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Episode 11: From Below


Scrobins

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A Homebrew Draws Near!

A blog series by @Scrobins

Episode 11: From Below

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Introduction:

Some of the most clever homebrews can reinvigorate our love for an entire category of games with the simplest tweak. What once seemed like an oversaturated genre flooded with clones has something new for gamers because one dev could see new possibilities, offering new challenges and flipping the script of how we play these games.

For this entry, I’m covering From Below: a falling block puzzle game developed by Matt Hughson, Tuï, Zolionline, and Syrupneko. As of the time of this writing, an initial batch of 50 CIBs were sold, with another batch of 50 CIBs potentially available in the future, a Vs. version in the works, and the rom is available here.

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LE CIB

Development Team:

@matthughson (Matt Hughson): programming

Zolionline (Haller Zolàn): pixel art

Tuï: music

Syrupneko (Jason Payne): cover and manual art

 

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An early image of From Below when it was What’s Kraken

 

Game Evolution:

From Below first teased its existence as early as a May 22, 2020 tweet in which Matt showed off a very Tetris-y screen. One week later, Matt created a thread on NESDev to announce From Below (formerly titled “What’s Kraken”) and share development updates. On July 8, 2020 Matt created a thread on VGS to announce From Below and keep followers up to date. As the game neared completion, Matt created a Discord for beta testers and feedback, an itch.io page for downloading the rom, and a mailing list for fans to sign up for pre-pre-orders.

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Building a game, one block of code at a time

On November 9, 2020 Matt made 50 CIB copies of From Below available through his eBay store, which sold out quickly. Matt has teased another 50 CIBs that he may make available in the future. Meanwhile on January 14, 2021, Matt announced a completed beta of a Vs. version of From Below for the Nintendo Vs. Arcade System that fans could download.

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From Below on the Nintendo Vs. Arcade System

 

Gameplay Overview:

From Below describes itself as a falling block puzzle game, but unlike your typical Tetris-like, this game pits you against the mighty kraken who pushes up against the blocks you’re sending down. You are defending the city from the kraken’s attack by breaking off stones from the city walls and hurling them onto the monster, in the hope of delaying the beast until morning. Yes, there is a progression of time as every 10 lines cleared slowly brings day into night and onward straight until dawn.

Controls are easy to learn, left and right on the d-pad shifts blocks accordingly, and tapping A or B will rotate blocks. Hitting down applies a soft drop to a block while hitting up applies a hard drop. For more masochistic players, hitting select triggers a kraken attack. From Below features 3 separate play modes. Classic Mode offers a more standard falling block game, sans kraken. In Timed Mode, the kraken attacks every 10 seconds, pushing garbage up from the bottom of the screen (which can be cleared in gameplay like any other block). In Fixed Mode, the kraken will attack every time a block lands.

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Gameplay of From Below

 

Writer’s Review:

From Below offers a fresh take on an old classic, adding an unpredictable new element that has as much potential to yield unexpected assistance as much as added frustration, which is a fun aspect however it affects you. I have never been a good Tetris player, but if my game has improved, it is 100% attributable to the number of times I came back to From Below to play again, long after I felt prepared for this post.

The active role the kraken plays isn’t just a gimmick, it really affects gameplay with its added challenge, especially as the game speeds up and every second counts. You at least have some warning as a tentacle hover below a column before it actually pushes up, as though the beast were as indecisive of its move as me. When I learned that completing a line of blocks can send the kraken’s probing tentacle back into the depths, I found my strategy shifting in order to minimize the amount of garbage pushed up by the monster. However I learned the hard way not to pat myself on the back for brilliant moves before dropping the block. Too often I savored the moment so long that the kraken pushed up a block a split second before I set my block in place and cleared a large section, and instead had to settle for a lesser win when my block no longer fit so perfectly. This added uncertainty, which provides an opposing momentum to a falling block game, supplementing an already addictive experience, begs the question how it took so long for someone to conceive it. It’s easy to say that the kraken’s attacks are predictable in both Timed and Fixed Modes, but in truth you can get so immersed in your own blocks and strategy that the reemergence of the tentacle can still come as a surprise. More predictable is the likelihood of a new spike in tentacle porn memes.

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Hit my blocks harder daddy

 

Adding to the game’s ambiance, Tuï’s chiptune stylings layer a perky soundtrack that injects happy energy into an already sprightly game. If ever I felt like music could give me a sugar rush, I felt it in Tuï’s tunes. Of course it isn’t all peppy beats, the music shifts to a tense, frenetic melody if your blocks reach a certain height, ensuring you get as nervous as the castle dwellers you are supposed to defend. I’m at least grateful that game over track has a “good game, care to try again?” vibe, because I ended up there. A lot.

In my review of 8-Bit Xmas 2020, I praised the game’s frame around the field of play, which created a beautifully detailed background that set it apart from its licensed-era forebears, and From Below continues this tradition. The castle and surrounding landscape are gorgeous in their color and detail. The passage of time shown with the completion of 10 lines reveals Zolionline showing off his skills with the NES color palette. It is entirely possible I got several game over’s because I lose time admiring these pixel paintings.

Suddenly I find myself wanting to make an actual request: a background mode in which the soundtrack plays and the background slowly shifts across its day/night timescale so I can enjoy the music and color on my tv while reading on the couch.

Meanwhile wrapping up the game in a nice bow, Syrupneko’s box and manual art adds fun, polished touches that make From Below fit neatly in the pantheon of great licensed-era art. The manual art reminds me of the fun, cartoony story-telling function that a well-designed manual can offer, like the Super Mario Bros. games, or more recently Project Blue. And this manual is more layered than you realize, eagle-eyed players will spot a number of easter eggs hidden throughout the manual.

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You won’t sleep a wink until you find them all

 

Interviews:

To learn more about the art and passion beneath the surface of From Below, waiting to be discovered like a kraken of interesting trivia, I interviewed the game’s development team.

