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Friday Night Bytes: Binary Boy

I don't know if this'll be a regular thing, so maybe I shouldn't kick it off with a column title, but it's a Friday, it's nighttime, and I played a short free game that I want to tell you about. So, Friday Night Bytes. Okay? Okay. Here we go.

I got an e-mail yesterday from Jared Johnson of Data-Fidelity, asking me to check out his new game Binary Boy. I'm glad that I did! It's short, it's fun, and it's got a solid concept with a lot of room for future expansion. Let's start with a trailer.

Jared cites VVVVVV and Proun as his influences, and you might remember that I liked both of those games a lot, so I was excited to dig into Binary Boy and see what he'd taken from them.

The answer is, a surprising amount for such a small game. Like VVVVVV, Binary Boy is a two-state platformer (I think I just made up a term), in that your character controls his horizontal movement and his vertical orientation, but nothing else. You're either pointing up, or you're pointing down. Unlike VVVVVV (but exactly like Proun), you are anchored to a line that traverses the level, along which obstacles attempt to thwart your forward progression. There's no fail state; hitting any obstacle or being pushed off the line bounces you back to a checkpoint, which are placed very generously. Your goal (again, like Proun) is to complete the levels as quickly and gracefully as possible. Jared claims his best time is around six and a half minutes; I managed to do it in something closer to twelve minutes. Regardless, we're not talking about a big time commitment.

Things that impressed me:

  • The aesthetic is nice and clean, with some great touches for being an intentionally low-fi project. Little animations abound, and add a lot of character to the world.
  • Though resolutely 2D in gameplay (and, I think, technically), it mimics depth nicely, with objects swinging into the foreground and receding into the background.
  • Each level feels distinct, with a new trick to learn in each area (with the exception of the final level, which offers a visual change but not a gameplay one).
  • I didn't expect the game to have boss battles, but it does, and they're not bad given the limited mechanics at play.
  • The generous checkpointing means that failure (almost) never costs you more than a few seconds of gameplay, which makes the trial-and-error nature of some of the sections much more palatable.

Things that made me go "hrm":

  • The hit detection seems... off, sometimes. It's not bad, but for a game where essentially the only challenge is "don't get hit by things," it could use some tightening.
  • Because the checkpoints re-set you, but not the state of the world, the timing of the puzzle you're about to face doesn't stay static from one attempt to the next. I hit one frustrating section that I was trying to do some fancy flipping to get through, and eventually the timing worked out such that I just walked through it without flipping at all. Maybe that's deliberate, but I doubt it.
  • I hit one nasty bug (which I e-mailed Jared about, and to his credit he says he has fixed) where pausing the game removed the boss I was fighting from the game world, rendering the game unbeatable. Short game, so not a deal breaker, but it did happen.
  • The very last section of the game (by which I mean literally the last 60 seconds of gameplay, if that) feels frustrating and arbitrary. I e-mailed Jared about that too, and he said he'll take my feedback into account. I should mention here that Jared is very responsive to feedback.

On the whole, I'd like to see a little more done with this concept than is presented here - the levels are so short that just as soon as you've had a chance to say "oh, neat!" it's over and you're on to the next thing. Stuff like working an "attack" into your flip ability and using a rising / falling water level to provide platforming puzzles are really good ideas, but could be built out a lot more. The inspirations here are clear, but the experience is so short that it never quite hits the "oh WOW" moments of VVVVVV.

But this is a free game, and also an early effort from a young and promising designer. If you've got some time and you like trying out new takes on the platforming genre as much as I do, I strongly recommend giving it a look.


Indie Surprise: Teleglitch is Superb.

Thanks to RockPaperShotgun, as usual, for pointing me to something that just eats two hours and I'm left wondering what happened.

Teleglitch is a procedurally generated top-down action game in the vein of Doom, if Doom were also a roguelike but roguelikes weren't turn based. Here, why don't I just let them describe it.

The game takes place in procedurally generated military research & training complex that has a different map every time you play. Our mission is to give players like you a chance to walk in the dark corridors, gripping their gun and few last rounds of ammunition. To play with finger on the trigger, high on adrenaline. We want to give you the paranoid, sweaty, and bloody hard kind of fun.

It's admittedly similar to some other games I've played - it's unsurprisingly a little bit like the Doom Roguelike (which is excellent), if that were realtime. It's also a little bit like the R.I.P. series, if that were procedural and ammo was more sparse. It's a mashup of a lot of good stuff, basically, and I became immediately entranced with it. Here are a few things it does that I think are notable.

