Available On: PC (Win, Mac, Linux), PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One
The honeymoon for nostalgia-fueled Kickstarter video game projects has long since passed. Older games and genres from the 80s and 90s inspired a treasure trove of multi-million dollar projects, to varying degrees of success. Despite the digital gold rush, I never expected one of these Kickstarter fruits to bear a new ToeJam & Earl game, let alone it be quite good.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is the fourth game in the bizarre but strangely memorable 90s series. But it’s also a triumphant recreation of the 1991 original, which has all the early trappings of a solid roguelike dungeon crawler, that happens to star a pair of funky aliens. While some gameplay elements are quite frustrating, Back in the Groove is dripping with 90s charm, lots of replayability, and fantastic co-op.
When your child is having a rough time, many fathers would bring home a teddy bear, or take them out for ice cream. But for pixel artist and indie game developer Christopher Obritsch, he decided to make a game.
“[My daughter] Maddi was bullied in daycare and at school,” says Obritsch. “The boys picked on her, telling her she couldn’t do things because she was a girl. I remember being very angry. I wanted to do something to cheer her up. I have scoliosis so I’m not exactly the playful dad I wish I was – so I make up for it in the only ways I know how.”
Battle Princess Madelyn was born, a retro-inspired platformer starring a pixelated version of Obritsch’s young daughter.
“I recently had left my full time job at a game studio near where I’m located. I had the money to do something but not at the scale it ended up being,” says Obritsch. “And since the game was for Maddi, I wanted to do everything I could with it. And so we came to Kickstarter.” The Kickstarter campaign launched on Maddi’s fifth birthday. “I thought, what a great way to prove to Maddi that she really can do whatever she wants to do.”
As many indie game projects inevitably go, Battle Princess Madelyn ended up as a much larger game than what was originally designed. The Kickstarter campaign was a big success, reaching over CA$ 200,000 with over 3,400 backers. It’s openly inspired by Obritsch’s all-time favorite game, Ghouls ‘N Ghosts, a challenging 16-bit action-platformer from the 80s.
“I like the dark horror themed stuff. Always have. So seeing Ghouls ‘N Ghosts when I was a kid? Awesome,” says Obritsch. “My favorite movies of all time all sport dead guys or people fighting dead guys – BeetleJuice, Robocop, Ghostbusters, Evil Dead 2, etc. I loved drawing skeletons when I was kid – gross stories that got my parents called in to talk to the teacher.”
Obritsch’s love of the game fueled a passion for pixel art and programming, and eventually a career in multimedia and graphic designer. He got into making games as a hobby, where his new bouncing baby served as his muse. “I ended up doing a very early game for Maddi. One of the levels ended up a 3D shoot ’em up where she is on my back and we’re flying through rainbows and shooting bumble bees and crows while picking up coins. I ended up getting discovered by an ad agency for a musician and almost won the Brit Music Awards that year for Best Interactive Video.”
Obritsch credits his daughter Madelyn as his Creative Director for Battle Princess Madelyn. “She either draws me pictures or sits with me and tells me what to do. She’s my harshest critic!” He recalls a specific instance where five year-old Maddi came home from a friend’s house with a new drawing that she was very proud of.
“She explained a boss fight she had designed. It’s a giant cat you shoot in the bum, but you have to feed it to get it to turn around. I was just shocked – she had come up with a strategy for a boss fight on her own. That was a proud daddy moment,” says Obritsch. “I’m hoping to find that picture for the Kickstarter art book.”
Another member of Obritsch’s family made it into Battle Princess Madelyn, their late dog Fritzy, whose passing partially inspired the story mode. “The story kind of came into play when we knew the real Fritzy was going to be leaving us soon. The intro of the game then started off with Fritzy getting blasted and becoming a ghost dog.”
Young Maddi was very attached to the family dog and took his passing especially hard. “Maddi would talk at night about becoming a vet and making a blue pill to make Fritzy all better. It was heart-breaking to listen to. I decided to put him in the game so she could keep him forever in some form.”
The result was a friendly companion that returns to the titular Battle Princess after his untimely death in the intro. Ghost Fritzy gain new powers over the course of the story, and is capable of resurrecting Madelyn if she falls in battle. “She loves Ghost Fritzy and thinks its very cute,” says Obritsch.
Designing Battle Princess Madelyn has been a labor of love, but with Kickstarter came bigger responsibilities and longer hours. “I work now more than I ever have,” says Obritsch. “We averaged out that I work about 126 hours a week for the past three years. It’s taken a toll on me both mentally and physically.”
Obritsch adds that because he works from home, the long hours don’t bother him as much. He sneaks in breaks with his family whenever he can (his wife Lina works as the company CFO, and directed the game’s trailer). “I have the option of going upstairs and seeing my family if I need a 10-minute break,” he says. “And Maddi sits with me a lot while making the game. She has her desk right next to mine where she draws.”
For the future, Causal Bit Games plans on making a sequel to Battle Princess Madelyn. In fact, there’s a hidden ending that teases the sequel that may involve Obritsch’s youngest daughter Sofia. But he notes that he’s also looking at a break from platformers, and possibly even retiring from pixel art altogether and moving on to something bigger.
“As stressful as it’s been making [Battle Princess Madelyn], I have loved every moment of the creative process,” says Obritsch. “It was wonderful to share this kind of a project with Maddi. To show her that we really can do whatever we set our minds to – no matter what people say or think. It’s been a wonderful journey. And now our youngest daughter Sofia will need her own game as well!”
Battle Princess Madelyn is coming later this year to PC, PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One, Wii U, and PS Vita.
PolyKnight Games has announced a release date for their debut game, InnerSpace. The exploration flying game is scheduled to release on January 16, 2018 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC (Windows, Mac, Linux). It has an MSRP of $19.99.
InnerSpace features a series of hollowed planets where gravity works in reverse – it pulls outward instead of inward. Your goal is to explore all the nooks and crannies, finding ancient relics of the old world and avoiding, or engaging, gigantic monstrosities. It was built as a player-driven experience without quest markers, prioritizing exploring the water color art style with a lovely electronic soundtrack.
I played InnerSpace at PAX South last year and it was a nice, chill experience as I soared through beautiful worlds. There were also vast oceans, and the spaceship could transform into a submarine to explore them.
InnerSpace originally funded via Kickstarter in December 2014. Over 800 backers helped the campaign sneak past its funding goal of $25,000. PolyKnight Games formed from a group of college friends from The University of Texas at Dallas.
PolyKnight games partnered with publisher Aspyr Media earlier this year to help support marketing, testing, and other resources. The game has since soared past 2016 and 2017 release dates as the scope has expanded, as well as coming to consoles, and especially the Nintendo Switch.
InnerSpace will take flight on January 16, 2018 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
While I lack much of the fond nostalgia for the 3D platforming genre, I was completely enthralled by A Hat in Time. Its bright, cheery art and music, witty dialogue, and grandiose level designs instantly catapulted Hat Kid among the upper echelon of the late 90s Golden Age classics.
Simply put: A Hat in Time is the most fun I’ve had with a 3D platformer since Psychonauts.