At the opening of Super Metroid, a gunship rockets through space, eventually descending to the surface of the planet Zebes. A hatch opens, and bounty hunter Samus Aran slowly rises from the ship amidst the rain and lightning of an alien world. It's one of the most memorable moments of the 16-bit era, but it left Moise Breton with a question: Why doesn't she ever get back in the ship?
Last September, after Moise (Mo for short) left Activision's Quebec Spider-Man studio, Beenox, he decided to find the answer. The result is A.N.N.E., a game that cobbles together and improves upon some of Mo's favorite video game ideas. A 2D, open-world adventure, ANNE pulls inspirations from a broad spectrum of games, including Metroid, Mega Man, Contra, Gradius and Cave Story – though the latter is mostly coincidence, he says. Much like Samus, our robotic hero, Number 25, uses his abilities to take down enemies, finding numerous upgrades and uncovering new areas along the way. Unlike Samus, his ship is a constant companion, transporting him from place to place, blasting monsters from the sky and forging new paths.
After launching a Kickstarter and posting an impressive reveal trailer, things have "exploded all at once," Mo tells me, and he's very excited. Based on the short demo I played, you should be too.
"It's exciting, it's really motivating. Because when you start dedicating yourself to a project like this, you never know... you don't really know how people will react." He's pleased with the reaction ANNE has gotten so far. The response has also been reassuring, he says, since now he knows that he isn't the only one who wants to play it.
The inspiration for ANNE arose from Mo's own desire to put everything he loved about games into one project. "I have this kind of craving for a game that would serve me a bit of everything." Beyond this simple inspiration, he returned to Super Metroid.
"I remember at the beginning, you had this amazing ship. A crazy sprite landing slowly and then, the next thing you know, you're just on foot. And I was just, 'what a tease.' What if you could actually go in [the ship] and fly? What would that look like, and how fun would that be? So basically, it's picking up from just questioning myself and just trying to see what, you know, what am I really looking for as a player right now?"
Another part of that question is examining the games that are coming out now, and figuring out what they aren't doing to satisfy players who grew up in the 8 and 16-bit generations. "It's really sparked from there. I want a Metroidvania, but I want to take it to the next level with exploration. By blending in some space shooter elements."
Just like Metroid, you'll spend a lot of time on-foot in ANNE, but you're free to jump in your ship whenever you want (so long as you can reach it). Whenever you board your ship, the view of ANNE's pixelated world zooms out, providing an impressive sense of scale. Boulders that used to be impassable become tiny and, in fact, the ship can lift them right off of the ground with a tractor beam. Hop out of the ship, and the view zooms in, allowing Number 25 to navigate platforms, enter caves and blast enemies. Mo is also promising plenty of space shooting segments, inspired by games like Gradius and Guardian Legend, but those weren't implemented in my demo.
While both styles of play are interesting, what's really intriguing is how they interact with one another. I got stuck at one point in my demo, unable to figure out how to reach an item that was hovering out of reach on a ledge above me. I tried everything I could think of – jumping, running and jumping, even landing the ship close by and jumping off it – but nothing worked. Suddenly, I remember that I'd been tossing around giant boulders like pebbles only minutes before. I got in my ship, grabbed a boulder and dropped it below the ledge. Boom, instant stepping stone. Realizing that both you and your ship are part of the same world, and that each can manipulate the other, is a great "aha" moment.
"That's one thing that I believe in really strongly, is that some things cannot be forced."
Many of ANNE's concepts came from Mo looking at his favorite games and seeing how he could add on to them or even improve them. If he were to recreate Super Metroid, or do a remake, what features would he add? What problems would he correct? "Not that those games were not perfect for their time," he adds.
Still, Mo thinks he can capitalize on the things that made games like Super Metroid great, while improving elements that could have been better. "In my game, I want to make sure I kind of fix that, or tweak that to my liking." Weapons in ANNE, for example, will cater to different tastes. Weapons in Super Metroid stacked as you earned them, essentially creating one weapon that changed throughout the game. Mo wants players to be able to choose the weapon that works for them.
But that reminds me of another game, and given that ANNE also sports a 16-bit art style and chiptune soundtrack, I ask the obvious question: Were you influenced by Cave Story? "I played Cave Story maybe three hours. Inspired? I think what Cave Story really did is convince me that ... basically, it kind of gave me the assurance that there was potential for one of my games to succeed." Seeing Cave Story – and other retro-styled games like Super Meat Boy – was like a pat on the back, he says. "I'm looking at this game, and I'm like, 'Oh my God. These are the kind of games that I do at home, or that I design in my head or that I write down.' So I was just like, well, if people are ready to spend a few bucks to play these games, I guess it's time for me to start working on my own game."
Of course, designing a game by yourself is very different from creating games at an established studio like Beenox. "The challenges [in developing ANNE] are really in the fact that all those game genres are mixed. But in terms of just design history or experience, I've been really obsessed with video games since I was five. I have a crazy collection." Mo's eye for design stems from that obsession. "Even though I don't write fancy academic blogs on designs and things like that, I believe that a lot of design choices, or just game design in general, for me it's more of gut feeling and instinct."
"I learned a lot in my career, especially just being at Beenox. Being an art director, I got to interact all the time with the lead designers. I have lots of friends who work as designers for Rainbow Six or Assassin's Creed, so it's always a good thing for me to have those guys around, being able to give me some feedback when I need it." Being a lone developer has its advantages though, since he can always set aside one troubling part of the design and work on something else. "That's one thing that I believe in really strongly, is that some things cannot be forced." He's even gone so far as to warn potential Kickstarter backers that he could postpone the planned 2014 launch if he doesn't think the game is as perfect as it can be.
Having input on multiple aspects of design has always been important, he says. "In order for me to be happy, honestly, I need to have my hands in everything. I can't just do one thing in a game. I feel like it's like putting 80 percent of my brain on hold."
But making the jump to independent development isn't easy. "It's funny, because I keep telling myself, 'I couldn't have done that earlier, when I didn't have kids?'" A lot of independent development, he says, is filled with stories about a few friends living in an apartment and making a game together. "And that's freaking awesome, that must be like the best thing in the world. But for me, as a person, as somebody who's worked in the game industry, I feel like this couldn't have happened earlier. Like, it's now. I'm ready now."
"That's the thing, I had to convince myself."
Even with a wife, kids and a house, he says the risks don't really make him nervous, but rather serve as motivation. "You know, I've got the kids, I've got the house, so I was just like, if I'm going into this, it's not going to be five years of leisure time." Mo is even in the process of selling his house and looking for something cheaper. "Right now, that's what I'm working on, just giving myself more room to breathe and be like, 'all right, this game is going to kill.' And also if I have to spend money on an artist to help me out, I'm going to do it." He has ambitious goals, like bosses that require players to use both the ship and the main character to defeat. "Obviously, I'm taking all the measures right now to just be able to do that without worrying."
"I'm by myself, so I can't say I'm using the most optimized of engines, so just to make sure that everything was running smooth, and having that work was just part of convincing myself," says Mo. "That's why I say I needed all those years to really feel ready. That's the thing, I had to convince myself."