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Episode 31: GunTneR



A Homebrew Draws Near!

A blog series by @Scrobins

Episode 31: GunTneR



Homebrew is brimming with tales of nostalgia and love letters to cherished games of developers’ childhoods. Though money changes hands, homebrew development isn’t particularly lucrative, and most brewers will tell you their work is done out of passion for the hobby. But some developers exude such an unfiltered, unadulterated joy in their wizardry, that watching them at work, figuring out how to manifest what they want to make, feels like a look back into what early homebrew development and early game development generally must have looked like. It’s a silliness that reminds us there can be as much play involved in development as there is for the gamer when they pop in the cartridge.

For this entry, I’m covering GunTneR, a shmup for the NES by Langel Bookbinder aka LoBlast Games. As of the time of this writing, initial Kickstarter backers are receiving their orders, and you can still score a copy of your own through Mega Cat Studios here.


All the various GunTneR gooDieS


Development Team:

Langel Bookbinder: programming, pixel art, music

David Spencer (instantSonic) box art


Game Evolution:

GunTneR first set course for the 13th dimension when its Kickstarter campaign launched on January 14, 2022. Backer tiers included sticker sheets; a limited (128 copies) hand-soldered cart; an unlimited mass-produced cart; and the option to design an enemy, boss, or powerup. The campaign blew past its funding goal in just over a day, leading Langel to create a stretch goal that would upgrade all cart tiers to CIBs. Needless to say, followers quickly surpassed that stretch goal. By the end of its mission, 235 supporters pledged more than $11,000. Langel worked quickly, with copies ready to ship as early as April 2023, and a few ready to put directly in backers’ hands at Midwest Gaming Classic!


Pictured: Langel giving a copy of the game to a handsome anonymous Kickstarter backer



GunTneR is a shmup. You play as the pilot of the Rudy, a customized Class-C GunTneR. You are such a soft touch that you agreed to transport a distraught alien’s sick pet through the 13th dimension out of the goodness of your heart. You must navigate your path at ludicrous speeds while avoiding obstacles and enemies that would prevent you from reaching the vet.

Gameplay consists of chaotic shooting and avoiding what’s being shot at you. The D-pad moves you in 8 directions, while the A-button fires your quark cannon and can be held for auto-fire, the B-button fires your chaos cannon which also drains your shields, the Select button varies your speed, and the Start button pauses. Keep a sharp eye out because among the enemies and their projectiles are a plethora of powerups, including batteries for your shields, screen-killing bombs, mushrooms of invincibility, rapid-fire R-bags, external skull shields, and extra lives.


Screenshot of GunTneR



GunTneR is a delightfully madcap adventure that isn’t afraid to be weird. At its core are all the essential bones of a proper shmup, but layered onto that skeleton is a clever irreverence which throws out the rulebook. Like classically trained artists who leverage their mastery of technique to invert convention with challenging evolutions to art, Langel demonstrates his skill and creativity by overturning our expectations. Gameplay moves right to left, and aside from boss battles, levels blur together. Not quite a bullet hell, GunTneR fills the screen with humorously animated enemies that can be a visual overload without being so overwhelming as to make the game impossible or unfair to play. As an example of the good difficulty balance, powerups don’t disappear forever the moment they drift offscreen, instead cycling across the screen several times so players have a real opportunity to grab it. Generally, shmups are too difficult to be fun for me, but GunTneR is always enjoyable.

GunTneR’s graphics are likewise a silly fun. For every sprite it is apparent what it is supposed to be, but for fans of lore the manual offers a ridiculously overdone explanation of each. Despite the colorful panoply of allies, enemies, and powerups, the screen is full without ever feeling discombobulating. Though maybe seeing the persistent smile and support of Star Glasses just puts me at ease. The procedurally generated sound should be hard to review since everyone’s experience will be different, but the universal vibe is a classic arcade feel: weird, spacey, and never dull, it is a candy for the ears that will summon the 8-year-old in you with its pew pew pews.



