.
@Raftronaut (Jordan Davis): programming & music
Space Raft: The CIB
Space Raft has its origin in its namesake band, and the accompanying music expressing the soul of a Wisconsin city that spans years. However Space Raft: The Game can trace its history to March 9, 2019, when Jordan shared an early demo of Space Raft to the NESmaker forum. Early encouragement and feedback helped Jordan get his demo across the finish line for the 2019 NESmaker Byte-Off Competition.
Screenshot from the Space Raft demo as submitted to the 2019 NESmaker Byte-Off Competition
In the following months, Jordan continued to polish his game, preparing it for its eventual release. On July 22, 2020, Jordan launched a crowdfunding campaign for Space Raft on Kickstarter, showing off the finished game and the additional goodies also available for backers. In addition to the rom-only, cart-only, and CIB options, backer tiers included a green/gold special edition CIB, a commemorative t-shirt designed by Ella Warren, a special edition cassette of the band’s latest album Positively Space Raft (featuring a chiptune version of the album on the B-side), a vinyl LP of Positively Space Raft, and plenty of other tiers mixing and matching all that swag. Within 15 hours, Space Raft had met its initial funding goal of $4,800, but by the end of its campaign a total of 235 backers ultimately pledged more than $14,000, breaking through some of the campaign’s stretch goals including a full color foldout poster for all CIB and special edition backers.
The alt text generated for this image (with medium confidence apparently) was "a group of men posing for a photo"
Space Raft describes itself as a hybrid side-scrolling driving/actiony arcade game, or as Jordan describes it: a hybrid driving/space rafting game. You play as Space Raft, rockin’ and rollin’ through the streets of Milwaukee on your way to the Cactus Club for your next show. Unfortunately things aren’t all rock music and chicken sandwiches. Word on the street is former bandmate Srini is back in town and he’s looking to steal the master tapes of Space Raft’s latest record. Taking advantage of each band member’s unique talents, you must navigate the city, eat all the sandwiches, stop Srini, and release Positively Space Raft to your adoring public.
As previously mentioned, the game can be neatly divided into two types of levels: side-scrolling driving and top-down arcade action. During the driving stages, you drive the van around the city, collecting sandwiches and avoiding obstacles, using the B button to blast music notes that clear a path forward. For the arcade stages, you help friends whose establishments have been overrun by Srini.
Srini is the villain. So?
You must collect all the sandwiches/hot dogs inside before Srini or any minions can hurt you. Don’t worry, you can defeat lesser enemies and temporarily stun Srini while you collect food, or even grab a cup of coffee for a brief berserker mode. During the arcade levels you can alternate between the members of Space Raft by hitting A, taking advantage of their varied attacks (with the B button, duh) and life meters.
Ready to join the band? Jon (blue) is the bassist, and while he has 3 hit points, his punch attack has the shortest range. Tyler (green) is the drummer, so it makes sense he has the booming bomb attack with his 2 hit point life meter. Jordan (yellow) is the singer and guitarist who clearly burns the most energy across his multiple roles, more so now that he has a flame thrower attack and also has a 2 hit point life meter. Tjay (red) plays the keyboard, and though he has the strong and far-reaching bowling ball attack, you’ll want to be mindful of his 1 hit point.
Portrait of the artists as 8-bit men
Space Raft is a fun rock ‘n roll adventure that channels the nostalgia of the simpler games from the NES’ earlier years. And that is by no means a mark against it; Jordan set out to make a game reminiscent of blatant cash grabs, so the key to appreciating Space Raft is within that context. Gameplay is straightforward and easy to learn, allowing players to enjoy the stages’ cartoony ambiance, from a van shooting music notes at seagulls to running around and picking up food while a knocked-over Srini helplessly kicks his legs in the air. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear there was a Space Raft TV show circa 1986 that featured episode after episode of this zany rock goodness. Don’t get complacent though, because while the controls are easy to learn, the difficulty notches up considerably. In-between stages are cutscene conversations between Space Raft’s current and former members, partly to advance the story, but mostly to add another layer of Jordan’s brand of humor while showing off his 8-bit portraiture talents. And if it allows me to draw parallels between yet another homebrew and Dick Tracy, I’m all for it.
In the original version of the game, Breathless Mahoney just yells “Weeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”
The game’s simple gameplay allows other facets of Space Raft to shine through, particularly its soundtrack and immense 8-bit take on Milwaukee. One of my favorite experiences about homebrew has been learning about chiptune and the massive following its has developed, even beyond gaming. Chiptune composers are talented musicians on par with anything you might hear over the radio, squeezing more pathos out of the square channel than some musicians can with a full orchestra. Space Raft demonstrates how Jordan is talented in both traditional music and chiptune. The game’s soundtrack is not just a handful of chiptune tracks layered on top of a game; Jordan took the music of Space Raft, brimming with its own history and personality, and layered a game on top of that sound, which happens to be an adaptation of their latest album. As an album, Space Raft carries a momentum to its story that makes me want to continue playing so I can reach the next track at the next stage. And because I knew the soundtrack was adapted from Positively Space Raft, I couldn’t resist listening to the original album after playing (which is what I’m jamming out to as I write this post).
