While attending LuheCon, a retro gaming meetup in Lower Saxony, I had the opportunity to listen in on the presentation of a platformer being developed from scratch for the Commodore 64. Having very little experience with the system beyond JonTron’s reviews of the system’s utter travesties, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the game being demoed was cheerful, had a cracking soundtrack and, most importantly, looked like a shed-load of fun.
The game in question was Sam’s Journey, an exploratory collect-a-thon featuring a smattering of homages to the retro greats, including the Tanooki-suited Mario. The game is being given a physical release through publisher Protovision, and is being developed by Knights of Bytes, a team helmed by Chester Kollschen. I had the opportunity to chat with Chester this afternoon about what it’s like to develop a refreshingly modern-looking game for a decidedly old system, and he had plenty of interesting things to say about the process of mapping out one small boy’s great big adventure.
Charlotte Cutts: I’d like to start with a general question – I see Knights of Bytes has developed for the C64 before. What draws you to this specific console?
Chester Kollschen: In the past, home computers and video game console weren’t as omnipresent as they are today. Also, they were quite expensive. So it was in fact a matter of age and budget as to which device became your first one. When I saved enough money to buy my first computer, it was 1985 and the C64 was in its golden age at the time. It’s strange: had I been a little younger or older, my first computer would most certainly have been a different one!
So the C64 was my first computer and I stuck with it because I learnt programming on it.
Charlotte Cutts: So, would you say that Sam’s Journey was relatively easy to develop compared to games you worked on previously? Or did you have the know-how right from your first development project?
Chester Kollschen: We can indeed use all the know-how we collected while making the previous games for the current one because the C64 as a platform is still exactly the same as in 1982. That’s exactly why developing new games for old machines is so much fun from a developer’s perspective. You have the same capabilities as you had 30 years ago, and yet you try to make better games!
Today, with more programming experience, we solve the same problems in a different, more efficient way. This means we have more resources left for more features.
Charlotte Cutts: That leads onto precisely what I wanted to ask next. I noticed Sam’s Journey is a very aesthetically pleasing game, while some of the examples of C64 games I’ve come across have certainly aged poorly. Were you trying to achieve the maximum you could with the system, or were you trying to replicate a C64 video game from the 1980s?
Chester Kollschen: It’s a bit of both, actually. Part of the fun for us developers is pushing the hardware, yes. But in the end, the game should entertain people, so the technical side must not be the only aspect we take care of.
Thanks for your nice words about the appearance of Sam’s Journey. In fact, the game could have looked exactly like this in 1982, too, since the hardware did not change. It’s nonetheless a great achievement by my artist, who used new drawing techniques to get this result.
Many C64 games used all the available graphic resources for the foreground elements, such as platforms and walls. This often leaves the background quite blank. Maybe this is what you were referring to with the poorly-aged games?
With Sam’s Journey, we took a different route. We use very few graphical elements for the structural foreground. This means we have many elements left for designing the backgrounds. That way, we avoid the blank screen. You can always see a lively landscape. This is what makes our game look so colourful.
Charlotte Cutts: It’s absolutely fascinating how approaching the artwork a little differently can produce drastically different results on the same system. On the subject of the artwork, I’d love to ask you a couple of questions about Sam’s outfits. Did the programming or the artwork come first? So, did you think of a hurdle for Sam to overcome and then design the suit around it, or did you think up the suits and then create an appropriate hurdle?
Chester Kollschen: Actually, before writing any code or putting down any pixels, my team and I worked out a game concept.
We’ve always wanted to make a platform game because we’re all fans of that genre and its incarnations on consoles such as the NES, the SNES and the Genesis/Mega Drive. I am a big fan of Super Mario Bros 3 on the NES, while my artist really likes Kirby’s Dream Land. And we all love the Donkey Kong Country series on the SNES! We played platformers on those consoles because quality platformers were quite rare on the C64.
When we decided to create our own, we had a meeting and brainstormed the elements we would like to include. My artist was the one who suggested a character that could change outfits. We considered the different skills that the suits would give our hero before creating the levels, and six suits made it into the final game.
Charlotte Cutts: What I really loved about the suits is that they are the sorts of costumes which you can imagine a young child having in his dressing up box. It makes me feel as though these adventures are all happening in Sam’s imagination while he is trying on different fancy dress costumes!
I think my favourite outfit of the six is the pirate costume. Which one is yours?
Chester Kollschen: Oh, that’s a tough one…Pirate Sam is nice indeed, because it changes Sam’s innocent appearance into something more badass. But I also like Disco Sam because of his great looks, with the 70s hair-style, the sunglasses and the Saturday Night Fever suit. But you are perfectly right: many of Sam’s costumes represent childhood dreams. Pirate, ninja, astronaut…
We hadn’t explicitly thought of the imagination idea! However, Sam’s adventures are supposed to be real. Well, really happening, I should say. It’s not meant to be a daydream sequence.
Charlotte Cutts: Which is particularly nice for Sam, since he’s collecting sparkly gemstones on his travels!
Charlotte Cutts: So, gemstones can be the coins/rings equivalent in Sam’s Journey. I seem to remember from LuheCon that you don’t have to collect all of them to progress, but there is some sort of bonus for collecting more than you need to? So, is Sam’s Journey meant to appeal to casual gamers and completionists alike?
Chester Kollschen: Sam’s Journey doesn’t require you to find every single hidden item in order to finish a level. It’s the other way around: in each and every level, we hid a certain number of artefacts for Sam to discover.
