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Episode 29: Life on Mars


Scrobins

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A Homebrew Draws Near!

A blog series by @Scrobins

Episode 29: Life on Mars

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Introduction:

When you create something special, something you are proud of that others enjoy, you might feel the urge to bring your work to as many outlets as possible in order to spread it further. In recent years, we’ve seen this as great homebrew games make their way from the NES and other older consoles to the Switch and other modern platforms. This has enabled games like NEScape to spread from the homebrew community to mainstream gaming audiences. Sometimes a homebrew’s trek works its way not only to modern gamers, but to other far-flung corners of homebrew, where some fans of one area of homebrew may not be aware of the exciting development emerging from another. By porting their games to other consoles, developers are helping to highlight the broader work of the originating scene as much as their own project, perhaps inspiring new ideas and collaboration.

For this entry, I’m covering Life on Mars, a Metroidvania developed by Kai Magazine Software originally for the MSX2 computer, remade for the PC & Steam, and now adapted for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. As of the time of this writing, the initial pre-orders of the physical edition of the game have been fulfilled, and can still be purchased here.

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Life on Mars’ American edition box art in its seriously edgy glory

 

Development Team:

Oscar Kenneth Albero Ingles: programming

 

Game Evolution:

Signs of Life on Mars were first spotted as early as December 6, 2015, when Kai Magazine Software posted game footage on YouTube for its original release on the MSX2 computer. Life found a way to reach modern platforms when more YouTube videos of the game’s PC port began to appear on February 5, 2017. Kai Magazine Software then breathed new life into the game’s presence on retro consoles with a YouTube teaser for its Sega Genesis/Mega Drive adaptation on June 2, 2022.

When pre-orders for this latest iteration of Life on Mars opened on their website, 4 box design choices were available for its release: a classic black-check European design, a blue-spined modern European design, a red-spined American design, and a black-spined Japanese design. All choices were for a CIB copy of the game, with a reversible cover, and 4 game postcards.

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Screenshot from Life on Mars for the MSX2

 

Gameplay:

Life on Mars describes itself as a Metroidvania, with an open map and upgrades to your skills, weapons, and shields, scattered throughout the landscape. You play as Sam, a recently hired maintenance worker for the Mars Scientific Colony 001. Traveling from Earth aboard the U.N.S.S. Barcelona, you are also investigating what happened to the colony since it broke off contact with Earth several months earlier. Maybe it has something to do with the life forms discovered in the Martian ice, which scientists mentioned in the colony’s reports just prior to breaking contact?

Gameplay consists of exploration and repairs, using the Genesis X680000 computer terminals to report your progress back to the Barcelona and save your progress. Controls are straightforward: use the D-pad accordingly to move left/right, duck down, or aim your weapon above your head (either straight up, or at an angle); press the A-button to shoot your primary weapon (a plasma rifle), the B-button to jump, the C-button to fire your secondary weapon (grenade launcher or flame thrower, once acquired), press Start to toggle between your secondary weapons, and hold Start to access the status/map screen.

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Where you going? U.N.S.S. Barcelona. Oh.

 

Review:

Life on Mars is an atmospheric joy, delivering a fun adventure that is equal parts tense mystery and fun exploration, baked in good Metroidvania design. The only real flaw is that there isn’t more of it all. Gameplay follows the Super Metroid archetype: shooting, platforms, and upgrades that enable you to explore your environment more. The Martian colony is somewhat nonlinear, as some areas are technically always accessible (just brutally difficult without upgrades) while others do require a certain upgrade to proceed beyond the entrance. There is also an easy to reach workshop where you can upgrade your energy and the power of your plasma rifle, paid for with the energy cells you pick up from blasting baddies. Within some areas are also hidden areas with more upgrades, nestled behind obstacles, which can then open previously unreachable regions of previously explored levels. Taken together, the open map limited by your strength and upgraded stats, provide strategy to your exploration and a soft rail to your path. As someone who likes some sort of path to follow, this nonlinear-ish organization feels like a nice balance, like Dragon Warrior placing significantly stronger monsters in areas you aren’t supposed to venture yet. Your character will also wonder aloud that maybe they should leave, in case you don’t quite get the hint. And it’s this text that is another virtue of the game. Life on Mars includes entertaining, PG-13 edgy dialogue that fans of Kai Magazine Software’s other games will recognize. Meanwhile the game’s bosses bring a sort of bullet hell aspect to the platforming that will keep you on your toes. Fortunately, the infinite continues and save points make the frustration fun rather than tedious since losing your shield doesn’t mean you start over.