The Cactus Club as depicted in Space Raft
And with each new arcade level, it is fun to explore Milwaukee and learn about its musical landmarks. As someone who has not yet visited Milwaukee, the people and venues with cameos in Space Raft go over my head, but that feature of the game isn’t intended for me. That is a love letter to the Milwaukee music scene meant for the die-hard locals who were instrumental to Space Raft’s formation and rise, and it’s touching to see that kind of devotion that thanks and celebrates the people behind the band. Even if you’ve never visited the Cactus Club or Humboldt Park, it is apparent what a labor of love this game is that Jordan would feature so much of Space Raft’s soul. I might have to plan a trip to Milwaukee just to see some of these places in-person, and maybe catch a Space Raft concert (and get the band to sign my chest…er, I mean my CIB).
Who else is ready for the return of concerts?
To learn more about Space Raft: The Game and Space Raft: The Band, I spoke with the Raftronaut himself, Jordan Davis. In retrospect I wished I had asked why Space Raft was a van and not an actual raft as might be defined by a nautical dictionary. Oh well, spilled milk.
-Before we dive into Space Raft: The Game, I would love to talk about you and your background. What first inspired you to become a musician? What is the origin story of the band Space Raft, and how did you become the Raftronaut?
I was raised in Wisconsin, mostly in Green Bay, lived in Milwaukee as a child. I started my first punk bands when I was very young, about age 14 or 15. Green Bay is a really small town, but we had an excellent all-ages punk rock club throughout the 90’s called the Concert Café which was hugely influential as far as giving me a glimpse of life outside my small world at the time. I remember always wanting to play music but trying to convince my parents I was serious was another issue. I was really influenced early on by my dad’s Beach Boys cassettes and other surf guitar comps I had access to. My first memory of the guitar is likely hearing Wipe Out or Walk Don’t Run, but it may have also been Chuck Berry.
Hey Space, Space! It’s your cousin Marvin…Marvin Raft?!
Anyway, I always wanted to play guitar as far back as my memory goes, but it wasn’t until years later upon hearing Nirvana that I really wanted to write a song. I had gotten my first guitar right around that time. Catching the video to Come as You Are at a friend’s house on MTV instantly changed my life forever. It was my seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment. That experience sent me scurrying to the record stores to ask questions about records and pour through punk zines looking for punk answers to my punk questions. Shortly after I was working to put my own band together, by about 16 I had a garage punk band called Mystery Girls that stayed together around 8-9 years, released 3 LPs, a handful of 45 singles, spent a lot of my early young-adulthood on tour in the US and Canada. I learned a lot about who I was during that time.
Album art from Mystery Girls’ Something in the Water
Fast forward to 2013, I had been writing soundtrack music for my friend Brian’s Monster film based in Milwaukee which eventually got canceled. The music got scrapped and used for other things Brian was working on, but I was sitting on a bunch of songs meant for interior music played inside Milwaukee rock clubs. Figuring I could use this loosely associated material to form a rock band seemed feasible. I knew I needed a keyboardist as I had been writing exclusively at the piano. Someone that could handle a wide range of styles but also somebody who I could spend a lot of time with. Enter Tjay who I had been recently introduced to when asking around for musicians. Tjay suggested his friend Tyler on drums, I brought my friend Colin (and shortly after Srini) for bass and we had a rehearsal/introduction in my basement. It was immediately apparent that the band had chemistry. That pretty much became my life for the next 6 years. The band is pretty damn goofy when the mics are off, making wise cracks, playing practical jokes, and tossing around awful puns hence the name Space Raft.
So Raftronaut was just something Srini said referring to our fan base while rhyming with Astronaut. Years later when trying to decide on my username for the NESdev forum I just went with that as it made sense for my project… bad puns…
-You’ve told an interesting story about how you were inspired by a chiptune rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough” that was included on the Goonies II NES game. Tell us more about what first inspired you to become a homebrewer and chiptune composer.