  • The claustrophia is superb, using a lighting engine that reminds me of Nox, and that's high praise.
  • There's no pausing for inventory management (or crafting), you have to do it all in realtime, but the interface for it is intuitive and fast.
  • There's a surprising amount of lore to dig into, with a Mass Effect-style codex that fills up as you discover things. There's a lot to discover.
  • The crafting is simple enough that it didn't deter me from using it on the fly - enter the crafting menu and it just shows you everything you can make with what you have. There's a lot to make.
  • Combat is slightly random, but not to the point of feeling like you have no control. Sometimes a lucky shot will take down a monster in one hit. Sometimes it won't. Your guns don't aim as precisely as you'll want. You're almost always out of ammo. It's hard. Success feels good.

Here's how the game looks (if you're sick of pixel art, this may turn you off, but I'm loving it):

The free demo (Windows) contains more than enough gameplay to tell you whether you want to play more, so please, download it and give it a try. I was very pleasantly surprised.


Mini Muscle Man: Michael Stearns & Tiny Barbarian

As mentioned a week ago, Tiny Barbarian DX - the sequel to the absolutely lovely Tiny Barbarian - is up and running as a Kickstarter campaign, hoping to garner enough support to make it to release. As a long-time fan of the diminutive warrior, I got in touch with Michael Stearns of StarQuail games to talk a bit about the making and history of his once-freeware, now-hopefully-profitable franchise.

As a reminder, if you haven't played the original Tiny Barbarian, you still can, for free, and you should, because it's grand.

EG: Alright, let’s start with the basics. Who is Michael Stearns? What is StarQuail Games? Give me the short history.

MS: Well, I’m just this guy, you know? StarQuail Games is me and my friend Daniel, who started working on games in high school together. We didn’t release anything under that name until several years later, and that was Sky Puppy, which we entered in a contest for one-switch games and placed pretty highly in (8th out of over 100 entries, I think). That was in 2006. The game we’re probably best known for was Astroman in 2010.

So Daniel and I are both from a small town in Washington. In 2010 I also moved to the Seattle area and took some classes in 3D modelling, thinking I’d get a real job making games, but the current state of the industry just really didn’t excite me, and at the same time I was making Tiny Barbarian on my own, so it was hard to stay interested in the direction the classes were pointing me. Shortly I had to find some kind of work again, but eventually the urge to make games took over and I started Tiny Barbarian DX.

EG: What inspired you to make the first Tiny Barbarian? It obviously draws its fictional inspiration pretty directly from The Frost Giant’s Daughter, but were there specific gameplay inspirations?

MS: I certainly have influences, but from a gameplay perspective I don’t think I drew on anything really specific. It’s a pretty simple game, after all, just jumping and swording! There were a couple indie titles that were really inspirational to me, Arvoesine and Star Guard, in terms of creating a shorter type of game. Really I just gave a character a sword and did what felt natural to me, though “what felt natural” certainly comes from playing tough old games like Ninja Gaiden and Megaman.

[Tiny Barbarian] DX on the other hand has some more deliberate stuff that I had always wanted to include, like how enemies can be bashed into one another like so many Treasure games, and I had recently played Shinobi on the 3DS, which is a really brilliant game, and I wanted to incorporate some elements of its flexible combo system. Other stuff, like being able to deflect arrows (and other things), was just something people asked for in the first game, though there are lots of games I love that allow you to do that sort of thing.

EG: The words “Treasure” and “Shinobi 3DS” make me very happy in that answer. (Shinobi 3DS really is pretty great.) Also “swording” is a great word!

How long did Tiny Barbarian take you to put together? Even though as you say, it was pretty short and “simple”, the level of polish was pretty high, for a freeware title.

MS: It took about three months. A lot of the art was done prior to development so I had a little head start there. I had woken up one day and thought “I wonder how small a barbarian I could make” and that’s kind of when the design occured, I ended up making a lot of the enemies at that time as well. At the time I didn’t know if I’d ever actually put those sprites and backgrounds in a game, I was just having fun.

But that’s part of why the polish was so high, having set a kind of target with the graphics, the programming had to match, it wouldn’t be any fun if it looked good but played sloppy. I was a real nuisance at the TIGSource forums around this time, I had a lot of questions. :)

EG: I’m glad you stuck it out. So, Tiny Barbarian DX. You announced back in August that the little guy would be coming back for a sequel. When did you start working on it? Did you always plan to do a second installment, or was that a decision you made after people responded to the first game?