I opened a channel to GunTneR’s 13th dimension wizard creator to learn what magic spells went into his cauldron of development…



Langel Bookbinder


-Before we dive into GunTneR, I would love to talk about you and your background. What first inspired you to become a game developer and musician? What is your origin story, and what is the significance of the names puke7, beefstarch, b-knox, and LoBlast?

First off, thanks for asking me to be here; it's a real pleasure. An origin story covering my many monickers, eh?

My parents brought home a Commodore VIC 20 when I was 4 years old. Part of learning to read included copying programs from books into that machine. Between my dad's employment perks, school machines, and many garage sales I was very fortunate to experience many machines growing up. By the time we had an NES I was incredibly aware what a leap in home gaming it was over the Atari, the TI 99/4A, the VIC 20, the C64, an Apple ][, and even a CGA IBM PC. It continued to probably be my primary form of entertainment for many years until high school when I started playing music with friends. I also loved cartoons, movies and sitcom reruns; spent time on the family PC hacking, playing games and calling BBSes.

My high school had a great computer teacher who earned many grants and built up a very decent computer lab. My sophomore year he let me loose on the technology. I had a lot of fun messing around with HyperCard (now in color!), photoshop, premiere, and PageMaker. He wound up making a lot of lesson plans around my projects. This was also my introduction to the world wide web back in 1993. That spurred a new interest in programming; finding VGA demo tutorials in assembly and trying them out at home on the 286. I still had all that stuff until a few months ago when I had a couple drives fail.

The name puke7 came about circa 1997 during a frustrating moment when I needed a personal email address and hotmail was adding numbers on the end of everything I wanted. I thought my names were all taken, but it was some dumb convention they had. When I saw puke7 I laughed hard and adopted it as a new hacker alias. Which meant my old hacker alias, aneurySm, didn't have a home any longer, so I started using it for my computer music until about 5-6 years later when I got sick of how many other musical artists were using it. Maybe it was 2004 when I switched to Baron Knoxburry. I don't know where Knoxburry really came from, but I was really excited about it. A friend said it would only work if I put a title on it, so I became the Baron. After a long time of it constantly being misspelled on fliers, I started using the shortened b-knox. I like the connation of "b-movies" and "b-sides" that it may suggest. Beefstarch was from a comic character I made a while ago because b_knox and langel were already taken on Instagram.

In 2000, after working at McDonald's for 5 years, I got a job at a book factory where I'd be working for the next 7. I moved to Ann Arbor, did a lot of music stuff, and taught myself some basic php so my blog, Firteen, would have some dynamic content handling. There weren't any kind of blogging engines back then. I think I read about Movable Type in '03 and WordPress soon after. If you wanted your content to look orderly, you had to do everything manually or come up with some kind of code-enhanced system.

As puke7, I've been running Battle of the Bits for 18 years. ...

LoBlast, originally, was a dive bar hallway event a coworker and I ran about 4 times. We were trying to get local solo electronic musicians together for performance and community, but it was a lot of work dragging our makeshift sound system in and the artists weren't really mingling. I had setup loblast.com with info about our event and sound system. I wound up leaving that site live for over a decade. I'm not sure how I came up with LoBlast originally, but it’s nicely concise and makes me think of underdog fun. Kind of funny I didn't think of using it for a business name until a couple years ago. About 8 years ago I was daydreaming a lot about starting a eurorack synth module company called Brown Wizard. Though, between The Hobbit movies (even if Sylvester McCoy is one of my favorite Doctors) and friends coopting it as Beige Wizard for our synth jam band, I lost a lot of interest in that name. LoBlast, as it is today, is a potential catalyst and vehicle for all my professional dreams and desires.


-In terms of both music and gaming, who are your influences? And whose work are you watching closely now?

I guess a list of most influential influences in chronological order would go like: Shuki Levy, Weird Al, Metallica, Mr. Bungle, Primus, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher. For video games, haha I don't know, I mostly play old NES games. Most of my modern music diet is mixes of synthwave, vaporwave, russian doomer or a bunch of old tv/film/game soundtracks on shuffle.