Yeah, so I love movies, I soak them up like a sponge, movies that I love I will watch on repeat while doing chores or menial tasks. I’ve done that for years, so I probably had watched the Goonies on VHS 100 times before I got the NES game for Xmas in 88’. I had memorized that Cyndi Lauper song from the credits sequence. VHS credits sequences offered my other access to music besides my Walkman, If I liked a song or theme in a film I would listen to it over and over to try and absorb it. Hearing the reductionist chiptune version of the Goonies theme was a revelatory experience for me, picking apart the differences happening between the three pitched channels of audio helped me understand the fundamental differences between melody, harmony, and bass. Once we had an NES that became just another vehicle for me to absorb music, and since I was too young to be buying my own records, listening to the music on carts became an early obsession. Goonies II, Simons Quest, and Mega Man 2 were big influences, but a few years later Silver Surfer along with Skate or Die II made a huge impact on me. Around that time my mom found a working Gameboy in the lost and found at work and gave it to me. It came with a Navy Seals cartridge, a horrible film game with incredible music by Mathew Cannon. I would literally listen to that on my headphones while I mowed the lawn. I guess that is where I became aware of the C64 Euro school of composers that included Tim Follin, Jeroen Tel, and Alberto Gonzalez. That sort of deep and throaty chiptune sound always impressed me. Hearing quality music like that struck a curious note in me along with all the great melodic writing coming from Japan, you could have this really thick sound design behind it as well. Since starting my project, some of my favorites have included Jeroen Tel’s Alien 3 and highlights from Gonzalez’ Smurfs soundtrack. That stuff holds up incredibly well today. Shatterhand, Gradius 2 Gofer no yabou, and Mother have been a few from Japan that I’ve been really into lately. I really appreciate both styles.
-In terms of both music and gaming, who are your influences? And whose work are you watching closely now?
I’m weird, my tastes jump all over the place. Most of my formative punk rock influences came from the Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop’s band the Stooges. I really love British Invasion bands like the Kinks, The Zombies, and the Pretty Things, but also have a deep appreciation for the early Heavy Metal pioneers like Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, and Funkadelic. Due to the early Beach Boys influence I have a soft spot for chamber pop like Harry Nilsson and Phil Spector, but then am pretty knowledgeable about folk music as well. From the Carter Family and Earnest Tubb to Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters. Beyond that I tend to listen to stuff off the beaten path. Lately I’ve been transfixed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Kate Bush, Blondie, and Philip Glass.
My interest in gaming is pretty specific to the NES, but also includes some interest in old arcade games and indie arcade platforms. I tend to really enjoy arcade shmups overall, I like Xevious, Asteroids and Centipede. My favorite NES games are Gradius and Mega Man 2, though as an adult I tend to like stuff like Gun Nac, Gyruss, and Solar Jetman. I really like the Famicom stuff I’ve discovered in my research like Mother (Earthbound Zero), Twin Bee 3, and Crisis Force. MOSTLY, I would consider my biggest influences to be homebrew. The idea of DIY game creation extending the lifespan of my favorite console provides a refreshing place for self-expression and creativity. Plus, the idea of DIY releases is so punk rock to me. My personal favorite NES homebrews include Brad Smith’s phenomenally bizarre Lizard. Project Blue by Toggleswitch, Frankengraphics and M-Tee, Twin Dragons by Broke Studios, and Haradius Zero by Impact Soft. As far as indie arcade I just love Killer Queen, as well as Cosmotron.
As of the time of this writing, Jordan holds the #2 spot on the VGS Homebrew Leaderboard for Haradius Zero
-What tools do you use to code and compose for games as well as conventional music?
For NES music I do everything in Famitracker, I hear good things about Famistudio, but after a couple years of using Famitracker I am pretty much set in my ways. I just use my typing keyboard and map out the harmonies in my head and type them into the tracker roll. It’s a fairly non intuitive method to compose music, but I actually find that separating myself from a musical keyboard helps me think outside the box. I like the distraction of having my hands tied away from my standard scales and chord voicings. Sometimes I will cheat and look at a picture of a piano.
For Conventional music, I generally only need to record myself in order to demo my songs for the band, which means recording a bare bones version to illustrate the general arrangement. For that, I tend to use my trusty old Tascam portastudio cassette 4-track. I am good at using it, I can set it up quickly when an idea comes to me which is valuable when trying to capture my often erratic creativity. I tend to write music at my piano, so I can plan out bass and melody at the same time. I have several battered vintage keyboards like Rhodes Electric piano and a Farfisa organ that I have taught myself how to play over the years. Then I will usually add a vocal and maybe a harmony. Lastly, I’ll add a guitar, the instrument I am most familiar with so it feels like an afterthought in my arrangement, preferring always to be just slightly outside of my comfort zone when doing anything creative. That is where the adventure is.
-The music from the game’s soundtrack comes from the band’s latest album that you converted to chiptune. Tell me about the development of Space Raft’s game music, what is your composition process? Is the creative process different compared to when you compose more traditional music?
