Black Magic Baby
An avid arcade collector once told me that 20 years is the amount of years that should pass before an arcade game goes retro. While two decades have passed since Sony jumped into the game console industry, it still feels quaint to call that era retro. But make no mistake, there’s no shortage of nostalgia for that industrious time. As someone who spent his wildly-safe teenage years in Malaysia juggling save files for PS memory cards, it’s personally satisfying to see game devs specifically reference that era as inspiration. One such dev is Alonso Martin who is combining his passion for film, game design, and a reverence for the past in his latest game, Heart Forth, Alicia (HFA).
Billed as an ode to PS-era gaming past, HFA combines Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (SOTN)'s handcrafted maps that open up as you get new abilities with the narrative weight of games like Xenogears and Final Fantasy Tactics. Thus, it cleverly follows Shovel Knight’s sterling example of how to do a modern retro game through one game design maxim: don't simply remake a singular older game, but instead, iterate and borrow ideas from several games to create a game with an old soul that feels fresh.
Martin's love for older games is evident in HFA in multitude of niche ways. The titular character, Alicia, can eventually enlist different fairies that assist her like SOTN's helpful familiars. And, these attacking fairies do more than just heal with apples and a hammer. It gets niche-r still. Even the game’s dialogue boxes with character portraits, Martin says, is a nod to Xenogears. The game's musical score is a charming concoction of new and old too: Jonathan Geer, who recently scored the whimsical Owlboy, and legendary Manami Matsumae, renown for her work with the Mega Man series. The game is also comfortable with discarding traditions for innovations. Its Kickstarter trailer evokes nostalgia easily due to the showcase of its gorgeous 32-bit era-ish pixel aesthetic, but this warm feeling abruptly ends when a character meets a shockingly, violent end. Thus, Martin's own flair colours the game as well.
Although HFA is PlayStation-inspired, Martin’s infatuation with gaming began long before that. Prince of Persia, Oregon Trail, and The Secret of Monkey Island were just some of the games that he loved as a kid. Unlike other kids though, Martin was often exposed to the very tools that created the games and animations he idolized. Call it a side effect of his mother’s industriousness as she equipped their home with a 3D-rendering and 2D animation studio. She studied Industrial Design, and even tried her hand at developing for the doomed CD-I system too. “My mom always tried being a pioneer of new technology,” Martin remembers. As for translating his passion into a career, he didn't really seem interested in discussing it. He feels his story is so similar to his peers, he simply dabbled with game-making tools growing up. Nonetheless, he's aware of how fortunate he was to have all that artistic software at hand from an early age.
It’s 10:30 p.m. in Mexico when we sat down to chat over Discord about HFA's development, its mechanics, and what the project means to him too.
A Ten Year Spell
HFA is a game that’s followed Martin for almost a decade. Since about 2006, he’s never stopped working on the game except during college. Initially, HFA's gameplay had little in common with the showcased game that raked in more than three times the amount he asked for on Kickstarter. The game actually began as a puzzle game with about 30 minutes of gameplay. Martin reflects, “But, like most of the projects I’ve done in my life, it’s hopelessly ambitious.”
Looking back on HFA, the game has meant different things to him through its development. After college, he was working a job he didn't like, but working on the game was what kept his spirits high. “I kind of had a strange perception of myself towards the project versus the entire world of what I thought was going to be my professional career,” he muses. And so for many years, the game’s development served as his own personal escape hatch from the world.
However, his relationship with the project transformed tremendously after the astounding success of the Kickstarter campaign. This intimacy was harder to maintain as he had to share the game with about 7,472 other people. “But, it's still moving in the direction I want, “ Martin reassures, “and I'm pretty happy with it.” While it no longer serves as his own internal sanctuary, working on the game gives him a different positive feedback these days. Maybe, it's a different kind of vindication, one that comes from a large scale audience suddenly supporting what had been a personal project for so long.
When it comes to mechanics for newer Metroidvania games, the spectrum goes from the lighter RPG fare of Ori and the Blind Forest to the more stat-intensive RPG mechanics of Salt and Sanctuary. According to Martin, HFA sits somewhere in the middle of those two philopshies by featuring character growth through a level system, new equipment, and new magical abilities too. But, not all stats grow, just two — Intelligence and Defense. However, Alicia can equip various accessories for her head, chest, and limbs. There's even equipment families that will boost a particular stat you’re looking for. This flexible equipment system was Martin’s answer to diversifying Alicia’s combat capabilities without making the player feel trapped in a bad stat build.
