Saturday, 9 November 2013

Super Bread Box: Releasing a Golden Era Inspired Indie Classic on Golden Era Gaming Hardware

[This article was originally written by J. Monkman for issue 60 of the Commodore 64 diskmag Vandalism News, and has been reposted here with the editors permission].

Ok, so the content of the announcement quoted above isn't entirely true. Sure, RGCD had a part to play in negotiating with Vlambeer to grant Super Bread Box an official release, but really the serious work in converting the game was done by Paul Koller and Mikkel Hastrup. Let's be clear on that.

However, minor discrepancies aside, the above tweet still represents an important event in the post-commercial afterlife of the Commodore. Here we have an incredibly popular, relevant and acclaimed independent games studio taking ownership of what is essentially a C64 scene release. Visit and see for yourself, it's on their shop page and everything. This is a good thing.

I'm James Monkman, the editor and founder of RGCD, and in this article I'll share the story of how and why this happened.

The full details of how the Super Bread Box project began have already been covered extensively elsewhere (including here on our own blog, GamesTM magazine, Return Magazin, Paul Koller's GDC speech and various online interviews), so I'll start from the point where Paul and I decided to take the cut-down 16KB competition version of the game and enhance it further with the aim of a commercial release.

For those of you unfamiliar with the original Super Crate Box, the premise of the game is simple. The action takes place in one of three separate single-screen arenas, with enemies entering the screen from a hole in the top and exiting via a fire pit at the bottom. When an enemy passes through the fire, he emerges from the top in an 'angry' state, coloured red or purple, twice as fast and twice as mean. Your goal isn't to kill these dudes (although that is important), but rather to collect the weapon crates that appear in random positions on the screen.

The catch is, every crate awards you with a single point, yet also changes your weapon; some are great (bazooka, machine gun, laser), whereas others are more challenging (mines, katana, disc gun). The secret to mastering the game is to learn how to use all of them effectively and manage the onslaught of enemies whilst grabbing all the crates you can.

As you play, the game records and uploads your stats to the official Super Crate Box website. To unlock each level, you must collect at least 10 crates in a single life, with additional tiers rewarding you with extra player characters. Meanwhile, the total number of crates collected unlocks new weapons that are slowly introduced to the player, gradually increasing the difficulty of the game until all weapons are eventually available.

It's a simple and interesting game design, yet posed many challenges in creating a faithful conversion. The 16KB version featured none of the unlocking logic, and was limited to four of the six enemy types and only two playable characters. For the final version we wanted it all, and then some. With six levels (not including the tutorial stage) and 16 player characters, the final C64 port of Super Crate Box actually features more content than the original.

Now, let's say back in the day one of the more competent coin-op conversion companies like Ocean were to take an arcade franchise such as Pang or Toki and start adding additional levels and other content not present in the original, such as characters from other games. You can imagine the complications that would arise in getting the game approved. It's now pretty much common knowledge that an early build of Super Bread Box actually featured Dizzy the egg as a playable character, and Paul himself possesses a copy of the game with an unlockable Spongebob Squarepants. Obviously both of these had to go from the public build, as well as Rick Dangerous receiving a subtle name change to Joe Gunn.

However, getting the additional levels approved was the main challenge. Vlambeer initially denied us permission to deviate from the original design, but that didn't dissuade Paul from adding three new C64 themed stages - Mountain Cave, Space Freighter and Office Tower – all of which were eventually greenlighted after Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman spent a few weeks reviewing and internally discussing his work on the game.

This (considering the game's official status) is particularly interesting, as the unwritten plot of the original Super Crate Box was all about a construction worker defending Earth against an alien assault, stealing a rocket and taking the battle to a temple on the moon. What happens then? Well it seems the C64 port exclusively continues the story, with a frantic subterranean confrontation, followed by our hero hijacking a space freighter and falling through a wormhole in space-time, finally ending up trapped in the weird greyscale universe of Semi-Secret Software's Canabalt. WTF.

In hindsight I'm surprised that Vlambeer didn't give it the 'Approved' stamp immediately. ;)

When the game was almost complete, we brought web-developer and C64 enthusiast Jamie 'Hyper Viper' Howard on board to help with the final hurdle that prevented Super Bread Box from being a true port – the online high scores. As already discussed, Super Crate Box records every single crate that is collected by players worldwide. We wanted to do something similar, and thankfully Paul had already incorporated a 25-character code system that recorded each players statistics (so players could save their progress against their profile on systems lacking disk drives).

Jamie not only incorporated the same algorithm into the online high score system, but he also added a neat notification system that (optionally) tells players when they've been beaten. Oh, and the entire website was created using the 16-colour C64 palette thanks to our good friend iLKke.