The album in question “Positively Space Raft” was an attempt on my part to write a more concise “pop” album using the band’s existing heavy rock template. Something that would be more in the spirit of some of my favorite heavy guitar pop bands like Badfinger, BigStar, Nazz, and the Raspberries. Somehow in my mind when dreaming up my crystalized pop influences, Cyndi Lauper’s “Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough” got lumped in there. As the chiptune version of it represented in my mind the bubblegum of my youth. I spent a good two years writing and rehearsing that LP with the band, every week refining material and rearranging with the band, by the time we finished recording it I was half crazy. Tjay had recently sold me his secondhand computer (my first in nearly a decade) so that I could use it to continue writing more demos. However, in my sort of creative delirium decided to search chiptune keyboard sounds so I could make a faux chiptune version of one of our songs for a laugh. The band all thought it was hilarious and encouraged me to make more, so I found a simple website program called beepbox which offers a simple interface for creating generic 4 channel chiptune. After 2 weeks I had finished what I called “Approximately Space Raft”. An entire recreation of the album in chiptune. At that point, I really had no idea how to present it to people. I thought it would be funny to release a cassette tape and replace the B side with chiptunes of the same album (which I eventually did with my Kickstarter). Deep down, I recognized that the reason I was having so much fun discovering chiptune is that I legitimately wanted to make a game, and I knew that we would soon be in need of merch, so the two interests quickly merged together.
Album art for Space Raft’s Positively Space Raft
-Is your creative process for writing the game’s code similar to your approach to the soundtrack?
I had never made a game before, I’ve never really owned a computer for any length of time that would have allowed me to learn how. The game came out of an amorphous blob in my imagination that I was able to whittle down over time. I knew I wanted a game that featured the band’s music, but I had no idea what I wanted other than that. I threw myself back into the NES library with a passion trying to remember what I liked vs. what I did not. I downloaded emulators, ordered USB controllers, took endless notes, and really tried to imagine what my perfect game would be. Of course, I didn’t have any skills, so I thought it best to dial it back and focus on what I was CAPABLE of versus my perfect idea. Even starting the artwork took months and months of trial and error. I had discovered Shiru’s NES Screen Tool after hearing it mentioned on an episode of the Assembly Line Podcast.
I’ve heard of them.
I learned how to make basic pixel shapes and learned what I could/couldn’t do with my current skill set. I tried desperately to muddle through the Nerdy Nights tutorials, but found that assets came more naturally to me than programming. Right around that time is when I found NESmaker which provided me with a valuable jump between having ideas and struggling to make anything happen and having ideas and actually seeing something on screen. I had gone through the Nerdy Nights tutorials but admittedly did not retain much of it. NESmaker gave me an alternate way to poke at the assembly language code that was easier for me to understand.
-You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you taught yourself to code with the help of the NESmaker community. What lessons can you share to others who want to learn to make their own games?
Get in and get dirty. If you have an idea then take it to the trenches. Ask the people that know and don’t let up until you understand their answers. I’ve mentioned the NESmaker community proudly because people like Dale Coop, Mugi, Drexegar, and Jorodroid have all taken time out to help coach me on a number of issues. Specifically, Dale Coop has been so incredibly important to this project, I’ve credited him as lead programmer on the game. Without his involvement, I would not have been able to pull off even half the amount of content I was able to include. More importantly, we became good friends in the process. His friendship and wisdom have become invaluable to me, which serves to show the hidden benefits of following your passion.
-Speaking of the NESmaker community, you are a prominent member who has helped other developers with their games, such as Dale and Seiji’s KUBO 3. Tell us more about your work on that game as well as your role in the wider community.
Yeah, so realizing the bridge it served for myself to get involved in the greater homebrew community I try to cheerlead where I can and add to the cycle of positive influence. Dale had reluctantly asked me if I would be interested in doing music on KUBO3, but I jumped at the chance to contribute to their family project. Dale had already been so incredibly patient and helpful with me learning my way around, inspiring me to have more patience elsewhere in my life. So yeah, I was honored to be asked to participate. He recorded and sent me a phone message of Seiji humming a melody he wrote to serve as the title music, so I arranged it with bass and drums harmony, then filled the remainder of the soundtrack with more tunes. It was actually quite fun to put together and am really very proud of the both of them for how far they’ve pushed the game out into the world. It’s hard enough to actually make something, but harder yet to get people to pay attention to it. So bravo SJ games!
This one sounds familiar too…
Other than that, there are a lot of talented people coming into homebrew from that scene. I did music for a short game called Ramen Adventure about a noodle eating cat by a wonderful illustrator named Pit that I am really excited to share with people. (Rom should be out soon, maybe now?) I’ve also done about five or six soundtracks for other NESmaker projects or demos this year. I definitely specialize in sound for that community.
