A Homebrew Draws Near!
A blog series by @Scrobins
Episode 28: Copper Jacket
I try very hard to stay informed of what’s happening in homebrew. Keeping tabs on a number of developers’ pages and social media sometimes causes my phone to buzz nonstop. But for all my dorky vigilance, several devs often suddenly pop up on my radar with very fleshed out projects, and it’s all I can do not to break my devices hitting refresh for any news. Homebrew can be a very diffused community, and identifying newcomers hoping to attract attention and support can be difficult. Which is all the more reason to spread the word of good games and talented devs whenever possible.
For this entry, I’m covering Copper Jacket, an action-shooter developed by Monsoon Studios for the NES. As of the time of this writing, Copper Jacket has fulfilled its Kickstarter pledges, and the availability of additional runs is unknown.
The limited edition Silver Bullet and Copper Gold carts
Nicholas Monson: programming
Monsoon Studios first teased their work on Copper Jacket with a thread on NESdev, beginning December 29, 2019. A virtuous cycle of feedback and updates ensued, as the game became more polished with the input of the community.
After a brief quiet period, Copper Jacket launched on Kickstarter on November 16, 2021. Backer tiers, cleverly organized by military rank, included soundtrack files, a rom of the game, cart-only, regulation edition CIB, limited copper gold and silver bullet cartridge editions, early delivery, and the ability to have your name featured in the game & manual. By the time the campaign concluded its mission, 244 backers had pledged more than $16,000 toward the game’s production. By October 2022, Monsoon Studios began fulfilling orders.
Early demo screenshot of Copper Jacket
Copper Jacket describes itself as an action-shooter in the vein of Ikari Warriors. You play as Ivan and Anatoly, two highly trained soldiers determined to defeat Commander Zaslavsky, your former boss who foolishly thought he could blackmail you into doing his bidding after kidnapping your fiancé, Khristina. You must infiltrate Zaslavsky’s defenses across five zones and a multitude of enemies to stick it to your old boss and save your blushing bride-to-be.
Gameplay consists of run & gun dynamics, upgrading your weapons as you progress. Controls are easy to learn: the D-pad moves you around accordingly with 8-direction movement, the A-button places/detonates bombs, the B-button fires your primary weapon, Start pauses the game, and Select toggles 1-2 player mode.
Copper Jacket is an engrossing adventure, daring you to get farther without taking damage in order to hold onto your preferred weapon. Every time I got hit, I would curse and rededicate myself to playing a little bit better and avoid dumb errors just so I could have my spread shot longer. Copper Jacket sets you on your way baked in its Final Fight-esque story with a Contra Frosting. I may be hungry, but this is still an apt metaphor. And what else could one ask for? As much as homebrew may push the boundaries of what is possible on the NES or elsewhere, there’s always an appetite for games that competently add a new entry to a genre underserved by homebrew’s existing library.
Gameplay follows a vertical-oriented run & gun format, with a strong emphasis on the running. Enemies are designed to reward those who barrel forward and past them rather than tentatively tip toe into the ideal position to shoot. A possible idea for a hard mode might be to enable baddies to turn around to shoot you. That’s not to say charging ahead is easy, as the varied terrain can impact your speed and bog you down. Especially the bogs, which force you to think on your feet. With splitting paths you have variations to each level that nicely enhance the game’s replayability. Not that I have any concerns on that front, because this game’s difficulty puts it alongside Contra and other hallmarks of the “NES hard” pantheon. Thank goodness you don’t die from a single hit! And extra thank goodness there are infinite continues that will drop you back at the beginning of the level segment in which you died. If I haven’t said it enough throughout this series, I am a TERRIBLE gamer. So I died. A lot. When it wasn’t the Contra-inspired wall miniboss, it was the actual first boss who has an easy enough to remember pattern, but who is still a challenge to hit without taking damage yourself.
