Thursday, October 8, 2009
Interview: Bringing Zaku to Life With Super Fighter Team's Brandon Cobb
"Never Let Dreams Die!" indeed. When you get an e-mail from Brandon Cobb, President of Super Fighter Team, that credo is at the bottom, right under his signature. Based on the upcoming Atari Lynx exclusive shooter, Zaku, it's clear that this credo was also a call to action that kept the project going for six years. Not only is Zaku the first complete new release for the Lynx in about five years, it's looking like one of the best games ever created for the handheld system.
My interest in the Lynx led me to the Super Fighter web site and eventually, to have the opportunity to send off a few questions on the project over to Cobb, who took the time to answer them in a straightforward, non-nonsense manner with flashes of humor that's more than welcome in this age of quick sound bites and evasiveness. Here, Cobb weighs in on bringing Zaku to market as an all-around quality product, sticking it to the man with citrus as well as a few other choice topics.
Greg Wilcox: First and most obvious question: Why an Atari Lynx Game in this day and age of "next-gen" 3D graphics, XNA Game Studio and plenty of 2D and 3D download content on game consoles and handhelds?
Brandon Cobb: Zaku began as a programming experiment, as the developer was interested in the Lynx's hardware and capabilities. It only blossomed into a serious, full-fledged game project once Super Fighter Team had signed on to produce and publish. I knew enough from the small, rough demo that I initially saw to put my full confidence behind the game and its creator, a decision that's worked out pretty darn well for all of us. The Lynx needs this sort of thing. It deserves to rise above its existing software library and proudly proclaim, "See? Here's what I can do!"
GW: How long has Zaku been in development and for Lynx fans interested in the game, what can they expect from the final version?
BC: Six years. Maybe it sounds like an epic amount of time for this sort of thing, but keep in mind it was one man, Osman Celimli, doing the bulk of the design, art and programming, and in his spare time. It should be a testament to the quality people are going to see upon the game's release.
GW: What's been the toughest part of this extended development cycle and how have you guys kept at it for so long?
BC: Life tends to get in the way. That, and I'm a real perfectionist when it comes to project management. Though this contributes to the overall strength of the finished game, it can be harrowing to developers at first. Osman's a very professional guy, and we always ended up agreeing on the choices that were made during development. It wasn't just a partnership we established, but a friendship.
GW: Was Zaku inspired/influenced by any particular games you've played in the past or was the team trying to do something completely different than other console and handheld shooters?
BC: Zaku is a completely new and original game, consisting of concepts and designs created by the development team at PenguiNet, although the Turbografx-16 game Air Zonk and the Genesis game Rocket Knight Adventures both served as inspiration for some of its "feel". The primary focus during development was to create a beautiful game that was also fun. You'll see lots of amazing things like huge sprites and neat graphical effects, and you'll be dazed by the music and sound effects - but the big thing is, it's fun to play.
GW: The character art has a nice classic cartoon look to it - tell us a bit about the lead artist/character designer.
BC: That's Osman again. He really wore a lot of hats on this project. It was his dream from the first pixel to the last line of code, and the character artwork is a great example. He and I are fans of many of the same cartoons: Ren and Stimpy, for example, was one whose influence was apparent in some of the very first sets of graphics he drafted. However his own personal, slapstick style matured throughout the process, and many of the final designs reflect this.
GW: If a publisher approached you tomorrow and asked you to bring Zaku to other platforms, say, mobile phones or to a handheld such as the DS via DSiWare or PSP through PSN, for example... would you do so, or is Zaku more of a labor of love strictly designed for the Lynx?
BC: I'd tell 'em to go suck a lemon. We aren't faking retro in an attempt to cash in on nostalgia, we're embracing it and giving it the respect it deserves.
GW: Super Fighter has also published two other games for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive (Beggar Prince and Legend of Wukong). Are there any future plans to localize/publish other titles (heck, are there any more unseen rarities even left to publish?) or will we perhaps see an original creation at some point down the road should you happen to have a Genesis dev kit tucked away somewhere?