 

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Matthughson

@matthughson

-Before we dive into From Below, I would love to talk about you and your background. What first inspired you to become a homebrewer? What is your origin story?

I grew up in the heyday of the NES, when Nintendo was everywhere and all consuming. It had a huge impact on me, and ultimately led to me becoming a professional game developer (which I still do).

I ran NES emulation sites, and NES fan sites back in high school, and began collecting NES games around the same time (amassing about 350 games, before trimming it down to my Top 100).

I also do a lot of indie game development, which has skewed more and more towards retro-looking. Initially I was just making 2D games, then I would try to make them more "accurate" to retro-consoles, until eventually I found Pico-8 (a "Fantasy Console") and made a bunch of stuff there.

But I have, for some time, wanted to make a game for an actual retro system. I first started with Gameboy actually, but didn't get too far before discovering the book "Making Games for the NES" by Steve Hugg. This let me hit the ground running, and eventually lead me to reading through nesdoug.com and coming away with the seeds of what would become From Below.

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Cover for Making Games for the NES by Steven Hugg

 

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

I didn't really get into homebrew games (even as a player) until very recently. I think the Micro Mages Kickstarter was the first time I realized that homebrew had come so far. I still thought of it as the really rudimentary stuff I used to read about on NESWorld.com. Since then I've picked up a bunch of homebrew (Action53, Battle Kid 1/2, Candelabra Trilogy, Quest Forge, Project Blue, Lizard, Alfonzo, Twin Dragons, The Incident, Micro Mages, Nebs n' Debs, NEScape).

I think the Micro Mages Kickstarter (or maybe it was Project Blue) made me aware of The Assembly Line podcast, which really opened my eyes. I listened from the beginning and it was like travelling through time listening to the evolution of this community. It was really crazy when I started developing for the NES, and I got to meet all the "stars" of the show. 

I've been pretty surprised, or rather disappointed, with how little NES games are actually being made by the community. From the outside looking in, I was under the impression that there were tons of stuff in the works, and I'd be constantly finding new projects to follow, but it’s actually relatively quiet, especially compared to other indie gamedev communities. I wish there were more projects to follow, and people were more open with their progress.

That being said, I follow everyone I can find on Twitter, and constantly check the NESDev and VGS Discords to see if something new ever pops up.

I find it super inspiring to see other people's work, and it really does drive me to do even better!

 

-How would you describe your design aesthetic, and what to you are the hallmarks of a Matt Hughson game?

really put a lot of effort into the minute gameplay details. I think it’s the difference between an ok game, and a great game.

Usually I write platformer games, so stuff like allowing players to jump for a few frames after leaving a platform, or making a hit box for the player slightly smaller than the sprite, etc.; that's the kind of stuff I spend a lot of time thinking about and getting right. I never let myself skimp on the gameplay details. If something doesn't feel perfect, I hack it till it does. Every minor piece of player friction gets some of my development time.

With From Below, this was actually surprisingly important.

There are a million games out there like From Below, so standing out is hard. What I have aimed for is creating the best feeling version of the game on the NES. If you go back and play the original Tetris for the NES, you might be surprised at how slow and clunky it feels by today's standards. From Below adds new gameplay mechanics to the formula, but also makes sure the basics are perfect.

There are some obvious features that improve the feel, like adding Hard Drop (pressing up to instantly drop a block and not having to wait for it to fall) and fast flow through menus. 

There are also less obvious ones too.

For example, "lock delay": this is the time it takes for a block to lock into place when it hits the bottom of the board. When a block reaches the bottom of the board, it doesn't instantly freeze. It waits 15 frames before committing to that position. Tetris for the NES doesn't have this feature.

But just having lock delay itself isn't enough. There are subtleties to it that took a long time to get right, and are easy (as a developer) to just say "who cares".

When a block hits the bottom of the board, instead of starting a "timer" to delay the lock a fixed amount of time, I start a timer and subtract the amount of time that it delayed before moving to the current position. Meaning if a piece is dropping a space every 10 frames, and the lock delay is 15 frames, I will only wait an additional 5 frames (not the full 15 which would end up feeling like 25 frames).

This means that at lower levels, where the blocks move very slow, there is no additional time before a piece locks into place, and at higher levels, there is a very noticeable "hitch" before the piece locks. And across all levels there is a consistency that can be learned; it will always take at least 15 frames before a piece locks into place. This is true at level 1, and its true at level 100.

But that's not enough! To feel good, the lock delay timer is reset every time the piece moves down a space. Without this, you would still have a very "sticky" feeling game, where pieces lock into place as you try to push them to the outside of the board and the timer runs out. You also can't reset the timer moving horizontal, lest you end up with the ability to "hover in place" by going back and forth. None of this is particularly difficult to implement, but takes time and patience to discover and finetune.

Lock delay is just one of a dozen little pieces of the puzzle that makes From Below feel the way it does.

 

-What tools do you use to code and create?

The entire game is written in C using CC65 to compile. I use Visual Studio Code as a text editor and build pipeline.

I use Shiru's "neslib" and Doug Fraker's "nesdoug" libraries, along with Famitone2 for Music and Sound. Audio was authored in Famitraker.

Nametables were built with NESScreenTool, and CHR ROM file was put together in YY-CHR.

From Below is built using the NROM mapper.

I used Photoshop to layout the box and cart sticker, and InDesign for the manual.

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Homepage of nesdoug

 

-In addition to your homebrewing, you are a game dev by profession, currently working for Microsoft at The Coalition, and have worked on such games as Gears of War. In what ways is your professional work similar to or different compared to your indie work?

Although this was my first NES game, I've written many games prior to this. I think the AAA stuff helps a lot in understanding how to produce a game, meaning what it takes to get it out the door (log bugs, prioritize work, work with teammates, source control, etc.). I'm not sure how much it helps on the programming side, although I do spend a lot of time writing C++ which is obviously very similar to C.

