A Homebrew Draws Near!
A blog series by @Scrobins
Episode 33: Sam’s Journey
So much of homebrew derives from people making and playing the games they loved as kids, but some of the creators from those nostalgic days are returning to embrace the love fans have for the older stuff. Whether it’s the Oliver Twins dusting off unreleased games decades later or Yuzo Koshiro working on something new, the rising popularity of new games for old consoles is bringing about a return of veterans. Call it resurrection, call it a great time to be a fan, just make sure you call me when it’s available to order.
For this entry, I’m covering Sam’s Journey, a platformer originally developed by the Knights of Bytes for the C64 and coming now to the NES. As of the time of this writing, the game is available for pre-order through poly.play here.
Behold the box costume
Chester Kollschen (@Knights of Bytes) : programming
Alex Ney: music
Stefan Gutsch: game design, pixel art
Sam first set out on his journey when the Knights of Bytes were revived by Chester Kollschen in 2015. Sam’s first appearance came about in a prank gif, teasing the game on April 1, 2015. Sam’s Journey then reached the end of his first chapter when the game was released for the C64 on December 24, 2017, selling more than 3,000 copies. The Knights announced Sam would be setting off on a new journey to the NES with a VGS thread created on February 5, 2020, sharing some early screenshots and gameplay videos. The game’s webpage advertises more than 2,000 screens within 27 levels across 3 overworld maps, accompanied by 19 distinct musical tracks.
Pre-orders for Sam’s Journey have staging pages on Poly.Play’s website but are not yet live. Nonetheless the game’s physical edition will include two main options: a standard edition and an ultimate edition, though posters and the soundtrack on CD, cassette, and vinyl is also available. The standard edition comes as either an NES or Famicom cartridge, complete in box, with a world map, sachet of diamonds from the game, and 7 costume cards (the Famicom edition includes a hologram sticker pasted to the box). Meanwhile the ultimate edition, limited to 100 copies, includes everything from the standard edition, plus a poster, a CD soundtrack, fabric world map, SD card with cartridge image, MP3 soundtrack and other extras, a mini figure of Sam, special magnetic case, and numbered & signed certificate.
Screenshot from Sam’s Journey for the C64
Sam’s Journey describes itself as a scrolling platformer. You play as Sam, a young hero who finds himself in a strange new world, set on an unexpected journey. Sam navigates and thrives in this new world with the help of his many costumes, which not only change his appearance, but afford him additional skills and abilities. Explore many terrains, collect hidden gems, and poke around for secret passages as you work your way through the various environments.
Gameplay consists of delightfully complex mechanics. Sam’s core movement includes running: in which you move left and right by pressing the D-pad accordingly, and running faster by holding down the directional button; jumping: in which you jump by pressing the A-button, and can jump a little higher by holding down A; carrying objects by pressing the B-button to pick something up, press B again to throw it, or press B and left or right to throw the object farther, or B and down to drop the object in place; and swimming: using the D-pad to swim left or right, B to move closer to the water’s surface, and A to jump out of the water once Sam reaches the surface. Sam also has the ability to peek farther up or down to see beyond the normal screen by holding up or down on the D-pad.
Beyond Sam’s standard skillset, he can collect costumes that will grant him special powers, not to mention a fetching new look, and most importantly an extra hit point. Ninja Sam uses the A-button to cling to a wall, and again to jump off, or he can also push down on the D-pad to slowly slide down a wall, or use the B-button to drop off. Pirate Sam is armed with a cutlass that he swings with the B-button, useful for cutting down enemies or popping open treasure chests. Pitcher Sam can walk steadily on ice thanks to his cleats. If he is holding a rock or chest, Sam can push and hold up on the D-pad to prepare a pitch, which activates a crosshair to aim his throw. Once ready, push the B-button while aiming to throw the power pitch, which will also pick up any collectibles it hits along the way. Disco Sam’s shades can spot secret passages while peeking. Also, while in the air, Sam can twist, causing him to stay in the air longer, and inflict double damage by pushing and holding the B-button. Space Sam has a jetpack that fires a blast which essentially grants him a double jump by pushing and holding the B-button. Vampire Sam can turn into a bat and briefly fly by holding up on the D-pad and pushing the B-button. He can fly higher by pushing the B-button to flap his wings or push down on the D-pad or land on the ground to return to human form.
