Sometimes, from the depths of the indie gaming community, a god is born. Sometimes, as the story of this god builds itself up around him, and the tales of his past deeds fall away, what you’re left with is a god that is not really needed OR deserved; a god that’s kind of a snowprick. But in the heart of Mega Cat, he’s THE snowprick- Snodin- and I am here to tell you how a group of co-workers and friends willed him into being. What started as a Sega Genesis spoof quickly gained traction (and puns), and snowballed (see?) into something more; something great: a brawler/platformer hybrid through which, in the name of Snodin, you can invoke the inner Viking lying sentient inside you and knock the crap out of your friends with a ham hock. And unlike actual Vikings, these guys (and gal) will have a much longer lifespan. Along with the core PC release and Genesis de-make, MCS is also cooking up a VR version- effectively Viking-izing your past, present and future. Now, let us begin the story of Viking Democracy.
CHOOSE YOUR CHAMPION! MEET THE VIKINGS
When choosing which champion to kick ass in your honor, it’s good to know their strengths, weaknesses, attack styles, and weapon of choice. Luckily, graphic artist Hari Edwin had just enough time during his erratic sleep cycle (2:45 AM his time in Scotland) to fill me in on just that.
“Seeing he was a big armored dude, it made sense to make him the strongest yet slowest,” Edwin explained. “Leif is the strongest, has big heavy axe swings and has the strong silent type vibe. His special is a big jump up [into a] ground slam that knocks people back in a shockwave, reflecting his size and power again.”
“Gunnr just looked mad, which totally fits the idea of berserkers in Viking mythology, so we tried to give him that play style. Gunnr has his sword swings and slashes, and usually looks like he’s roaring while attacking. His special makes him turn red and go berserk increased damage and can keep his special active for longer, the more he deals or receives damage.”
Mega Cat founder James Deighan gave the simplest explanation for Bjorn- “Beards are hip, and he looked like the most likely candidate to use ham as a weapon. It was an easy decision.” Edwin elaborated: “Bjorn was the smallest, had a big grin and, for some reason, a ham. So he's fast, and has an interesting and crazy special move of spinning around that reflects the zaniness of his ham weapon. Bjorn has ham whacks and the whirlwind spin that damages anyone that gets caught in it.”
It’s clear that Hilde holds a special place in the hearts of those that designed her. Edwin said that, after making 3 dudes, “it just made sense to make a dudette.” “They’re all Vikings, and I assumed that if you’re a Viking you can only get by by being a fierce badass. So I didn’t want to go with an over-sexualized, impractical design with booby armor and other stuff just to make her eye candy. Unfortunately that's still popular with some character design when it doesn’t fit the character. So I tried making her look fun, cool, like she would beat you up if you looked at her the wrong way, and still feminine, I wanted anyone to be able to play and enjoy this character. Hilde’s design also had to fill the gaps. She’s not so strong, but has the longest range and is the fastest attacker, and has pretty decent movement speed. [She] has fast and agile stabs with a lot of precision. Her special is a super quick dash across the screen that damages anyone in its path. Green is a color that isn't present in the other dudes much, so I chose that as the main color. And you’ll notice Bjorn and Gunnr have some strangely modern clothes. Bjorn has what seem to be jeans and yellow sneakers, Gunnr has his wee hat, so I gave Hilde some puffy dungarees.”
The great part about these characters and their gameplay is that you can pick up a controller as a seasoned player or literally for the first time, and still catch on just as quickly. You don’t need to know a special sequence of steps to execute an attack. (Does anyone remember the thrill of finally managing to successfully land a shoryureppa?) Deighan speaks more of the gameplay development process: “Jumping from a Genesis game to the wide open world of unity is an interesting experience. Out of the gate, the first thing we wanted to plan out were throwables for attack variance. More than anything else, though, we wanted the characters to be able to really interact with the levels, giving each level a sense of depth and independence from the others from environmental hazards to super suits.”
Such is the Mega Cat way, each level pays homage to a different childhood favorite franchise, while still maintaining a firm hold in the game lore. There’s a forest level that’s anode to the Legend of Zelda- complete with chickens and a full figured fairy that pixel artist Frank Tyler has named “Jackie”; and a UFO level brought to you by pixel artist Brendan Cockman, rooted deeply in his love for Earthbound. There’s a Rainbow Road reminiscent Asgard level, a Candy level with a Kirby feel, the Beach and the Mead Hall: two Viking staples, and… the Icy level.
Dubbed by Deighan “at one point the most boring level,” the Icy level quickly “inevitably became our in-house favorite for testing and smack-talking.” He also regarded it as “the beginning of a downward spiral of emojis and slack slang.” Programmer Nathan Wilson has, seemingly inexplicably, garnered the title of “Snoverlord.” “I somehow became the resident snowman at some point,” Wilson explains, showing off the snow army he has amassed: I had some questions for Edwin and Wilson pertaining to the Viking Democracy design, so the following is an interview that I wish took place via Talkboy FX Plus but, alas, did not.
1) What aspects of each game did you want to bring into its respective level and why?
Hari: “We wanted each level to have a unique appeal, gameplay purpose and its own influences ]and references. The levels have their own big set pieces, like the Longship full of treasure and supplies, or the carved wooden idol statues on Beach. From those setpieces came gameplay ideas like elemental effects from each statue, or the emerging kraken that attacks the Longship. We were also able to theme items around those ideas, like the throwable acorns in Forest and the powerup suits for each level, like the gummy bear for Candy.”