Indie development, however, helped a lot more on the programming side. From that experience, I knew how to write a game top to bottom (rendering, game loop, gameplay, etc.). Coming into this project I didn't actually have much trouble on the programming side of things (the gameplay is quite simple compared to most of my indie projects), so I was able to spend most of my effort on learning the intricacies of the NES hardware itself (which I did find very challenging). It's also why I chose C instead of 6502 assembly to make this game: I figured learning to develop for a 35+ year old system would be hard enough without also learning a new programming language.

If you are thinking about getting into NESDev and haven't made a game before, personally I would recommend picking up Pico-8 or Game Maker first, to learn programming. Trying to do too much at once may lead to slow progress and frustration. The sooner you can get something on the screen with any project, the more motivated you will be to move forward (I think anyway).

 

-Do you find your professional work informs your approach to homebrewing, or vice versa?

Yes, as I mentioned before, I can't help but approach hobby projects in the same way I approach professional work. 

 

-At the heart of From Below’s gameplay is the Kraken Battle Mode (which also has a turn-based mode) in which tentacles are pushing…from below! What inspired this feature of the game?

I actually don't remember. I think it was from looking for some free open-source art to use for what, originally, was going to be a simple Tetris clone to learn from. I found this nice seaside platformer tileset built to NES specs (https://opengameart.org/content/plattoon), and I think it just made me think of a sea creature. I think I already had the idea of pushing garbage blocks up from the bottom, but I'm not totally sure anymore. I wish I could remember better, sorry!

 

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

The first surprise for me was that C was even a viable language for NESDev. As I mentioned, From Below is entirely written in C (other than external libs), and originally I had assumed I would need to learn 6502 assembly to make NES games. That was pretty intimidating for me.

A small but important thing I discovered was that NESDev has an official Discord! I used the forums exclusively for the first while before happening upon the Discord, which is much better for quick questions. https://discord.gg/7CaMyR8STT

The biggest challenge throughout the project was managing memory and performance. This is probably true for every project I imagine. I think Pico-8 prepared me pretty well for these struggles, but the process for dealing with them is obviously much different on the NES. For perf issue, I use "color emphasis bits" changed mid frame, to get rough ideas of what was taking a lot of time, and optimized as needed. For running out of memory, I just did culls of all bloated data here and there.

Although it might not bother most people, I put a lot of effort into time-slicing my frames so that there would be limited sprite-flicker due to going over budget for a frame. It was super surprising to me how just updating a 20x10 board when clearing lines could tank the CPU. Something that on any modern CPU would be nothing. I think this goes back to the early point about attention to detail. Sprite flicker is a pretty minor thing to most, but caring about each one of these little things is what (to me) adds up to a professional looking package.

I was also surprised that I could actually build an NES game from scratch in just a few months, and that I could actually figure out how to ship a physical CIB release a few months after that. 

 

-I always ask my interviewees whether there is a reflection of themselves in the game’s protagonist, but given the game is centered around tiles and a sea monster, I’ll instead ask what about the game’s unique environment and gameplay reflects you and your gaming personality/preferences?

No not at all. In fact, I don't even really like Tetris (more of a Tetris Attack man myself). I chose this game as a good "first project" because I figured it would be easy, and the basic design is well understood. 

However, it's been really interesting working with high-level players, and learning what makes these games great for them, and what doesn't.

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Screenshot from Tetris Attack

 

-How did you first connect with Zolionline, Tuï, and Syrupneko when you were building your team?

Zoliononline I found on NESDev in a "pixel artist looking for work" thread (http://forums.NESDev.com/viewtopic.php?f=21&t=13144). Like a lot of threads on NESDev, it had been going for years. It's immediately obvious, looking at his work, that he is very talented. However, as you read through that thread, you will see literal years go by with no projects coming to fruition (I later found out that he worked on Wolfling, which I think was a pretty popular compo entry). So with that in mind (as I remember it) I pitched myself as someone who has a small project that can be finished in a few months, with little chance of it not getting done. He agreed and quickly started pumping out some amazing art.

Tuï (the musician and sound designer on the game) actually reached out to me after seeing my "dev log" on NESDev. He sent me a link to his Soundcloud, and it immediately clicked with me. He pumped out some tunes really quickly as well, and after a little back and forth figuring out the limits of Famitone2, we had our soundtrack. The music seems to be a real highpoint of the game for a lot of people (including me).

Jason Payne (Syrupneko) reached out to me after I put a general call out for help on Twitter (https://twitter.com/syrupneko/status/1275189660269101056) 

 

-What was the working dynamic like in your collaboration with them?

Working with all of them has been amazing. I am totally aware that this game would not have anywhere close to the following it does without their eye/ear catching work!

We had a lot of back and forth early on as we figured out the vision of the game, but also figured out the tech limits (we were all pretty new to this I think).

I built small batch scripts that they could run to compile their work into the game, and test it without going through me. I also built a Sound Test screen so Tuï could test his work in game (especially important when we couldn't get music to play properly in Famitone2 and needed to do some trial and error). It's still there in the final version of the game if you know the code.

 

-There has been a lot of support and enthusiasm for From Below, thanks to your hype-building on social media. How does it feel to see so many people foaming at the mouth to play your game?

It feels really good! If I am being honest, a big part of doing this is for external validation. I know it shouldn't be, I should do it for the love of the art or something, but I really do love having people interested in what I am making. It's probably a flaw in my character.

I do, however, recognize that a big part of the hype is simply because demand significantly outweighs supply in the NES world. I think you could release pretty much anything on an NES cart and sell 50 copies, so take anything I say with a grain of salt.

