Shovel Knight: Digging Up The Past

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Over the last few years, retro gaming has seen a surge in interest, with HD remasters and remakes of games becoming incredibly common amongst developers and studios. Even Nintendo have got in on the act via their wonderful Virtual Console service, where they have begun republishing old titles such as the Legend of Zelda games on their brand new machines.

The huge advantage of this is that it provides younger players with the chance to experience previously hard-to-find games; the disadvantage is that it also demonstrates how far the games industry has come in terms of gameplay over the last twenty-five years, with many such games retaining the same flaws as when they were originally released. In 2011, a group of former employees from Wayforward Technologies, including its previous director Sean Velasco, established Yacht Club Games. Their goal was to create a game in the style of their beloved NES titles, but for a modern audience and with the advantage of hindsight. The result was the hit title Shovel Knight, an incredible 2D platformer that combines excellent storytelling with intuitive gameplay modeled for today’s gamer.

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Interview with game developer Chris Seavor

Conker's Bad Fur Day

Lewd, rude, and excessively vulgar – these are all expressions that can be used to describe Conker’s Bad Fur Day, the 3D platformer released by Rare in 2001.

With its overt references to sex, scatological humour, and excessive cursing, the game has become a cult classic amongst mature gamers, whilst simultaneously earning the scorn of parents the world over. But the game hadn’t always been this way.

Originally the game was being produced as a more child-friendly adventure, featuring the cute and harmless character Conker from an earlier Rare release, Diddy Kong Racing. The game was being developed under the working title Twelve Tales, and instead revolved around the character collecting acorns and other items in a style reminiscent of later Rare platformers Banjo Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64.

Chris Seavor, director and voice artist on Conker’s Bad Fur Day, states: “After finishing Killer Instinct (Arcade) I started work on the N64 version, whilst in the meantime other people started work on the next original game we were to work on. That was what eventually (after a few iterations) what became Twelve Tales.”

“Rare was very much about the team, i.e. we weren’t just a bunch of resources to be moved around like chess pieces. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts and management knew better than to ruin the ‘black magic’ that held good teams together. So as a team, we all moved onto Twelve Tales simply because of the great job we’d proven we could do on Killer Instinct.”

The Killer Instinct team worked tirelessly on Twelve Tales, before gradually becoming disillusioned with the project due to its similarity to other Rare titles. Needing a new ideas and direction, Chris Seavor was appointed the leader of the development team. It was his decision to retool the title into a more mature release that saved the project from obscurity. Around this time, the game was renamed to its official title, Conker’s Bad Fur Day.

He argues: “We were always going to be playing second fiddle to Banjo…it’s just the way it was. It made sense to pull it away from the safe bets, so that’s exactly what I did. Amazingly everyone agreed and off we went. If there were any reservations it wouldn’t have been from people with any clout…”

Upon its release, Conker’s Bad Fur Day was met by a significant amount of controversy due to its mature content. But, despite this and its disappointing sales, the game still managed to garner a loyal following, and high acclaim from critics. Amongst the aspects praised were its tremendous graphics, outrageous humour, and incredible character animation.

Since the game’s release, Chris Seavor has worked on a few other projects for Rare. These include appearances as characters in Grabbed By The Ghoulies, and Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, as well as work on a Conker remake for the original Xbox, Conker: Live and Reloaded. These would be the last few Rare games he would contribute to, before eventually leaving the company in January 2011.

A year later, in 2012, Seavor created his own videogame studio called Gory Detail. His intention with the studio was to create mobile games, before moving on to larger and more ambitious projects.

Regarding his newfound independence, he states: “I’ve never felt more liberated! Not to say there aren’t problems, in fact they’re a legion, but the freedom afforded can’t be expressed by mere words. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing more soul destroying than trying to sell an idea to people who just aren’t interested, and in more recent years not actually qualified to judge. That’s not a problem anymore.”

Gory Detail’s first release was the game “Parashoot Stan” on IOS and Android – a title where the player has to avoid obstacles and collect items in order to beat an antagonist named Baron Bully. The studio is currently working on its second release, a more ambitious game called The Unlikely Legend of Rusty Pup, to be published on the Wii U and 3DS sometime next year.