-In addition to your musical work on video games, you perform live (before the pandemic). Does your experience performing provide inspiration for future music?
Yes. I personally feel like experience affects all things creative, your voice is essentially your cumulative lived experience. I’ve spent a lot of time on stages playing music around the world. Meeting people that have shaped my creative ambitions but also fuel my outlook on life. I tend to bring the whole package to the table when I approach any new project.
-Do you feel that Space Raft: The Band as well as Space Raft: The Game have any qualities that are quintessentially you? How would you describe your aesthetic?
Yes, absolutely. I am deadly serious about every decision I make in any creative endeavor, however I prefer to do so with a playful improvisational touch. I love toying with a state of confusion in any of my work, probably because it is a state I enjoy being in myself. Sometimes I feel like I engage with nonsense simply so I can have more nonsense around. Life can be pretty stuffy and disappointing sometimes, so I prefer to mix it up with a little friendly chaos. I’m sure it is related to just how much Monty Python and Andy Kaufmann I absorbed when I was a kid.
My aesthetic? Well…… I certainly have a fascination with the 1970’s. Record covers make up a big part of my overall idea of what amazing artwork looks like, but that can run the gamut from Blue Note jazz photography to Hipgnnosis surrealism. The lasting cultural impact of the early Atari years has had a big effect on me. I never had a 2600, but finding a friend’s parent’s gigantic Atari collection buried in a closet resulted in an epic weekend of digging through carts 25 years ago that has never left me. Likely Atari made some of the first arcade cabinets I was exposed to and has always been at the center of what I’d consider retro cool. Hawkwind is really a big piece of the puzzle as well …I’m Just a Huuuuuge Hawkwind fan and somehow my love of that band is all tangled up with the NES, I try to add a touch of Hawkwind to anything I do on it. It’s an indescribable creative correlation I’ve made in my weird imagination. It probably has to do with the repetition of Motorik music and the relationship to machine music.
I’m also big fan of European comics like those found in England and France in the 70’s and 80’s in magazines like Metal Hurlant, 2000 AD and Warrior. That stuff features some of my favorite science fiction and a lot of prominent work by my favorite Illustrator Jean Giraud (moebius) from France. As an American those comics were always really hard to find, so they sort of defined my intertest in obscure futuristic visual art.
Illustration by Jean Giraud
-At the heart of Space Raft’s gameplay are the various landmarks and icons of Milwaukee. What inspired you to devote such detail to your hometown?
There are a few reasons for that which all fed into my design goals for the project. First, my original vision was to create a piece of unique merch that the band could sell at shows. That naturally led to including a lot of our friends that are important to the band, like our former bassist Srini and the head of our label Kevin. Second, I really hadn’t done any sort of visual art in roughly 20 years, at first I found approaching pixel art to be really daunting, so I decided to start by attempting to draw the Cactus Club here in Milwaukee. A venue that often served as home base for the band. At one point all 4 current members of the band worked there.
The famed Cactus Club, presumably before Srini ransacks it in the game
It’s an institution in Milwaukee for the independent music scene. For many years it felt like our living room as we all lived within maybe 6-10 blocks from there. Anyway, drawing out features of the Club really gave me some confidence to draw other locations known to be important to the band. That just became the central theme. Including our friends felt natural as well. Milwaukee has always been a city loaded with talent but continually stuck between the larger markets of Minneapolis and Chicago. Spreading the word about the merits of the community here became a secondary design goal of the game. Essentially becoming an 8-bit love letter to Milwaukee’s music scene, and Wisconsin at large.
-You wrote something on your Kickstarter page that really conjured an image for me: that the game “attempts to recapture the idea of art as marketing and turn it back into art once again.” This makes me think of music clubs from the 70s, 80s, and 90s with walls covered in band’s stickers and posters layered on top of each other over the years. Do you feel like this game is Space Raft’s expansion of that vibe into a new medium? Do you think more bands should consider following suit?
