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Storytelling Through Chip Tunes – An Interview with the Monster Crown Composers – EXCLUSIVE TRACK REVEAL!

Monster Crown is a special indie game where you train and breed monsters and go on a deep and dark adventure. While the game may look similar to Pokemon, and there may be monsters to collect, that is about where the similarities end. Once we had these two on Nintendo Duel Screens, I was sold. I had to back this game on Kickstarter. Since then they have smashed goal after goal and have a few days left to keep pushing.

A couple of weeks ago I sat down with Shad Shwark to talk about the artistic process behind his monster designs.  This week I got to sit down with GameOnion & Alex Naveira, two composers working on this ambitious title.

Proven Gamer: First I want to thank you for agreeing to sit down for this interview. Monster Crown is shaping up to be something really special. So much so that I just HAD to become a backer! Before we get into the nitty gritty of music composition for this game, tell the Proven Gamer audience who you are , what are your roles, and how you two became involved in the project?

GameOnion:  I’m a member of the music-team as a composer / arranger alongside Alex. It wasn’t always this way though, I actually used to do art for this project, but then I discovered music for myself. It’s just way more fun for me personally. Besides that, I’m also working on sound effects.

Alex Naveira:  I’m also a composer and arranger for Crowns alongside Onion. I believe I started sometime in 2016, after onion had told me that there was a game he was doing art for that needed some music. The concept was pretty cool so I tagged along for it.

PG: So you guys had a previous relationship? How did you guys meet up?

Alex: I had heard of Onion in 2015 through twitter (I saw that he was a really good artist), but met him in 2016 through the comments of my YouTube remixes since he enjoyed a few of them. Him and I had worked together on WwwWario’s “Super Wario Land” in May of 2016 (although he was more focused on art at the time). We were pretty close back then and afterwards, he introduced me to the Monster Crown team. For the past year he’s gotten more into music production and I can safely say he’s one of my closest friends in the scene.

PG: Awesome. Now that all that getting to know you part is over with and I am all misty eyed, lets talk music shall we? Music in video games has started to become one of the most talked about aspects in gaming over the last few years. People are noticing a good soundtrack more and more. Some playlists of gaming soundtracks have tens of thousands of plays on YouTube. It wasn’t always that way, though. What do you think has changed? 

Onion: Not sure, to be quite honest. I’d imagine it’s related to the increasing quality of music in the recent years. The appeal is much bigger these days.

Alex:  I think that with the advent of the internet came the ability to find tons of other people that share your interests, and, I think a culture naturally appeared that celebrates video music – probably because lots of people play them, and because I don’t think you can have memories of your favorite childhood game without some sort of earworm-tune that stayed with you. Most people don’t think of Mario without the classic Level 1-1 theme, if you get what I mean. Nowadays people want to capture that “making of a classic” so a lot of it is based on nostalgia – probably why a lot of projects gain traction, since they want new things with the old coat of paint.

PG: What would you say is the most important aspect of music in games?

Onion: Themes in games are usually bound to specific characters, situations or areas. Usually, my goal is it to capture the atmosphere / personality of a theme or character. That can be done in various ways, instrument selection is an important factor, in my opinion.

Alex: Like onion said, atmosphere is incredibly important in regards to how I want a track to sound, but also, a good soundtrack (in my opinion) needs to trigger certain emotions as well. Certain songs (such as the “Fusion Facility” location track) were made with regards to the location that they play in, but to also have a melancholy vibe or nostalgic tone, as if you’ve heard it before – those kinds of tracks are my favorites in video games.

PG:  So generally speaking, it seems like you are presented with a location or character and compose based on what is presented. With that being said – have you even come up with a track that dictated a location or character?

Onion: Not that I remember, no. If we did that, I wouldn’t be sure if it would fit.

Alex:  Nah, so far it’s been the other way around every time. That would be an interesting way to approach creating a setting, though.

PG: So does coming up with a sound in your head happen right away or is it something you workshop a bunch?

Onion: For me personally, it’s kinda both. Sometimes I just make up stuff as I go along. Once you start working on something, a lot of ideas randomly come up.

Alex: Since the tracks are all chip-tune styled, I mostly think about how I can make a sort of hybrid of modern synth sounds and old GB-style sounds. Usually there’s more synth added on if I feel that the arrangement needs a bit more oomph. Ideas for mixing synth with chiptune usually come pretty fast, though.

PG: Chiptunes. I’m glad you brought that up. I’ve heard musicians say that working with chiptunes is very limiting, which breeds creativity. Have you found that to be the case?

Alex:  I enjoy working with chiptune channels, as I feel like each individual channel (be it the square, saw, triangle, etc.) is sort of it’s own little song. Since there are only 4 base chiptune tracks I work with to start, I enjoy trying to push as much as I can into such a small amount of default channels.