Screenshot from a later draft of Copper Jacket
Copper Jacket’s graphics are reminiscent of mid-era NES offerings like Ikari III, with big sprites and bright colors with well-designed tiles that make levels pretty without being distracting. As much as I like to praise levels that look like pieces of art, in a fast-paced game such as this, the detailed, functional design of sprites and levels ensured I never felt stuck coming around corners, unable to take cover, or fall prey to the ever-hated oversized hitbox. The soundtrack loops its level’s song, propelling you forward with its adventurous melody, but repeating in a way that makes you feel compelled to always advance and not get bogged down in place. And while I don’t ordinarily comment on sound effects, I can’t not appreciate the default single shot weapon’s Dick Tracy gun sound, that just plain makes me happy. This game gets points from me just for that.
For the full mission report on Copper Jacket, I debriefed its developer…
Nicholas Monson/Monsoon Studios
-Before we dive into Copper Jacket, I would love to talk about you and your various backgrounds. What first inspired you to become a homebrew game developer, pixel artist, and chiptune musician? What is your origin story? What is the story behind Monsoon Studios?
I have always been interested in graphics and visual aesthetics. Looks are very important, after all, there are studies that suggest that more than half of the human brain is involved with processing visual information in some manner. For me, I not only love looking at art, but I also love making it. For instance, I love drawing in my free time (and during times when I should have been paying attention in school). That said, what initially got me interested in pixel art, oddly enough, was working with fuse beads as a kid. I find the limited nature of bead art dovetails nicely into making pixel art.
As I grew older, I eventually switched over to making artwork in MS paint 98 – a program I still use today. During the 2000s I made several sprite animations (videos) and developed a closer relationship with pixel art in terms of background development as well as sprite character development. That said, I didn’t have a deep appreciation for pixel art until I was in my early 20s. It was then when I started to replay some games I had as a kid – like Batman for the NES – that I came to love pixel art. I bought several books on the subject and began to look at the work of various artists (Fool, Helm, Made, Jamon, Big Brother, and Alien to name a few). This inspired me to improve my skills in this domain.
As for becoming a chiptune musician, I was mainly inspired by the demoscene and listening to keygen music. There are countless musicians I love listening to, Pink, Emax, Dultrax, Estrayk, Ghidorah, Maktone, and Strobe are a few – look them up on the Modarchive! Growing up I played the trumpet, piano, and various percussion instruments and began composing music in FruityLoops around the time I got into sprite animation. Having this background allowed me to transition into writing MOD and XM (MODule and eXtended Module) files somewhat easily by the late 2000s. I then joined a demoscene art group called NERVE and wrote songs for them. I also did some freelance work as well as some collaborative work with a few other artists (Peak, LHS, and a few others) around this time as well. Eventually the demo group I was a part of died out and I then started working on chiptunes for other platforms – like the Gameboy, NES, SNES, C64, and Genesis.
Manfred Linzner aka Pink
As far as games go, what first inspired me to make games was really the desire to combine a lot of my interests together. Making games is a great way of combining pixel art, retro computing, and chiptune compositions into one form. In addition to this, I liked the idea of making video games because, as a kid, I thought it was nearly impossible to do. A game is a fantasy world that you can experience in this world. To have the ability to conjure up a world in your head -- the characters, the scenes, the music, the mechanics -- and bring it into reality, especially through assembly, is an empowering experience and invokes a feeling that I really can’t put into words.
As of now, I would say my predilection for 1980s and 1990s aesthetics and technology is what drives me the most. The fondness I have for this era’s cultural artifacts is fueled in part by nostalgia but more by a sense of awe. Vintage computers, printers, electric motors, cameras, color CRT monitors, tape players, synthesizers, these devices are astonishing if you really stop and think about what they do, their impact on art and society, and how they work. For me, having a deep understanding of these “obsolete” devices, among others, instills in me a sense of wonder. This inspires me to continue to make art for these relics. Needless to say, I am interested in the preservation and continuation of older tech. Producing new media for these devices gives me the sense that I am continuing their life. On a personal note, I find the idea of “continuing life” or “survival” to be deeply meaningful -- it’s one of my core principles.
