My lizard is the Lizard of Influences
I'd like to talk a little bit about a few games that have been strongly in my mind as I work on my own game.
There's a whole lifetime of games that come through, consciously or subconsciously as I work on my game, but this is a small list that I can say for certain have directly informed Lizard.
This game was the first video game I deeply loved. The artistic influence on the Lizard character is probably self evident. I spent many nights playing this with my dad on our Atari ST, and we even got to the last level! Unfortunately, it was a pirate copy, and it crashed after showing the final boss for a single frame. I still remember vividly that image which appeared so briefly. At the age of 5 my mother made dinosaur costumes for my sister and I, but I thought of it as Bubble Bobble cosplay. When I began making Lizard, I used Bubble Bobble sprites as a placeholder until I had more of the art ready.
If you played the first 20 levels of Bubble Bobble without dying, a strange door would appear, giving entrance to a secret vault filled with diamonds, shooting stars, and scary music. The first time we found this room in the game, it profoundly affected me. I thought about it for days, drawing sketches and imagining what the strange writing at the bottom might mean.
Prince of Persia
I think this game has had the most direct influence on the tone and gameplay experience of Lizard. It had a wonderful sense of exploration. On every new level, you had to experiment with different routes, and try out new things. What does the funny coloured potion do? Where did that mirror come from? Oh no! Opposing the need to explore, you had a 60 minute time limit constantly ticking away. It was going to take many attempts to find an fast enough path the whole game, and gradually the gameplay converted to an efficient speed run as you kept playing.
Much is said of its animation technique, which was truly revolutionary at the time, though aside from the visual spectacle it had a very important impact on the gameplay. Motion in Prince of Persia was very deliberate. It had a strong sense of momentum, where every action has a significant wind-up and cool-down, so you had to commit carefully. At the same time, it had a subtle grid alignment, which when combined with the inherently slow speed of the animated action, it was very easy to be precise once you got the hang of it. You could know at a glance whether you could make a jump, and how far a run-up it required.
The sequel, Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame, is one of my most favourite games, but I could gush about that one all day.
I think this had the best use of 3D space I've ever seen in a game: the way all the sections of the game were interwoven and connected and stacked on top of each other; the tremendous vertical scale, from the bell at the top of the Undead Parish, all the way down to the tranquil cavern of Ash Lake. The long draw distances in Blighttown may have been a performance nightmare, but still really helped the sense of space.
Super Metroid had an analogous use of space in 2D. The first two Metroid games both had an open world to explore, but in general the exploration was branching, not cyclic. What I mean by this is that individual sections were self contained, with one entrance and one exit, and little or no need to return to any area once I had completed it. Super Metroid was dramatically different: as I progressed through the game, new connections opened up between places I had already been. I kept going back through the same places, but each time I had new abilities, and could find new things in them. It added an element of vitality to the environment, no area felt "dead" when I thought there might still be something new to find later on.
Super Metroid is my all-time favourite game, if you were wondering.
This is my favourite arcade game of its era, though in my youth I knew it mostly through an Atari ST port. Much later, after I had become a professional game developer, I became obsessed with its player controls, and spent some time faithfully recreating its motion in a clone version that I wrote. I never disassembled the original code, just learned what I could through trial and iteration; I wanted to get there through playing it, not by mechanically reproducing the original calculations.
The ostrich had a strong sense of weight. Acceleration was slow, and it couldn't stop on a dime. The only thing that could be done quickly was to accelerate upward by a visceral pounding of the flap button. The heavy momentum of motion in this game required that I think a few seconds ahead of the moment. Things moved in a very natural and intuitive parabolic arc due to gravity; playing joust felt a little like trying to catch a pop fly in my baseball glove.
In the air, the ostrich couldn't accelerate horizontally without flapping, increasing the need to think ahead. On the ground, there was more direct horizontal control, but you were open to attack from the buzzards above. When running on the ground, pushing against the direction of motion began a skid-stop indicated by the ostrich's outstretched legs. The skid could be cancelled by pushing again in the forward direction, but otherwise it would eventually come to a complete stop. There are other ways for a game character to stop: in Ghosts 'n Goblins Sir Arthur simply stopped dead whenever you released the control, and Mega Man would be quickly dragged to a stop by friction, but in a game like Joust where momentum was so important, the skid was an excellent way to express this intuitively to the player. I believe this mechanic directly inspired the skid in the original Mario Bros. arcade game, and its continued legacy in the Mario games that followed.
Battletoads for Game Boy was one of the first games that, though very hard, I eventually mastered. There were some levels I thought were impossible when I first played them, but I stuck with it, and over several weeks I had trained myself to beat every one of them. The NES version was even harder, but I wouldn't learn to beat it until much later. Some games are very difficult merely because they are poorly constructed, but Battletoads is relatively consistent and fair, with a few notable exceptions. For the most part, the difficult parts are predictable and learnable, and it taught me the satisfaction that meeting that kind of challenge can bring.
For those of you thinking about my game, don't worry: I am not planning to make Lizard as difficult as Battletoads.
Another lesson I learned from Battletoads is that every game should have a surfing level. I love the variety and relief this adds to the game, and every time I see it in other games, it always seems to give me pure joy. Shinobi III had a surfing level. Mirror's Edge had a train-surfing sequence. Journey had sand-surfing. Does Bayonetta 2 have a surfing level? I have not been able to play it yet.
l'Abbaye des Morts
This is a recently made game with a look and feel very much like it belongs on the ZX Spectrum. The setting and story is very dark and unusual, and seems heavily inspired by one of my favourite novels, The Name of the Rose. The strange combination of ZX Spectrum with the game's tone and setting really draws me in, somehow. It just really hits its mark, I think. As an independent developer with a retro-platform focus, seeing this kind of thing executed so well is a real inspiration for me. It can be downloaded for free here: l'Abbaye des Morts
A musical project you may be interested in...
If any of you are musicians interested in the chiptune sound, you might want to check out the Lo-Fi SES project. It's a unique musical instrument, shaped like an old gamepad but with a red circuit board design. You'd look and sound pretty cool making beeps and blasts with this thing onstage.