I've always loved secrets in videogames. The Konami Code is probably the earliest I can remember discovering. When we were kids, Me and my bro used to play Contra a lot, the classic 2 player, side scrolling shoot-em-up. Contra is a fun arcade romp if you've never played it (I talk about it in a previous post about the inspiration for Boxman's art style). But, Contra was also insanely difficult when you played with its standard setting of only 3 lives. If you got shot once, you lost a life, and getting shot was pretty easy in the snow storm of floating pixel bullets that was any given level in the game. Needless to say, when my brother showed me the 30 lives code (in 2 player mode on NES it was Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Select, Start) I was stoked to get in and see all of the bosses I'd been missing. Unlocking that code was unlocking new depths of the game and the idea that games could have hidden secrets like this only added to the fun and wonder of the experience they created. When planning Boxman, I knew I had to drop in some gold nuggets to find just like so many of the classics I loved to play as a kid. If Boxman was to be a tribute to classic gaming, the title needed something special and cool to unlock. So, here are the 3 unlockable special items and abilities in Boxman: TNT Detonators, the Stealth Hide ability, and the Invincibility Shield. Below I'll tell you how to unlock and use each one.
TNT Detonators - Beat the game one time. Then, when you play a level again, you will have a detonator icon at the top of the screen. Use the button to drop a detonator into the current level. It will appear randomly each time, but will always replace an ice block in the level. If fortune smiles on you, you will be able to carve out a path to the detonator and hop on top of it, clearing the entire level of its ice blocks in one stroke! This item is especially handy for finding hidden pickups in the ice.
Stealth Hide - Collect all of the skull pickups, hidden throughout the game. This is a good task to do once you've completed the game and have access to all the levels and have detonators. Using the Hide ability flattens Boxman against the wall and blends him in with his surroundings. You can use this to avoid getting smashed by boulders or hurt by penguin sentries.
Invincibility Shield - Get a high score on every level and you get the ultimate reward! Just like the baddies in the game, Boxman can use this shield to be completely invincible to damage! There will be a shield icon at the top of the screen, activate this button to be in invincible mode. You can walk under falling blocks and go right through rolling barrels, even explosions!
In developing the characters of Boxman, I looked for larger than life personalities for inspiration. I needed good guys and bad guys who were tough and battle-savvy. My baddies had to be brutish, and my hero Boxman had to match their grit, but have that extra heroic quality beneath the surface that inspired him to make the right choice when it really counted. His intelligence and dedication to doing the right thing should be backed up by a rock of a leader, who was both stern and noble, inspiring Boxman to be more than just the sum of his four corners and be bigger, and rise to the challenge of overcoming his foes with his unexplored quality of wit. His sidekick would shadow him and be so ghostly that in single player mode it's as if he wasn't even there ;). He should be a reflection of Boxman, but like a reflection, be so similar yet mirrored and opposite in sly ways.
History provides a rich selection of stalwart leaders, but Winston Churchill's bulldog air seemed the right fit here, bringing a sense of classic, unquestioned rightness to the cause and strategy behind our hero's mission. Official Seal was almost named Winston Churchseal, but I decided to avoid being extra-corny and just reveal that pun here because I still couldn't help myself.
The other era I looked to was most definitely the 1980's. This retro-style game takes much its cues for art and gameplay from arcade and console classics from back-in-the-day. To match, I drew upon characters that were iconic from the decade. Rambo was undoubtedly a huge influence on videogame leads from that time and GI Joe was another big contributor. Basically heroes fell into two categories at the time, you were either a machinegun toting weight-lifter hero or you were a back-flipping, katana carrying ninja hero. I kid, but I had a lot of fun revisiting some 80's flicks and Saturday morning cartoons to get me in the right spirit for drawing up the characters of Boxman.
Finally, the baddies had to have a lot of character and appeal to compete with Boxman's over-the-top style. Saturday morning cartoons once again came to the rescue — no show for me had bigger personalities and more memorably designed foes than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Bebop and Rock Steady looked big and mean, had crazy voices, and made for fun opponents in countless videogames spawned from the original show. I looked to them to develop my own militant animal baddy, Bi-Polar Bear.
Research and inspiration drive the creative process and push you to create better designs. Characters become more detailed or well-rounded. They also become new and different from what has come before when you know what is influencing you and why. Giving time to all of a game's characters and thinking about the atmosphere and relationships you want to create, allows your game to become a world of its own, immersing players and perhaps inspiring the next wave of creativity for future artists.