As for Monsoon Studios this principle of “continuation” is more focused on entertainment media. More specifically, it’s centered on continuing the life of retro video games and other associated artworks (by "associated artworks" this refers to vintage ads made with old tech, airbrush and acrylic cover art, etc.). I started Monsoon Studios in the mid-2010s with this mission in mind. The first game Necrolance was a step into the world of retro, and Copper Jacket is the first full commitment to the studio’s values.
-Who are your influences? And whose work are you watching closely now?
When it comes to NES game development, I must say that the works of Konami, Natsume, and Sunsoft are my biggest influences. As for who I like to watch closely now, I’d say it would be the folks over at Morphcat Games. The work they produce is certainly high quality.
-How would you describe your design aesthetic, and what to you are hallmarks of a game designed by you?
Well as far as visual styling and design goes, I like to make things that are detailed, but not too detailed. For early NES games this is not an easy thing to do, and I've certainly learned my lesson on this the hard way. As of now, I can't say that any of my work has some distinct excellence. Maybe one day this will be the case. Currently, I'm mainly experimenting by mixing various game mechanics together.
-What tools do you use to code and create the overall game as well as its music and art?
The tools I use are for the most part simple and are ones that I've been using for decades now. I use a large MS paint canvas for pixel graphics, Adobe Photoshop (2007) for logos and other artwork, Notepad++ for ASM, FamiTracker for music, Eagle PCB for PCB design, and for level design I use an old version of GameMaker. In addition to this, I have a collection of programs that help glue all the media these tools produce together. For instance, I wrote a program that reads level data files from GameMaker and converts it into a compressed format that is digestible by the 6502 assembler I use.
-Copper Jacket is a recent expansion of your work to NES development, following Necrolance, a Gameboy Color-inspired adventure for the PC. What encouraged you to make games for this console, and how does it compare to your work on the PC?
There were several things that pushed me towards the NES world. Firstly, I wanted to make something that was physical, not just digital. In addition to this, I wanted to develop something simple to see what challenges came with producing a cartridge as well as the game. Originally, I wanted to make this game for DOS, but later set my sights on the NES after learning more about 6502 assembly and the NES’ architecture.
Screenshot for Necrolance, released for the PC by Monsoon Studios
As far as PC development vs NES development goes, I'd say the high-level fundamentals are the same, but the low-level design is completely different. How to handle memory, sounds, and graphics for instance, these are worlds apart.
-At the heart of Copper Jacket is its action-shoot aesthetic, reminiscent of Metal Gear, Commando, and Ikari Warriors. What about this genre resonates so strongly with you? What inspired you to make this type of game?
Playing Metal Gear definitely inspired me to make Copper Jacket. I wanted to make a game that was a bit of a fusion between Metal Gear and Contra. I had the idea when I was replaying Metal Gear a few years back. I suppose what resonates with me here in this genre is the fantasy of one man (perhaps accompanied with a friend) going into a huge military base and overthrowing it with sheer will and skill, in order to save a loved one, the planet, or something of vastly great importance/value.
-What elements are crucial for a good action game?
Well, I'd say the most critical element is action with a bit of variety, I say this sincerely. For me, there should always be some type of physical challenge you must face. You don't want to be meandering around in a level facing only a handful of enemies and challenges. This would make the action game plodding; instead, the player should be forced to take action as they advance. In addition to this, the challenges should change. New enemies should be introduced, and different combinations of enemies and obstacles should be presented to the player in order to keep them engaged. Now, when it comes to making an action game on the NES, especially in the early days, I believe that the difficulty bar should be raised. This is mainly due to the small size of the game. If the game were made too easy, then you may only get 25 minutes of play time. The challenge here for the developer is recognizing what the proper amount of difficulty is needed. This is where play testers come in.
-Ever since my first episode, M-Tee planted this idea in my mind that a game’s protagonist, who serves as both the player's point of immersion in the game as well as a reflection of its designer. What was the intention behind Commander Zaslavsky’s design, and are there elements of yourself that you see in him or any other characters?
