A Homebrew Draws Near!
A blog series by @Scrobins
Episode 22: Fire and Rescue
Among the many homebrewers I have been privileged to interview, several were also academics: professors who teach game design and development by day, and by night put into practice those same lessons into their own passion projects. Their expertise is expressed through their style, and sometimes traces of the teacher are apparent in their games, either highlighting the lessons they value most or serving as a piece of learning material in itself. Homebrewers often are eager to draw connections to the games that influenced them and to which they wish to pay homage, but there is something different we can eagerly expect when a brewer teases they hope for their full panoply of games to serve as a history lesson, highlighting the idiosyncrasies of their favorite games' features, reflecting the evolution of the NES’ offerings with each new game of their own.
For this entry, I’m covering Fire and Rescue, a Black Box-style arcade game for the NES, developed by Skyboy Games. As of the time of this writing, the game is complete and available for purchase as a rom here, and a full, physical CIB is available here.
Skyboy Games (Robbie Dieterich): programming & music
Better call 911, because this game is on FIRE
Fire and Rescue first teased its existence as early as June 6, 2021, when Robbie tweeted a brief clip of gameplay. Skyboy Games began work on the game in the wake of their previous game’s success: Orphea placed 2nd in Lost Cartridge Jam 2020.
Screenshot from Orphea
From that moment onward, Skyboy Games unleashed a veritable river of updates highlighting their progress, from the creation of the first test cartridge on September 16, 2021 (and a sample box 4 days later) to the confirmation of an eventual physical release on October 12, 2021. Before the year was out, Skyboy announced that pre-orders for the game were open on December 6, 2021 (closing 10 days later), with an option to pick up your own copy in person at Super MAGFest. Confirmation that the first copies were en route to players went out on December 17, 2021.
Fire and Rescue describes itself as an arcade-style game in the spirit of the NES’ early Black Box releases. You play as the brave firefighter trusted with saving your city and the innocent civilians who inhabit it from the host of fires ravaging your town. Using your water tank, you can go into each building and extinguish the fires within. Eventually your tank will run low, so you’ll need to hurry outside to refill it at the nearby hydrant. It’s a careful exercise in resource management, because fires can grow and spread over time, even shooting unextinguishable fireballs. And of course you must consider your own safety because you only have 2 hit points. In a fun nod to Ghosts ‘n Goblins, after the first hit you lose your helmet, and the second hit will kill you. In addition to fighting fires, you will need to save anyone trapped in the burning buildings by touching them and carrying them out one at a time to the waiting ambulance’s rescue point. Grateful citizens will leave power ups that can automatically refill your water tank or restore your helmet (and thus your health).
Screenshot from Fire and Rescue
The game’s controls are simple. Use the d-pad to move left and right, as well as up and down ladders. You can jump using the A button and spray water with the B button (you can spray water downwards by jumping and then pressing down and B while in midair). Select toggles options at the title menu, and Start chooses options at the title menu and pauses during gameplay.
Fire and Rescue is a captivating arcade game that serves as a refreshing reminder of the kind of simple fun Nintendo delivered to pull the video game industry back from the 1983 crash. While we may also ooh and ahh over the latest development to push the hardware to its limits, Fire and Rescue exemplifies how the more recent games that populate our list of all-time favorites stand tall because they stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before. Fire and Rescue would fit in perfectly among the Black Box originals it emulates, but for all its stripped-down simplicity, it’s a stunning gem.
Screenshot from NES Black Box classic Balloon Fight
Gameplay includes some fun little details that add nuance. For instance, the entrance to each stage’s house includes a small set of stairs that you have to jump on in order to enter the house, otherwise you’re just walking in front of the building, and you cannot just jump up into the ground floor from standing outside in front of it. In addition to the layouts of each house and the distribution of the fires and civilians within, the placement of the ambulance and the hydrant relative to the entrance adds a dash of difficulty that will mess with your intuition. In similar touches that will challenge your assumptions and toy with speedrunners, you can jump off ladders while climbing them, but you cannot jump onto a ladder and start climbing in the middle of it to save time. This is cleverly balanced with strategic use of the dropped powerups to limit the number of times you need to go outside to refill your water tank. I had a laugh when I discovered you could jump out a window or off a balcony to take a shortcut to the street, and the fall didn’t take a toll on your health. This is all to say that Fire and Rescue has easy to learn basics, but interesting and helpful nuggets that pepper your experience, which you can only learn by getting your hands dirty…or reading my blog.
The game’s graphics take a less is more approach, but still giving players everything they need. As the cute 8-bit firefighter you can see the entire layout of each house, identifying the animated fires and the people trapped among them. Perhaps like a real firefighter, all you see are the elements that matter: the people, the fire, the paths to get to either. Anything else is superfluous. Robbie plays with the negative space, incorporating furniture and appliances into the background to add a sense of art to the otherwise functional design. Meanwhile Fire and Rescue’s music lays a soft but intense tune over gameplay. Rather than the monotonous tones of some early Black Box outings, Fire and Rescue’s chiptune conveys mood: one of focus, as if the firefighter was in the zone and concentrating on getting through another day at the office, saving lives and literally putting out fires.
