Wednesday 6 August 2014

Second Wind - Apothecary for PC Engine lives again

Back in February, I posted about the cancellation of my PC Engine action/adventure/puzzle game Apothecary.

Naturally, some of the PC Engine/TG-16 community was disappointed at a homebrew title getting canned, so I posted a challenge to programmers out there to get a working game engine up and running if they wanted to see the project live again. Orion, the man behind Ultimate Rally Club  and many other retro projects has since been into contact with me and began work on getting some basic sprite movement and maps together.

Well, we've now got to a point where I feel that both Orion and myself are committed to finishing the game and as such, I have been hard at work mapping out the rooms with the final tile artwork. While the game was originally planned as a HuCARD, it will now be a CD, but aside from that there will likely be no major changes to the original concept.

More information will be revealed as development proceeds.

Saturday 2 August 2014

Atlantean Trailer

It's been a few years, but Atlantean is finally finished. Here's the full release trailer. The game will be available to purchase from hopefully in the next week or two. It takes a lot of effort to build these cards and 3D print the boxes.

Saturday 31 May 2014

How Big Is It?

Although the main gameplay of Grelox has been decided, I'm currently standing at a fork in the road and have to make a choice. When Grelox was originally conceived (as Apothecary) the aim was to make it suitable for short development and also to fit in PC Engine rom space. Now, we have a little more freedom, there are choices to be made.

The size of the game map is tied in to one of two styles. The first (original) style was a game where you played, learned the map, learned the puzzles, hit Game Over and started again. Each time you'd get a bit better, know where to go and what to do to progress. The Zillion model. The second style is where you have save points and progress just by getting a bit further each time you play, without having to repeat the puzzles or areas each time. The Metroid model.

There's something to be said for each model. Zillion-style is more traditional and can mean a tighter, more challenging game with a smaller game map (as it has to be practical to complete the game in one session once you know what you're doing). Metroid-style means satisfaction by constant progression, more of an adventure feel but requires a much larger game map as you don't get the 'replay' value of a die-and-start-again Zillion style. Another aspect of the Metroid model is that it seems fairer to most skill levels, less repetitive and easier to balance.

I'm currently considering doubling the game map (to over 200 screens) and choosing the save-driven Metroid style. What do you think?

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Graphics and Gravity

One the the first things that happens when you start a new game is that you form a mental image of what it's going to look like. Obviously, the plan for Grelox was a straight out retro design, but nailing down the details can be a difficult, and ongoing process.

For starters, what kind of retro do you go for? C64? NES? PC Engine? Super Nintendo? Arcades of the late 80s? The choices are many and varied, and you are constantly re-evaluating the details. When you pick a specific look, it's very easy to accidentally make the graphics 'too good' for that look. Use too many colours, too much shading and you end up with something disjointed and uneven.

Yesterday I came across a minor crisis. After quickly mapping out some of the 'organic' area, I went back to draw in some background detail. The vision was to make the backdrops subtle but effective, so I set about making a nice rocky wall with cracks that you can see through to distant caverns. But despite it beginning to take shape, something was making me feel uncomfortable about it, and I think it's all down to emotion.

There are several core concepts to the feel of the game, but one of them is that I want it to stir up the memories of playing those vast, multi-screen arcade adventures on the ZX Spectrum. Comparing the look of the map with and without the background texture, there is something almost pure about the empty blackness that is very evocative of that era (while the art itself remains more advanced in style). So I had a chat with Andrew and we decided, for the moment at least, that this is the way we'll head. For me, that memory of old 8-bit games gives me a strong wash of nostalgia, and I hope that others may find this the case too.

Of course, everything is subject to change.

On the programming front, Andrew is still beavering away at finishing Atlantean for PCE Engine / TG-16. But I can show you the very first little buds of what will eventually become Grelox. It's not pretty and it doesn't work right, but this is what the birth of a game engine looks like. Jumping is extremely wonky at this stage, but Andrew has the idea of reversing gravity to produce a better jumping/falling system. You never know, reverse-gravity rooms may even be workable in the game, don't you just love those?

