Super Rad Raygun, a sidescrolling, retro-inspired shooter that recently released on Steam, casts players as a living Game Boy who blasts his way through villains inspired by 80’s history, pop culture, and games. Like the creations of many developers, Super Rad Raygun is a loving homage to the games developers Chris Bryant and Chris Henandez grew up with as kids.
Siliconera spoke with the pair of developers to ask them what it felt like to draw on that nostalgia, the pleasant things about games that carried them through development, and what old games have to teach the developers of today.
You’ve been working on Rad Raygun/Super Rad Raygun for years. What keeps you continually motivated on this project? What keeps pushing you to work on it?
Chris Hernandez, developer of Super Rad Raygun (CB): I work on and off as a freelancer, and getting away from it for a few weeks at a time is a great way to come back to the game with fresh eyes. Doing shows like PAX and Comic Con is also a great way to interact with fans directly, which can also be a really good morale boost.
Chris Bryant, developer of Super Rad Raygun (CH): The original Rad Raygun, on Xbox Live Indies, took us 2 1/2 years to make. We started Super Rad Raygun about 6 months later, and we’re just over the 3-year mark with this game. Growing up in the 8-bit/16-bit era, I’ve wanted to make video games since I was a kid. I’m a Software Engineer building business applications, but video game development has always been my passion. In fact, it’s the whole reason I got into programming in the first place.
I have a full-time job, a wife, and two children, so this game has been a labor of love. Any free moment I have goes towards the game – when the kids are napping, when I’m on a lunch break, and after everyone has gone to bed. As for what keeps me motivated – we’re a small team. There’s only two of us. So, even in the most stressful of times, I had to keep going so I wouldn’t let down Chris.
What are the more exciting changes you’ve made to the game over the years?
CH: I don’t know if other people will think these are exciting, but some of my favorite things were finding creative ways to use our enemy building system. Originally it was just for creating bad guys in the game, but as we got further into development, we figured out ways to use it to create hidden areas behind destructible walls, interactive background elements, and improve our checkpointing system. You see a lot of that stuff in our first level (Washington, DC) where we have enemies bursting in through windows and doors, bullets hitting around Rad, and general chaos going on.
CB: The first thing we tackled with Super Rad Raygun was the physics. The engineer in me felt the need to write my own physics engine for the first Rad Raygun, and the results were not so pretty! Our goal was to make Super Rad Raygun the "Megaman X" to our Megaman. The original Rad wasn’t nearly as smooth and agile as he is now.
Aside from all of the new levels and enemies, the biggest addition to the game is the new power-up / battery mechanic. Rad collects batteries throughout the game and can distribute them to different abilities, on the fly. These batteries can be swapped out at any time, depending on the situation. For example, if Rad is swimming under water, he’ll need more batteries in his Protective Case, so he might have to take batteries out of his Blaster or Backlight to accommodate.
What are some of the challenges you meet while working with a Game Boy aesthetic? How do you work within its limitations to create what you want?
CH: A big challenge is making sure the player can tell the difference between solid walls or enemies and the background. When you only have 4 shades in your color pallet, it’s really easy to turn an action sequence into a confusing mess! In a lot of levels, I try to make sure that the background consists of no more than 2 colors, so that I can use the other two for more important objects. Also, when in doubt, adding black outlines to enemies works wonders!
What drew you to creating a game with this visual style? With this gameplay style and story that pokes fun at the 80’s?
CH: As much as I’d like to say it was a well-thought-out way of limiting the scope for our art and animation, it was actually just entirely CB’s idea. His first email to me about making a game like this was basically "I wanna make a Game Boy game." Everything else came out of that, though. Since we were using a visual style that goes back to when we were kids, I figured that everything else in the game should also be based on that concept. So, the Cold War story and the 80’s pop culture themes all spun out of that initial ‘retro’ idea.
CB: We wanted to make a game that was an homage to our childhood and retro gaming. And, since we were making a game that *looked* like it was released in the 80’s, we might as well make it take place in the 80’s!
Rad has several different power-ups. Can you tell us your thoughts about balancing all of those power-ups in the game?