Diamonds are the easiest to find. They are usually located on Sam’s usual trajectory through the level. Coins are more difficult to find because they are mostly hidden. Sam may discover them in secret passages, for example. You will have to leave Sam’s natural pathway through the world in order to collect them all. Finally, there are cups. These are always kept by certain enemy creatures, so if you want all of the cups in a level, you have to find the cup-keepers. Once you reach the end of a level, you’ll get a score depending on the items you found. To get a 100% in a particular level, you have to find all the artefacts in that level.
Many players may want to rush through the game at first. They can then come back to already played levels at any time to improve their scores.
Charlotte Cutts: Further on the topic of design decisions, it seems Sam’s Journey doesn’t have the “lives” system we commonly associate with platformers. Can you tell me why you decided not to include it?
Chester Kollschen: Simply because we didn’t need it. The concept of limited lives dates back to a time when people inserted coins into arcade machines to play a game. Now that we play at home with our own computers, the concept of limited lives doesn’t make much sense in a large-scale game where it is your mission to advance through the world. Limiting lives would hold you back in the game for no good reason. You would have to play the first levels over and over again if you want to reach the later levels. We consider this to be frustrating.
Charlotte Cutts: That is indeed true, though unfortunately a lot of modern platformers still hold onto the “lives” concept.
Chester Kollschen: Lives make sense when you have something like a high score. For example, a game like Tetris HAS to end at some point to take the player’s score. But the journey of Sam should not end for artificial reasons before has he reached his destination!
Charlotte Cutts: I’ve noticed that you’re releasing Sam’s Journey in a cartridge format and have taken great care with the cover art. Do you think Sam’s adventures could ever transfer to an electronic release, be that through allowing people to play it on emulators or even a Steam release? Or are you committed to keeping Sam’s Journey an authentic C64 experience?
Chester Kollschen: This is tricky as well.
First, there will be a cartridge release, as you mentioned, but this won’t be the only edition. There’ll also be a disk edition of Sam’s Journey. Image files taken from those disks can be used in C64 emulators such as VICE and can thus be played on desktop computers, too. There are many people who still love the old hardware but don’t have access to real devices anymore. These people could join the fun using emulation, too.
Interestingly, I’ve been asked about a Steam release several times. It’s something I would have to investigate. For Steam, the game must be executable on modern computers, but this may work if we create a bundle that contains the C64 game as well as the emulator it would run on.
The cover art is an important factor. It’ll be used for the box and also for promotional purposes. We spent quite a lot of time on the cover art to make it look great. It doesn’t matter at all that it’s for a C64 game, particularly since we’re considering ports to other platforms. But those would most certainly also be retro platforms!
Charlotte Cutts: Which ones, specifically? Humour an interviewer who grew up with the PS1!
Chester Kollschen: Sam’s Journey has been made for the C64, which is an 8-bit system. We’re considering porting it to 16-bit systems first. That would rule out the PSone – I’m sorry!
Charlotte Cutts: That’s a shame! I’m hoping to start a retro collection soon, so that shouldn’t be too much of a problem for me.
Chester Kollschen: Great to hear. If you are a system fan, then you like everything for your system. If you are a genre fan, then you would try to get all games in that genre, no matter what system it is for.
At Gamescom, some Amiga and even PC gamers asked us about options to play Sam’s Journey without a real C64 because they just love the game. That’s what makes us developers really happy: players who want to play our games.
Charlotte Cutts: That’s great to hear, since Sam’s Journey is the first C64 game I’ve wanted to play! My last question is about the fact you’ve just returned from presenting the game at Gamescom. What type of gamers did you mainly get stopping by your booth during the convention?
Chester Kollschen: Very different types. Hardcore PC gamers don’t usually come to the retro section, but regardless it was an interesting mix of all ages and also all genders.
Of course, whenever a family stopped by, the father was the one who was able to get to grips with the game really quickly. What I loved the most was the fact that three people came specifically to see Sam’s Journey at Gamescom. They’d seen all the screenshots and videos on YouTube and now wanted to see with their own eyes whether the game really exists and whether it really will be published.
One surprise at Gamescom was a 10-year-old boy who mastered the very first level of Sam’s Journey with ease. The reason for this was that he discovered his father’s C64 computer in the attic and had managed to set it up, so he got in a lot of practice in advance!
Charlotte Cutts: It’s great to see people picking up older machines and appreciating them properly, especially younger people.
Chester Kollschen: Yes, it’s great to see. I think the age of a machine doesn’t really matter when it comes to gameplay. And the fun. Since old machines are limited in terms of memory and speed, the games often start up immediately. There’s no downloading of large patches, no online registration and no cut scenes: just pure gameplay! This accessibility may add to their popularity.
Charlotte Cutts: Indeed – I certainly know the frustration of a game being released which is inadequate because of the excuse that it can be patched later, and the annoyance of trying to start up a game and waiting (sometimes literally) hours for the patch the download.
Chester Kollschen: Limited systems force the developers to concentrate on the most important thing: the game’s essence, the core. Players benefit from that because there’s simply no capacity for unnecessary “noise”. That’s why I am drawn to the retro and the indie sector. Because it’s still the games themselves that matter.
Charlotte Cutts: I tend to agree.
Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me about your project, and I look forward to seeing the completed version. When is the prospective release date?
Chester Kollschen: The game is in a very advanced state, but it will be done when it’s done. We’re already planning the boxing, the pricing and the shipping. Those are usually parts of the final stage of development. We are going to inform the public about progress on our website: www.knights-of-bytes.com . I’m sure our publisher Protovision will post updates on Sam’s Journey, too.
Charlotte Cutts: Great. Thanks for taking the time to do the interview. Have a good evening!
Chester Kollschen: Nice talking to you. Have a good evening, too.