Interview with Tanglewood Creator Matt Phillips

Interview with Tanglewood Creator Matt Phillips

Many of you will be aware that, in December, developer Matt Phillips and his company Big Evil Corporation took to Kickstarter to fund their brand new and original game for the SEGA Mega Drive, Tanglewood.  Fortunately the game more than achieved its funding goal and is set to be released on physical cartridge winter this year.

Set in the realm of Tanglewood and inspired by Mega Drive titles Another World and The Lion King, the game follows a young creature, Nymn, separated from the pack after the sun sets. Unable to get back to the safety of the family’s underground home, Nymn must find a way to survive the night terrors and get to morning. Tanglewood’s world is a dangerous one after dark; guiding Nymn the player must use skills of evasion, traps and trickery to defeat predators.

Obviously retro style games are not a new thing – in fact they are incredibly fashionable – but Matt and his team are doing something different in dedicating themselves to producing a genuine 16 bit, cart based game and using the original Megadrive programming tools.

Given this unique project and approach we thought it would be illuminating to sit have a chat with Matt about the game, kickstarter experiences and plans for the future.

Hi Matt thanks for speaking with us!  You’ve described Tanglewood as a loveletter to 2D platforming and adventure games of the ’90s like The Lion King and Sonic the Hedgehog; what is it about that era of platforming game that you appreciate and inspires you so much?  Do you have any other less obvious influences?

It’s a mixture of nostalgia and an appreciation for doing so much with so little. At the time the 16-bit console generation was the cutting edge, but looking back at it now developers were still severely restricted, yet were able to knock out  games that looked great and played smooth, and competed with the arcades.

I had an embarrassingly small Mega Drive collection as a kid so my influences on that system don’t stretch far beyond the obvious – Sonic, The Lion King, Flashback, The Terminator – all the popular platformers. One of the most obscure I still hold fondly in my mind is Toejam & Earl’s Ready, Aim, Tomatoes! minigame for the Menacer gun. It was the first time I’d heard a PCM voice in a game (“Good shooting… NOT!”), even before I’d heard it in Altered Beast, and was blown away that it could do such a thing. Everything else I claim as an influence will be from my PlayStation days.

From another technical standpoint, I remember booting up Sonic 3D for the first time, and seeing the intro FMV that was streaming from cartridge! I thought you needed the CD addon to display VIDEO! Not so, you just need clever programmers.

As a follow on to that; where/when/how did your initial concept for Nymn and the world of Tanglewood come about?

I’d always wanted a character that was half fox, half meerkat like, since it would lend well to the expressive face I had in mind, and could be fast and nimble. I like the feeling of loneliness and despair that games like Limbo and Abe’s Oddysee invoke on the player, so it was crucial that Nymn seemed as meek and terrified as possible, which made the face all the more important. Nymn’s name was inspired by my friend’s pet rabbit!

The world started as a very dark, night time environment with silhouetted backgrounds, mostly to keep art costs and video memory usage to a minimum, but once I got better at programming the machine I gained some confidence to start looking for an artist who could really knock it out of the park. The alien forest idea was there from day one, since I wanted to invent my own creature types, have plants and trees of strange arbitrary shapes, and incorporate colour into the world in a very different way to Earth. I’d also wanted multiple suns and moons, with the presence of each one changing some gameplay aspects – that’s yet to come to fruition, though.

A lot of the design came from coding experiments first, and I thought about gameplay usages second – it’s very backwards but I didn’t really know what the machine could do, and had a hard time designing a game from the top down without having a thorough play around first. The time of day feature started as a palette interpolation test, and the Fuzzl started out as a ball physics demo, for example.

Making indie games in the 8, 16 or even 32 bit style of yesteryear isn’t necessarily new but you’re taking it a step further by releasing Tanglewood, not only as an emulated experience on PC/Mac etc, but on a physical Mega Drive cartridge and using the original development hardware and programming language; why was all of that authenticity so important to you?