MS: I had done planning for multiple stories right from the beginning, but even after I finished the first game, I wasn’t sure I’d do another, there are so many low-fi games out there, after all, but people had responded so well to it that I decided it was worth exploring some more. I started coding it again in February 2012, and it was really slow going. I had begun “teasing” bits and pieces of the game on my twitter and made a little website for the new game, but I didn’t really do a real announcement until the Kickstarter.

In August I put a video together to show to other developers at a Seattle indie games event, and thinking (vainly) that perhaps some of them would want to watch the clip again from their own homes, I left it public, but someone found it and shared it and the next thing I knew it was all over the place! That and the positive response other developers had really gave me the confidence to work towards the Kickstarter and go full time.

EG: Speaking of multiple stories, the episodic format you’ve picked for Tiny Barbarian DX seems to line up with the pulp nature of the original Conan material, and The Frost Giant’s Daughter translated pretty smoothly into a game. Will you continue to parallel Robert E. Howard’s stories? Will we be seeing Tower of the Elephant in there, or Hour of the Dragon? Or are we off on all new adventures?

MS: They’re kind of a mix of all-new and “heavily inspired by.” Officially that’s as close as I want to be, because I do plan on selling this one, and of course I want to do my own ideas, too. Part of what makes Tower of the Elephant so great is that it establishes a lot about Conan as a character, and the savage vs civilization motif. You aren’t going to see that in Tiny Barbarian, but you will get to climb a tower!

EG: Aren’t the Conan stories public domain? I’d hope you wouldn’t be in trouble using them. Regardless, I’ll take what I can get.

MS: I think they are -- I actually looked into this a while back -- but it seems kind of murky, not many people seem to have a clear idea of what stories are public domain and what aren’t, and as far as what elements have been “trademarked” and are therefore off-limits. Mainly to me, there are still official adaptations (lots of comics, in particular) being made of the Howard material, so I don’t want to get too close to that.

EG: Fair enough. Since Tiny Barbarian came out, the 2D action platformer has come back into vogue a bit - Rayman Legends and New Super Mario Bros U are going to be big holiday games this year, and stuff like Mark of the Ninja and Dust: An Elysian Tale dominated X-Box Live Arcade this year. Is it suddenly a crowded market? Or does the added popularity of the genre help? Tell people what makes Tiny Barbarian DX stand out.

MS: I think it’s a good thing, I don’t think those games are really crowding the market (there are certainly not enough mainstream 2D titles to keep me happy!), and if anything they’re bringing in new players or reminding old ones how fun those sorts of games can be, which is good news for everybody. What I think stands out about Tiny Barbarian most is the setting, being inspired by that kind of pulpy sword and sorcery vibe, and the delivery mechanism with new episodes is also pretty unique, at least in a low-priced game like this. What I worried about initially was really more on the indie side of things, there are so many low-fi platformers out there, that’s something that’s harder to stand out against, but Tiny Barbarian is still pretty visually and conceptually distinct, and the idea of the character seems to have a lot of appeal.

EG: Agreed. It’s weird that there haven’t been more Conan games, honestly; though I know that there have been a few, just not very good ones. Maybe making him very very small is the secret! (Actually, now that I say it, I might not be kidding; Tiny Barbarian being tiny probably allows for a much more epic-feeling scene in a 2D space.)

MS: There’s definitely something to that. I did do some experiments with a larger character and it really was a completely different-looking concept that didn’t really have the same appeal. I’d like to tackle it again sometime, but it wouldn’t really be Tiny Barbarian!

EG: Speaking of price and distribution, 2012 has pretty much been The Year Of Kickstarter. Talk a little bit about your decision to use it for Tiny Barbarian DX, and what the early reaction to that has been (if it’s not too early to say).

MS: I don’t know, we might come back next year and say that 2013 was the Year of Kickstarter! I have certainly been encouraged by the recent successes on it, but I planned to do something with it from the moment I heard about it, which, it turns out, was back in 2009. (Yikes!) It really is an exciting thing, what it means for creators and consumers alike, I’m not going to go on about the potential of a glorious post-kickstarter future, but it’s hard not to be excited about the possibilities.

That said, I mainly went with Kickstarter because it is kind of the thing to do! It’s low-risk for everyone involved, and it’s big enough that just by being on it, you attract people that you wouldn’t normally have -- a lot of my backers have come from people who browsed to it on Kickstarter or saw it under staff picks, more than those who came from any other individual referral so far.