Nathan: “This one is easy to answer: Mt. Snodin and its army of snowpeople. What started as a silly level feature became a part of my identity with the team and an on-going inside joke. We’ve got custom-made snowman emojis for the slack channel which sees a ton of use. They’re amazing. In honor of this stage’s history, we added a bit of a secret level that corresponds with it. It has something to do with a pressing a series of buttons while looking at the stage in level select…”
2) Which level is your favorite?
Hari: “Meadgard! It doesn’t have any big hazards like a lot of the other levels, but I still love it. The feast hall design gave me a lot of room to include fun stuff; like the kraken and ham dinners, the banners, and the viking’s take on classic artwork. I really enjoyed incorporating platforms into the background, like how you can step on the ham, the harpoon in the kraken, the chandeliers etc.”
Nathan: “Mt.Snodin and its corresponding hidden stage, for obvious reasons.”
3) Why the limited color palette?
Hari: “So we’re developing in Unity, which doesn’t have any color restrictions. As the game was initially a Genesis title, we wanted to maintain a retro feel for the upmake. The limited palette mirrors the color restrictions that had to be followed in retro games. The limited palette also makes it easier to keep the art consistent, especially now that we’re working with multiple artists. Of course, there are still some places where the rules are broken for better results, and the limited palette isn’t a hard rule.”
4) What inspired the game lore?
Hari: “Of course, a lot is based on Viking mythology with some liberties taken and modern twists included. There’s plenty of brainstorming for new ideas we’ve all taken part in; James, Andrew, Zack, Frank, Kim, Nick…everyone. Much of the game lore ties back to Snodin, the great Snowseer. What started as a silly Easter Egg eventually became the heart and pulse of the game.”
Nathan: “It’s 75% user feedback, and 25% our in-house, and, full time slack team members. We spend so much time communicating on there, almost in an effort to make up for the lack of face to face interaction, there will inevitably be a 2AM message from one of us talking candidly about something.”
5) Most fun part of making this game? Biggest challenge?
Hari: “Most fun: I’ve been playing this with friends since early builds, and there are few things more appealing than taking the step from friends giving constructive criticism, to total strangers genuinely enjoying a game you helped create. Having an opportunity to maintain creative autonomy, work with a similarly aligned team of bun-busting, talented people, and make something that other people can enjoy is extremely rewarding. Biggest Challenge: Maintaining continuity with multiple artists. Even with a style guide, it took quite a bit of effort this time through with so many animations, the most detailed UI I’ve ever done, and (as Nathan said) a perpetually evolving game scope, I’m both relieved and excited to get this game done and out there.”
Nathan: “Most fun: The most fun residual product of this game was learning and teaching every single week. Two of our younger devs are just getting started, and it’s been great building them up, and taking them along to increasingly more challenging tasks and watching them flourish. Making huge pushes in development to meet certain deadlines with Hari was also fun. Biggest Challenge: The ever-evolving scope of this game. When it started, it was just another static screen arena fighter. Now, after thousands of hours further along, it’s miles more than that. There’s snow way you should miss this one!”
6) What inspired the new mechanics and why do you think they enhance the game experience?
Hari: “We’ve been getting great community feedback at local IGDA meetings, conventions, and online with our play testers. Without them, who knows where the game would be!”
Nathan: “Feedback was the driving force behind many of the most major features/mechanics. For example, being able to aim your attacks in all different directions. Both Hari and I were pretty intimidated by the prospect of implementing them due to the amount of work/rework involved, but everyone we talked to was really into the idea, so we went for it. The ability to aim your attacks in all directions brought the game to a new level and made.”
7) What will players get out of this game?
Hari: “Viking Democracy is our prescription to settle the indifferences you run into in your day to day lives. Trouble at home? Issues at work? Have a bone to pick with the mailman? Viking Democracy is a one size fits all way to settle arguments and change lives. Well, at least settle arguments. Okay, it’s just really fun. You should play it.”
Nathan: “A not-so- serious brawler that’s great to play with friends. Some may even compare it to a party game. Personally, I can’t wait for online multiplayer support to be finished so I can finally have that long-awaited duel with Hari.”
YOU USED TO CALL ME ON MY GAME MODES
So what can you expect in terms of game modes for this old-school inspired multiplayer? Following along in the team Slack chat, it seems like new modes are being discussed almost daily; but I got Hari to nail a few down for me:
1) Team Mode- Humans versus technology; always a fun time.
2) Snowball fight – Pretty self-explanatory.
3) Hammer Mode – Everyone gets bouncing 1 hit kill hammers to throw around, crazy chaos.
4) Flying Mode – Everyone has wings and can fly around at all times
5) Weapon Tennis – Throwing weapons are hit back and forth between players on two pillars, you can either try kill them, beat them up or get the weapon past them to score points.
To wrap this all up and put a bow on this game, it truly is all in the title. The thing about Viking Democracy is that there’s no such thing as a Viking democracy; there are no rules, and if there were, Vikings certainly wouldn’t follow them. The same is to be said while playing. Un- pause it while your friend gets up to grab some sodas. Try to smack the controller out of their hands. Fair play is fun but foul play is also encouraged. Work that ham hock! All is fair in gaming and Vikings!