Unlike Billy Joel, Skyboy acknowledges they started this fire. So I reached out to interview them with all the burning questions that I love to ash all my subjects. Ok I’ll stop now.
-Before we dive into Fire and Rescue, I would love to talk about you and your background. What first inspired you to become a game programmer? What is the origin story of Skyboy Games?
Okay, I'll try to give you the short version of my background (if such a thing even exists.)
First things first, my name is Robbie Dieterich and I'm the sole member of Skyboy Games and also an Assistant Professor of Game Design at George Mason University (GMU) in Virginia. Before coming to GMU, I was a game programmer in Tokyo where I had been working for roughly a decade working on games like Elite Beat Agents, Lips, and the Black Eyed Peas Experience. Before Tokyo, I lived and worked in Virginia (where I also went to college.) If you're wondering how exactly a college kid from VA ended up working in a Japanese game development company in Tokyo for a decade, well that's a whole other story (that involves more than a few late nights of drinking.)
My Black Eyed Peas Experience: “Where is the love?” “Where is your shirt?”
As far as inspiration to become a game programmer goes, you can thank a couple of magazines for that. One was early in Nintendo Power, I think in the first or second year where they had a game design contest. I didn't enter, but I remember seeing the winning entry and being enraptured with the idea of making my own games. I was probably around 8 or 9 at the time.
The second inspiring magazine article came much later in an issue of Next Generation mag around '96 or so. The article listed jobs in the industry, and I fell in love with the idea of working in games. Ironically enough, I assumed I would be best suited to be a producer because I didn't think I was smart enough to be a programmer.
Anyway, while I was inspired to work in games, I didn't think it could ever really happen. So, I put the thought away in the pipe dream section and ended up getting a degree in Computer Science. I didn't like CS that much per se, but I had picked up a knack for programming by doing all sorts of personal projects (usually making broken little games.)
So, maybe we will get into the Tokyo connection here. After graduating college, I spent a year on the JET program teaching English in Japan. Living in Japan had been a goal of mine for a while (my mother is from Okinawa), and I studied Japanese all through college with that goal in mind. After the year in JET, I came back to the States and worked as a programmer at a government contractor.
Working at the government contractor was, honestly, pretty dull. It was so dull that I ended up quitting that job to help some friends work on an arcade rhythm game. It was an... interesting time. It didn't end well however since Konami got wind of what we were up to and... applied some indirect pressure on our funding source.
In a bit of a funk, I went to stay with a friend in Japan for a while. It was there that I had a chance to attend an industry party thanks to another friend I had become drinking buddies with while I was on the JET program. It was at that party that I met the guy who would become my boss for the next 10 years. I introduced myself as a freelance, i.e. unemployed, programmer, he suggested an interview and things went from there.
Skyboy Games is a side business I started towards the end of my time in Japan, mainly as a vehicle for indie games that I was making. The Skyboy in Skyboy is my son.
-Who are your influences? And whose work are you watching closely now?
This is a tricky question since I'm not super conscious of strong direct influences. I do pick up influences, of course, but I think of them being more diffuse in my work and way of thought.
For example, Keiichi Yano, who I worked for the most in Tokyo, is certainly an influence on how I design games. It's not, however, because I try to ape the way he approaches design, but the way he approaches making games have certainly colored the way I approach making games.
As far work I'm watching closely now, I watch the work of people I've worked with before. In a way, I tend to watch projects when I have a direct personal or professional connection with the developer in question.
For example, Adam from Second Dimension was a great source for PCBs and cart shells, so I've been watching Affinity Sorrow like a hawk. I grew fond of some of the developers at MIVS, so I watch their projects (like Crescendo, Unbeatable, and Noisz). Vi Grey and Justin Orenich were super fun to talk with (and Justin helped A LOT with getting me started on physical cart production) so I'm watching what they're up to next.
What can I say, I'm a softy who watches other projects for soft, personal reasons.
-You are also an assistant professor at George Mason University, where you teach game design. Do you feel your academic work informs your approach to game design, or perhaps your video game work informs your teaching?
Yes, both ways!
Most of my work in academia is teaching students how to create games which forces me to constantly organize and vocalize my understanding of how best to make games. This encourages me to apply a more rigorous process to problems I might otherwise be tempted to solve by sheer intuition.
In the other direction, working on games provides concrete object lessons I can use to illustrate ideas in class. NES games are great for this since they have such tight scope. One of the benefits of working at the art school part of the university is that creating games is my art and the university encourages faculty to practice their art.