Saturday 22 February 2014

Death of a PC Engine Game

It's always a really hard decision to close the door on something that you've spent an awful lot of time with - any project you work on seeps into everything you do as in the back of your mind, you're always trying to plan game mechanics, plot details, how things will look or clever puzzles to include. It becomes part of your everyday routine, not to mention the evenings spent sitting in front of a monitor mapping or drawing tiles and sprites worthy of inclusion.

After 2 years of planning, Apothecary for PC Engine is no more.

Apothecary was the forerunner to what Grelox will become - an arcade adventure using item puzzles as a form of game progression. It was always simpler than Grelox, as I designed it with my mind firmly on making it as easy to program as possible without sacrificing too much gameplay (and so there was no attacking, only dodging, no bosses and no scrolling!).

So why is it being put to sleep? It's all a case of timescales. From inception, Atlantean (our almost-finished PC Engine project) will be coming in at about 3 years development time, and that's for a simple Defender style shooter. Apothecary has already been in development for 2 years, and that's without a single line of code being written. It was due to be started after completion of our 'Jungle Hunt' and 'Joust' projects, which means it probably wouldn't see the light of day for a long time. PC Engine development is fun and exciting, but it's also very, very hard and slow. With just 2 people working on a game as ambitious as this, it's just depressing to think about.

That's why once day I realised that pursuing Apothecary any further was going to be more hassle than it's worth (i.e. I'd probably be dead from old age before it gets finished). While the plot, puzzles and other elements will be lost, at the very least I can salvage some of the map layouts and don't be surprised if a few of the background tiles turn up in Grelox, which promises to be a much faster development period due to the tools we have at our disposal.

So here I present a collection of images for Apothecary, the PC Engine game that never was.

A sample of proposed cover art and potential advert/poster design:

Animation for our main character, Amirella. She's a bit nudey because the game was planned as a sister project to Inferno, which had a slightly nudey man in it.

Game screen mockups:

An early concept for the Title Screen:

Saturday 15 February 2014

What's in a name?

So where did the name Grelox come from? Well it has a long history. Back when I was at school (around 1988/9 perhaps) a group of friends and myself decided to make a fanzine reviewing video games (mostly imports). These were the days where you had to physically photocopy actual paper and staple it together to pass around information.

Well I can't remember us ever finishing a single issue, or if it even got past the initial planning stage, but we did come up with a name: Grelox. It stood for Games Reviewed Every Lunar Occidental Xenith (which despite the fact we had to spell Zenith wrong, means every month. At least we thought it did, you might have to ask an astronomer to confirm).

More recently, when Grelox began to be discussed, it was a combination of various games, mixing in another of our projects (called Apothecary). So for a while we were referring to it as 'Apothezilliontroid', 'Zillipothecaroid' 'Metrionecaryvania' as so on. This was beginning to get hard to type, so I decided to codename it Grelox as that just popped into my head. The name stuck.

So Grelox has quite a long history as a name. I'm glad it's finally getting used for something.

Thursday 23 January 2014

Chasing (well, designing) Amy

Yes folks, our main character is called Amy and she's a girl.

The sprite design has gone through a long history. For most of its life, it was intended for use in a PC Engine game and began as the concept sprite below.

Then followed a bit of animation testing.

 I then spent some time completely re-imagining her in a cute style, to match the feel of the Bonk/PC Genjin sprite on the TG-16/PC Engine. This one I'm still quite happy with, maybe I can use her someday.
When Grelox finally became a real 'thing' I forgot the old Amy and tried some experiments that didn't get very far. You can see from the roughs below that I was trying to get some kind of helmet design that was unusual and unique, but it just wasn't working.
So, as I should have done to start with, I sketched out a proper concept for her suit, which drew heavily from the old Amy with some cyberpunk influences.

This led to a taller sprite which just didn't look right. So I squished her down and somehow it all clicked into place. Amy was born.

Saturday 18 January 2014

Grelox - The Logo

I both like and hate designing logos. The end result can be quite rewarding, but too often you spend hours just scrolling through pages of fonts looking for something that jumps out at you. Which is what happened with Grelox, and by the end I was bored and no nearer to discovering that truly perfect font.

So I gave up and decided to draw it out manually. In my head I wanted the logo to harken back to the 80s, much as the game itself does. I had a look at some Heavy Metal album covers for inspiration and also always had something like Robocop on my mind, as I love that classic look. So, not being too skilled at curves, I drew out some straight edged lettering in Illustrator, then took it into Photoshop for some time consuming work, all to make it look intentionally dated.