Screenshot from Sam’s Journey for the NES
At the time of this writing, I’m unable to play Sam’s Journey, so a review would be incomplete and disingenuous. However, based on the snippets shared on the developer’s YouTube channel, I can at least reflect on what I’ve experienced from the shared updates. The art provides color and life to large levels, lending the game a Kid Chameleon feel, which is ironic since both games are stories that suck the protagonist into a strange new world, and if there is any game where you want art & level design to feel immersive, this is the premise for it. Music is light and playful, conveying a kind of adventure encountering new challenges but excitement for what lies ahead, including the Mega Man-esque feel of the title music. The themes feel well-suited to their respective levels, with an airy quality to the track “Twist in the Sky”, a curious, futuristic vibe to “Space Sam Oddity”, and a gritty melody reminiscent of Mario’s Egyptian levels in “Sam’s Desert Dream”. Based on these pages of the travel brochure, I’m eager to sign up for all of Sam’s Journey.
I hitched a ride with the Knights of Bytes on their quest to complete this game, and chronicled the stories of development. Read on to hear their tales…
Knights of Bytes
-Before we dive into Sam’s Journey, I would love to talk about you and your backgrounds. What first inspired you to become homebrew developers, pixel artists, and musicians? What is your origin story and the story behind Knights of Bytes?
Chester: I knew I wanted to create video games from the moment I first saw one. That was at the age of six when this brand-new play-on-your-TV thing was presented in a local toy store. The game on display was Nintendo’s Donkey Kong, and I think it ran on a ColecoVision. However, it had been a long way from this epiphany to Sam’s Journey. In the mid-90s, I decided to turn my passion into a profession and founded the Knights of Bytes as a game development label. Although the 16-bit era had already been in full swing, we targeted the older Commodore 64 home computer which my team at that time and I grew up with. Our first game Ice Guys was released in 1995 and caught the attention of the aspiring retro publisher Protovision. In co-operation with them, we also created and released Bomb Mania and later Metal Dust. So, in a way, we have been retro/indie/homebrew developers right from the start.
Screenshot from Metal Dust for the C64
-Who are your influences? And whose work are you watching closely now?
Chester: Instead of watching the work of specific people, we’re rather watching gaming itself. From the 8-bit home computer era to the 16-bit console era to the 32/64-bit PC era, we’ve not only seen the hardware evolve, but first and foremost the gameplay and the mechanics. Every time we decide on the genre for our next project, you could say that each classic and modern game of that genre kind of inspirates and influences us.
-How would you describe your design aesthetic, what to you are the hallmarks of a game made by you?
Chester: One of our trademarks is to pretend that the classic computers and vintage consoles we develop games for are still in their heydays. And thus, we aim at creating comprehensive, top-notch full-price titles and distributing them physically on real media with printed manuals in boxes.
-Has your approach to game development or your preferences changed since Knights of Bytes was first founded in the 90s? How does Sam’s Journey for the NES compare to your work on older projects such as Ice Guys, Bomb Mania, and Metal Dust?
Chester: There’s one huge change that clearly stands out: after releasing several titles for home computers, Sam’s Journey for the NES is our first game for a video game console! Developing for home computers was a lot easier as they are open platforms which encourage anyone to create software for it. Consoles, on the other hand, are closed platforms, and they really try to prevent “unauthorized” development.
-Your bio noted that Knights of Bytes took a 10-year break from development, returning after you saw increasing public interest in retro gaming. Was there a particular game that was the catalyst for your return?
Chester: Metal Dust on the C64, released in 2005, was our last title for a classic system before we moved on to modern platforms. Under a different label, we have been developing mobile games, but after some years in the business, we were looking for a new challenge. Of course, we had been watching the retro segment during our absence, and there was one particular thing we noticed. The world’s largest gaming exhibition called GamesCom is held annually in Cologne, Germany. It’s a huge event where the big studios from the mainstream industry meet and present their new products to an interested audience. However, in 2009, a “retro section” was introduced which was intended to work like a museum for the history of video gaming. It started with a few square meters in a dark, isolated corner of one of the exhibition halls and featured some display cabinets full of old hardware. Well, only 6 years later, that retro section kind of exploded! It had its own exhibition hall, a bright and shiny location, hundreds of private and commercial exhibitors present, and a huge amount of classic computers and vintage consoles actually running with a crowd of people playing old and new games. That was kind of the turning point for us to move forward to classic.
Photo from gamescom website
-What tools do you use to code, compose, and create?
Chester: It depends on the project. The game graphics and the level design for Sam’s Journey were done by Stefan Gutsch, our own Knights of Bytes editor. Alex Ney used NinjaTracker to compose the C64 soundtrack and the good old FamiTracker for the NES soundtrack. The programming was done by me in assembly with the ca65 assembler and the ld65 linker.
-What is the working dynamic like across the whole team at Knights of Bytes? How did you first connect with everyone?