-You mention in your newsletter that you spent about a decade in Tokyo programming games for a wide variety of platforms, such as the Nintendo DS, Xbox 360, iOS, and Android. Did you originally go to Tokyo for that purpose? What kind of games did you work on? What lessons have you carried from those experiences to your development work now?
The biggest titles I worked on were Elite Beat Agents (Nintendo DS), Lips (Xbox 360), and the Black Eyed Peas Experience (Xbox 360 + Kinect). I also did a bunch of mobile games which I'm pretty sure are now all defunct.
Under the Gloria Estefan Act, we are the rhythm and we are here to get you
I think I've internalized a lot of what I learned developing games there. To unpack it a bit, I think we placed a high premium on subtle polish in what often seemed like minute areas of games. For example, the timing fraction of a second pause breath you might put between a fade-out and a fade-in.
Even though I work on games mostly by myself nowadays, I find that I sometimes imagine myself in the roles of various past co-workers depending on what I'm doing. When I'm thinking about fine-tuning variables I imagine I'm working with some of the planners I've worked with (Fuji-san, Nakao-san). When I'm tuning pixel art, I'm getting imaginary feedback from former artist co-workers (Saito-san, Nakai-san, Umeji-san). When I playtest, I'm taking on the almost sadistic (to the game, not people) nature of some of the best QA managers (Hayashi-san and, the living TCR manual, Sawada-san) I've worked with. When I fix a thorny bug, I still imagine how I might explain it to my programming lead, Okada-san, back in the day.
Gosh, when I say it that way, I sound like a lonely old hermit.
I have in-person friends too! I swear!
-How would you describe your design aesthetic, what to you are the hallmarks of a game made by you?
My rule for when something looks good comes down to intentionality. Does something look the way it does on purpose?
When something is lo-fi, the difference to me is whether I'm convinced that any given sound or graphic actually sounds/looks how the author intended it to.
Going forward, since I'm likely to be on a hands-on tour through the technological history of NES games, my aim is to produce games that feel authentically like games of the era I'm seeking to emulate, in terms of tech, design, look and feel.
-What tools do you use to code and compose for your games?
Visual studio and c65 for code. I code mostly in C and roll a little bit of assembly when I need an extra performance boost.
Graphics tend to be done in GIMP and then transferred into tools like YYCHR so I can arrange them in CHR memory.
I compose tunes in FamiTracker. Although, "compose" isn't really the right word for it. If you listen closely to the music in FIRE AND RESCUE, you may be able to recognize it as a transposition of portions of a Sousa march.
I knew beats could be fire but this is ridiculous!
-With your background in more modern platforms, what inspired you to develop a game for the NES?
My first game system was a NES, so I've always had a distinct love for the system.
On a more programmery side, I used to read old game programming books that were centered around mode 13h PC programming. I never got to do much of that myself since when I started doing games more seriously DirectX and friends were already a thing. So, doing low-level, "dirty" coding was something I always wanted to do myself.
I wanna code DIRRTY
-What new challenges or surprises surfaced in developing Fire and Rescue?
This may sound like a humble brag, but the development of FIRE AND RESCUE went pretty smoothly. To be fair, I've been around the block a fair bit with a lot of projects, so I had a pretty decent sense of the scope I wanted to aim for, and I tried to front-load the most troublesome parts of development so any ugly surprises could hit me early.
For example, my original concept for the game had the player picking up and dropping their water tank and stretching a limited length hose to put out fires. Convincingly rendering the hose within the limits of NES sprite rendering (even with some BG tile trickery) proved more costly and bug-prone than I wanted, so I pivoted away from that feature during the prototyping phase of the game. I think this was a lucky choice since picking up and dropping the tank was also the drag (though the idea of having P2 move the tank while P1 sprayed could have been kind of fun.)
Not that the end of the project was necessarily smooth sailing. Managing code size is a challenge and figuring out what code used up more bytes versus other code was not always intuitive. Measuring the effect of changes was super important.
Optimization for performance was fun though. On modern platforms, micro-optimizations of code are rarely where you get significant wins for improving performance. On old platforms, however, those micro-optimizations can be huge. I finally got to use some of the techniques I learned from old game programming tomes and have them make a useful difference.
-I always ask my interviewees whether there is a reflection of themselves in the game’s protagonist. Do you identify with the firefighter character in some way?
I don't see myself in the characters per se, but there is some of me in them. Namely, the sprites for the firefighters are based on the sprites from Balloon Fight because BF was one of the two games I first got with my NES.
FIRE AND RESCUE is kind of an homage to my feelings playing Balloon Fight for the first time (and opening the box for the first time, too).
-Although unnamed in the game and manual, do they have a name in your head canon?
In my head canon, FIRE AND RESCUE would have been developed in Japan, so I imagined the characters having names written next to them somewhere in paper design materials.