Onion:  I personally find it somewhat limiting, but you need to keep in mind that some of gaming’s greatest tunes were made with those limitations. If they managed to make it work, we can too. Something else to remember is that Monster Crown combines chip-tune and synth / orchestra. That definitely gives us a lot more freedom with instrumentation.

PG: This is a perfect transition into walking us through the process step-by-step. So we are going to debut a brand new track right here on Proven Gamer. Can you guys take us on a journey on how this track was made from conception to completion?

Onion: While I can’t say much about Alex’s workflow on that specific theme, here’s my usual process: I come up with either the melody or a bassline first. That original melody I come up with changes a lot through the creation of a song, usually because it doesn’t fit within a progression I would love to use or something like that. If you’re set on a melody, the next logical step would be to come up with a backing track / chord progression.

Onion (Cont’): As you can tell by Alex’s track right there, he used a piano for chords, which isn’t really a wave table-type sound you would expect in a game like this. That’s usually what I try to do too: Chords are played by more realistic instruments or a synth, it’s a nice contrast. Once I’m set on a progression, the next step would be to come up with something like a countermelody, of course. Striking the right balance between orchestral sounds, synths and wave table-synths is important here. Percussion is usually the last thing I do, but it varies. So that’s the general composition-process, but mixing and mastering is a whole different story. That is a big, complicated mess, which I can’t possibly cover in detail now. It usually takes longer than the composition itself for me.

Alex: For Mill Town, the first half was actually an older composition I did about a year before I arranged it again for Monster Crown. The second bit before the loop that counts as a ‘bridge” back to the beginning would be the second song. Sometimes I have little mini-songs that I match up with other ones I have in my head. I tend to start with a melody – since I prefer it to dictate what the chords are, not the other way around. I started with just the chiptune version and that was considered the final version for a while, but when I decided to try and define just what the “style” for Monster Crown was, I went back and added some of those synth elements – as I did to a lot of the tracks. I think onion’s workflow and my own are very similar when it comes to a composition. I’ve learned that mixing in mono actually helps a lot, so that’s one thing I’ve started doing that I could point out, but a lot of times it’s a whole mess of EQ bands and filters.

PG: Love the complexity in the layers there. Really catchy, but not too repetitive. Feels like I am in a laid back part of town with a sense of adventure. So we have established that music can set the tone for specific scenes. How can music in games tell a story? Do you have any favorite tracks from gaming past that tells a story?

Alex: Music can tell a story through emotions alone – this one really overlooked track from an already overlooked game, Island Life from The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, always gave me a feeling of “this is what life is now for the protagonist”, and sets a tone for the rest of the soundtrack too since it plays early on. It’s also an arrangement of the Fairy Fountain / File Select song that has been in the series since nearly the beginning.

Alex (Cont):When it comes to Pokémon, I love how bittersweet and melancholy New Bark Town from Gold and Silver sounds, because it represents the vibe that your character has been there for his or her entire life.

Onion: That’s a very difficult question for me to answer, considering how many games I’ve played and OSTs I’ve listened to, haha. Though, one soundtrack that has always sticked out to me was Pokémon Mystery Dungeon 2’s selection of music. The progression of the tone of the themes is quite interesting, they get pretty haunting for a Pokémon game near the end of the story. I connect a lot of memories with that game, and the music takes me back instantly. This OST manages to capture the atmosphere of each area incredibly well, the emotional themes still make me feel the same way as they did when I first played the game. Simply incredible.

PG: Thank you guys. This was a lot of fun and I learned a lot. Like that I will never be able to do what you two do. Good luck in the final days of the Kickstarter campaign!

Onion: Ha ha. Thank you for the support and thank you for having us!

That is it folks. Monster Crown can be followed on Twitter and you can back them on Kickstarter as well. Don’t forget to subscribe to the Nintendo Duel Screens feed in Apple PodcastGoogle Play Music or RSS to listen to the interview with Shad and Jason where they talk everything Monster Crown.

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Nintendo Switch Previews Pax East 2018 Previews

PAX EAST 2018 – Kaet Must Die Switch Version Hands-On

A hidden, dark, and creepy challenge that Switches expectations of what a puzzle game is.

Tucked into a small corner of PAX EAST was a small, non-decorated booth. Standing there was a young man, and a cosplayer dressed in a Gothic themed dress. It was clear the game that I would be demoing would be dark, twisted, and deadly. This is Kaet Must Die from Michigan-based Strength In Numbers. It seemed rather strange that a game such as this would be tucked inside of a corner booth, wedged between the wall, the Indie Megabooth, and Devolver Digital. However, this was a gaming convention, and I came here to play games. With a brief introduction, I sat down and began my demo. 