One thing I would say to others hoping to have a successful, commercial release: you don't really sell the game on release day. You're selling it for the weeks, months, and even years preceding the release. Don't play everything so close to your chest. Post progress as much as you can. Build fans before the game is even out, and keep building it after for your next project. Make sure everyone who would buy your game knows about it!

 

-You also develop for the Pico-8, an increasingly popular game engine. In your opinion, how does developing for the Pico-8 compare to the NES? Do you feel some games lend themselves better to one versus the other?

Pico-8 is an amazing game making toolkit. I think people really underestimate how brilliant it really is, thinking it’s just another game engine, but it is so much more. Pico-8 itself really is a game, in the same way that the Zachtronics games are also programming.

It did a lot to prepare me for NES development:

  • Working with limited CPU
  • Working with limited Memory
  • Balancing Speed and Memory, and understanding the relationship between the two.
  • Working with limited palettes (16 colors)
  • Low screen resolutions (128x128)
  • Working with limited buttons on a controller.
  • The power of sharing GIFs.

All of these I had "pretended" to work with, when I made "retro-looking" games, but Pico-8 is the real deal, where you can't opt out of the limits when times get tough.

Funny enough I actually ported Super Mario Bros, World 1, to Pico-8: https://www.lexaloffle.com/bbs/?tid=31744

Thinking about it now, another big help was a "1 game a month" challenge I did a few years ago. As the name implies, for 12 months straight I wrote and released a new game every month. It's grueling at times, but you tend to learn a lot doing this, and it’s actually where I started using Pico-8.

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Gameplay of Super Mario Bros. for Pico-8

 

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

When I started NES development, I had a 3-project plan, which incrementally more difficult targets:

  • Project 1: "Tetris-clone".
    • NROM. Limited CPU concerns. Single screen. Understood design.
  • Project 2: "Witch n’ Wiz port".
    • Action puzzle game. Non-NROM Mapper with expanded memory. Multiple moving objects. Basic scrolling. Understood design. Self-published physical cart release.
  • Project 3: "Dash Maxius".
    • Advanced Mapper. Platformer. Fast. Multiple scrolling directions. Require 6502 assembly optimizations. Published physical cart release.

The idea being that with each project I will introduce a bit more complexity, ultimately leading up to the type of games I want to be making: fast paced platformers.

This plan has evolved a bit since then though. Project 1 became From Below and evolved beyond a simple clone. It also ended up getting a physical cart release, which was supposed to be part of Project 2.

Project 2 is a port of my already released Pico-8 game, Witch n' Wiz (https://www.lexaloffle.com/bbs/?tid=28944). The idea here is that I will use a more advanced mapper (MMC1) allowing for expanded memory capabilities. Originally I thought this would require scrolling, but it doesn't look like it will (all the maps currently fit on a single screen).

Currently this project is moving along nicely. I have ported all the core gameplay and maps, have a good pipeline for make more maps. My current plan is to try a package up what I have as an entry into the 2021 NESDev compo. From there I want to start implementing new gameplay mechanics that were not in the original game, eventually releasing the game as a stand-alone product too.

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Screenshot from Witch n’ Wiz

Since I self-published From Below, I will probably end up going with one of the bigger NES publishers for this one (Broke Studio, 6502 Collective, etc.) if they're interested.

When that is done, my plan is to move on to Project 3: a realization of a project I started on PC, but never finished. It's a fast-paced action platformer, with a little bit of RPG elements. Inspired by "Super Win the Game" and "Zelda 2". https://twitter.com/matthughson/status/1224116188763938818

I'm not really a "dream project" kind of guy... but I do have one... I want to create a sequel to Zelda 2, but not like you might be thinking!

 

I have a dream to make an original Zelda 3 homebrew for the NES (not a hack), with the backdrop of a real-life alternate history where Nintendo ditched SNES R&D in favor of supporting the NES indefinitely. The manual, for example, will have a message from then-president of Nintendo Hiroshi Yamauchi decrying Sega as anti-consumer for abandoning the Master System in pursuit of a 16-bit replacement.

It will be called "Zelda III: The Curse of Ganon" and it will be a prequel to the first 2 games, showing what led to Ganon's obsession with the Triforce. I'd develop the whole thing with the idea of "what would it have looked like if Nintendo released the next Zelda game on the NES in 1991, instead of making A Link to the Past".

This is some pretty nerdy stuff, even for me...

In the same way the Zelda 1 and 2 each pushed the action RPG in new and interesting directions, this game would attempt to do the same, with a whole new gameplay style.

It will be the Rouge One of video games!

 

-You’ve also said that you may release another batch of From Below CIBs at a future date. Any news to sustain fans’ hope?

No news at the time of writing this. I did stipulate that the Limited Edition that went out in November 2020 is limited to 100 copies. I only made/sold 50 so far to give myself the opportunity to do another batch if there is demand.

My thought at the moment is that I might release them at the same time as my next project to build some hype. Not sure though.

If you are interested, the best thing to do is sign up for this mailing list: https://mailchi.mp/7c4c11bb4480/from-below-mailing-list

 

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

Halcyon is probably one I am most genuinely excited to play. Really anything with art by FrankenGFX has my attention!

"Inversion Project" is shaping up to be one of the biggest technical leaps, but I don't think too much has been shared yet outside of the NESDev Discord, and even there it's very little.

Full Quiet looks cool, and I love that it seems to break the mold of a traditional NES game.

Orange Island looks beautiful. Can't wait to see some actual NES footage!

Eyra the Crow Maiden could shape up to be something special. Looked a little rough around the edges during the Kickstarter, but I'm hopeful that will get cleaned up for release.

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Screenshot from Eyra-The Crow Maiden

 

Dungeons & Doomknights is probably the first NESmaker game that really caught my eye, and it's shaping up nicely.

