Feb 23, 2010

The Super Fighter Team Interview

Super Fighter Team has an absolutely brilliant name. And it possibly is the only indie developer for retro platforms that has managed to impress the mainstream gaming media; after all, shiny new cartridges for the Sega MegaDrive / Genesis and the Atari Lynx aren't a common sight. Here are Brandon Cobb (president, Super Fighter Team; Zaku producer) and Osman Celimli (president, PenguiNet; Zaku designer / developer) to discuss both SFT and its latest release: Zaku. Mind you, this is only part of a rather extensive interview filled with exclusive bits of info. The rest of it (including more of said juicy exclusive bits) will be published in issue 4 of the excellent (and very free) Retroaction retro-loving magazine.

Care to introduce us to Super Fighter Team and its members?

Brandon: Super Fighter Team is the future of classic gaming. We partner with top game companies across the world as well as gifted independent developers, and in between it all we also find time to churn out our own original titles. Our goal is to always deliver the highest quality product at the most convenient price - or, in some cases, as freeware.

I founded the company in May of 2004. I wear a plethora of hats, ranging from directing and delegating to designing and lead testing, in addition to countless others. I'm also the company's official snack eater, which as you can imagine is a highly sought after position.

Though we employ a different sized team for each individual game project, some of our core members include: Derrick Sobodash, Yu-Chen Shih, Kim Biu Wong and Guoqing Xie.

Beggar Prince and Legend of Wukong were two absolutely excellent Sega 16-bit games. Are you proud of them?

Brandon: Beggar Prince was our first commercial project, and a huge undertaking, considering. The original Chinese version of the game was rife with bugs and we had no contact with its programmer. Just when our guys had finished with all the reprogramming, we split from our publisher and went it alone. Every hurdle you can think of was thrown in front of us, but we vaulted over them all to land squarely on the finish line. The sleepless nights, the aggravation, the wondering when and if we'd ever finish... I could write a book about it all. But the game shipped. It shipped, and it shipped on time - just like all of our games have. And the world reacted in a way never before seen from the release of a new game for a classic machine.

Legend of Wukong gave me an exciting opportunity to dig into the framework of a role playing game and build it up into something stronger. Instead of spending time directing programmers to bugs and suggesting ways to fix them, I was able to spend more time designing neat little features and enhancements. I got in there pretty deep, building up my drive as we built up the game. It may never enjoy the amount of success that Beggar Prince has, but it will always have a special place in my heart.

What are you looking for when releasing a new game or updating / translating / finishing an unknown classic?

Brandon: One word: perfection.

By the way, I do think it's wise to focus on the games' packaging. Would you mind telling us how you make it? Oh, and why would be nice too.

Osman: Heh, that was Brandon's domain. I actually got to sit back and watch, for once.

Brandon: It's not overly complicated: you've just got to be able to find a print house that's crazy enough to churn out custom cardstock boxes for you, in miniscule numbers, for a low price. You find one of those, you're set. *smirk*

We take the packaging design as seriously as we take the development of the game. They're all equally important parts of the same whole. You can't just take a brilliant Lynx game and stuff it uncomfortably in an odd-shaped, orange case made of dull plastic. You've got to add some panache while keeping the original spirit alive. Hold a copy of Zaku up next to any game that Atari produced for the Lynx, and you'll see what I mean. In fact, some of our customers have even commented that they feel our packaging is superior to Atari's.

Could you name some of your collective favourite game systems?

Brandon: The Genesis and Lynx are both high on the chart, but that goes without saying. Aside from those two, I've had a deep love for the original black and white Gameboy for longer than I can remember. The newer incarnations of the machine were never able to deliver the same kind of magic, where software was concerned. I'm interested in the 32X, at least from a hardware perspective. Oh yes - and the Super A'can makes for a nifty doorstop.

So, why chose the Atari Lynx as a platform to develop for?

Osman: I originally was interested in developing something for the GameBoy, since it was, and still is my favorite console. But I couldn't find any simple tutorials to get acquainted with how the machine works. Later on, I came into possession of a Lynx after discovering that "Chip's Challenge" was originally developed for the machine, a game I had very fond memories of on the PC. For whatever reason, I decided to try working with the Lynx hardware, and picked it up very quickly with help from Björn Spruck and Karri Kaksonen. So there really wasn't any incentive in terms of Lynx nostalgia on my part, I just grew to enjoy working with the machine.

Brandon: I've always wanted to have some hand in the creation and release of a new game for the Lynx, ever since I first set eyes on the machine.