Kaet Must Die puts you in the role of a young woman named Kaet, who awakens in a filthy sewer, beneath an unknown city. It is apparent that somehow, she has slipped into an alternate reality, filled with evil and darkness. She has no means of self-defense and no navigation tools. To escape, she must secure magical skulls and place them within the shrine, located at the center of the level. The skulls are scattered throughout the sewer. With a multitude of threats lurking in the dimly lit corners, Kaet must be vigilant, observant, and stealthy in order to survive.

The Switch Factor

Kaet Must Die was played on a Nintendo Switch, a surprise considering the nature of the game. Overall, the game ran really well, but smooth gameplay and crisp visuals could not help me stave off death. I played the game with a complete open mind, with no prior knowledge of what I was supposed to do. I only knew that I had to navigate the sewer and locate an exit. Within moments, I turned a corner, a zombie grabbed me, and it was game over. From this point on, I knew that the game would be a trying tale of trial-and-error. I navigated further in the sewer, recovering at least one skull and voiding the zombies.

In Kaet Must Die, the zombies look more like mannequins, but with green eyes. Even getting remotely close to them is similar to setting off a landmine. I managed to secure one skull but realized there were multiple skulls I need to secure. As I attempted to navigate, robed trolls lurked in the shadows, moving around discreetly without a pattern. Eventually, they found me, and electrocuted Kaet, ending my efforts. Something inside still wanted to continue my trials, however.

Try, try again…

On my third try, I maintained more care, and was also given the hint of using glowing mushrooms to send distracting flares to the robed trolls. It worked, and allowed me to stay alive for a little longer. Throughout the sewer, garbage and dim light maintained an atmosphere of constant alert. I looked closely, securing another skull, but alas, I met my demise once again. A troll snuck up behind me and electrocuted me. Being that I died three times, I determined that my time with the demo was over.

Kaet Must Die feels like an acquired taste. I talked to one of the developers at the booth, and the game was touted as a painful practice of trial and error. Should players wish to complete Kaet Must Die, they will have to die a lot. I suppose that is part of the fun, if you like that sort of torture. During my play-through, there was no means of self-defense and no navigation tools. My mental deduction skills were put to the test right from the jump. With that being said,  learning where the skulls are and making it to the end of the level will take repeat game-play. On one hand, this is reminiscent of classic games, most particular the side-scrolling action-platformers of the 1990’s, like Mega Man. Of course, to beat those games, players had to fight, die, and repeat until they figured out how to beat the game. But Kaet must Die touts itself as one of the most hardcore horror puzzle games ever made. In the short time that I played. it was unique and different, and there are those that will probably enjoy the brutal difficulty and lack of guidance. However, for general game players, there may be better, more refined horror experiences elsewhere.

The Bitter End…

Kaet Must Die looks and feels like a game better suited for a twitch streamer. I can imagine an audience closely following a streamer and seeing just how far they’ll go in a competitive format. For video game players, Kaet Must Die is certainly playable but perhaps not very accessible. I would like to see some means of defense, as well as some form of guidance to the different skulls. It doesn’t have to hold your hand , but it doesn’t have to leave you completely naked to danger. The character sounds like an amazing super natural being. Perhaps a limited use of her pwoers will work to make the game more accessible. Kaet Must Die is a work-in-progress, and I am hopeful it can evolve into something better.

Kaet Must Die is currently on Steam and will come to Nintendo Switch in Q2 2018.

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Nintendo Switch Previews Previews

A Ninja’s Scroll: The Messenger Hands-On Impressions

For me (and most fans I imagine), Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos was the gold standard of Ryu Hayabusa’s 8-Bit adventures. It was a sequel that vastly improved over its predecessor and maintained its signature high-level difficulty. It was the best representation of classic Ninja Gaiden. Little did I know that Sabotage Studios was about to set a new benchmark in 2D side-scrolling platforming with The Messenger – the best Ninja Gaiden game I’ve never played.

The PAX East 2018 demo begins with a displeased ninja dwelling on the bothersome chore that is his daily lessons. Apparently there is a prophecy and said prophecy has foretold the end of the world – an apocalyptic scenario that can only be prevented by an ordained savior known as the ‘Western Hero’. The only problem is that doomsday more of a hamper on the ninja’s free time as he considers the stories to be a whole lot of hooey. Well, it doesn’t long for a demon army to start raining fiery meteors upon the ninja’s village both proving wrong and wiping out his entire village in one fell swoop. It’s at this point where that aforementioned hero shows up (fashionably late of course), hands the ninja a scroll, and tasks him with delivering it to East in hopes of ending the curse that has befallen the land. Pretty serious stuff right?  Well yes…and no.