Shuki Levy


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

I would say my target aesthetic is somewhere between practical and zany. I think I like to present silly content built on top of a strong foundational context. In some ways the actual process is like throwing a kitchen sink at a problem; fill a canvas with non sequiturs and it has no meaning, but with ordered conflicting alignments there's weight. It definitely needs a tinge of syncopation, asymmetry, and attitude.


-What tools do you use to code and compose? Tell me about your composition process.

Most of the time, when writing code, I use command line tools like git, vim, tmux, gcc, dasm, xxd, etc. But for GunTneR I actually used 8bitWorkshop. I typically loathe IDEs, but this thing's performance is like none other. I really can't praise this tool enough. GunTneR never would have happened without it. There's this delicious immediacy with every edit where it’s either giving you an error or rebooting the emulator. There is a huge contrast with the NES dev pipeline I experienced back in 2010 that I found very tedious. The debug features in modern emulators like mesen are invaluable too.

For musical composition I pretty much use FamiTracker and Renoise. My first tracker experience was circa 1998 with Impulse Tracker. It was quite a step up from trying to sequence music with basic on the Commodore machines or Music Construction Set on the Apple ][. I don't find time to compose music like I used to. I feel like I have a few processes: kind of throwing whatever at the pattern editor for an hour, spending many hours creating a winding path of adventure, or actually having an idea before I start and developing that idea. The best part about playing a show or doing a release is leaving all the crappy stuff out of it.


-Your trailer on Kickstarter indicated that you often learn by doing, such as designing your own PCB and making your own musical equipment. What has been your favorite skill you’ve taught yourself? What else is on your to-do list?

Getting fluent at 6502 assembly code has been a real treat. I've been studying it and occasionally making tiny programs with it for 20 years. Working with it for 6 months and trying to be as optimized as possible led to discovering a lot of tricks and shortcuts. Using the 3 registers really is a juggling act and once you start introducing temporary registers passed around subroutines it starts to feel like five-dimensional checkers.

The PCB design skill is intrinsic to all the hardware audio gear I want to make. I don't know how much prototyping I will fit in this year, but figuring out that process was a hard requirement for my plans. The present goal is to have a few demonstrable synth modules ready in time for Knob Con in September.


-You’ve also worked as an actor and director, such as with Asshole Drunkard. How did your work on that project inform your work on GunTneR?

It's hard to say. They both definitely have a focus on being finite, finishable projects. Going into filming Asshole Drunkard, I had never really considered the final run time until it was done and 43 minutes long. I was just happy we had a finished script with some kind of story based around my local regular spots including a lot of ridiculous dialog. With GunTneR the concept was more around the known limitation of 24kb. It was really important to me to maximize the space in terms of both experience and functionality. "Do a lot with a little" is definitely a theme for both. Being entertaining is probably the most important.


Movie poster for Asshole Drunkard


-What is the significance of the title GunTneR, and why are the “t” and the “r” capitalized?

When I first started fiddling with 8bit Workshop I titled the new project "gunner". After a few days I did some googling. I could not find a game with that title, but I also realized it would be a horrible string to search for as simple as it was. Adding the "t" in the middle was a quick and dirty trick to create a made-up word while maintaining symmetry. Stylizing it as GunTneR further enhances the symmetry of the letter forms. I did fail, however, at creating a new word as there is a Güntner international heating and cooling business.


-What elements are crucial for a good shmup? What elements are crucial for a good game? Do you have a favorite shmup that served as inspiration?

I think I'm still looking for some of these answers. Players appreciate tight controls. When they take damage or die they want to see it’s their own fault and not badly implemented mechanics. They want to be challenged but not over-challenged, which is a threshold that varies wildly from player to player. I tried to gradually increase the intensity with a breather period after the bosses. Making all enemy types distinct in both appearance and behavior seems to be a best practice too.

Galaga is my favorite arcade game of all time. During the Kickstarter, someone described GunTneR as a "weird sideways Galaga". This really took me aback. I was dumbfounded that I hadn't noticed the similarities. I instantly realized I needed both enemy fire and an enemy type that had choreographed flight paths.

