We participated in the Gameboy Jam in the beginning of October last year. The challenge was to create a Game Boy themed game, using only 4 colors and a screen-resolution of 160×144, within a week. I additionally constrained myself to the original Game Boy input scheme, consisting of only a D-Pad and two primary and two secondary buttons. And thus, Pixel Soldier was born.
Getting the Idea
Ever since I first saw Vlambeer’s incredible talk “The art of screenshake“, I wanted to make some “prove of concept” where I just deliberately implement everything from this awesome talk. So I started to ask myself how would my game differ from any other side-scrolling shooter and somehow the idea of replacing jumping with something more interesting emerged. After having settled on shooting and dashing as the main mechanic, I can’t deny that I have been heavily inspired by Alien Soldier. A game I absolutely love, simply one of my all-time favourite games. It can be boiled down to being a boss rush, with very short stages followed by action packed boss-fights.
The jam itself went pretty great, hardly any progress for days, and finally doing 90% of the work mere hours before the deadline. One day I’m going to find out, what causes the surge in productivity shortly before deadlines and I’m going to use it to boost my every-day productivity, although it’s probably just an unhealthy dose of adrenaline and stress.
The game got 12th place in “Overall Gameplay” out of 398 entries, which is quite a feat. Despite the crappy graphics, it was apparently a lot of fun for the people playing it. “Graphics” was the second weakest aspect, but no wonder since it was essentially full of place holder art.
The weakest aspect was “Gameboy Feel“, which is very understandable, because a game with as many sprites as this, would have never run on an original Gameboy. But historic accuracy was never the intention anyway. The intention was just to make a fun game within the constraints given.
But enough of that, let’s talk about the lessons learned.
Improving Sound design
The talk “Why your Death animation sucks” has tips for game polish (or game “juice”) and is just full of awesome advice (not only for sounds) and is up there in quality with the famous “Juice it or Lose it” talk.
It was very difficult to balance the sound effects of the main gun. Make it too loud and it gets annoying. Make it too silent and the weapon feels weak. I think the weapon turned out a bit too weak, but better than the alternative of being annoying.
Having multiple shooting sound effects with different pitch was also essential in breaking up the repetitiveness, since the player is hearing that sound effect A LOT.
Multiple Difficulty Settings multiply the Testing Effort
It might seem obvious now, but including multiple difficulty settings seemed as a quick way to add replayability and add options for people of different skill levels.
But every difficulty setting has to be balanced and individually tested, which obviously increases the effort required significantly.
Limit Feature Creep from the Beginning
I deliberately limited myself to exactly one page for the “Design Document” before I started coding. I think this helped immensely to keep the project scope small enough for the jam. One might think that this restriction is too harsh, but despite this I still ended up cutting most of it, since things always take longer than one anticipates at first.
Another jam, another far too hard and punishing game. After having played hundreds of hours during development, it seems like the difficulty is alright. No, it’s not. Make it less punishing. Just add in checkpoints, don’t force everyone to play it in one go.
The Future for Pixel Soldier
After the jam I kept working on it and released an update in January. Even after working on it for months I still enjoy playing it and I’m still excited about the potential of all the features I had initially planned.
There are so many ideas scrapped and so many new ideas emerging while working on it, that I really want to make a proper sequel with everything in it. Weapon Power-ups, different stage layouts, epic multi-stage bosses and generally just more of everything.
But for now I have planned some updates to Pixel Soldier, polishing it until it’s a nice vertical slice of what the sequel could be. Expect some updates in the near future.