I’d wanted to make my own game for my favourite platform since I was a child, which would be the fault of my parents buying me a Commodore 64 and a Mega Drive within a year of each other. My newly acquired programming skills and my love for Sonic the Hedgehog combined in a very short time. My coding sucked and my games were worse, but as I grew up the idea stuck – I wanted to be able to crack open a black plastic case and see my very own game on a cartridge. I longingly read job adverts for game programmers in the back of magazines, and payed close attention to any developer interviews or details of any new games tech, and that dream never died.

Since I’ve finally been given the opportunity to make this happen, I’m going to grab it by the horns. It’ll be a real game on a real cartridge, with a real case and a real manual, with that fresh paper smell!

Put simply, I owe it to my 9 year old self.

The team that you have assembled to work on the game all have impressive résumés; I was particularly intrigued that your composer had released an album on a physical Mega Drive cartridge!  Most of them have experience of working on Mega Drive games and with its hardware first time round.  Was this another effort from you for authenticity or simply necessary when working in – what has become perhaps – a more niche development environment?

Finding the right crew was exceptionally hard. Indie developers, thankfully, seem to be growing in numbers, especially those working with pixel art styles and chiptune soundtracks, but I’m afraid that to work with a real 16-bit system with all its restrictions and quirks requires a different way of working and thinking. It didn’t help that at the time I was still learning these restrictions myself – my tools were still in development and my code was wasteful and sub-optimal – so most of all I needed patient people, those willing to give me the benefit of the doubt that I’d make this engine fit their needs but understand there would be hiccups along the way, and maybe even a false start or two.

With last November’s successful launch of the Nintendo Classic Mini it seems there is a real appetite out there for retro games and even retro (styled) hardware (indeed a similar Mega Drive based product has existed for a while now) so it seems your timing couldn’t be better; obviously though you were working on Tanglewood since well before this so were you personally confident that there was a decent sized market for a new “old” game?  Did you consider that pitching a game for older hardware a might be a gamble?

My original plan of making one in my spare time and arranging to manufacture a small batch was a realistic dream, and something I’m confident I could have pulled off very slowly, but some pressure from friends to take it one step further and try crowdfunding to do it properly… yes, that was a gamble. A terrifying and very stressful gamble!

I put in some hard research first, and whilst there were plenty of gamers crying out to have brand new games on their retro shelves, it was also clear that most were in love with the idea and symbolism of retro gaming – they wore Zelda t-shirts, they had Mario tattoos, they set the Sonic ring as their text message sound, they listened to Anamanaguchi, and they played pixel art styled PC games. It was difficult to differentiate the hype for a retro styled game for an actual game you can play on your 28 year old console. This was especially true when pitching to publishers. They were fully ware that retro gaming was “so hot right now” and were deeply in love with the game’s concept and visuals, but recoiled when I mentioned players would need to dig out their old SEGA systems from their lofts and dust them off, or go hunting on eBay for a second-hand one. This is where I had to consider the emulated version. I hope I’ve found the sensible middle-ground by appealing to both sides.

You’re taking great pains to ensure the game is playable across all Mega Drive and Genesis hardware –  right down to looking into options for detecting the refresh rate to ensure it plays exactly the same on all machines! How much of a challenge is this? Also I mentioned these Mega Drive rerelease mini consoles before – will the cartridges run on those types of system?

The high level concept isn’t difficult – you detect the region and refresh rate on startup and reduce the speed of everything – but in practice it’s becoming a very tricky thing to pull off. The Mega Drive has no floating point capabilities so getting accurate precision between the two is proving a nightmare, and it’s a testing minefield. I still haven’t got it perfect enough to show off to the public yet, I think I’ll be releasing NTSC-only demos for some time. It’ll get there.

As for the clone systems, yes, as long as it has a cartridge slot it should work. There are no awkward tricks or anything that taxes the system in obscure ways, if it emulates Sonic it should emulate Tanglewood. Obviously I’ll be putting my money where my mouth is and get hold of as many of these machines as I can for testing, there’s no room for error here.

Evidently the success of your Kickstarter campaign has been some affirmation that your desired market exists but it wasn’t all smooth sailing was it? I think it was about 48 hours before your campaign was due to end you had a top tier backer pull out which left quite a bit left to raise in a short space of time (I’m sure your heart was in your throat!)  Not only did your other backers meet that deficit to achieve your first funding goal but you achieved two other stretch goals.  Was there a point at which you thought you may not be successful? Was there a plan B?

