Who doesn’t love a game with a bit of atmosphere? Deadeus (pronounced “deddyoos”) is an indie horror title for the original Game Boy — or emulators thereof — and it has it in spades. The game has been available for a while as a name-your-own-price download, but it’s about to get a physical release on a suitably jet-black cartridge, pre-orders for which close next Monday. If you’re a fan of the retro games, or the genre, you should definitely play it, and if you have the requisite hardware, it should fit right into any great collection.
Don’t be deceived by Deadeus’ Pokémon-like graphics and play style. This game has dark undertones and is all the more delightful for it. The contrast between the ‘90s era Nintendo trees and picket fences with the themes of cult, ritual and murder couldn’t be starker, yet it feels entirely appropriate. You wouldn’t know it by playing it, but most of the game was made by one person and is a great showcase for Chris Maltby’s GB Studio development tool.
As most good horror stories do, Deadeus starts with a nightmare. An angry god comes to our protagonist in the night with a hunger for flesh. Satiate that hunger, and he might spare the village but there’s a catch — you only have three days to figure out how, and with 11 endings on offer, every decision matters.
“The idea for the game that came mostly from a comic I've been writing forever, I had this small piece that I could call a story and put into this Game Boy game. [...] it's all drawn from that, all the art is my own and, and all based on that story.” Adam Birch, Deadeus’ creator told Engadget.
This makes much more sense when you know that Birch is an artist by trade. He works in UI design for UK game developer Coatsink and does his own suitably macabre designs on the side. One scan of his original pieces is all you need to know that any game he made was always going to have dark touches — the cutscenes, in particular, pull you out of the cozy RPG vibe and into the putrid underbelly of whatever weirdness is going on in this godforsaken town you inhabit.
About that town; it’s where you’ll spend all of your time. That’s to say, this isn’t a sprawling landscape with warp stations and rival villages. You can navigate the playing area very quickly, but it doesn’t feel too limited. Deadeus’ time mechanic means that every new day brings new things to find and discover and also neatly adds a layer of strategy depending on which narrative you follow. No spoilers here, but there are definitely things you can miss on the first day that will stop you finding some of those 11 endings.
Birch admits that while the time mechanic allows the relatively small world to expand in other ways, it also introduced some challenges. GB Studio makes game development much simpler, with almost no code, but with a project like Deadeus, it also introduces the potential for many bugs — characters appearing on day two that shouldn’t be there any more, for example. These were all ironed out of course, but added some unexpected challenges.
Of course, there are far bigger limitations when making something for a decades old platform. Especially if art is your thing. “With a Game Boy screen, there's a limit to the amount of unique eight-by-eight tiles you can place on the screen. You can’t just draw a full image, whatever you want. So it was almost like a puzzle piecing it all together,” Birch added. You can see below how some of his designs had to be crunched down to work on the itty bitty display.
Birch’s decision to use GB Studio also helped him find a partner for the physical release. A few publishers had contacted him about producing cartridge versions of Deadeus, but it was Spacebot that he ultimately went with. The team had already made something of a name for itself with Dragonborne, an RPG also made with GB Studio.
But why go to the effort of releasing a game on a cartridge that requires special hardware to play? Especially if that same game is effectively available for free? “I just wanted to put the thing I made out there for people to play, and with the smallest barrier to entry. So that is free.” Birch said. “I wanted anyone to be able to play it, and that was kind of important to me.” But a physical release was always something he was considering, “it was one of the things that's kind of always on my mind, I just didn't know how it would happen.” Spacebot was the answer.
Indie game development, particularly in the retro realm, is easy to see as an oddity. But its appeal is also easy to explain. The limitations of the platforms make it more manageable for individuals and small teams to work with. Plus, the back catalog of titles to draw inspiration from is huge and varied. And, of course, there’s the seductive lure of nostalgia — even decades later, seeing a game you made play on a real Game Boy (or modern physical emulation hardware) still feels magical.
Back in our nightmare-infused village, things soon start to get weird. Townsfolk begin hinting that this isn’t the first time an angry deity has threatened the town. People close to you confide that weird things have been happening and they, too, have been having the same nightmare. As is the way with the genre, inconsequential statements often hide vital clues. Sometimes, though, they are just inconsequential statements. The fun is divining which is which.
Don’t expect endless hours of playtime though. Even with 11 endings to discover, you can reach a full ending in less than two hours. By which time, you should have enough clues to go back and find the other stories with relative ease. But you will enjoy doing so, and at least one storyline is sophisticated enough to really have you thinking about timing and strategy to avoid a very easy dead end. This one, in particular, I have yet to complete.
For Birch’s part, he says he still feels like a bit of an outsider on the whole indie game-developer thing but is already working on his follow-up title, which sounds even more elaborate. “Probably my favorite Game Boy game is Super Mario Land 2. And that's like, kind of the biggest inspiration [for it],” But of course, Birch wants to add his own cadaverous touches to it. “So what if we did that but like, a lot darker and kind of a lot more story-based?” Super Mario Land 2 with Metroidvania aspects and globs of moody atmosphere? Sign me up.