I had a lofty goal early on with the project to try and articulate the communication prism that occurred in early film to game tie-ins. Something about the construction of those mostly bad games is endlessly fascinating to me. Films being produced in America were somehow broken down and pitched to Japanese developers who grabbed at film ideas and exaggerated them to turn them into game ideas, then sent it back through the pipeline to be localized back into English for North American and European audiences. Like an insane game of telephone but with Nintendo games. To me this resulted in some fairly ludicrous content, some of which is objectively bad, but others could be considered inspired. For example, in Namco’s Star Wars for the Famicom, Darth Vader turns into a scorpion in level one. It’s baffling, but also amazing and sort of illustrates the obvious plot errors given the communication pipeline of that time. Another example is the weird creatures you find in Goonies II. A polar bear? A mermaid? Is that a bobcat/scorpion? WTF? It’s pure fever dream and I love it. Recognizing that all those film tie-ins were purely created for marketing reasons, it struck me that if someone had made those game design choices based purely on creative reasons I would be immeasurably impressed. I decided to use the cultural landscape of Milwaukee and inside jokes from the band to create a mise en scene that would have no direct correlation for players outside of the area. I did this intentionally, hoping that some players will not understand every detail and instead the setting would simply serve as a similar cultural prism to that which we as North Americans viewed games coming from Japan in the 1980’s.
But to answer your question more specifically, yeah, I created this game to serve as merch for the band, to be laid out on tables along with LP records in dark clubs with dark walls covered in concert posters and band stickers. It’s an environment that I live and breathe in, so I would consider it an inherent aspect of my project.
As far as other bands following suit, yeah, I’d always encourage people to think outside of the box. If that includes making an NES game then I would give you my full support. Bands have a much harder task in today’s music industry. Record labels have been all but crippled since the era of streaming, so literally the only thing making most bands solvent are live shows and merch. Bands need to function as mini independent businesses in order to survive which requires a lot more than simply turning up the volume and making some noise. 95% of independent bands need to handle their own booking, promotion, marketing, video editing, sound production, creative writing, layouts and visual design, t-shirt textile screen printing, rehearsal schedules, social media, PR interviews, (lol) van maintenance etc… Years ago even modest independent labels would have some resources to help handle all those aspects of running a band. These days you’ve got to be able to wear a lot of hats to pull it off.
On a final note about bands and multimedia, my idea is certainly not new. The band Journey had that Atari 2600 cart, Aerosmith had the Revolution X arcade game, the Japanese heavy metal band Seikema II released a Famicom cartridge in 1986 called “Seikima II Akuma no Gyakushū!” The idea of turning your band into IP isn’t new, but my project may be the first time something like this has occurred on what would otherwise be considered retro hardware.
One of my personal favorite arcade games
-What new challenges or surprises surfaced in developing Space Raft?
Nothing about making this game came easily to me. I struggled day and night on defining what exactly I would want people to get out of it. How I would develop the skills necessary to accomplish it, and how I could balance all my design goals while working within the limitations of the NES console. I have absolutely no background in any sort of game creation or graphics creation so I had to bite off little chunks to focus on before I could start fitting the pieces of the puzzle back together.
One of the more daunting challenges for me was writing the script for the game. I’ve never done any sort of dramatic writing. I do a lot of creative writing involved in my songwriting process, but that mostly involves poetry or prose. Writing a narrative with dialogue and a beginning, middle, and end was a big hurdle I had to overcome. I had a list of jokes I wanted to include, a list of characters I’d wanted to give lines to, but no real narrative with which to stitch it all together. Around that time in the development I took a road trip with my dear friend (and ex Space Raft bassist) Srini to help his family move a new car cross country. That gave us some valuable time to riff on ideas. He suggested that he be the villain of the game, he has a way of playing up his own hysteria for laughs, he’ll happily play the villain if everyone is in on the joke. Later when I was finalizing my script I did a video conference with him where we read through the script so I could ensure that he felt comfortable with the way he was depicted in the game. He was heavily involved in crafting the basic premise. Keep in mind, the whole thing feels like a total farce and has a very nonsensical plot… but that first step is often the hardest. I would have a much easier time approaching writing a script now after having this experience.
-Ordinarily this is when I would ask whether there are reflections of yourself in the game’s protagonist, but you are literally in the game with your bandmates. So instead I’ll ask: how did you decide on the appearances and abilities of each member of Space Raft in the game?
This is actually an odd territory for me to be in. I really wasn’t interested in making a game about myself per se, but more or less one built on the IP that my friends and I have created. I first settled on having all the gameplay take place in the van, serving as a mascot representation of the band itself rather than the individual members. But that got a little boring once I put it together and struggled to bring any diversity to the gameplay. I dug into the NES library for examples of games featuring a cast of playable characters to study how their ideas played out. TMNT, Friday the 13th, G.I. Joe, Little Samson, T&C Surf Designs all provided valuable insight into how I would implement different characters and make them feel unique. Incidentally, I had been playing a lot of StarTropics while studying graphics and I stumbled upon the idea of replacing different items in an adventure game instead with characters with different abilities. From there, I started fleshing out ideas that would suit the personality of each band member and assigned a color to each member. Tjay’s was easy, he is a very good bowler and competes at the state championship level. The rest of the abilities were chosen based on how much room I had for graphics balanced with band member personality. I went through several ideas, but workshopping it with Dale Coop helped solidify the final results.