Chester: I got to know Stefan in 1997 during my time with Protovision where we first worked together. It turned out to be a very fruitful collaboration as we had very similar project ideas, and I have always been looking for a pixel artist and he has always looking for a coder. Alex boarded in 2015 when we were planning a huge platform game for the C64 and needed a new audio magician after our long-time composer dropped out. Like many other distributed development teams, we coordinate our work using chats, video calls, and version control systems.
-Where did the initial idea for Sam’s Journey come from?
Chester: My team and I have always been big fans of platform games like Super Mario Bros 3 (NES), Kirby’s Adventure (NES) or the Donkey Kong Country series (SNES). And we have always been a bit disappointed by the fact that decent platform games like those have never been made for the C64 home computer. If you ask C64 fans for their favorite platform game, most of them call The Great Giana Sisters (released in 1987) or Mayhem in Monsterland (released in 1993). We decided to take the challenge, close that gap, and create a modern console-style platform game for the C64.
-I always ask my interviewees whether there is a reflection of themselves in the game’s protagonist. Do you identify with Sam?
Chester: That must be the first time we have been asked that question! In the course of the game, our Sam can find different costumes which completely change his nature and appearance. So he could be called a multi-faceted person, which is very convenient, as you can pick a side of him that matches your current mood. Being a programmer for low-profile systems with hardware restrictions, I often feel like Ninja Sam, looking for a way to solve a problem, then getting furious as Pirate Sam when running against a memory limit, and finally flying high like Space Sam when having found a solution.
-Sam’s Journey’s journey began as a C64 game. What led you to decide to bring it to the NES? What were the challenges of porting this game to the NES? How does it compare to when you first developed the game for the C64?
Chester: As mentioned earlier, we created Sam’s Journey to bring console-style gaming to the C64. Sam’s Journey was designed to be a game we would have liked to play on the NES, so in a way, porting it from the C64 to the NES was a bit like closing the circle. Although it’s a port, it felt like making an all-new game. The C64 and the NES only share the same CPU type, but everything else is completely different! So the graphics had to be repainted and the music recomposed. And even most parts of the code had to be rewritten as well because the C64 is a RAM machine whereas the NES is a ROM machine. There are also some subtle details that have great impact: the NES displays fewer graphic tiles in a row. That may sound negligible, but it means that Sam’s viewport is smaller. To compensate for that, we tweaked the camera handling and also adjusted the level design in several places.
-You’ve posted a number of fun updates and teasers as your work on Sam’s Journey for the NES has progressed. You also shared a preview of the game at the 2016 GamesCom exhibition in Cologne, Germany. What has been the response you received from fans so far?
Chester: The 2016 GamesCom in Cologne, Germany was the very first time ever we presented the almost complete C64 version of Sam’s Journey to the public. People were able to give it a spin and the reactions were overwhelmingly positive! You need to know that we unintentionally announced our new C64 platformer on an April 1st so that many fans thought it was an April Fool! Our showcase at the exhibition kind of made the project real.
Fans playing retro games at gamescom
-What aspects of Sam’s Journey are you most proud of?
Chester: We received a lot of feedback after the game’s release in 2017, and what made us really proud were the reports about grown men and women looking forward to a new C64 game like little kids, and then playing it all the way through with juvenile joy.
-What new challenges or surprises surfaced in developing Sam’s Journey? What lessons did you learn that you would like to share with the people who aspire to follow in your footsteps?
Chester: Game development is real work! A very versatile and fun work, granted, but like with every other job, challenges pop up all the time. Some of them are harder to solve than others, however, none of them should ever make you doubt your entire project. For example, it seemed like an impossible mission to implement all of Sam’s controls on the C64 with JUST ONE action button! It took weeks of designing, testing, failing and re-designing, but in the end, we finally succeeded.
-Your website mentions plans for a space shmup and an action-adventure RPG on the horizon. What can you tell use about those projects? Any interest in porting Sam’s Journey to other consoles? Or plans to bring any of your other games to the NES? Any dream projects?
Chester: After creating Sam’s Journey for the C64 and the NES, we think we need a break from platforming! That’s why we are evaluating other genres. At the moment, we are actually playing with multiple ideas, doing mockups, and even creating prototypes in order to find our next project. For a long time, we didn’t have a clou of what to do next, but this might be changing very soon. We’re definitely going to update our website when there’s more to tell.
-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?
Chester: Thanks for having me in your interview, Sean. My team and I would like to thank all retro gamers out there, not only for supporting us, but also for keeping the entire retro gaming idea alive. We still love to make new games because you still love to play them!
Thanks for tuning in to this latest episode of the series that shares the adventures behind the latest newest homebrews making their way to you. Have you been following along on Sam’s Journey and its developers? What homebrews are you eagerly looking forward to? Perhaps you’ll see it here soon when…A Homebrew Draws Near! Command?