However, I think we still have a long way to go before any NES homebrew games are on the level of mid-to-top tier licensed era games. I think there are a few games that look like they could be at that level, but are at a much smaller scale. I'm still waiting for the Super Mario's and Zelda's of the homebrew world! I think they're coming though. It seems like a lot of the technical hurtles have been overcome, and focus can shift to gameplay. I think the field is wide open for someone to step up and take things to the next level. NESmaker is a possible game changer in the way Unity/GameMaker/Flash were for early indie devs. I have high hopes!

Personally though, I enjoy watching games being made more than actually playing them these days. I hope more devs start posting more WIP shots and behind the scenes content.

 

-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?

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me! To everyone who bought or played From Below, thank you so much. Genuinely, I mean it. Thank you!

And thanks to all the unbelievable developers who took NES homebrew to the point where someone like me can just drop in and make a game with little-to-no understanding of what he is doing. It's really humbling to see what has been accomplished by this community!

As Fiskbit on NESDev often says to me:

"It's amazing how much you have accomplished, while knowing so little..."!

HAHA!

 

 

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Zolionline

@Zolionline

-Before we dive into From Below, 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 Zolionline?

More than a decade ago I started to play around with RPG Maker ‘97. I started a game but I ended up making custom graphics for characters and NPCs. I started with modifying the original images which is called 'frankenspriting' today. I liked it, but I found an RPG too hard to begin with. I remembered the old, simple NES games I played when I was a child, and I thought I could make something similar. As one of my friends was a programmer, we started to make a fantasy themed platformer game for PC. We never finished it because neither of us could manage that project, but that's how it started. I tried making games for PC and mobile, 2D and 3D, but when I found out that there is an NES-homebrew community (NESDev.com) I instantly felt very enthusiastic. You know, it's pure nostalgia for me. One of my friends once said we are in the age when somebody either relives his childhood or starts visiting hookers. My girlfriend wouldn't appreciate the second, so... that's where I am.

 

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

After finding out that I will be a hobby pixel artist, I started to participate in a pixel art community (Pixeljoint.com). I found many like-minded people, and as I started to submit pieces for artistic challenges, I slowly found out what's useful for me and what's not. Although I really like the works of Mario Santos (Emperor_Pixel), Simon Stafsnes Andersen (Snake) or Yuriy Gusev (Fool) - just to name a few of the giants - I started to abandon that terrain. Nowadays my influences are little known people in the NES industry from the 80s and early 90s. I'm watching what they did well or where they failed. I'm not a highly educated 2D artist. I teach history and literature to children. I can't relearn drawing and stuff, I try to be as good as people were back then, and as I have many applications and software they didn't have, maybe I can catch up.

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Red Dragon, pixel art by Mário Santos for Leyria

 

-You leapt onto the homebrew scene as a pixel artist advertising your wares on NESDev, do you feel your artwork has a signature aesthetic that is uniquely you?

I think that everybody has a style, even in the size of 16x16. But there are only 256 pixels and it's hard to be really unique. I think I can combine cute and frightening elements in my own way and most of my projects tend to follow this theme. I practiced in this territory and with hundreds of working hours I may have an advance compared to others in the homebrew scene.

 

-In your opinion, what makes good pixel art stand out? What are the ingredients to a memorable level?

The secret ingredient is education. The best pixel artist (who I mentioned above, and there are a tons of other people even only on Pixeljoint) are professionals. They could make oil paintings on canvas if you'd like. But they have this cute hobby so we see wonders day by day. It's this simple.

 

-What tools do you use to create?

As my hobby is based on the 80s, I also use old or simple tools. For about 20 years I've been using Paint Shop Pro 9. I can use it's shortcuts in total darkness when I can't even see the white marks on the keyboard keys, without failure and rapidly. It's a bit ridiculous if I think of it though. For animations I use a simple program which was made by one of my former workmate in exchange of graphics for his game. I know, there are modern tools for that (e.g. Piskel - just to mention something useful), but that program was made based purely on my needs. Of course I can use programs which help the programmers, like Yy-chr and NESst, but I don't use them for drawing.

 

-You also worked with Lazycow on Wolfling for the 2017 Annual NESDev Coding Competition, have you noticed any changes to your style or overall approach to homebrew games over the years?

The only thing that really changed is the approach to this hobby. I only concentrate on NES games and NES development. I got fed up with computers and mobiles. That's a whole other scene about money and for professionals. I'm a small man, if I'd seen my own work near my game collection I couldn't be more happy. I always try to make something bigger, something better, but I'm happy that I don't have to run after my money. Of course, if I can get something out of this, that's a big plus - there's no "Money for nothin' and chicks for free".

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Screenshot from Wolfling by Lazycow

 

-Tell me about your creative process while working on From Below?

An artist working on somebody else's project couldn't be more happy than having solid guidelines. Matt Hughson had a solid idea, a concept he wanted to build the game around. I only made the ideas into reality. I also had some ideas here and there, but I can say that From Below is Matt's child which I only helped to birth - sorry for the metaphor, occupational disease. This was a simple project with simple work and I liked it a lot. I'd love to work for people like him.

 

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

The main lesson was that I can be really happy if my only work is drawing. Matt said what to draw and I made it. There wasn't an endless brainstorming, constant changes in the game mechanics, theme change in the middle of a development. It was a simple game, alright, but a joyride for me.
You mentioned Wolfing. That was a more complex work but Lazycow put a huge amount of work into that so it could work. Now it's a full C64 game - just as a side note. In conclusion I may be a better artist than a game designer.

 

-Are there any other projects you have lined up on the horizon, NES or otherwise? Any dream projects? I’ve seen some of the updates you’ve posted on Unlikely Adventures and Agent X, any updates on those games?

My lovechild would be the Unlikely Adventures, I put so much effort in that, it's a shame that I see it lying there. I'd really love to finish it someday, but I need a programmer who's willing to contribute to that idea, and that's rare because they are as creative minds as game designers - or we "artists". Now I'm working on a smaller project based on some Native American folk tales but it's in an early phase. When we get the demo, maybe we'll see something ambitious.