Originally, the names would be Ken and Satoshi (for P1 and P2, respectively) but I imagine the American localization team changed "Satoshi" to "Jay" to be more relatable in the States. Of course, the names never got used because marketing decided they weren't needed.
I write fanfiction in my head for the games I make and have imaginary co-workers. I swear, I'm okay!
No no, a different Jay (I hope)
-There has been a lot of support and enthusiasm for Fire and Rescue, with people enjoying the game at MAGFest earlier this year. How does it feel to see so many people excited for your game?
It rocks soooo much. I especially love how many people seem to get what I was going for with this game.
-What aspects of Fire and Rescue are you most proud of?
The aspect I'm most proud of is what I'm talking about when I talk about people "getting the game".
My primary goal was to make FIRE AND RESCUE feel authentically like a Black Box NES game that was part of its original line-up. Every time someone said that the copyright message was the only thing that gave it away as a modern creation or when someone said they didn't know why, but the game just felt right for the era, I was on Cloud-9.
-Your third newsletter highlights just how detail-oriented your game design is. You mention intentionally excluding “quality of life” features found in more contemporary games such as using Select and Start buttons to navigate the menu on the title screen (in line with games of the era) rather than also allow option selection via the D-pad and A button. Were these touches something you knew about from your game design or academic backgrounds, or was this the result of research prior to developing Fire and Rescue?
A lot of that was instinct and memories from the game's I grew up playing. I wish I could say I had researched this carefully, but in reality, these were decisions largely based on my intuition, where adding certain things didn't feel right, didn't feel authentic to the era.
-We had a chance to meet and chat in person at MAGFest this year as well! You told me something really interesting: that in addition to having much of Fire and Rescue’s design pay homage to the older black box releases, that you plan having future releases follow a design pattern that traces the history of the NES’ lifespan. Where did this idea come from, and which patterns should we be on the lookout for?
That was an awesome chat, by the way! I loved talking with the "good Sean Robinson"!
At the moment, I think what you'll likely see from me is me essentially unpacking my game history by making games that speak (to me at least) of the games I remember from my childhood.
I didn't get to play all the NES games, but I did play quite a few, so we'll likely see me tracing through a history of NES games with a bias to games I have strong memories of.
So, some examples of how that bias might play out in future projects might be having more Hogan's Alley influences than Duck Hunt or more Metroid than Kid Icarus because the former games in those two examples are one's I have more personal memories about.
-Your newsletter also teases an upcoming project that will be Zapper-compatible. Given your interest in tracing the history of the NES that we discuss in an earlier question, are there other technologies you hope to incorporate at some point, whether that’s other accessories such as the PowerPad or U-Force or cartridge developments such as using a battery save feature?
Oh yes, indeed. As I mentioned before, my project plan is essentially a playable homage to my personal nostalgia.
Some initial research into that Zapper project...
My tech choices will likely be driven by the tech requirement of the games I want to pay homage to. So, for example, I have a Metroid-ey game I want to make and it would likely be an MMC1 project with no save battery because... nostalgia (and also the chance of adding a 'Justin Bailey'-esque easter egg.)
Were I doing something Zelda-inspired, I'd probably have non-password saving.
(If I were to do something as an homage to the first Dragon Quest/Warrior I'd be torn on the battery save issue since the Japanese version actually used a password system!)
-Are there any other projects you have lined up on the horizon, NES or otherwise? Any dream projects? Collaborations?
So, next project I'm working on, Saru Kani Panic, is a collaboration with some people I've worked with before. This game is not part of the Skyboy Games brand, so its aesthetics don't hew to my NES history idea we have running.
Saru Kani Panic will be running alongside with the Zapper game I hinted at in the newsletter.
Later on, I want to start climbing up the NES memory mapper tech tree with a Metriod-ey or Zelda-ey game. I actually have some artist friends I'm hoping to woo for concept art for this one. (And I have a friend I would LOVE to have cosplay as a character from a game I make.)
Of course, like many nerds, I do have an RPG burning a hole in my brain, waiting to come out. I might try doing a version of that someday specced to NES so the NES tech constraints can keep my project in scope.
Screenshot from Saru Kani Panic in development with Work3 Studio
-Are there any homebrew games in development that you are excited to play?
Well, as you may guess from my earlier answer, I'm getting pretty excited for Affinty Sorrow. I have some waiting to go however.
-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?
You are awesome!
I wasn't sure what to expect when I jumped into the homebrew community, but everyone I've met has been welcoming and wonderful.
Thanks for tuning in to this latest episode of the series that showcases the latest and greatest homebrew games that deserve a place on your shelf. What are your thoughts on Fire and Rescue, and Skyboy Games? What homebrews are you eagerly looking forward to? Perhaps you’ll see it here soon when…A Homebrew Draws Near! Command?