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Finally, the good guy respawns!

And a climactic race against time imparts a thrilling punctuation mark to what is hopefully just an opening chapter.

Life on Mars’ graphics are colorful, but have a certain corroded look, conveying a world that feels lived in and neglected due to the menace inhabiting the colony. The environments are well-developed, clearly distinguishing accessible terrain from the background, with subtle variations in texture and coloring that encourages you to poke around and explore. The music likewise communicates a creepiness that channels Resident Evil and Martian Gothic with a less-is-more approach. Combining a tense uncertainty with tones of militaristic confidence, the soundtrack offers a sense of lonely discomfort across the tracks, which are unique to each level, including the more upbeat rhythms that drop in for boss fights with stark escalation.

 

Interviews:

I don’t dare venture out with this game until I’ve gotten a full briefing from the developer on what to expect, here’s what he had to say…

 

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Oscar Kenneth Albero Ingles/Kai Magazine Software

-Before we dive into Life on Mars, I would love to talk about you and your various backgrounds. What first inspired each of you to become homebrew game developers, pixel artists, and chiptune musicians? What are your origin stories? What is the story behind Kai Magazine Software?

We grew up with the MSX and MSX2 computers. That system was developed in Japan, and it had incredibly colorful and playable games from the best Japanese companies of the era (Konami, Compile, Capcom and many others) so we became huge fans of the Japanese game style and playability.

All the Kai Magazine components and collaborators share this same past.

 

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

The 8-bit Japanese games from the 80’s from companies such as Konami, Capcom, etc.

When the 16-bit era arrived we enjoyed the upgraded visuals and music and we got influences from the Japanese developers from that era, but personally I also grew to like some of the occidental 16-bit and 32-bit masterpieces, music style and graphics. 

 

-How would you describe your design aesthetic, and what to you are hallmarks of a game designed by you?

Well, we designed all kinds of games (more than 20) with all kinds of aesthetics. Personally I love to experiment and mix things together, I like to include a bit of everything I like on each game.

The main aesthetic we use is Japanese style (different kinds as needed) but for Life on Mars we went with a completely different aesthetic, more serious and darker in order to enhance the mystery and sci-fi horror.

 

-What tools do you use to code and create the overall game as well as its music and art?

That depends on the system (MSX2, Intellivision, Genesis/Mega Drive). Each system requires its own tools, but the most commonly used are Notepad++ to code and Jasc Paint shop Pro 9 for the pixel art.

For the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive we use DefleMask for the music.

 

-How did you first connect with each other as the team came together?

Through the MSX scene. We shared the same interests, and we had some need to express our creativity, so we tried, and it worked.

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Now you’re typing with power!

 

-What was the working dynamic like in your collaboration?

We communicate via a WhatsApp group.

We share ideas and give feedback; we usually vote on subjective matters.

 

-Life on Mars and Metal Dragon are a recent expansion of your work to Sega Genesis/Mega Drive development. What encouraged you to make games for this console, and how does it compare to your work on the Intellivision or MSX?

Making the jump to the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive was something that I had in mind for many years, but the tools were not mature enough.

Once the SGDK was mature enough with all the features that I needed to make my life a lot easier, we jumped in.

It’s not that different code-wise. The main difference is that it is a lot more of work to make a full game. The console has many more resources, and the cartridges have more capacity so that tempts us to make bigger and better things, but that translates into 2 to 6 times more work than other systems.

 

-At the heart of Life on Mars is its Metroidvania genre and mildly horror aesthetic, adapted from your release of the game for the MSX2 computer and the Life on Mars Remake for PC on Steam. What about Metroidvania games resonate so strongly with you? What inspired you to make these games and focus on these themes and game mechanics?