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Screenshots from Unlikely Adventures by Zolionline

 

-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?

I don't think I'm in the position of giving advice, especially for people who have been in this hobby for ages. But for beginners, I may have two things to say that can be considered. (1) Do what you can do the best and leave the rest to others. There are a lot of people who can do programing, do the art or make sounds and music. If you want to make it all, it will cost you 8-10 years and without feedback you may notice that the whole is wrong somehow. (2) You have the tools that none of the people had in the early times. (Not in the middle ages but in the 80s.) Analyze and watch closely others' work. Learn from online sources. Do everything you can until you'll catch up or you'll see that you set the bar too high. Try to find your place on the scale, there's a huge space between a drawing gorilla and Rembrandt. And even if you are a gorilla, you can still have fun.

Thanks for the interview!

 

 

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Tuï

@Tui2A03

-Before we dive into From Below, I'd love to talk about you and your background. What first inspired you to be a musician? What led you to compose music for homebrew games? What is the origin story of Tuï?

I started music when I was nine years old by playing saxophone. I choose this instrument because I had a crush on a girl who was playing it. I switched to guitar in high school when some friends introduced me to rock and heavy metal. After some years at university studying math, I took a decision and went to Paris to learn jazz improvisation and composition. I’ve been composing for 15 years now but I’m pretty new in the homebrew scene. I discovered video games at 4 years old on a promotional arcade in a mall and I’m still loving them thirty years later. The lockdown that happened in France last March finally led me to consider writing for that media. Tuï is the name of a New Zealand bird that produces a large variety of bleeps and blops.

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Ah the Tui, nature’s chiptune composer



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

My influences are really diverse as I listen to a lot a music. Lately I’m more into games OST’s but I listen to rock, electro, jazz, classical music… I try to listen to everything with a fresh ear because in my opinion every genre has good stuff and bad stuff. Regarding video game composers I’m a huge fan of people like Ben Prunty, Chipzel, Jake Kaufmann, Lena Raine or Disasterpeace.

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Ben Prunty


-You’ve also composed chiptune for homebrew games such as Super Tilt Bro. and Flea!, and continue to offer your services to developers in the NESDev community. Tell us more about your work on those games as well as your role in the wider community.

Super Tilt Bro, a Super Smash Bros. demake, is a wonderful open-source project by Sylvain Gadrat. I wrote a title screen theme with VRC6 and we plan to add some crazy adaptative music, more to come in the next few months. For Flea! I wrote music for each world and designed all the SFX. It was the first time that I had to write music with the vision of the dev in mind. Alastair Low is a great game designer who knows what he wants and it was a great pleasure to work with him. I see my role in the community as writing good music that gets stuck in your head as long as possible.

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

My tools are pretty standard: a computer with a DAW, a midi keyboard, a guitar and a bass. For NES games I tend to compose directly on Famitracker with a piano aside to test out things.

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

I don’t know if it’s a quality but I’m looking for good melodies. With 4 channels on average, 8-bit era composers had to go for catchy melodies to make a difference. So my aesthetic is whatever comes to my mind and trying to sort out a good melody out of it!

-Do you feel your approach to chiptune composition has changed over the years?

As I said I’m pretty new to the homebrew community so let’s do this interview again in five or ten years and I’ll tell you.

-In your opinion, what is essential to make a chiptune song memorable?

…for NES chiptune ? …a great melody!

-In addition to your musical work on homebrew games, you created an SFX pack for developers to use in their games. What inspired you to create this tool for developers?

To be honest my first concern with this SFX pack was to show devs what I can do. It’s like a demo reel that I offered to the community. I hate to write stuff that won’t be used in an actual game. I preferred to work for free for a few months to prove things than doing stuff that nobody will use.

-Tell me about the development of From Below’s music, what is your composition process?

It was pretty straight-forward. Matt gave me some words to describe the music he wanted and I worked on it. Matt was pretty happy with the result on title screen theme so we did the same thing with gameplay.

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

The main challenge for me was to write music that is compatible with the Famitone sound engine. It was the first time that I realized the large impact that a sound engine can have on your musical choices. We also had to deal with some bugs when implementing music in the game. I learned that the sound engine and the amount of space you have are the two first questions you should ask a dev before accepting a commission.

-How did you first connect with Matt and what was the working dynamic like as you worked together on the game?

I met Matt on NESDev Forum. I was looking for people to offer my help on music and build a portfolio. Matt has a professional approach to things that I like a lot. That’s actually how I like to work: fake it until you make it. To me people don’t understand this the right way. To me what it means is that however the size of the project and the budget, do it right.

-Is there another project after From Below on the horizon? Another dream project that you hope to bring into existence, NES or otherwise?

I’m currently working on Tapeworm Disco, a new puzzle game by Alastair Low. Matt is porting one of his Pico-8 games Witch n’ Wiz on NES and we started to work on music. I don’t have a dream project because I already enjoy what I do, maybe to work on more traditional indie games?

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Screenshot from Tapeworm Disco Puzzle by Alastair Low



-Have you ever considered compiling your chiptune music and releasing it on cartridge albums like Zi with Bleep Bop Records?

Not really, in my opinion my tunes need to be in a game and that’s the best I wish for them.

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

I have a confession to make, I don’t play much homebrew games because I don’t have much time to play games these days. But I definitely enjoyed playing Böbl from Morphcat lately, and I’m looking forward to playing 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?

A big thank you for this interview and I hope to offer many more tunes to the homebrew community!

 

 

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Syrupneko

@syrupneko

-Before we talk about From Below, I want to talk about you and your background. What first inspired you to be an artist generally, and more specifically how did you break into game art?

Growing up, art and writing was always very much a part of my life, and I always had adults around who encouraged me in those skills. Exposure to comic strips is what I’d blame the most though.