I must admit that I’d like to see some of myself in the game’s protagonist, but realistically I’m not so daring. For those who don’t know, the story behind Copper Jacket is that you were formerly a top operative for the ruthless Commander Zaslavsky. At some point, Zaslavsky tries to make you do his dirty work in which the protagonist refuses, you don’t wish to compromise your values. It’s at this point Zaslavsky kidnaps your wife-to-be in order to manipulate you. You, however, reject the commander’s demands and go on a rescue mission to save your beloved. Zaslavsky, manipulative as he may be, is also a bit arrogant. He completely dismisses the possibility of defeat, after all, what is a few men compared to an entire military base? The problem here is that Zaslavsky’s men have no real motivation, they are just blindly following orders, whereas you, the protagonist, are highly motivated to save your love and to seek justice. In summation, the fantasy here involves taking on an absurdly prodigious force – through will and determination -- and overcoming all odds and challenges. This is all done to preserve your values and save someone close to you. This type of narrative is old as time itself and is one that I am personally fond of. It’s simple and heroic. In addition to this, I think the moral here is something that a lot of people can easily understand and can relate to. For this reason, I think it makes for a good NES game plot.
-What new challenges or surprises surfaced in developing Copper Jacket? What lessons did you learn that you would like to share with the people who aspire to follow in your footsteps?
I certainly learned a lot, and was definitely presented with many challenges, such as inflation and the supply chain crisis. These two events made everything more difficult on the physical side of things. In addition to this, getting the correct box materials, labels, and booklets was also not so trivial. I must have gone through 4 different label types for the NES cartridge. The problem here is that you don't want a label that flexes up after you apply it, and it should resemble the style of original NES cartridges. For boxes, the company I went with incorrectly printed the artwork several times. Some came out with white streaks, others had too low of a DPI level, some were the wrong dimensions and were made of a material that was too flimsy. I also had some orders that were just lost in shipping and never came. If someone were to attempt to make their own carts, be sure to order proofs. Never pay for a large quantity of something until you've seen it physically with your own eyes.
As far as the digital side of things goes, I was presented with a different set of challenges. The main hurdle here was just size. PC games can take up a lot of space, but CNROM NES games do not have such a luxury. The small size of a game forces you to make certain design decisions, and the challenge here is to make something that's fun out of the limits you've been presented with.
-There has been a lot of support and enthusiasm for Copper Jacket on NESdev, Kickstarter, and on social media. How does it feel to see so many people excited about the game?
It certainly is exciting! It's nice to know that there are others who are enthusiastic about the NES in this day and age.
-Are there any other projects you have lined up on the horizon, NES or otherwise? Any dream projects? Your site mentions another game in the planning stages.
Yes, there is another game currently being developed as of now -- spoiler alert -- it's another NES game. The plan for this project is to use a mapper based off Nintendo's MMC3 ASIC; that is to say, a TxROM game. This will allow for better graphics and more gameplay. Personally, I'd like to develop several NES games with this type of mapper. I have a collection of assets (music and art) that I've been working on intermittently over the past 8 years and I'd like to eventually use them in a few different NES games.
As for dream projects, I certainly have a few. One dream project of mine is to develop a Dreamcast game -- maybe something that resembles Deus Ex or Resident Evil. Such an effort would probably take 10 years to finish though.
Another project I have in my to-do list is a 3D adventure game, although I'm on the fence for what system -- either N64 or Dreamcast.
-Are there any homebrew games in development that you are excited to play?
I am looking forward to playing Full Quiet – looks like it’s going to be something special.
It’s a good time to be a fan of this game
-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 would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about my background and Copper Jacket. In addition to this, I’d like to give a shoutout to Airbrush Asylum for producing a wonderful airbrush render of the game’s cover art. Finally, I would like to thank everyone for the support!
Thanks for tuning in to this latest episode of the series that takes the high dive into those new games for old consoles that will soon be the classics of your collection. What are your thoughts on Copper Jacket and Monsoon Studios? What homebrews are you eagerly looking forward to? Perhaps you’ll see it here soon when…A Homebrew Draws Near! Command?