The Kickstarter was a stressful experienced for all involved, even though I’d been warned about the ups and downs. I’d consulted Darren Wall – author of SEGA Mega Drive: Collected Works – about running the campaign before I started, and he correctly predicted it would start strong, flatline in the middle, then pick up again in the last few days. I had to keep reminding myself “this is okay, I know it’s only at 25% and nobody’s pledged in three days, but you were told the graph would look like this…” but it didn’t help, my heart was at 200bpm for the entire campaign.

When that top tier retraction happened I thought my page wasn’t refreshing properly! I pulled out my phone to double check. Heartbreaking.

The only plan B was to try and save up the money myself over the next few years, whilst working on the game part time. It had been stressful enough up to this point so it wasn’t a method I was particularly looking forward to, but the game would get made come rain or shine. It would, unfortunately, have been at the expense of length and quality, so I’m glad it didn’t come to that.

One of your successfully met stretch goals is a Dreamcast port (so we know that is definitely coming) and you have extended your funding opportunity now to Mega Founder in an effort to meet a further goal of a complete HD reworking of the game for Dreamcast.  I guess my question is…..why skip a Saturn version?  I’m kidding of course!  In seriousness – and please forgive my ignorance here – but can you describe a bit more of how that reworking will differ from the previous Dreamcast port? 

It would all be down to the art and audio – redrawn artwork, more colours, higher resolution textures, crisp CD soundtrack. I’ve been using some HD re-releases and sequels of retro games as a benchmark, particularly ones which at least try to keep the original style. I’m looking forward to Sonic Mania! I’ve also been toying with the idea of a toggle to switch between old and new graphics, something players have come to expect from recent HD remakes.

Joke aside, a Saturn version isn’t completely out of the question. I have a large collection of Saturn development hardware! Maybe one day.

What are your long term plans for Big Evil Corporation? Any other Mega Drive games or other projects?  Could we perhaps see a new Dreamcast game?

Big Evil Corporation is a real studio now (yes, Companies House let me have that stupid name!), and I hope to continue making games until it folds or I die! As with Tanglewood, each one will start on the Mega Drive, and then get ports to newer platforms, probably with Dreamcast as a first step again. I really like this process, it keeps development interesting and it gets all the right crowds excited. I’m not sure I’ll write the next one in pure assembly though, if only to speed up the porting process and ensure consistency between platforms.

I have a lot of ideas jotted down for the next game, and hope to begin anew once Tanglewood wraps up. I’m playing around with the idea of a sci-fi platformer-shooter with mechs and hovercrafts (or hovermechs!), with lots of Korean-style imagery.

Any words of advice to anyone who might be interested in getting into programming on the Mega Drive (or any older hardware?)

Take baby steps, it seems daunting at first but it can all be reduced down to basic building blocks. Learn to move data around registers first, then RAM, then basic calculations, and work your way up to getting the screen to change colour or something. Once you’ve got your first sprite on screen, it’s smooth sailing.

It’s so much fun, and you’ll learn a lot about modern systems and languages by looking deep under the hood of simpler machines – learning 68K assembly has really helped with my day-to-day work in C++, diagnosing crashes, optimisation, and much more. I recommend an exercise like this for everyone, not just retro enthusiasts.

Tanglewood will be released in November this year in cartridge form and will be playable on both SEGA Mega Drive and compatible clones (PAL, NTSC-J) and SEGA Genesis and compatible clones (NTSC-US.)  The Windows/Mac/Linux versions are delivered in the form of a downloadable app, providing a close-to-authentic Mega Drive experience on your desktop without the hassle of setting up an emulator.  For any more info on the game visit the site, Twitter etc and keep checking Orange Bison for future updates.

 

Profile photo of Steve Harris
Talker, unrepentant chancer and self-confessed geek, Stephen has been a gamer for nearly 30 years. You might think he’d have outgrown comics, movies and games but you’d be very wrong. Having worked in PR and marketing, games retail etc he is now trying his hand at game development and writing and (in a completely unrelated area) property development.

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