However it wasn’t a straight shot to the art world for me, as I once thought I had to do the “responsible thing” by settling for a college degree in multimedia with an emphasis on web design, which I saw at the time as a practical compromise between my interest in computers and my passion for art. And during and after college I worked a lot of odd jobs from convenience store clerk to event videographer, portrait photographer, film director and crew member (I’ve got IMDB cred yo!), data entry, audio transcription, phone book and newspaper delivery...

As far as game art and development specifically goes, my first taste of gamedev was a hand-me-down Commodore Vic 20 I had in kindergarten (damn straight I learned to read just so I could punch in games from books), but I guess you could say I first saw gamedev as a potential career when I was in middle school. I was making my own mods for Seth Able’s LORD 2 (and later DINK SMALLWOOD) and programming little text adventures in QBASIC. I was also into tabletop RPGs, which lead me to writing my own simplified RPG systems and campaigns to play with my friends.

I shelved game development after high school though, due to the changing face of gaming. The emphasis in the early 00s was on 3D graphics, which was intimidating to me as I was really bad at math. But I returned as in recent years gamedev specific tools and IDEs have matured, and 2D has proven itself here to stay. But yeah, I guess you could say learning LUA through Pico-8 not only made gamedev fun again for me in, but showed me that I did have something to offer to indie games after all. Especially
after EGGHUNT, my first adventure game for the fantasy console, received a fair amount of positive feedback.

Also I'd just like to randomly blurt out that Raspberry Pi has made computing fun again.

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Screenshot from Egghunt



-What is the significance of your syrupneko username and the Syrup Pirates publishing imprint name?

Syrup Pirates started as an online zine/club for my friends and I to publish short stories and activism stuff. I was in high school at the time, so I chose the name Syrup Pirates as a parody name of my high
school’s mascot, The Syrupmakers (Cairo, GA, was once known for sugarcane fields and syrup manufacturing.) Also, pirates are just cool and outsiderish and carried a connotation related to my interest in technology as my friends and I were obsessed with the movie PIRATES OF SILICON VALLEY (1999) from a few years prior, which is about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and the early days of Apple and Microsoft; like all young people, we saw ourselves as the protagonists on an adventure. Since then, I've been largely sailing solo as Syrup Pirates has evolved from a zine into the name of my (self) publishing imprint.

As for Syrupneko, I used to use various forms of Neko (japanese for cat) in my screen names online, as I identified as an otaku, so I just sort of chose syrupneko to thematically tie myself to my publishing. Now that I’m in my late 30s, I do at times feel like I’ve outgrown it, but I’m sticking with it anyway. Haha.


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

I could easily go on forever with this. Generally speaking, I’m big on golden & silver age comics and cartoons – funny animals, Archie and Harvey comics, MAD Magazine, 70s UK girls comics like JINTY and MISTY, Moebius, Omaha the Cat dancer, that sort of stuff. In addition to a lot of indie and alternative comics through the 80s to today, especially 50s to 90s manga. Film-wise, I love horror, classic Hollywood, Italian giallos, Criterion Collection (that’s a genre unto itself right?), David Lynch, Nicholas Winding Refn, Anna Biller, etc. Photographers like William Wegman, Johnny Jewel, William Eggleston, and Alex Prager (her photography is what I aspire to do someday.) Music is a big thing for me too, as I like to imagine soundtracks for my comics, which range in everything my 80s pop, shoegaze, garage rock, twee, to retrowave. Then there’s all the countless gamedevs I follow like Jay Tholen, Manuela Malasana, PuppetCombo and Skydevilpalm...and did I mention the beats and hippies? Because mid-20th century counterculture is definitely an influence.

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Art by Manuela Malasaña for Cherry Orchard



So I’ll just give a shout out to all my artist friends and acquaintances I’ve made along the way that have been a big inspiration and source of motivation: Charles Brubaker, R. Wertz, Sarah Allen Reed, Jadzia
Axelrod, Ben Humeniuk, Gonzalo Alvarez, Philip Stephens, WorserBeings, Zack Empire, Max West, Nick Pozega, Jake Price, Nick Richie, Nathan Archer, Jarrod Alberich, and I apologize if I forgot anyone who might be reading this!


-Your art spans games, comics, and even photography! Do you feel that your art has any qualities that are uniquely you? How would you describe your aesthetic?

It’s hard to pinpoint, so I’ll just give you this list I wrote down one day when I was asking myself the same question:

Elements of my style (probably)...
* Cinematic angles
* Dramatic lighting
* Diffusion filters
* Neon lights
* Chase scenes
* Fisticuffs
* Pixels
* Pizza
* Happy accidents
* FM Synth
* Chiptunes
* Walls of Sound
* Acid House

tldr: My basic tenet is to keep things LOUD AND FUN.


-What tools do you use to create your art?

I mostly use a Wacom Intuos 4 tablet that I’ve had for the past 10 years (it’s held up nicely and I’ve only to replace the stylus once), Clip Studio Paint with Frenden Brushes, and Photoshop. Sometimes I do work in pen & ink (such as on my latest book, THISTLES #1) which I used just good ol’ Speedball 102 crowquill nib and classic Speedball ink on printer paper for all of the line art. I used to draw on full sized
11x17 paper, but I eventually came to the conclusion that if drawing-to-size was good enough for Crumb and Spiegelman, it’s good enough for me!

I also have a sizeable digital library of assets I use in my comics. Stuff like film grains, light leaks, and paper textures.

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Cover art for Thistles by Jason Payne



-Tell me about the development of the art you created for From Below, what is your composition process? Is the creative process different compared to when you create for comics or your own games?

At the time, the process was different than my usual work, because I had just bought RetroSupply’s COLOR LAB KIT. Which since buying, I’ve become an absolute fan of every Photoshop brush and action they’ve put out. COLOR LAB is what I used to create the authentic looking CMYK screen tone effect, and I used it to color my new book as well around that same time.