“The Unlikely Legend of Rusty Pup is actually our second game. So, Gory Detail was set up about a year after leaving Rare, with a view to do mobile games, which we did. However, our long term goal was always more ambitious, and Rusty is the next step (after Parashoot Stan) in that plan

“The inspiration for Rusty stems from my love of films like City of Lost Children, Labyrinth and more recently Hugo: all things clockwork, not to mention endless opportunity for game mechanics and luxurious visuals. There seems to be a trend these days for that ‘retro’ pixel art look, especially on mobile, but I’ve always preferred a more literal, detailed richness to the world created. It’s a lot more work, but I think it’s worth it.”

At the moment details on Rusty Pup are pretty scarce, with only a few tech demos having been shown to the public. But the game definitely looks set to become one of the more interesting titles to be released on the Wii U and 3DS eShop.

The Unlikely Legend of Rusty Pup

Referring to the game’s tone, Seavor explains: “[Rusty Pup] definitely has dark themes. However it also has very light hearted moments, if not exactly laugh out loud ones, I do hope a little wry smile is occasionally painted on player’s faces. Conker, however, it certainly is not.

“Nor, I hasten to add is it one of those ‘narrative only’ experiences where the story is the focus rather than gameplay. Everything is important, but blended in measure lest you become what I playfully like to refer to as ‘un-game’: neither a game, nor not a game. Gameplay, as ever, is King, and long life to that!”

In spite of this exciting new chapter in his career, however, Seavor hasn’t completely disassociated himself from his previous work. At E3 2014, he appeared once again as the voice of Conker in the promo for Project Spark – the new videogame creating software from Microsoft, which will feature Conker as a useable character.

The inclusion of the squirrel will allow players of the Microsoft title to create their own Conker sequel, with the finished version being playable to both friends and strangers alike via the game’s online functionality.

“About a week before E3, believe it or not, Ken Lobb gave me a call out of the blue and asked if I’d voice Conker for the promo. I think everyone else at Microsoft were probably too scared I’d give them a tirade of abuse.

“I was quite happy to do it, and that subsequently involved a little bit of abuse on twitter for selling out, as they put it which is rubbish, as I did it as a favor.”

Asked what he believes makes Conker suitable for the project, he jokingly replies: “I guess people can build what they want, which is handy as Microsoft will never get sued by irate parents who bought it for their kids by mistake. Microsoft can simply say…‘But Mrs. Brown, I think you need to look closer to home…that giant nob made from poo, the one squirting its milk on that kitten’s head, IS WHAT YOUR LITTLE BILLY MADE!’”

Beyond Project Spark, very little is known as to the future of Conker the squirrel. Even Chris Seavor is unsure as to the fate of the character he once helped catapult to fame.

“It’s really out of my hands. I honestly have no idea what they have planned for Conker, or any other classic Rare IP, but it seems increasingly likely that they do have some plans. There’s a definite change in the wind going on all things Rare. I can feel it in my old bones!”

Instead, Seavor is focused on developing new worlds and characters for players to enjoy, independent from larger studios. This will continue with The Unlikely Legend of Rusty Pup, due out in 2015.

Written By: Jack Yarwood

Interview with video game composer Grant Kirkhope

grantkirkhopemain

If you were a gamer growing up in the 90s, the name Rare is guaranteed to evoke warm memories of hours spent hunched over a controller, pounding on brightly coloured buttons.

For a long period of time, the game developer – originally established in 1985 by brothers Chris and Tim Stamper – were one of the most well respected companies in gaming, with many of their releases becoming instant classics upon release.

Grant Kirkhope was an in-house composer for Rare during this period, working on such games as Goldeneye 007, Banjo Kazooie, Banjo Tooie, and Perfect Dark, to name only a few. During his time with the company he helped to contribute to the vivid and lively worlds that Rare created, producing spectacular scores to complement each game’s unique world design.

Despite leaving Rare in 2008, he is still creating and producing memorable soundtracks for new releases, such as Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Civilization: Beyond Earth and Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse. However, originally, he had reservations about becoming a videogame composer at all.

Grant states: “Being a composer was probably the furthest thing from my mind [when I was studying]. I had no intentions of being a composer at all. I hated harmony, because I thought I was terrible at it. Instead, I wanted to be in a metal band.”

Whilst, initially, he may have showed very little enthusiasm for becoming a composer, he was an avid gamer in his spare time, growing up around the arcade scene in the late 1980s and early 90s.