How would you describe Zaku? What would you say are its most important features?

Brandon: Zaku is a 4-megabit game card packed to the brim with challenges, humor and best of all, fun. It complements every strength of the Lynx hardware, running smoothly the entire time. You'll quickly and easily become charmed by and helplessly addicted to this game.

Osman: A game that just tries to be a game, I think that is what's most important.

Care to tell us the story behind the development of the game?

Osman: I started Zaku when I was 14, and the game shipped when I was 20. That's six years of development when you're going to be changing as a person. In reality, Zaku started out as "Let's just try and replicate Air Zonk on the Lynx," then "Well this is kind of working out, so let's put some placeholder characters in there," and eventually "We have something here, let's try to finish it and add as much originality as we can to the concept." By far, the most difficult thing for me was to continue working on the game while I was coming up with ideas which, frankly, I felt were far superior to and much more original than Zaku. But I said the game would get finished, and it did, so that's satisfying in itself. I enjoy the process of designing and developing games, and continue to do so because of that.

On a more technical note, we used a combination of Epyx's original development kit on the Amiga, Bastian Schick's BLL, and some of our own tools. Pixels were laid out in Microsoft Paint, and the code was written in Microsoft Notepad. The notable thing is that while nearly all of the engine and libraries were new, and written by us, we decided to use Epyx's HSPL sound engine. This is the same audio system used in the Lynx's early titles such as Chip's Challenge or California Games, which I think is something. I spent many hours hand-converting the MIDI's my brother sent me into Epyx's SPL scripting language, since their conversion program wasn't very effective. There was a constant effort to give good results for the player, even if it meant more work for us.

The overall development process wasn't particularly special. I tried to keep things organized, particularly when we brought on additional background artists. We'd set deadlines and work towards them effectively. It's a project you do in your spare time, and life has to come first, so organizing things is particularly important. But Zaku shipped, and things worked out in the end.

What were the goals you set to achieve?

Osman: I think it's important to focus on simple fun as a first project. Zaku was by no means a small undertaking, but I'm glad we focused on making the game enjoyable rather than exclusively focusing on a technical achievement or story. So for me, the real drive was not only what Brandon mentioned, but to try and make the game simple and not come off as overly prestigious to players. Something it seems many small team games seem to have issues with. I think we succeeded in that regard. If you want to get into game development in the long run, which I'd like to do, the best way is to make games. That's why Zaku exists, to make sure I can control this stuff, since that isn't easy. Now that the game is out, I can look over what people enjoy and get bothered by, and use that to improve what I work on next.

We must admit it is a technical masterpiece with excellent graphics. Any idea as to how this was possible on the now-humble Atari handheld?

Brandon: The Lynx is capable of stunning results. A developer just needs to have and exhibit some drive in order to showcase them. We're not wizards; we simply love the machine and we weren't about to settle for an amateur result when we knew we could make the system truly shine. Had Atari followed the same approach, perhaps their machine would have enjoyed more commercial success.

Osman: You have to put in the effort, since players will notice it if you don't. I'm not an amazing programmer, and Zaku isn't a perfect game, but there was a constant attempt to add "one more layer" of polish or creative use of the hardware if we could make the game play better by doing so. Things like the gradient background and camera panning during Emp's battle. They may have added a week or two to development, but it's worth it to learn how to do the effects, and let the player enjoy them. But I have to credit the Lynx designers here too, it really was a great machine to work with.

And -really- how did you manage to come up with an authentic Lynx cartridge?

Osman: Hah, that was another one of those things I just got to watch.

Brandon: Had 'em made up from scratch, of course. No one's going to have the plastic mold for a Lynx game card lying around, not even Atari. Those molds are expensive, but hey, you only live twice! Gotta go for the gusto, otherwise there's no point in even considering it at all. I mean what's the alternative -- shipping the game as a naked PCB? That would just be silly.

Are there any plans for a sequel? For another Lynx game perhaps?

Brandon: I'd love to have another go at the Lynx. We've been kicking some ideas around, but there's no definite plans as of yet.

Osman: I really enjoyed working on Zaku, and with the Lynx platform. It's great fun to design things for Zaku's world, since you really can do whatever you want. But at this point, I'd like to try something more original. Although if we did go through with a sequel to Zaku, Lynx or not, I think there's lots to tweak to make the mechanics more fun. Right now though, I'd like to take a break. After all, it's been six years.

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  1. Great interview, Gnome. And this is just some of it. Can't wait to see the rest.

  2. Thanks dear Nreive. And you know there's a nice review to accompany it.