As a kid I loved renting games for the weekend from the video store (that was a thing). I especially enjoyed action games and anything that allowed 2 players so that my brother and I could play at the same time and tag-team our efforts to thwart the bad guys. I was always excited to see what surprises a game held, what new abilities you could use, or what funny animations happened when you pushed the boundaries of each digital world. When my brother and I played games together, we would often unlock new secrets or new strategies to get past an obstacle or a level that had given us a run for our money. Playing games together can create a variety of memorable moments in our lives, from a-ha moments when you solve a puzzle to that hilarious inside joke that only you and your buddies get because you just had to be there. This post is the last in a series that has been paying tribute to games that provided moments in my own life that would later inspire aspects of the tone, artwork, and gameplay of Boxman.
Ikari Warriors — this game was part of a trend back in the day when 80's action heroes were everywhere. Basically, put on a headband, hold a ridiculous machinegun, and you had a yourself blockbuster. In the gaming world, there were a few more rules like player 1 was blue and player 2 was red. I aspired to make Boxman a cousin of this branch of the classic shooter game genre. Of course, Boxman was already red, so ShadowBox had to be blue, and when developing the gameplay concept, I wanted a bigger value add (and challenge) than playing as a duplicate Boxman, so he got a sword and the ability to slide under blocks as an actual shadow. But I still wanted to complete the nod to games like Ikari Warriors by allowing a second player to enter the game and save your skin when the going got tough.
Donkey Kong — I wonder how many people remember that Donkey Kong was originally a bad guy? This is another title that starred Mario (see my previous post) that inspired Boxman. This game is given a more obvious homage in Boxman than some of the other titles that were influential. For some reason I have a distinct memory of my brother and me playing Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. back to back on an Atari at my cousin's house once. I think it stood out because I knew who Mario was and I loved King Kong movies. I remembered taking turns on each level and seeing how far we could get. When it came time to plan a final showdown with Bi-Polar in Boxman, I knew immediately what form it should take — after all Boxman was a retro title designed to celebrate its classic predecessors. And I think in some small way, I wanted to recreate some of the thrills and suspense we felt that first time I played Donkey Kong.
So there you have it. Who said research had to be boring? Research is essential to any concept you are developing, and knowing your roots helps you pave your own path to the future. Playing classic games made for a lot of happy memories in my life and I hope games like Boxman continue their tradition for the next generation.
We are lucky to live in a world with so many gaming possibilities at our fingertips. Videogames are everywhere we go — adding to our social gatherings, passing time on long waits, teaching us something new, paying tribute to this day in history on Google's homepage, you name it. Our existence is rich with gaming and I think it is thanks in a very large part to the earliest pioneers of the industry. From Pong to Pac-Man to the MSX computer and NES console, we owe a debt to classic games for capturing our imaginations and inspiring a future full of technology and beautiful design. Over the next few posts, I'm paying tribute to a few classic games that have had an impact on me and influenced various aspects of Boxman.
Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake — if you haven't played this one yet, it is a must-play on my list of all-time favorites. You may have missed its original incarnation like I did because it came out for the MSX. But the publisher, Konami, has since released the title (updated by its orginal creator, the legendary Hideo Kojima) for PS2 as an extra disc with Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence. It can also be found as a special feature on the PS3 and PS Vita releases of the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection. This game's 80's action hero, complete with headband, as well as the final battle with a giant robot, inspired my own efforts to make Boxman feel like a classic 80's action game star who gets dropped into a puzzle world. Some of the later Metal Gear games introduce a no-kill playthrough option, which is another theme shared in Boxman.
Super Mario Bros. — if you haven't played this one, you might be either lying or living in a cave... on the moon (my apologies to the one person who's never played Super Mario Bros. that I just offended). Mario is probably the most well-known videogame character of all time (depending on what Pac-Man would have to say about the matter), but perhaps some players will be more familiar with his more modern appearances on current-gen consoles. This game wasn't the first Mario game, but it was the first NES game most people from my generation ever played because it came with the system. For Boxman, I wanted to create a grid-based world with blocks featuring different attributes and uses. Mario's level design was an obvious starting point in my research. It's platformer layout set the precedent for countless games and Boxman certainly stands on the square shoulders of giants like Super Mario Bros.