What I ended up with was a nice bevelled logo that looked straight out of a 1980's Spectrum game advert. And with some consultation with Andrew on colour variations, we finally settled on the deep purple and pink, matching our main character's outfit perfectly.

So here it is:

And you can see a bigger version on the Grelox page on Aetherbyte HERE where I think it looks a bit nicer.

Friday 10 January 2014

The Road to Grelox

The genesis of Grelox was in early 2011 when I wanted to do a Metroidvania style game for the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16. Like most people, I found Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night truly influential when they were released and they still mark a pinnacle of a certain type of game design. However, it soon became apparent that this would be quite a difficult and lengthy  project, especially given the very limited time that homebrew developers have to spend (and on top of that there were many other games that were already waiting in the queue to be made).

While programming on other projects was underway, I began messing around with some sci-fi based graphics for fun, which eventually led on to a more straightforward platformer design. I envisioned a futuristic Bonk's Adventure/PC Genjin where, as well as completing levels in a linear fashion, you could have several optional goals (like the Mario-esque collecting 5 red coins or finding particularly tricky hidden objects buried in the maps). It would also involve levels having multiple paths - one normal and one a real challenge. All this was considered to increase replay value and longevity. This idea sat stewing for some time.

After going back and playing some old 8-bit titles like Draconus, I went back to my Metroidvania idea, but with the focus on a designing a game for a short development period. This project, which for the moment must remain secret, had a more dark, fantasy tone - meant as a companion to Aetherbyte's MSX platformer Inferno. Without compromising fun, I had to look at this from the programming standpoint. Cutting out things like attacks, complex enemy AI and even scrolling could mean cutting the development time significantly. But development on old hardware can be painfully slow, and even so it could be another few years before we could get our teeth into this game.

With Andrew learning the ropes in Unity, we decided it was worth leapfrogging the project over to the PC - taking the best core elements from the game design (such as the puzzle system), the original sci-fi theme and adding more action and adventure. The flexibility of PC development means that we can still create a retro themed action adventure, but we can now do it quicker and with more flair and deliver a far more compelling finished game. I'm really excited for our plans.

LATEST DEVELOPMENT STATUS: Basic mapping is pretty much done. Working on art for the initial rooms. I plan make simple, block-layout maps for most of the rooms so we can have something to test the room design before dropping in finished graphics.

Monday 6 January 2014

Grelox - Initial Gameplay Details

So let's get down to it and give you some details of what kind of game to expect. I think it can be best summed up with the following screenshots:

So what this boils down to is a classic-style action adventure (with some puzzles to be solved). Gameplay will take place on a large map, with each screen representing a room to be navigated and explored. The game is not linear, but will require you to seek out both new and old rooms to complete your tasks. There will be items to pick up and use, as well as a variety of power-ups that may help you access new areas.

That's all I'm willing to give away for now - I'm currently working on the master map for the game and trying to pin down the best locations for items, bosses and power-ups.

Saturday 4 January 2014


For the first entry in this blog, I felt it best to start off with a new announcement.

At Aetherbyte, we are beginning work on a new project. Although much of our current and previous work revolves around creating new software for old hardware, we've also decided to create new software for new hardware that just looks like new software for old hardware, if you get my meaning...

If not, don't worry. All it means is that we are working on a retro-styled game for the PC. The game is called Grelox and through this blog I hope to share insights on the development from the early stages to completion. I am primarily drawing the art, writing the story, designing the maps and gameplay - the programming, music, sounds and further design will be done by Aetherbyte's founder, Andrew (AKA Arkhan).

Grelox is an arcade-adventure and is in the very early stages of design (in some respects - from another point of view it has been in planning for years, but more on that later) but hopefully soon I will be able to share more details of gameplay and some initial graphics. It's being programmed in Unity which offers us greater flexibility than we are used to and also means progress should be a lot faster than our other projects.

If you want to keep up to date with news, subscribe to this blog or follow me on Twitter (@sunteam) or Facebook where I will post new blog entries as they become available.

In the meantime, welcome to the blog and here's a preview of Grelox's main sprite to get things started.