Early reaction was fantastic, and I’m still getting over how it did right out of the gate. People really do seem excited about it, and I’ve been blown away by the backers from outside the US -- Tiny Barbarian has players all over the world! That said, it hasn’t been one of those Kickstarters that backs immediately in just a few days. Things also really slowed down over Thanksgiving, unsurprisingly. I don’t know if the current lull is because of that, or if it was more the natural course of things. Regardless, it’s over halfway there, and I know we can do it, but I’m going to be slightly neurotic until it’s over.

EG: Understandable. I’m glad to see it get off to a strong start, though. I have something of a Kickstarter addiction, so I can never tell whether my impulse to back a thing is indicative of how others will take to it. Looks like at least in this case, I’m in good company.

Anything else before we wrap up? Feel free to tell people anything you like that we didn’t cover about yourself, your game, StarQuail, your thoughts on badminton, whatever.

MS: Badminton is really fun! The unique aerodynamic qualities of the shuttlecock really make it stand out against other racket-based sports. I’ve seen an interesting game set that I can’t remember the name of which uses a ball with tendrils that can be attached in different positions to create drag or unpredictable movement. Badminton is a pretty old game, but people are still creating interesting variations on it!

But also, seriously, thanks for the interview, and thanks to all your readers for their support! It gets cornier every time I say it, but every “tiny” bit helps!

Indeed. Thanks to Michael Stearns for taking the time to talk with me about Tiny Barbarian DX - I'm excited to jump back in those tiny sandals and wield that tiny sword. If that sounds good to you, too, head over to Kickstarter and chip in. 22 days to go. Let's get tiny.

This interview also appears at Colony of Gamers, which is a site full of great people that you should visit.


Another Game You Might Consider Supporting

I'm still working on a Tiny Barbarian DX interview, but a 2nd game came across my desk today that I want to let you know about, and this one's got a demo you can play right there in your web browser, if that's your thing.

I got an e-mail this morning from Antoine Guerchais, who, along with four other intrepid gentlemen, made Deadlock as an entry in the 7 Day FPS Project. It's a puzzle platforming FPS, which is to say it's more like Portal than it is like anything else, but it stands on its own without too much trouble.

Like Portal, you're navigating a hostile environment in first person. Like Portal, your enemy is a malignant AI setting traps for you and hunting you. Like Portal, a single non-violent "weapon" is your only advantage.

Unlike Portal, in Deadlock the focus is much more on fast, precise movement and the neutralization of threats. Instead of a "portal gun", what you have this time around is a "switch gun", which has the ability to enable and disable mechanical devices. This includes both beneficial and malicious machinery; you'll swap rapidly between de-activating weapons systems tracking you, and turning on jump pads to allow you to reach the next vertical platform in your path.

Oh, it's also really vertical. You're gonna do a lot of jumping in Deadlock. Don't worry, it works pretty well.

Here's a look at the game in action:

If you like what you see, they're running a Ulule campaign (Ulule is very similar to Kickstarter) to develop Deadlock into a full fledged game in early 2013. You don't have to take it on faith - there's a demo you can either download from the project page, or play right in your web browser through the Unity plugin.

They've got my support. I had a great time with the demo and I want to see what they can do with a full game.


Tiny Barbarian Needs Our Help!

Back in February 2011, I wrote about a lovely little game called Tiny Barbarian, which I was quite taken with.

In August of this year, RockPaperShotgun tipped me off to the happy news that Tiny Barbarian was coming back, and I was very happy to hear about it.

This morning, Michael Stearns of StarQuail Games sent me an e-mail to let me know that Tiny Barbarian DX has been launched as a Kickstarter project, and it needs our support.

Here's his pitch video:

And here's an updated gameplay trailer.

I'm hoping to write up some questions for Michael to post on here for an interview, but in the meantime, if retro action games are your thing, please consider tossing him a few dollars. They're already $1,000 towards their $12,000 goal after just one day, so I'm hopeful this can gain a lot of momentum. I was a big fan of the first game, which didn't cost a cent, so I'd really like to see him rewarded with funding for a bigger, better sequel. The episodic format sounds great for the gameplay style, and being able to buy in once to get all the episodes seems like a solid deal.

And if you want to check out the original Tiny Barbarian for yourself, it's still a free download. Just click the link from my first article above, and give it a try.

Go! Bring Tiny Barbarian DX to life!