Of course, all of this (and the box art, manual, stickers, cart colour and packaging) had to be approved. The release date of our finished game got pushed back and back again. And then an opportunity arose – GameCity.

GameCity is an annual week-long festival hosted by the University of Nottingham. It's not only a celebration of digital arts, but also embraces all forms of game play and craft with a focus on play during the day and alcohol and debate in the evenings. I'd previously met two of the directors at the art centre here in Exeter, during a GameCity organised event where I gave a speech about the legacy of the Commodore 64 and the current day game development scene. To my surprise, they approached me after my scrappy presentation and were super enthusiastic about me being involved in the festival in some capacity. A few phone calls later and I was booked in as a guest, with the plan of launching Super Bread Box together with Rami of Vlambeer during an interview. An interview that would be streamed live via the Guardian newspaper's website.

This sort of shit does not happen in real life. Has a C64 game ever been launched live in front of a video camera before? How many years has it been since a national UK paper has taken interest in a new Commodore 64 game? Yet, unbelievably, this really did happen.

There were some technical difficulties though. I'd spent the previous day with Rami (who I discovered is much more than simply the 'business man' of Vlambeer) together with a few of his close friends, trawling pubs and leaving them in a pizza takeaway place in the city centre at about 2.30am. I woke up about 5 hours later with a raging hangover and made my way to the Open Arcade where I was exhibiting Super Bread Box on a C64 setup alongside the original pc game. 11am, no word from Rami. 11.30am, no word from Rami. At noon I made my way to the GameCity offices where the interview was being held, still no word from Rami. By 12.30 I'd been through makeup and a sound check and was starting to get a little worried. People were making false assumptions that Rami was hungover or had been partying too hard (as I had), but the fact is that the guy doesn't drink.

The plan had been for me to launch the game on BigCartel via my Eee pc netbook whilst Rami demonstrated the game through VICE on his laptop. Now it seemed I'd have to cover both bases, and quite simply my ancient and battle-scarred Eee pc was just not up to the task. Thankfully pixel-artist Paul Veer stepped in at the last minute to help cover Rami's slot (talking about Nuclear Throne), but not with enough time to set up VICE on his system.

Despite technical issues, the game was launched during the live stream and my phone started buzzing immediately with orders – so someone out there was watching. I recall that Kitty from Commodore Is Awesome was the seventh customer, which was pretty cool. Sadly, when Rami did get in touch it was via a tweet sent from hospital – he'd been taken in that morning with suspected gall stones. That wasn't enough to keep him incarcerated though – the next day he was out again and personally congratulated me on the launch. He was seriously hyped with the fact that we'd managed to release a version of their game on the Commodore 64, a machine that was older than himself, and I left the festival later that day feeling as though we'd collectively achieved something quite special. A bit silly and pointless, but special nonetheless.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the Open Arcade was that it was freely open to the public (as well as being a creative hub for indie developers). Time and time again, families came over and pointed out the Commodore 64, parents explaining to their children that "this is the computer that Mummy/Daddy had" whilst the kids grabbed the joystick and started blasting aliens and grabbing crates with huge grins on their faces. When asked what I was exhibiting there, they could not believe that people were still making new games and demos on the C64. Similarly, a number of students and developers initially attracted to the idea of the indie/retro crossover concept ended up being really enamoured by the hardware. The Ultimate 1541-II caused quite a stir, as usual. Pimping current day Commodore hardware was fun!

Back to Super Bread Box though, where does that leave us now? Well, the worldwide counter is slowly climbing and the score tables are full, which is nice to see, although I suspect that the site will really explode with activity when the crack is inevitably released. I'm not at all bitter about this – I accept and respect that this is simply part of the scene. In fact, it's arguable that if it wasn't for cracks there would be no current day C64 scene at all anyway.

As for Paul Koller and Mikkel, the other reason (besides Super Bread Box) for me attending GameCity was to try and meet up with Super Hexagon's developer Terry Cavanagh. I managed to catch him for a brief breakfast to discuss the future of their current project, 'Micro Hexagon', and he seemed very interested in helping with the design despite protesting that the C64 version's limitations were too rudimentary to ever result in a "proper Hexagon port". With Terry's assistance and approval, the plan is now to continue work, incorporating the full soundtrack and sampled speech of the original whilst maintaining a constant 50Hz frame rate. Hell, knowing us, we'll probably end up creating online scores, player profiles and whatnot for that game too.

Maybe a Distractionware/RGCD launch title for GameCity 2014? Going by my experiences of the past few weeks, I'd say anything is possible.