I do like me some shmups, though I do play platformers more. Despite mastering Contra, I still play Life Force with the Konami code. I've never been past level four of R-Type. On occasion I like to play through the Armed Police Batrider experience, but I probably blow through about twenty virtual credits to do so.  Raiden II also comes to mind. Gun Nac is in my regular NES playthrough rotation and my favorite shmup for the system. Blazing Lazers (also by Compile) for the Turbografx is similarly great but I haven't beaten it yet. There are so many titles and I'm not very good at most of them.


-Unlike most shmups, GunTneR is a right-to-left horizontal shooter. You also have some unique touches like powerups don’t disappear offscreen if you miss them, but cycle through a few times so you have more opportunities to pick them up. What informed those decisions?

The right-to-left thing really was the happenstance of me trying it first and simply thinking the result was mostly unique. There are other games that do this like Sky Kid.

I spent a lot of time on the powerup behavior including Rudy hit box adjustments. Initially the powerups would wrap the screen indefinitely which felt cheap. Then I made them despawn on the first wrap which made them much harder to catch. Then I gave them a couple hit points and made them lose one on every wrap which gave the player an extra chance to catch before despawn. Then I realized the player could do powerup management if the powerup received an additional hit point for each shot from the player. Then I developed the ricochet behavior of the powerup being hit and wrapping the screen in the opposite direction which turned out to be a great way for the player to pick it up from behind. I know it appears derivative of the bells in Fantasy Zone, but I think it's a very different mechanic overall. Shooting the bell changings its bonus value while the GunTneR powerups can be maintained until needed. I usually wind up accidentally picking them up before I want to, but it's really cool when you save a bomb or mushroom across a few phases for a boss fight!


-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. But GunTneR’s protagonist is unnamed, are they meant to be a blank slate that anyone can see themselves as, like the Master Chief in Halo? Do you feel a personal connection to the Rudy?

I think a key ingredient to early video games is the player gets to fill things in with their imagination. It's silly to think about the ecology and interspecies relationships of Hyrule, but as Link we are on his adventure and not one of our own. I really don't think this stuff matters all that much. Though, if the player takes joy in imagining things about the avatar and/or the environment in any case, then they are more invested in the experience. Not identifying the protagonist in the game was also another way to save space. There's a passage in the manual that states you are hypnotized into saving the dingle if we need any extra motivation.

The Rudy itself is designed to be a type of underdog. The backstory doesn't mean much given the context of the game's content other than to explain it was once a simple fighter that's been augmented to be really bad ass. The name itself stems from a couple of places. Whenever I see Sean Astin acting, even in Goonies, I refer to his character as Samwise, but if I'm watching Lord of the Rings then I call him Rudy. The real clincher on the name Rudy, however, is a sketch from Mr. Show entitled The Burgundy Loaf.


Screenshot from The Burgundy Loaf from Mr. Show


-You noted in the trailer that GunTneR’s music is procedurally generated, have any games done this before? What impact do you hope this has on players listening to it as they traverse the 13th Dimension?

Ballblazer by LucasFilm (pre–Lucas Arts) for the Atari 400/800 series computers come to mind as a video game procedural music legend. In one of the versions of Marble Madness there's a level with algorithmic based music that loops every twenty-some minutes. There's also Otocky for the Famicom Disk System which uses the player's attack to trigger melodic tones.

Originally, the procedural music for GunTneR had a sort of a constant feel but harmonically was completely aimless. It shared deterministic noise values (pseudo random numbers) with things on screen. At some point I realized that familiar thirty-something second loops might add more value to the overall experience. Regardless, by producing the game's soundtrack with algorithms instead of data I managed to save a lot of space. The only bit of music sequence data is for the boss battle theme bassline which is in 19/16 for whatever reason haha. The entire audio engine, including sound effects and music, is about 1250 bytes in size.

From a player's perspective, I hope the impact of gameplay on the audio adds to the experience. Many sound effects are tuned around whatever note the bassline is currently playing. As the player's shield capacitor is depleted the bassline notes go from staccato to legato until they are bleeding into each other which hopefully adds some tension. All the sound bending down and up again during mushroom invincibility is obviously inspired by Yoshi's Island's puffballs. And after all this attention to create harmony, I spice it up a bit by using an eight-tone scale for most of the themes.