“I was part of a North Yorkshire county school symphony orchestra when I was in Knaresborough, in North Yorkshire. We used to have a 2-week course, so we spent a week in summer every year in Scarborough – all the kids staying away from home and playing great music. I used to get lunchtime off, and I used to spend the entire 5 hours playing video games. Everyone just thought I was mad.”

Later on, his opinion on the matter started to change when he invested in his first home gaming console – the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Around this time, he developed an interest in videogame music, citing the Legend of Zelda as a new influence for his music, alongside his favourite metal bands: Van Halen, Iron Maiden, and Queensrÿche.

Though despite his love for videogames and videogame music, he had still not heard of the company where he would first make his name.

“I had never heard of Rare at the time – that’s really bizarre. I must have started playing before Donkey Kong Country came out. I never played Donkey Kong Country and I didn’t know the company, but my friend Robin Beanland – we used to play in rock bands together in Yorkshire – one day said he had a job there. So he was the one with his foot in the door; the rest of us in the band weren’t.

“Literally right at that time Nintendo had bought around about 49% of the company. It was on the news at 10. It was a massive deal, because it was the first time Nintendo had ever bought a company outside of Japan. He worked there, so I called him and said, “what are you doing?” He told me he was working on a game called Killer Instinct – an arcade fighting game – writing awesome music. I was like “that sounds like a fantastic job.

Through his friend Robin, Grant was recruited to play guitar on Killer Instinct 2 for the SNES. This had come as a result of David Wise, then head of music at Rare, putting a call out for talented guitarists to perform on a range of videogame projects. This would be Grant’s first credit for Rare, though he would have some trouble securing a full time job at the company, sending a total of 5 cassettes to Rare, before receiving a reply and the subsequent interview that would lead to his employment. In 1995, after considerable effort, he became a full time employee at Rare.

“Without Robin this wouldn’t be my job. He was the guy who suggested that I do it. He recommended the gear that I bought, and told me what to do with it. Then I got on with it.”

For his first job David Wise tasked Grant with converting the Donkey Kong Country 2 soundtrack to the original Gameboy for the release of Donkey Kong Land 2.

“I got the lowest job, which was the Gameboy job. Dave had just completed the music for Donkey Kong Country 2 on the SNES and my first job was to convert those tunes from that to work on a Gameboy. I did that up until Christmas, I think. Dave said to me, “if you do this, you might get a crack on the Virtual Boy next.” I was thinking, “oh, this isn’t very exciting, and it’s hard” because it was in hex and I didn’t understand it.

“I did quite enjoy it at the start, but then it became difficult, and I felt like I was too stupid to grasp it. It was just numbers on a black screen. There was no notes, no midi-files, nothing. It was like programming really, which is very alien to me.”

At the same time Robin Beanland suggested that Grant produce some songs in order to pitch to Martin Hollis, who was head of the team developing Goldeneye 007. Without a Nintendo 64 development kit, Grant immediately began working on 6 tracks for the Bond license, with the intention of offering them to the team.

As he began to work on these tracks, Graeme Norgate, the current composer on the project, asked for some assistance with the game, because of his hectic schedule scoring both Blast Corps and the Bond licensed title. Without hesitation, Grant accepted the offer.

“I bit his hand off. It was fantastic. The deal was that I was supposed to do Gameboy in the morning, Goldeneye in the afternoon. I probably finished the Gameboy round about November, then I was working full time on Goldeneye after that.”

The finished result surprised everyone. Released nearly two years after the film, and built by a relatively inexperienced team, Goldeneye 007 revolutionized the first person shooter genre, with its atmospheric soundtrack and its fun local multiplayer modes.

Goldeneye Screenshot
Goldeneye 007 revolutionized the first person shooter genre, with its atmospheric soundtrack and its fun local multiplayer modes.

But, whilst the game had been nearing its completion, Grant had been moved away from the project onto another ambitious Rare title, with Graeme Norgate putting the finishing touches to the sound on the Bond first person shooter.

Grant recalls: “Tim Stamper and Gregg Mayles came to me in my poxy office, and they just said, “Play us your tunes Grant.” I didn’t even know who they were at the time. I knew Tim was my boss, but I didn’t know who Gregg was. So Tim sat on a chair, and Gregg sat on the floor. I thought, “Shit, this guy must be really important. He must be some kind of journalist. I shit myself, you know. I played them my tunes and they were very plain faced. I thought I was going to get fired.

