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Interviews: Shantae’s Matt Bozon Reminisces About Its Development

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shantae interview matt bozon

With the original Shantae’s charming gameplay debuting on the Nintendo Switch, the whole series is now available on the console. With this return to the series’ roots, Siliconera reached out to series director and WayForward Creative Director Matt Bozon to talk about the memories that were stirred up by going back to the beginning, hearing about some of the challenges and feelings that came up in its creation at the time.

Joel Couture, Siliconera: How did it feel to be working on the original Shantae again? What sorts of memories and feelings did it stir up?

Matt Bozon, WayForward: Wow, it definitely gets you counting up the years to see where they all went! For Erin [Bozon] and I, it’s been 27 years since the beginning, and since then we’ve gotten married, raised kids, and got to work with hundreds of amazingly talented people who helped build this into a beloved series. But returning to the original reminds me of living in our small apartment, pitching the game with Jimmy Huey, and working at the old WayForward office when the company was still in its infancy.

Do you have any memorable stories from the development of the original game?

Bozon: The office was hot. We worked on licensed games during the day, like Sabrina and a handful of other Game Boy Color games, mostly to keep the handheld department afloat. When the day was over and the air conditioning shut off, that meant it was time to shift into Shantae work. In Southern California, it got quite hot. We’d have to run bowls of ice from the freezer and pour them into the Game Boy Color dev unit to keep it running. Jimmy would sometimes burn several cartridges per hour so I could iterate on artwork, levels, and palettes, or Erin could check her animation. After two years of this we wore that little machine out. I’d run the Game Boy Color down the hall and ride the elevator to check the colors under the halogen bulbs, then pause, and run back to the office to check them under yellow light.

It all seems kind of silly, but that’s how we did things back then! Mostly I remember how much fun it was to be working so hard on something we all believed in. When you wake up the next day and everyone can’t wait to get back to work, it’s a great feeling, and that’s how it felt to work on Shantae!

Shantae is arguably one of the most impressive titles, visually, on the GBC. What work went into pushing that system to its limits? What made you want to get so much out of its animations and look?

Bozon: We’d set lofty goals. Erin really designed something for the SNES, and that was stuck in our heads and stayed there even when switching over to Game Boy Color. I think maybe we were jealous of the effects seen on the SNES and desperately wanted them on the GBC. I really wanted 16-bit sprites, so Jimmy created a sprite-layering system to overcome the three-color limit and give me 12 colors. I asked for translucency, and he added a sprite-interlacing trick. Water refraction (scanline scrolling) couldn’t be supported, but we could simulate the effect by streaming in tile animations using a bank-swapping trick. Lighting effects were cheated, done by combining collision tiles with real-time color shifting.

The biggest one was parallax scrolling. This was achieved by making dozens of animated tiles that linked together and played an animation that played opposite of the character’s movement in every direction. When he had that, we added even more similar animated tiles to cast shadows onto those fake parallax tiles. It was pretty wild stuff. But each time we found the new ceiling, it was impossible to stop there! In the end, we had to stop because we’d used every pixel and every tile available – we even changed the game’s dialog to try to remove even a single letter from the alphabet to add another tiny feature. And this was on the largest “32-megabit” cartridge available from Nintendo.

The original Shantae concept hopped from various systems according to an old interview you did (SNES-PC-PS1-GB-GBC). Was this a frustrating time for you as a developer? 

Bozon: I think it taught us to grow and adapt. There was no quick way to peruse the internet for market trends like you can today. Instead, we’d read magazines, attend trade shows, and talk to more-experienced professionals that came to pay WayForward a visit. And we had the guidance of our CEO, John Beck, who’d help us understand why whatever we were currently pitching wasn’t gaining traction, where the hidden costs were, and what markets we might try next. I guess through it all, we just kept trying because it always felt like we were getting one more step closer to achieving our goal.

With the series’ audience having grown so much over the years, how do you feel about rereleasing the game now versus how you felt when it originally came out?

Bozon: With the original release, we were very nervous and excited to see how audiences would respond. We’d been working for several years, and had only shown the game a handful of times behind closed doors. Response had been good overall, but in the end, only Capcom felt that it could sell the game in a market dominated by kids’ TV, movie, and toy brands. It was a longshot and it really felt like one! With the Switch release, we knew the fans were out there waiting to welcome the game with open arms.

shantae

Few developers retain the rights to their creations, which often results in some series’ dying sad deaths, or their original creators having to fight for their own IP. What made you negotiate to keep the IP? How did you manage to retain/reclaim the rights to Shantae?

Bozon: At the time, WayForward was partially owned by an educational company, and wasn’t really focused on game IP. And, being a startup, we were all bringing our talents to the table, sometimes keeping our contributions. Later, Capcom published Shantae, but in name only, acting as more of a distributor, and they weren’t looking for IP ownership either. Because of this, Erin and I were able to retain ownership of Shantae for all these years. I think that keeping Shantae in the hands of her original creators has been a big help to keep each series entry feeling fresh and inspired, but also authentic.

How does it feel to have been able to work on your own creation for so long? To keep finding new ways to reinvent and iterate on Shantae after all these years?

Bozon: It really does help to build upon a series. It’s very handy to move pieces around, iterate, and explore new ideas when having a foundation to build upon. It also helps when bringing on brand-new team members with each game. Sometimes we’ve been fortunate enough to have returning key members (such as lead programmer Walter Hecht on Half-Genie Hero and Seven Sirens). But, more often than not, new team members need to be taught to do things “the Shantae way,” and thankfully we have years of examples to point to thanks to the hard work of previous Shantae dev teams.

On a personal note, I love that Erin and I can keep working on this thing that was once a pet project, but now gets to be shared with so many people!

Shantae is available now on the Nintendo Switch.

Joel Couture
Joel has been covering indie games for various sites including IndieGamesPlus, IndieGames.com, Siliconera, Gamasutra, Warp Door, CG Magazine, GameDaily, and more over the years, and has written book-length studies on Undertale, P.T., Friday the 13th, and Kirby's Dream Land.