-What new challenges or surprises surfaced in developing GunTneR?

I think the aforementioned story of complete lack in understanding the similarities with Galaga was a powerful indication that I know close to nothing about game design. This was a troubling observation. So I decided to do my best at a self-assembled video games 101 crash course. I watched a lot of GDC videos, read articles about pacing and state management, and asked questions on the NESDev discord.

The NES is deceptively simple and full of quirks.

Space management was a constant concern throughout the project. There was over 2k of code and data that was gutted towards the end to make room for higher priority features. For example I gutted the score system so I could fit the final boss. The biggest surprise was probably realizing that putting mirrored sprites in the character rom instead of programming certain cases to hardware mirror them saved program rom. I tried to create as much opportunity for code reuse as possible. During the last month or so, there was a constant battle and negotiation between the scope of content and functionality.


-What aspects of GunTneR are you most proud of?

Every time I hear someone ask something like "How did you get so many things on screen without flickering or lag?" it makes me really happy. This is my first fully fledged video game and it’s for an archaic system. I really wanted to play to the hardware's strengths and see if that could inform some design decisions which it did. Later parts of GunTneR have up to 34 objects on screen at a time: 1 Rudy, 5 Rudy bullets, and 28 enemies. It can't handle 28 complicated enemies without lag, but that informed some phase design around enemy combinations. More than 8 sprites per scanline does happen on occasion which can cause sprite tearing, but, for the most part, it seems to be a negligible amount.


-There has been a lot of support and enthusiasm for GunTneR, having blown through its initial funding goal on Kickstarter. How does it feel to see so many people excited for your game?

Kind of a mixed bag originally to be honest hahaha. It was very flattering and wound up causing me to hard pivot on my product road map. Making an NES game is now a checked-off bucket list item. The future seemed more unsure then than it does now so I'm grateful I sort of stumbled into this opportunity. I could have spent another month on it and shipped the lose cart as originally planned. But it made more sense to go all in on it because I had no idea how I would ever afford another chance to do so. Thanks to a lot of hard work and determination and the interest and support of family, friends, strangers and Mega Cat Studios, my business now has a flagship product that showcases a dedication and understanding of retro entertainment tech.


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

I recently got the gig porting Orange Island to the NES which I am very excited about. I haven't done a platforming engine yet, but I'll figure it out. I think game design is just as difficult and Ted has already done the vast majority of it. The graphics are gorgeous, and the scope is large. I'm sure there are all sorts of challenges ahead of me.

I'm also going to be working as an assistant mercenary on a top-secret future Mega Cat release.

I'm hoping to work with a couple of very old friends on a beat-em-up demo for NESDEV Compo this year.

2024 will hopefully be the year of Gun][neR (or GunTneR 2). I have so many ideas I want to see realized. If I can control my own destiny then 2026 would be the year for Worlds of GunTneR which would be very metroidvania with shmup traveling sections. I really want the NES GunTneR trilogy to be a thing.

Other than that I have a handful of other ideas. I do daydream about a heavily inspired Zelda II randomizer roguelight for modern platforms. And a two-player dual stick shooter for the NES. Porting GunTner to the PC Engine and the Commander X16.

But I also think it's important for me to focus on my original product roadmap and try to bring some audio gear to market this year. I feel like there's too much on my plate right now, but it's really important to establish LoBlast as fast as possible if I want to succeed.


Can’t wait to see how this team-up goes!


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

I'm at a spot right now where I find the development a lot more exciting than the play. I really enjoy seeing others' projects progress. Most of the time when I play it's old favorites because I want to shut my brain down after problem solving all week. I probably need to relax haha.


-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?

Be excellent to each other and share the future universe!



David Spencer


-Before we dive into GunTneR, I would love to talk about you and your background. What first inspired you to be an artist generally, and more specifically how did you break into homebrew game art?