So what do you get when you combine 80's action heroes and side-scrolling mobile fortresses built out of uniquely behaving puzzle blocks? You get a game layered with action and problem-solving, where overcoming obstacles depends upon your assessment of the pieces on the board, your own creativity in setting traps, and of course your ninja reflexes. I hope Boxman provides challenges and fun whether you are in it for the bodacious characters, the blasting, or the brain teasers.
Just like with movies, there are classic games — games that capture the imagination of generations and inspire game makers for years to come. Over the next few posts, I'll be paying tribute to a few examples of the classic games that inspired the gameplay or artwork of Boxman, or got a nod from our square hero.
First up is Contra by Konami which was an arcade game first, but I think most of us remember it from the NES. Wow, what an amazing game. This is a long-standing series that can still deliver great sequels. The 2 player shoot-em-up format with Rambo-inspired heroes was definitely a feel I wanted to recapture when developing Boxman's world of action game meets puzzle game.
Second is Tetris which I also first played on NES. There's actually a really cool article on Wikipedia about the origins of the game here. Tetris really doesn't require much more explanation, as it is one of the most popular games ever and is available on just about every game system there is now. But I definitely needed a puzzle format for my plan and looked to Tetris and the plethora of games it inspired (like the immaculate Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo for PlayStation) to light my way.
Combining the inspiration of titles like these classics, the end result I arrived at is a game that drops our old school action hero into a new battleground of puzzling threats, in a world that isn't just black and white. Boxman must balance his blaster with his brains and use his environment to overcome the obstactles in his path. Each encounter is both a battle to win and a puzzle to solve.
Boxman is a character that has been with me for a long time. I learned to program in middle school and high school and have always been interested in making games. Boxman was one of the first game characters I came up with in those years. In most of his earliest renditions, he was conceptually the same as he is now, with his Rambo-style headband and ridiculous machinegun... only he wasn't so well executed when it came to the in-game graphics. He wasn't actually a polished idea or even named until after he had made his first appearance — just a moving white box on a screen in a program written in Turbo Pascal. He could change position and had a very rudimentary jump that he used to get over and past the other box on the screen. I jokingly devised the illustration of him that had eyes and a mouth and accessories. For me, this was a little poke at the old school videos games that had amazing cover art and then the in-game graphics were should we say... incongruent.
But that's not to say that I'm not a fan of vintage game art — very much the opposite actually — there's so much great stuff to say about the art of the pixel that I'm saving it for another post in the future. And so, I knew Boxman would not be complete until he could evolve from a simple white box to a fully animated sprite in all his pixelated glory. The only problem was he was something of a shout-out to some old school games that were among the first shooters and beat-em-ups and I didn't want to make a game where you solved your problems by doing harm.
Most of my early game ideas were inspired by the games that I played as a kid, which tended to operate on the philosophy of "blasting" through your problems (usually aliens or street gangs with mohawks). But now that games had evolved to be 3D, the violence in games seemed that much more real. I wanted to create a game that celebrated the adventure and action I enjoyed in my youth without unintentionally contributing to something negative and against my personal values. So how could I use this character of Boxman, inspired by classic shooters, in a new way that would be true to his roots, yet innovative in his approach to problem solving in a way that befits the modern gamer and my responsibility to them?
To solve my concepting problem, I turned to my character. I would present the same problem to Boxman and see how he solved it. In the game, Official Seal assigns Boxman to a no-kill mission. His foe is temporarily mad and happens to be a threatened species. When Boxman, a seasoned and grizzled grunt, says "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." His boss retorts that he should "Think outside of the box" (in this case both a physical and metaphysical challenge). This is the mission given to Boxman and his player who will quickly find that trying to blast an enemy has no effect as they all have protective shields. Now your gun ceases to be a weapon and instead becomes a tool for taking out blocks of shifting ice that you can use to setup traps or open paths to get Boxman to safety.
So Boxman can still run in "guns blazing" but to very different ends. He still fights a giant ice tank, has a ninja side-kick who shadows him to secretly insure the success of his mission, and must escape from time-bombs and rolling boulders. Boxman gets in plenty of action and adventure, squaring off (pun intended) against characters with big personalities, and through it all, he succeeds by adapting his skill set to a new world.