Here we have another fantastic interview with Joe Granato who is a co-founder of The New 8-Bit Heroes, the guys behind the The New 8-Bit Heroes Film, Mystic Searches NES Game and The NES Tool Maker.
Thanks for agreeing to the interview, could you take a moment to tell a little about you and how you got to this point with your film, game and developer tools?Joe
The story goes something like this. When I was 8 years old, it was 1988. I was the proverbial Nintendo kid in my neighborhood at the time. But it wasn't just a passive experience for me. Video games made me want to be creative. They compelled me to want to tell stories, create music, and eventually, make my own video games. That summer, a neighborhood friend and I drew up plans for our opus. We designed monsters and levels and a sprawling story and box art and music. We put it all in a box and sent it off to the address found in the first issue of Nintendo Power Magazine, along with a hand written note asking Nintendo to send us the stuff we needed to make our game. After months of waiting, it was returned to us with a fairly common form letter that asserted Nintendo could not take unsolicited game ideas. We were crushed, and the ideas got filed away, eventually forgotten. I grew up, became a writer and a musician and a filmmaker, and even hobbyist game developer. About 25 years after first creating those ideas, I stumbled on that box while visiting my parents home in upstate New York. I got the funny notion that perhaps I could finally bring that game to life after all. And not just for a modern device like an iPhone or a PC, but that I could actually create it as intended...a brand new hardware playable, cartridge based NES game. After looking into the culture of people who are still making new experiences for these classic consoles, my production partner and I realized that chronicling that scene and showing how a new NES game comes to life might make for a very interesting documentary. And so began what would become The New 8-bit Heroes.
After a lot of time spent working in notepad programs writing code in the archaic 6502 assembly language, having to confront the soul crushing constraints, and dealing with recurring issues of memory management, we began to conceive of developing some very basic modern tools that could handle some of the more mundane output. For instance, to create a screen on the NES is to write long strings of hexadecimal values that correlate to the current loaded graphics. Collision data (for our engine) is stored in a similar table, but with 1/4 the values. Attribute data, which handles colors, is stored in a similar table, half the size of that table, and lain out in a very particular way. It's completely possible to generate these tables by hand, value by value, check them against graph paper mockups and whatnot, but it takes forever, and making changes is brutal. So we made a quick software tool that allows a user instead to see on a computer what the game will see, and then export that data into the tables without having to write it by hand. Then we did something similar with animation data. And something similar with text data. And something similar with a modular based AI system, and collision tile behaviors...before long, we were barely touching the underlying code at all to make dramatic changes. We ended up dubbing this the Mystic Searches Screen Tool And Game Engine, which became the foundation for NESmaker.Zapiy
Your Kickstarter for NES Maker Tool was a huge success. Did you have any idea it would be so popular?Joe
We actually traveled around the country to various conventions showing off the tools for about 18 months getting feedback. A lot of people, including prominent figures in the retro gaming community, got their hands on it and were loud voices to give it legitimacy as a thing that actually works and is real. I think this helped a lot. But no, we had no idea it would be as successful as it turned out to be. It's extremely validating!Zapiy
Your Kickstarter for the NES Film was also a huge success, how are the reviews for this going and what was the biggest challenge in the whole process of getting the film from idea to disc?Joe
The reviews have been overwhelming positive, both from within the niche audience and from outside of it. The New 8-bit Heroes has gone on to do fairly well in film festivals, and even has taken home some nice awards. It's definitely more a personal story than we set out to create, and goes to a lot of places we'd not have anticipated. But in doing so, ends up speaking to a much broader audience than just retro game fans. In fact, many reviews have cited that the film should speak to anyone who has ever had a creative pursuit or passion.