First off, it's nice to meet you Sean. Thank you for taking the time to sit down and talk with me! I was inspired to draw by my father. When I was small, he was a musician for the Walt Disney Company, and would perform at Pleasure Island. Every day before school, he would always draw Mickey Mouse the best he could on my brown paper bag lunch. It really made me wonder how he did it, so I started trying to duplicate the art, and eventually I fell into finding books on the subject. The drawing bug just grew from there! As for homebrew game art, I initially started out by editing sprites in the WAD files of Doom. Eventually, that turned into making sprites for the game Sonic Robo Blast 2, and beyond.


Screenshot from Sonic Robo Blast 2


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

My influences come from a variety of works and artists. I would have to say my biggest influence has been the sprite artists and illustrators out of SNK and Capcom. Absolute genius levels of art.


-What in your opinion makes art compelling? What grabs your attention? And what kind of video game box art would make you choose one game over another?

Well for me, I would have to say that art is a language. It speaks to people through feeling and senses, without words or boundary. It is an experience to create, but also an experience to appreciate, and for every person, that will be something different. It's very nuanced. My own attention is taken by excited, bold styles that shout confidence in knowing their style is all about graphical presentation. I guess that would also answer the question of what takes my attention on box art- presentation matters through visual communication.


-Do you feel that your art has any qualities that are uniquely you? How would you describe your aesthetic?

So, every artist has something about their art that is unique to them, depending on the aesthetic they're trying to reach. Every piece is a project, a construction, of style, like building a house. You start with a foundation and work your way up. As for my aesthetic, I have an affinity for flowing linework that shows thoughtfulness in form, or spritework that uses a minimal color palette and a small resolution, yet communicates form effectively.


-What tools do you use to create your art?

I am mainly a digital artist. I use a Wacom tablet, model 27QHD. I also use a Surface Laptop Studio for on-the-go production, though I prefer using a larger tablet.


-Tell me about the development of the art you created for the box for GunTneR, what is your composition process? Is the creative process different compared to when you create character designs and illustrations for other projects?

I had asked Langel what it was he would like to see for the box art- generally speaking. There were key things he wanted to see around the GunTneR ship. My only reference was the mostly 8x8 sprites he made, along with a short description of what they were. From there, I thought of the placements for each object he wanted, and made a sketch for him to approve, and once approved, I made the painting! I would say that the creative process was no different from the constructive imagination required to make any other piece.


-How did you first connect with Langel, and what was the working dynamic like?

I connected with Langel through his Discord server for Battle of the Bits. I am an avid listener of music from the demoscene, and chiptunes in general. I showed of some of my pixel art in one of the creative channels there, and from there, I was lucky enough that he took notice and asked me if I would like to make box art for GunTneR. Working with him has been wonderful, as we built a friendship through our mutual appreciation of music, art, and old hardware, haha!


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

The real challenge was to pay my rent on time! Hahaha, honestly though, all I can really say is that, allot your time, but also take your time with crafting something you want to attract people to, visually. Creating something like a painting isn't an overnight process, it does take time, trial and error- a lesson in patience.


-Is there another project after GunTneR on the horizon? Another dream project that you hope to bring into existence, video game or otherwise?

There is always "the next big project." Currently I have some in the pipeline I can't speak about, but recently you might have seen the trailer for Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons. I also supplied some sprite work for that project as well, so check it out when you can!


Screenshot from Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons


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

I'm absolutely a fan of homebrew games. I grew up in the Sonic fan gaming scene and hosted the Sonic Amateur Games Expo twice. I love the indie gaming scene in general, with Rain World being one of my top favorites. I'm really looking forward to seeing the Sonic fan game "Newtrogic Panic" in its final release.


-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?

Relax into your creations. You have the time to make what you want to see, to practice your craft. You just need to make the time to do it, for yourself. You will ultimately be the only person who can be satisfied with yourself, and what you've made, or the potential of what you can make.



Thanks for tuning in to this latest episode of the series that shares the mythology of the newest homebrews to grace your shelves. What are your thoughts on GunTneR and its 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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