I always loved Japanese RPGs and action RPGs. So when I played Castlevania Symphony of the night, I fell in love with that style of RPG.

I am also a huge fan of the Metroid saga (the 2D ones) since I love the futuristic sci-fi settings, but I always missed an RPG element and currency.

So the idea was easy: To create a game that would have the things I like about Metroid (sci-fi) the ones I like about Symphony of the Night (the RPG element), and I also added a handful of Aliens and a few drops of Dead Space for the setting and... TA-DA!

 

-What elements are crucial for a good horror movie? What elements are crucial for a good game?

What is a good movie or a good game? It’s subjective, so there are as many answers as there is people.

Therefore I can only speak of what I try to add to our games and hope other people will like it:

-A WOW factor on any aspect of the game, so it quickly catches the people’s interest such as a nice cover, nice graphics, humor like in the case of Metal Dragon, sampled music and dark backgrounds such as in Life on Mars, etc.

-An interesting story (either because it is funny or mysterious)

-Good playability and replayability. The player must want to keep playing.

-Lots of explosions per minute ^_^

-The game must feel familiar but also new and original at the same time, so we use old formulas, and we mix them with new elements and with the things we like.

-Passion and love for the project you are working on. That shows into the final result.

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Screenshot from Metal Dragon by Kai Magazine Software

 

-How would you say this iteration of the game differentiates itself from its previous releases on other platforms? Which version is your favorite?

Each version has been made years after the previous one, with more experience and polish, correcting the things that didn’t work well in the previous ones and adding new things that will improve the final experience, so without a doubt my favorite version is the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive one, by far.

 

-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 the protagonist technician’s design, and are there elements of yourself that you see in him or any other characters?

We didn’t want the typical hero. We wanted a normal guy who would react like a normal guy in those situations and freak out, ask for help, use humor as a defense mechanism against the fact that his life is in danger and he is on a situation that no one has been before and he doesn’t understand, etc.

I guess he is a bit like us.

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Now I’m just imagining Oscar driving around in this singing: “If you wanna go and take a ride with me,

wanna blast some bots at the colony, oh why do I feel this waaaay? Ay, must be the monay!”

 

-What new challenges or surprises surfaced in developing Life on Mars in its various iterations? What lessons did you learn that you would like to share with the people who aspire to follow in your footsteps?

Each version was for a completely different platform, so it was a challenge every time.

With the Genesis/Mega Drive version the biggest challenge was to fit the 200Mb PC game inside the 4096Kb of the cartridge, with sampled music and sound effects, and still make it look very similar to the PC version, and in some respects, even better.

The only thing I can share with others is:

Things are not as simple or easy as we think before we start. Things are A LOT harder than anyone thinks (even me) so it requires a HUGE amount of perseverance and motivation not to give up. You REALLY must love what you are working on, otherwise you will end up quitting when you realize things are not as easy as you expected.

So, work on a project you love, with friends or colleagues that respect you and help you instead of giving you problems, and never, ever give up.

 

-There has been a lot of support and enthusiasm for Life on Mars. How does it feel to see so many people excited about the game?

It’s really great! Literally a dream come true.

We are very grateful and full of optimism and good energy to put into our next project!

I deeply thank everyone for their support!

 

-Are there any other projects you have lined up on the horizon, Genesis/Mega Drive, Intellivision, MSX, or otherwise? Any dream projects?

Yes, we started working on 2 projects for the Genesis/Mega Drive, a shorter one and a longer one which is our dream project.

The shorter one will help fund the longer one.

 

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

Too many to count!

I almost exclusively only play indie games and homebrew games.

There is a lot of talent out there and not many people can appreciate their work and talent the same way I do, because I know firsthand how difficult things are and the amount of work that something takes.

 

-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 everyone for your support and I hope you will keep supporting us with our future projects.

We will do our best to get better and better and to be able to give you better games every time.

 

Conclusion:

Thanks for tuning in to this latest episode of the series that takes the deep dive into latest games for old consoles that are the newest essentials of your collection. What are your thoughts on Life on Mars and Kai Magazine Software? 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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