The biggest challenge of the film was to figure out the actual story it was intended to tell. For three years, we filmed over 7tb of footage and interviews around the country. Some segments were even outside of the country, in England, in Norway, in Canada, a Skype call to Japan...it was a massive amount of footage. Trying to sort through all of that to make a cohesive, compelling story out of the component pieces was tricky. But when a few key pieces fell into place, the thematic core was obvious, and once we had that, the edit to support that thematic center was much easier.Zapiy
Whats happening with MYSTIC SEARCHES and will it get a full release?Joe
Mystic Searches continues to evolve with the tool, which is time consuming and frustrating. But the trade off is, Mystic Searches directly led to NESmaker, and a tool for others to built their own NES games came from this one particular game's delay. We hope that our very patient, very supportive base can support that. In the end, it will only make Mystic Searches stronger, and it will hopefully help others see their 8-year-old-selve's visions come to life, too. Probably the hardest question I hear these days is "When is Mystic Searches coming out?". I wish I had a more secure answer, and NESmaker has added all new complications. But it absolutely will. My childhood self is holding me to finishing it!Zapiy
What are the real draw backs to creating games for the NES that you have found so far?Joe
A lot of people have a very distinct vision of what retro-games are. But their perception is dramatically skewed by what modern programming environments can do with retro-styled graphics. Yes, the NES is sincerely limited as far as graphical capability. Far more than what everyone realizes. But the real issue is ROM space and dealing with memory management. You can only have 32kb of data loaded to the NES at any given time. That's such an insignificant amount of data, it's a miracle the machine can function at all! Not to mention, the NES doesn't have some API of common functions. For instance, there's no animation engine or sound playback engine. There is no operating system. So you're creating not just a game, but the operating system the game runs on. Josh, our software developer, explained it best. He compared game development with making a house out of lego. In modern development environments, you get a bucket of lego and you build your house. But when you're developing for the NES, you first have to construct the gears and motors that can then work the machinery that can then mold the plastic which can then be made into lego before you even start thinking about building that lego house. The aim with NESmaker is to allow users to begin NES development at approximately the same entry point as they would if they were making a game in GameMaker or Unity.Greyfox
Is there any thoughts on bringing a game maker to other systems? (SNES or Amiga)Joe
I think we'll be done after NESmaker, however maybe this will inspire some people, and I for one would love to see a SNES maker. I just don't know if I can invest another half decade of my life in creating it!Greyfox
Are you shocked at the current resurgence in retro related gaming?Joe
Yes and no. I mean, I remember being a kid, and my mother enthusiastically introducing me to her record collection and the music she grew up with. Bands like The Who and Led Zeppelin. They became formative to me as well as a result. It's not much different than that. I now have a toddler at home. I'm eager to show him those formative experiences I had growing up, and hope that his first adventure in an 8-bit Hyrule captivates him similarly. All of the kids that grew up in the 8-bit era now have kids that are approximately the age they were when they were so enamored by the console, and it's no surprise that it's both causing heavy nostalgia, but also the desire to give their own kids those same experiences. Ironically, just like how those formative bands I remember my mother showing me stuck with me and became part of my own youth even though it was through her nostalgia, the 8-bit games might end up being formative for these young kids first playing them 30 years after their relevance.Greyfox
What systems do you own and which was your favourite? (retro)Joe
Ha! I actually put myself on hiatus. When this project started, i knew that I couldn't devote any significant time to playing games, as I had to spend my time building them. I put all my consoles in the closet, leaving only my NES to play. Though I've been having a lot of fun with all of the homebrews and post market games!Greyfox
What games and genres were your favourite?Joe
I was always a big fan of the sprawling adventures. I'll always have an affinity for games like The Legend of Zelda, but I have a profound memory of playing Dragon Warrior 4 as a kid and realizing just how amazing a feat it was for the developers to make me care passionately about a handful of blobs of color in those epic RPGs. I'm still fascinated by that to this day.Greyfox
Who in the industry did you idolize when you was starting out?Joe
It depends on what you mean by starting out. If you mean when I was first designing Mystic Searches at 8 years old, I think part of me believed game developers were supernatural deities. It was impossible for me to conceive that real humans made such amazing things. In a lot of ways, I miss those days of seeing the art for what it is rather than the implicit association with its very mortal, fallible creators.Greyfox
Will you be selling NES Maker once you have completed all the KS pledges so those that may want to still buy it can?Joe
Yes. We plan to make NESmaker available.Zapiy
Do you have any other unfinished projects for retro titles that you might share?Joe
Well, Austin McKinley, our team artist, is using NESmaker prototypes to build a cool sci-fi action adventure. I've been trying to gauge interest in a feature length Troll Burner, which was the proof of concept we did for the campaign. But other than that, getting Mystic Searches to be as capable as humanly possible and finishing Mystic Searches is all I really want to focus on!
RVG would love to thank Joe for taking time out to answer our questions, we hope you enjoyed reading this interview, if you would like to find out more about them please visit The New 8-Bit Heroes