As for Alicia? She’s definitely a magic user that fights less like Harry Potter and more like Gandalf with her battlemage-style combat. The redheaded wizard jumps and dashes around her foes while being able to lash her whip in multiple directions. She can even charge up her attack for a stronger strike. Besides equipment, her spells also grow stronger as she levels up, and the spells can be combined in certain ways for fun results. When it comes to switching spells in battle, he was inspired by Secret of Mana's Ring of Item system which slows time, but doesn't take players completely out of combat. Aside from regular mobs, Alicia will have to slay bosses and conquer mini-bosses too.
Alicia will traverse areas that range from blob-infested deserts to evergreen hillside pastures. And, keeping in tradition of Metroidvania games, she can acquire new abilities to return to previously blocked off areas too. “I would say there's about 40% of stuff you don't need to finish the game,” Martin shares, “But, it's just fun to find them and feel overpowered.”
One thing that SOTN doesn’t get enough praise for is just how tight the controls are. Jeremy Parish (who coined the term “Metroidvania”) elaborates about SOTN's precise controls in his Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night’s preview, “Leap forward while striking, then pull back to safety once I reach the apex of my jump. It's such a trivial little thing, but it's a technique that I never use anywhere but Castlevania.” Thus, SOTN's amazing controls cannot be understated. So when it came to fine-tuning HFA’s controls, Martin wanted players to control Alicia precisely above all else.
Surprisingly, the game used to have more realistic physics. An older build incorporated acceleration and recoil to add weight when controlling Alicia. However, in play tests, people told Martin they had trouble making Alicia do exactly what they wanted. He listened and refined. He knows there are some games where the challenge comes partly from being able to control the character, but he doesn't want this to be the case for HFA.
Once players can seamlessly control Alicia, he believes, they can just focus on combat. “There's no acceleration or deceleration in the movement so you can stop moving forward midair if you want to be precise in your platforming,” Martin adds. If Alicia gets hit, you regain control after a few frames. Standard stuff for sure, but he covets the notion of allowing players to explore HFA without the controls getting in the way.
So far, various Kickstarter backer-exclusive builds of the game has been played by scores of hundreds, but Martin proudly notes they’ve yet to receive a negative comment on the controls.
A Magical Tale
When it came to writing HFA’s story, Martin knew the inherent difficulty of trying to tell a deep story in a Metroidvania game. He understands Metroidvanias are typically known for trying to tell stories through non-verbal means: level design, music and sound design. “For some reason, platformers have a harder time being allowed to tell stories.” he explains. At the same time, he’s careful to not be too heavy-handed in exposition as he’s not fan when story interrupts the flow of the game for dialogue scenes. ”With HFA, the way I designed the story is that it's told in islands of content,” Martin says.
The game beats read like this: the player is left alone for 20 - 40 minutes before encountering a narrative event. His in-game cutscenes are usually five minutes, featuring dialogue and action as characters move about. He is insistent in letting the player decide how fast they want to consume to story as these cutscenes are skippable too.
As for HFA’s actual story, he's hesistant to reveal everything beyond the general details readily available on the game's website. Besides the sudden geyser of blood in the game’s Kickstarter trailer, another remarkable moment happens when the video cuts from in-game footage to a live-action shot of a woman looking concerned. While Martin has said in an old forum post that these live-action scenes reside in a universe of its own, it's still an unsolved mystery. That said, he is more than capable of avoiding live-action video game cheese as another immense passion of his is film and the process of making it too.
During the interview, we delved into his love for film. And, one of his favourite film directors is Andrei Tarkovsky, who favoured metaphors over symbolism. Metaphors are half-complete, requiring input from the viewer, which of course, faciltates viewer participation. Tarkovsky found that to be far more interesting and fufilling as a creator. Thus, Martin channels this mentatlity in the way he discusses his projects. “I make a point to not answer every question,” Martin says. “That way, you invite players to participate with whatever they're interested in the game world.” He also hints at a twist in that game that he is confident that players will love.
”There is something I can say though, and that's that the game's timeline is very big,” he coyly teases.
This week, Martin and his team is excited to demo the game at PlayStation Experience conference. The game's PlayStation-loving roots will serve the convention fanbase very well, I suspect.
It’s been almost ten years since the game’s inception, but even dropping into his weekly Twitch game dev streams, it's easy to see that creating the game still has him bewitched as he pushes pixels meticulously on a single idle animation for almost an hour. And, somewhere in that hour, a familar retro Final Fantasy VII tune softly plays in the background.
All images and videos are credited to Alonso Martin.
The game is aiming to have a near-finished build mid-2017 and will be released on Windows/OSX/Linux, PS 4, and PS VIta, and Wii U.