“Then they said, “I’d like you to come work on my game “Dream.”” I said, “I’ll be able to come when I finish on Goldeneye” and they said, “No, you don’t understand – now!”

Immediately Grant moved offices. The intention was for him to work alongside David Wise on the new project Dream. However, David Wise soon left the development team that was working on the game to focus his attention on Diddy Kong Racing – another soon-to-be Rare classic.

Dream eventually lost focus and was later redesigned as Banjo Kazooie – a 3D platformer. The game, focusing on an anthropomorphic bear and bird duo, was to become one of the most well regarded platformers ever created, boasting bundles of wit, great graphics and sensational gameplay. It would also later spawn two sequels from the company, which Grant would go on to score.

He comments: “I must admit I have very fond memories of Banjo Kazooie. With that team of people we had such a fantastic laugh doing that game. I miss those guys a lot. It was a magical time for me. We really felt like we were up against the world. We were trying to create a Mario type game and beat the best.

“All that humour in the game is just all of us mucking around together. It was just a really great combination of people. I really miss that. Banjo’s got a special place in my heart.”

Following this title, Grant worked on several projects for Rare, including the synth infused soundtrack for the spiritual successor to Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark. In addition, he was tasked with producing the soundtrack for Donkey Kong 64, and the sequel to Banjo Kazooie, aptly named Banjo Tooie.

He continued to work at the company over the next decade, even after the company’s acquisition by Microsoft in 2002. He stayed at Rare up until 2008, working on games like Gregg Mayles’ Grabbed By The Ghoulies and the Viva Piñata series, before leaving to pursue new challenges.

Asked about his time at the company, he argues: “My favourite work at Rare is probably Viva Piñata, because it was the first time I got to use a live orchestra. I finally got to write that kind of Elgar/Vaughan Williams sound that I really love – that sort of English 20th Century composer thing, which I can’t really describe. It is a very English sound.

“I think, if I were writing for pleasure, I’d probably write something like that. I’m a bit of a softy at heart, and I do like writing heart-rending melodies. “Bedtime Story” is the one that I think I like best of all from the game – that’s my favourite piece from my entire time at Rare. It was a bit emotional as well, because I was leaving Rare around about the time of the second Viva Piñata.”

Viva Piñata: Trouble In Paradise
“My favourite work at Rare is probably Viva Piñata, because it was the first time I got to use a live orchestra” – Grant Kirkhope

Since leaving the company, Grant has been busy with an assortment of other projects, including the new Civilization game, Ninja Gaiden Z, and several crowd funded collectathon style titles.

On the topic of platformers, he states: “I really believe collectathons are making a comeback. The Hat in Time – I did a couple of tunes for them. Lobodestroyo was another one I guested on. Cooper Goodwin did the rest of the score for that. I wrote the baddie melody.

“I wrote a piece that was about two minutes long, full of melody, and Cooper can take it and use it as he likes. It probably won’t appear in the game as I wrote it, but I gave him some theme stuff that he could weave in.”

But whilst many are anxiously anticipating the arrival of these new releases, many gamers are left craving an official sequel to Banjo Kazooie or a new intellectual property from the original team. But Grant believes his Banjo days are now over, due to his departure from Rare.

“I do think there’s a big enough audience out there to make it profitable to do it. I don’t know why Microsoft won’t do a Banjo Kazooie platformer. I think they genuinely think it’s not a worthwhile venture. Maybe they’re right – I don’t know. But I just think that there is a place in the market for a good-old fashioned Rare platformer with the humour and the rest of it.

“As for other Rare people getting together and having a crack at it – I still think that’s a possibility. I didn’t think it was possible until very recently, but I do think it is possible now. I can’t go into any more detail than that. I think it is doable right now – not Banjo Kazooie, but something like that – with people who can make something good out of it.”

Today Grant is still captivating audiences with his diverse work. Recently, he has also acquired a cult following, as a result of his appearance on popular YouTube channel Game Grumps.

Now living in LA, Grant is hoping to apply his talents to creating soundtracks for film.

No doubt, followers of his work will be excited by the prospect of hearing his music accompanying the latest film releases in the not so distant future.

Written By: Jack Yarwood