CH: My understanding of the power-ups system is that we have a vague idea of something that would be cool in the game, and then CB types some magic words on a computer that turn it into a real thing :).
CB: Everything Rad does, including jumping, shooting, and dashing, consumes energy. When Rad’s energy is depleted, his vision fades, he has limited movement, and his blaster is weak. This energy is replenished after resting for a few seconds. But, with enough batteries and the right balance, Rad becomes very powerful and agile, with his energy levels never dropping to zero. So, swapping out batteries and finding the right balance is crucial.
The concept for this limited-energy mechanic was originally conceived while we were showing that game off at PAX Prime in 2013. I have Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and it affects my ability to walk. I can walk for 10 to 15 minutes, but eventually I become too weak and have to take a break before continuing. During one of our many walk-breaks, we were discussing how we could possibly turn my struggles with MS into an innovative game mechanic. The result is an upgrade system that allows Rad to become super powerful, but he has to balance this with a limited amount of energy.
Previous builds have seemed a little unchallenging. Is this something you have changed for the full release, or have you made the game a little less challenging for purposeful reasons?
CH: We’ve bumped up the difficulty a little bit in more recent builds, but we aren’t going for a super hardcore game. Making something that’s super difficult but also fair is a really tough line to walk! We just want it to be tough enough that it forces players to experiment with their powerup allocation in certain spots, but ultimately they do see the whole game.
I should mention that for players that ARE looking for a big challenge, we’ve got a time attack mode with Steam Leaderboards. In fact, we got rid of all RNG systems to make sure that time attack will be as fair and competitive as possible!
CB: It’s kinda hard to gauge difficulty when you play the game every day. But, when ScrewAttack became our publisher, the first thing they asked for was to beef up the difficulty. I think you’ll find the game much more difficult now, especially with our "Naked Raygun" achievement – where you have to complete the game without buying any upgrades.
Super Rad Raygun is arguably a nostalgic experience for players of 80’s video games. What do you feel draws us back to these kinds of games?
CH: Nostalgia definitely plays a part when it comes to the feeling of exploring a virtual world, or the music and visuals from that time period, butI also think that we come back to a lot of those types of games because they’re still really good, even by the standards we have 30 years later!
2D gameplay is easy to understand on a screen, tight controls will always feel great, and a lot of the mechanics have been refined and tested by different people over multiple generations now. There’s just a ton of knowledge you can draw on, either as a designer to create something great, or as a player who can appreciate what a game is influenced by, and where exactly it changes things up!
CB: Super Mario Bros. was one of the first games that I played as a kid, and it’s still one of my favorite games to this day. I’m fascinated by how perfect that game is…the graphics, the sound, the controls, and the gameplay – all of it was ground-breaking at the time, and it still holds up today.
Along the same lines, games like Ninja Gaiden, Megaman X, and Super Metroid were equally as ground-breaking and remain timeless. With this rise of indies, it’s pretty cool to see the re-emergence of pixelated graphics, chiptunes, and 2D platforming. But, in the end, it all boils down to gameplay. If the core play mechanics are solid, there’s a good chance that players will keep coming back for more!
What thoughts go into creating a game that harnesses that sense of nostalgia? What do you feel is important to consider when programming and designing such a game?
CH: To me, the biggest thing is the sense of exploration and mystery that I used to have playing NES games. Mario 3 was one of my favorite games for that experience. You might have played a level 15 times, but one day you managed to make it through a tough part with a raccoon tail, and discover that there’s a random pipe hanging up in the sky that you didn’t know about – But you can’t go into it, so you know it must mean that there’s a secret area you didn’t already know about…
So yeah – my favorite thing is creating secret hidden areas, and trying to create those kinds of moments where you pique a player’s curiosity, and then reward them for it. I think we’ve got about 4 of those just in the first level – And I’ll be curious to see how many players end up getting all the powerups in the game.
CB: This was actually pretty tough. We wanted the game to be a trip down memory lane for retro fans, but we wanted to attract modern gamers as well. So we have the obvious retro aesthetic, plenty of 80’s references, and our enemies even respawn after leaving the screen. But, we also have Steam Achievements, Time Attack mode with online leaderboards, and a Boss Rush mode — all of which go beyond the retro experience.