Composition wise, I approached the piece from a question of, “whose point of view is the game played?” Which the answer to me was the player’s perspective, so I “placed the camera” on the top of the castle, facing outward toward the ocean. From there, I just built around the scene in such a way that it guides the viewer’s eye around the image in a circular motion.


-The box/label art is reminiscent of the art from the popular game Rampart. Are you a fan of old video games? How did you conceive the art that you created for From Below?

It's funny, because I didn’t actively have Rampart in mind. And oddly I’ve never played Rampart, although I certainly remember seeing the iconic covers as a kid. The coincidence more or less stems from Matt’s castle theme and my obsession with vintage advertising. I swear, I remember the pointing thing being an “extreme” trope in the 90s. It was everywhere from NERF ads to Capri Sun.

I should say though, there are a few Easter Eggs inside the manual of the physical edition of FROM BELOW. Maybe they’re a bit subtle, but if you happen to notice anything resembling an homage, know that you’re not crazy.

And to answer your question about whether I’m a fan of old games, I’d say so. Although I haven’t bought any physical carts in recent years, my NES cart collection at last count is around 120 games. And I still own every other main Nintendo system up to the Wii, except for the Virtual Boy. And of course, I bought the more recent mini systems.

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Portrait of the artist (holding Mario doll) as a young fan

 

-In your opinion what is essential to make cover art compelling?

A story. Something that just looks really rad. That makes you wonder what it’s about.

I mean, who hasn’t looked at the box-art for PHALANX and created a better game in their head than what it actually was? Who didn’t get duped in to renting really bad games in the 80s, because of the epic box art? I know I have!

And how many great games have you passed over because the box art was mediocre or so-so? I unfortunately have done that too.

My gold standard for box-art I guess is mid to late 90s RPG box art. I just remember seeing LUNAR for Sega CD on display at Babbage’s and wishing I had a Sega CD (although I did have a Genesis), because that box art really made me “dream” just looking at it. And that feeling stuck with me into the PlayStation era, which luckily I did own one of those for that version. Also of note, I had the same visceral reaction with Chrono Trigger.

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Babbage’s: that place you didn’t realize turned into GameStop


I once read that the founder of Sony said he chose the name Sony because it inspires customers to dream – and to wonder, “what is a Sony?” And Sony’s been around for awhile, so I think dreaming is perhaps the most important thing, because when you inspire dreaming, you invite your audience to actively participate, forming their own opinion, story, mood, feeling. You invite them to dream with you.


-What was it like working with Matt and what new challenges or surprises surfaced in your work on From Below? What lessons did you learn that you would like to share with the people who aspire to follow in your footsteps?

I think I had started following Matt randomly on Twitter, as I follow a lot of indie devs on there. And one day he tweeted that he was looking for someone to design box art, so I responded sharing some pages from a comic I’d been working on at the time, and things just went from there.

It was really fun working with Matt. He was organized and had a vision for what he wanted, but while he guided much of the process, he was still very open to the spirit of collaboration. And as such, I believe
we created something that neither of us would have created on our own, which is one of the best feelings you can have when working with others.

If there’s a lesson to be taken from that, it’s that if someone’s working on something rad that interests you and you feel like you have something to offer them, don’t be afraid to offer your services. And
just be open to collaboration, because it will also benefit your personal work when you return to it. Having an openness to experience is the key here.


-What else have you been working on lately? Do you have any dream projects you aspire to?

I just published the inaugural issue of my new anthology series THISTLES a couple months ago, and have been slowly developing new material for a 2nd issue. The series explores personal themes of identity, gender, and relationships through a lens of European and Celtic folk tales, astrology, tarot, feminism, and Jungian psychology. It’s weird. It’s cartoony. It’s psychedelic. If you want more of what you saw with the FROM BELOW art, then pick it up!

I also launched a new series called Cupcake Cabal, which has had kind of a false start. I hope to get back to it soon though. You can follow @cupcakecabal on Insta and Twitter to stay updated for when it does get updated.

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Panels from Cupcake Cabal by Jason Payne


My main passion project though is PRINCEZZ. Which began in 2003, and I’m currently halfway through illustrating the 2nd book. It’s an epic funny animal adventure story about a princess who’s an outlaw. I don’t know how to describe it easily, however I think one of my fans put it best when they wrote that it “combines Quentin Tarantino’s gritty characters with Three Stooges slapstick.” Which sounds about right to me. You can read Princezz every Monday at PrincezzComic.com

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Sounds like Princezz is ready to roll


Dream project-wise...I’ve got a lot of those. Haha. But I’ll divulge that I’d like to get back in to film to write and direct a live-action adaptation of PRINCEZZ starring humans instead of animals. Also, I bet I
could make a killer film adaptation of my tabletop game KILLER IS NEAR.

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This movie isn't even in pre-production and already I need someone to hold my hand


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

Yes! I backed Orange Island last year and can’t wait for its eventual release. Everything they’ve shared about that game so far has been rad! And you know, I mentioned earlier that "visceral reaction" that good box art can cause...I had to with this Orange Island's ad campaign. Seriously don't skimp out on art, even if it seems incidental and won't reflect in game style or quality.

But yeah, I love cute platformers and Legacy Of the Wizard is one of my favorite games, so I'm looking forward to this.


-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 your interest and support! It always means a lot to me. Just believe in yourself, and take your time on projects, because self-care should come first. And of course, thank you, Sean, for taking the
time to interview me! It really made my day that you asked if I would do this.

 

Conclusion:

Thanks for tuning in to this latest episode of a series that probes the depths beneath the waves of code of your favorite new homebrews. What are your thoughts on From Below and its talented development team? What homebrews are you eagerly looking forward to? Perhaps you’ll see it here soon when…A Homebrew Draws Near! Command?

 

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