-How have your bandmates held up since the band was “called back to their home planet”? Have they had any role or provided any insights into the game over the course of its development?
Everybody is healthy and doing well. The band provided a lot of insight into the game throughout the process, but it was mainly something I worked on solo. I had 4 prototype carts during development that I would use to cycle early builds to them to collect feedback. I made a lot of changes based on their input, but also made a lot of design choices to embrace their sensibilities rather than just trying to satisfy my own. I have to give those guys a lot of credit for inspiring me to take this project on, there was a time a few years back where we were between records, we didn’t have much to rehearse so we wound up sitting in Tjay’s basement playing Nintendo and just hanging out. Before that, video games had not been a big part of my life for 15-20 years outside of Galaga machines I would run into at music venues. It was really Jon’s influence and love of games that reintroduced me to that world. He moved into an apartment down the street from me, soon we were spending hours in the evening playing Tecmo Bowl and trash talking. It was Jon that soon after discovered the existence of hacked cartridges with updated rosters on them. Anybody that grew up in Wisconsin playing Tecmo Super Bowl will describe the pure heartache of attempting to control the awful Green Bay Packers team that was represented there. Hearing the Green Bay team could be redeemed in classic Tecmo Bowl was a revelation. But more so, knowing there were people out there capable of inserting new information into an NES cart blew my mind. Jon would buy those cheap pirate multicarts and bring them to Tjay’s on nights where we’d be hanging out and we’d pour through obscure (to us) Famicom titles like Door Door, Chack N Pop, and Nuts N Milk and laugh, drink and talk. Those simplistic designs gave me a lot of courage that I could create something worthwhile myself. The band provided the context that I could create it with. So I credit those guys for helping me find my calling in that regard, it all just felt natural.
-There has been a lot of support and enthusiasm for Space Raft, having blown through its initial funding goal on Kickstarter. How does it feel to see so many people excited for your game?
To be honest I was a little shell shocked. I had done my research and followed some light guidelines for raising awareness about my project early with social media. I did as much as possible to prepare me for a month of fundraising to hit my goal, but I hit my goal within 15 hours of launch. That honestly left me slightly underprepared for what to do with the rest of my campaign. All the major print news sources in Milwaukee ran pieces about the game during the campaign and helped to spread the word. My target audience for this game were record collectors like me who may have inherent interest in other old things like the NES and would appreciate an oddball cross-platform experiment. What I had failed to understand is that there was a lot more interest in the NES (and Milwaukee) than I had imagined. Just to be able to facilitate someone else’s continued enjoyment of the NES is really a reward in itself. My hope was that my project might inspire people to want to check out more NES homebrew projects, or you know, make their own. Further, I’d like to see a situation where people think of these old consoles not as inferior hardware, but as valid tools for communicating ideas. I think of the state of the analog synthesizer in the 1990’s when it was discarded for newer and shinier (ok fine, more stable) digital keyboards. The sounds became more predictable and people started to lust after the interactive knobs, unwieldy oscillators, and warm musical filters of the old boards. Now people understand the value of the limitations that analog synthesizers provide, they’re considered legitimate platforms once again, right alongside those shiny new digital units. So as a personal goal, I aim to increase the presence of the NES as a valid platform for self-expression.
-Are there any other projects you have lined up on the horizon, NES or otherwise? Any dream projects? Collaborations?
Yes for sure. My first order of business once the Space Raft cartridges ship is redesigning the game for Arcade. We have a local Punk Venue/Arcade called Xray Arcade that procured a battered old Xenophobe cabinet that had been converted into a Golden Tee sometime in the 90’s. They’re going to strip it and change the controls so we can install a working version of Space Raft Arcade to live permanently at the venue. I will need to make several changes in order to make it work in an arcade setting, so I plan on doing a remix and offering it as more of a new chapter based on similar ideas. So the arcade version will be a new experience, which is actually an odd place to be, porting a home game back to the arcade. So currently my plan is to finish the remix and prepare the cabinet and marquee artwork for whenever it is safe to host people in arcades again.
Concept art created by Jordan for Candelabra: The Tenth Knight
I’ve recently reconciled my relationship with Sly Dog Studios after a public disagreement. I’m producing graphics for his sequel to Candelabra: Estoscerro called The Tenth Knight. I’ve been contributing graphics for a KHAN games project in the pipeline as well. I am enjoying doing collaborations at the moment, specializing in assets is purely within my comfort zone, but it’s nice having the chance to focus on one aspect of game design and practice making improvements to my skills. I have a few other personal projects in mind that I might work on in the future, but honestly collaborating currently allows me the time to develop the skills necessary to actually achieve some of my other game design goals, so I am happy to be gathering more experience this way.