BC: Though I cannot go into further detail at this time, we have finished work on another new title for the Genesis / Mega Drive which is expected to ship in early 2010. "Never let dreams die" is a powerful credo, you know. :)
GW: In terms of production, is Super Fighter Team actually manufacturing the Lynx cards or are you working with an outside contractor? I'd imagine you just don't look up "Lynx Game Card Makers" in the Yellow Pages, correct?
BC: After we settle on a suitable product design, our factory in China takes care of the manufacturing details. This is how it goes for every product we produce on physical media. In the case of Zaku it was fairly pioneer, as nobody produces new game cards for the Lynx. It meant new PCBs, which were designed by a German fellow named Bernd Thomas, and most exciting to me: authentic reproductions of the hard plastic shells that surround them.
New Lynx games most always appear simply as bare circuit boards these days, something I've never found appealing. That wasn't going to fly with me for this product, so we will once again be bringing innovation to the table, going as green light on production values as we always have.
GW: As far as a completion time frame - about how far along is the game? Will you be posting videos of it in action on the Zaku site and have you figured out just how much all this hard work is going to cost for a retail copy of the game?
BC: Oh, the game's completed. Nothing to worry about there. We've already released a video via the game's official website. Zaku will be available for ordering before the end of the year at the price of $40.00 + shipping and handling. That's right - people will be paying LESS for this phenomenal quality release than they would be paying for the vast majority of other new Lynx game releases. Love, innovation, quality - it's a combination no one can "liq"!
GW: Once Zaku is done, will there be a bit of a break or there any other plans for more original Lynx games in the future?
BC: Anything is possible. We've all enjoyed working with the Lynx, and have kept hold of the official development kit.
GW: Finally, what are some of your favorite games (from any era, consoles or PC ) and what do you think of the current state of gaming?
BC: Star Blazer (Apple II) was one of the first "simple" games to impress me with its sheer complexity and challenge.
Earthbound (SNES) not only makes the idea of an RPG taking place in present-day "anytown USA" work, it does a fantastic job of capturing and displaying emotions in its characters and situations, as well as inspiring them in its players. It's surreal.
Quest for Glory 1 through 4 (PC) created worlds to become immersed in, introduced fantastic characters of all kinds, and always presented the player with variety and freshness. Add to these points some phenomenal Ad Lib and Roland soundtracks, and you've got a truly unforgettable experience.
Alone in the Dark (PC) is pure brilliance; quite possibly my favorite video game of all-time. At one point, I had played through the game so many times that it began to get monotonous, but I didn't want to stop playing. Since the game allowed so much freedom, I decided to try doing everything I could think of, in an attempt to produce results the programmer hadn't accounted for. This provided a wealth of new gameplay experiences, including finding many bugs that were left behind, and finally opening the two doors in the game that don't serve any purpose at all throughout the adventure. It's such a shame that the series went on a downward spiral after this masterpiece...
I was "lost in transition" when the Playstation came out. Games began to feel bland and uninteresting, or were chock full of movie clips every time you pushed a button. That was about it for me, though I can still appreciate a few titles here and there. When Halo 2 was all the rage, for example, I bought an Xbox and frequently got together with my friends for some 6-player system link action which usually spanned an entire day.
Now, I visit my nephew every week and we enjoy Halo 3 despite its shortcomings, along with Mario Kart Double Dash (the newer Wii version never did it for us) and a few others.
And that, dear readers, is that! Many thanks to Brandon for taking time out from his schedule to answer my questions and provide images of Zaku in its final packaging and the full color game manual. If you've got a Lynx, well, this is cause for major excitement. If you don't have a Lynx... well, you're going to be missing out on a REAL treat. I'll be one of those lucky folks sending Super Fighter my hard-earned bucks for a copy of the game, that's for sure.
We'll have more on Zaku as the new info arrives - stay tuned.