Tonally, The Messenger knows that it’s out to completely obliterate genre tropes. What should play-out as a serious, by-the-numbers platformer, feels more like it borrowed a page from Deadpool’s handbook. From the short time I spent with the game, I was met with video game in-jokes and references, a chatty Shopkeeper that constantly breaks the Fourth Wall, and laugh-out-loud moments during a boss fight of all places. It’s the game’s way of telling you to assume nothing and forget nearly everything you have come to expect from the genre. Even the graphics somehow manage to defy expectations. 

Aesthetically the game could not be anymore Ninja Gaiden; the main character is the spitting image of Ryu Hayabusa and is even sporting his trademark blue garb. The graphics are full of color and pop off the screen. Seriously, I have never seen a retro-style title that looked this good. It captures the simple sprites of the NES-era but also elevates the color palette to bold new places. This is further evidenced by The Messenger’s slick gameplay gimmick: a time warping mechanic which transports the game from an 8-Bit backdrop to an even more vibrant 16-Bit style. While I wasn’t able to gather from the demo what the full implications of this graphic swap would be, each style does impact the level design and the layout of certain obstacles. So even though there might be a blocked path/obstruction in the 8-Bit landscape chances are it won’t be there once you transition of 16-Bit. I was also informed by Sabotage Studio that the graphical transition won’t only be available in the moment-to-moment gamplay – that players can look forward to explore the entirety of the game in both 8-Bit and 16-Bit sprites.

For a game that is clearly inspired by one of gaming’s most important franchises, The Messenger doesn’t mess around with perfecting the Ninja Gaiden control scheme. From the sword slashes to gripping to walls, the controls are insanely tight. I often wondered throughout the demo if Ryu Hayabusa controlled with this much accuracy and precision. The game feels exactly the way it should – until it doesn’t because why quit messing with expectations now?  The silly Shopkeeper I mentioned before dispenses fun upgrades such as a Wingsuit (for gliding purposes – obvi) and a Rope Dart to grapple to surfaces. The Shopkeeper also has access to a Skill Tree – something that completely caught me off guard.

My time with The Messenger while short left me with a childish grin on my face. The demo ended with an over-the-top encounter with what appeared to a tall Lich Mage…which revealed itself to just be wearing a really long cape. For all intents and purposes, The Messenger is a 2D Ninja Gaiden love-letter designed to toy with your expectations with every shift of the screen. What begins as a clear homage to Tecmo’s iconic blue ninja quickly tosses the playbook out the window for a completely fresh experience altogether. It’s really obvious why Nintendo showcased this title in its booth; The Messenger is full of heart and its developers’ love for the genre is uniquely apparent.  I cannot wait to get my hands on the full experience when it is released end of Summer 2018.

The Messenger is also the winner of the DoublePlusGood Award which can be listened to in more detail here. Be sure to follow along with Sabotage Studio and The Messenger’s progress over at their homepage here.

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Nintendo Switch Previews

Lost Sphear – NYC Comic Con 2017 Preview

Comic Con 2017 brought a few gaming companies out to showcase their up and coming games. I wrote about Monster Hunter World, which you can read here, but that wasn’t the only game i was able to try out.  I also got a chance to demo Lost Sphear on the Nintendo Switch..

Lost Sphear is developed by Tokyo RPG Factor and produced by Square Enix, and stars a protagonist by the name of Kanata who is trying to return memories to the lost. As the player encounters these memories they can interact with it to add objects such as a windmill or a fishing hole to the environment. The demo, however, did not adequately explain how these interactions affect the environment, but that makes me want to buy the game to find out.  

At first, the game play was very similar to I Am Setsuna, and the difference only became apparent when I was introduced to a boss fight against a character named Death Rattler. Death Rattler has three phases, and typical me decided to spam heal to all my characters while the rest of the party pummeled him. Well… these tried and true tactics failed miserably. Each character has a finite amount of times he/she can use an ability and then that ability has a cool down and can not be used again for a certain amount of turns. Gone are the days of spam healing, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With this change comes an added strategy to the game that I actually enjoyed.

Lost Sphear also added a mech suit, which they termed ‘Vumosuit’. I can equip these suits during battle to unleash powerful attacks, however, there is a long cool down period before I can use it again. Again, there is a heavy emphasis on balancing your approach to fights. I have to very carefully decide best when to equip and un-equip the suit to best suit my needs (pun intended).

Many of the complaints that I had regarding I Am Setsuna appear to still be prevalent in my short time with the game. There is still no map for me to look at, and there is no journal for me to reference where my next quest would be.

Overall, I am really looking forward to the game. The new strategy added to the game, coupled with some familiar tropes makes me want to give this one a try.