I had briefly discussed working on another collaboration with Dale Coop at some time in the future. He and I get along very well and I am always happy to work on something that he is interested in. Recently. I wrote music for an arcade game he is producing in France based on a graffiti artist called Zdey. I hope we can work together to produce a bigger project sometime soon, something that we can release. We are both great fans of Xevious and other arcade high score style games, so whenever we have time to do another project together, I’d love to do that.
A dream project would include designing sound for a larger NES game where I could really get into building sonic atmosphere from the ground up. I haven’t found as much need for musicians as I have for artists, so I have tailored my skillset to meet demand. Working on graphics is great, but I’d like to someday spend as much energy and focus creating interesting soundscapes as I do currently when creating visuals. Sound is where my heart is.
-Have you ever considered converting more of Space Raft’s music to chiptune and releasing them on cartridge albums like Zi with Bleep Bop Records?
Yes and no. To be honest, the process of creating the music for the Space Raft game was pretty exhausting. Not only reducing a full four-piece band with three vocalists into four monophonic channels of audio, but doing so in a way that the music would also function well during gameplay was a major challenge for me. On the NES when you play a sound effect you temporarily replace an entire channel of audio, so if an important harmony riff or bassline is present, it just removes the section entirely. I had to place a lot of duplicate notes in the soundtrack to make sure that it sounded good in-game which is very inefficient with memory. Also, creating a game to suit a soundtrack is an entirely backwards and unorthodox approach…I can’t stress that enough. The whole experience actually had me yearning to focus more on improvising new original material.
But yes, I am interested in someday doing a chiptune cartridge, but I’d be more interested in starting from scratch and writing something new. The creation process is what excites me, so getting further opportunity to explore the deep end of chiptune is definitely something I am interested in. I did a track called “Cyborg Forest Supply Company” on a compilation music cart Zi is producing. I look forward to getting that out into the world. It’s one of the boldest creative pieces I’ve come up with. I intended it to sound like if Tim Follin had scored a Metroid game starring Ryu Hayabusa. Straddling sci-fi ambience, hard rock, and “ninja on a treadmill” music, it’s like a mini chip-opera. I’d be really happy to do more of that sort of thing. I find the limitations of NES audio to be incredibly inspiring.
-Are there any homebrew games in development that you are excited to play?
At the moment I am more excited about key people working with the NES than specific projects. I’m a really big fan of Frankengraphics’ artwork. More so, finding her excellent blog was one of my very early influences. She established the high-water mark for me. She definitely gives me something to aspire to and helps shape my view that there is a lot of potential to unlock yet in the humble NES. I’ve been following her progress on Halcyon being developed by Nathan Tolbert whom I also admire. M-Tee GFX is another artist I look up to, he’s been a great resource for me as far as offering feedback while developing my pixel style. I’m grateful for his influence as he definitely inspires me to simply do better work. Brad Smith always has my attention with his projects, he has such an interesting philosophical approach to game creating that I really appreciate.
I’m really excited by Orange Island, screenshots featuring the inclusion of a heavy Twin Bee shmup element in that game really caught my interest. I am always excited by multi-mechanic elements in NES games (Guardian Legend or Blaster Master). Seeing the heavily stylized pastel based artwork and hearing of the inclusion of many of the chip musicians I admire has my attention.
Haradius Zero apparently has a sequel in development called Haratyler by Impact Soft for the Famicom, That one is important for me, I am big fan of Haradius Zero as I currently hold the HI score on the VGS leaderboards. So I’m really hoping that is also released on the NES.
Dimension Shift is another one currently being developed by my friend Mugi, whom I met through the NESmaker community. Mugi’s artwork is fantastic and he is completely obsessed with the finer details of his engine. I am sure once that is finished it will be a high precision game per his own standards. Definitely worth watching out for.
But really, I just try to be as supportive of the homebrew community as I can and try to purchase as many projects as I am able. Again, I view it all as a very legitimate creative pursuit so any attention I can raise for people making cool stuff on the NES the better.
-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?
My pleasure, it’s a great series. If I could offer any advice to aspiring NES developers, It would be to believe in your own crazy ideas and follow through with them. When I started researching for my project years ago it seemed insane. Now after completing it and looking at the reaction it got from people, it doesn’t seem so crazy after all. That goes for music too, you just have to be willing to put it out there.
Thanks for tuning in to another episode of a series that takes deep dives into the latest and greatest homebrew games just coming across the finish line. What are your thoughts on Space Raft? Will it have you listening to Positively Space Raft as well? What other homebrews are you eagerly looking forward to? Perhaps you’ll see it here soon when…A Homebrew Draws Near! Command?