Vitamin Connection, out today on the Nintendo Switch eShop, is an antibiotic adventure with a co-op focus. We talked to the game’s director, James Montagna, about how the game was made and what he hopes it will do to help players bond.
Graham Russell, Siliconera: What was the inspiration for Vitamin Connection?
James Montagna, WayForward: So that’s probably the question I get asked the most, or at least one of them.
The inspiration for Vitamin Connection was really to create something specifically suited for Nintendo Switch. A love letter to the console, if you will. It started with looking at the console and what aspects of it make it special and trying to create a game around those aspects, namely the Joy-Con controllers.
Where did the theme come from?
Montagna:That’s tough. When I was thinking about the sort of gameplay that would work really well for these two Joy-Con controllers, I thought cooperating together to steer a ship would be very interesting and cool. From there, the concept of it being a vitamin capsule and the inner body journey was like a bolt of lightning. That all just came to me and I started sketching some stuff out.
It was really a sort of unique setting for a game, so we decided to keep it and run with it, because the more we worked with the concept, the more interesting avenues we were finding we could explore with that setting.
There’s an experimental spirit to Vitamin Connection that makes it feel — and I mean this in the nicest possible way — like a launch game. It fits in with games like Snipperclips and Feel the Magic: XY/XX that exude excitement for the platform on which they appear. How did that come about for a game so far past launch?
Montagna: So you’ve mentioned two favorites of mine. I’m a huge KimiShine fan. Played the sequel to that one as well. And Snipperclips was like my must-have game when Switch first came out. Those two franchises are very special to me, so to be mentioned with them is quite an honor.
I think it was the sort of thing that is the result of just looking at the console for what it is and building something around it. Early on in a console’s life cycle, I think a lot of people are wanting to create something that will take full advantage of what the console has to offer without limitations, because it’s new and there’s a desire to embrace that newness. At this point, the Switch has been out for several years, but I think there is so much untapped potential in the format provided by the console with the two Joy-Con controllers and even features like HD Rumble, or for instance the IR motion camera, which we are one of the few games to take full advantage of as far as I know.
Yeah, that was interesting to encounter when we were playing.
Montagna: (laughs) Took you by surprise, huh?
As you say, Vitamin Connection pretty much uses all of the Switch’s unique features. What was your personal favorite to implement?
Montagna: I’m a huge fan of HD Rumble because it’s just so immersive to me. I remember when we were first prototyping the concept, I had this vision for the controller providing a ratcheting sensation as you rotated the Joy-Con and I wasn’t sure it was possible. I was going back and forth with the lead programmer, and we were really determined to figure out if we could capture the sensation that I had in mind. It wasn’t too difficult after all to realize what I was thinking of, and that’s when I was sold on HD Rumble.
In co-op play, each of the game’s functions is given to one of the two players, and new abilities you acquire are assigned as they’re unlocked to constantly change this dynamic. When we played, we hit some points when we were getting comfortable, and then something popped up and… there’s a silent rage. ‘I had a handle on this!’
Montagna: (laughs) You had a hold on it, and then it got changed on you, huh?
Yeah! How did you decide which things each player should do?
Montagna: Funny enough, that was decided right off the bat and it never changed. I think it was just a matter of dividing things up so the responsibilities felt like an even split and one player wasn’t doing too much of a thing. Early on, I think I just said, okay: you move, you fire. You tilt, you aim. And those are the only actions that you really could do, other than accelerate which both players can kind of do. Since those are the only actions you can do, you split them evenly in a way that seems to make sense. Each one had a mobility component, each one had an offensive component, and it seemed to just balance out from there.
I know in the first stage it feels a bit like the first player has it easy, but then things kick in and everyone is equally frazzled and overwhelmed.
Montagna: (laughs) Right, once you start encountering those tilt mimic enemies and have to navigate around them, player two needs to start pulling their weight.
How did the deal with Limited Run come together?
Montagna: We’ve had a great relationship with Limited Run for a number of years now. In fact, I think Limited Run Games has published multiple Shantae titles in physical form. We had created this prototype. We were sort of sitting on it. We weren’t sure what avenue to explore as far as realizing this game, and we wanted to make sure we found the right partner who could really understand and appreciate it.
We ended up proposing it to Limited Run Games over a video call. We just aimed the camera at the TV and we showed them the prototype, like “hey, is this something you guys might be interested in?” From there, the talks escalated quickly. In fact, I think they were just interested right away, which surprised even me a little bit! But I feel that’s because they understood why a concept like this could be fun. It’s hard to explain this concept in words alone, but once they saw it, they were totally on board. They understood what we were trying to provide as an experience, and possibly they wanted to play it for themselves. (laughs) So they were on board very quickly and co-funded the development of Vitamin Connection.
WayForward’s games always seem built to amplify the energy of their soundtracks. Vitamin Connection is no exception, which is crucial for a game that wants to keep the excitement high while retaining the variable pacing of good level design. What do you do during development that makes that work so well?
Montagna: Fantastic question. I think it boils down to the relationship that we have with our musicians.
I know some developers take an approach where they describe to the musician the sort of concepts they want to explore and the settings of the game, and the musician will create something based on that. Our relationship with music studio Mint Potion was one that felt at times more like they were integrated as constant members of the team, and they were playing the game regularly alongside us and experiencing the game next to us and even providing feedback outside of their music realm to the point where that closeness to the product allowed us to really dig in to explore how best to present the music of this game.
At this point, through your work at WayForward as well as your indie projects, you’ve gotten a lot of games out there, but there are always ideas and elements that don’t make it. What’s something you’ve still not managed to get into a game that you’d really like to do?
Montagna: Oh, that’s tough! Because if I explain it, there’s a little bit of mystique or surprise that’s lost. Today, there are no shortage of concepts and things that I’d like to explore and things that I hope to soon be able to explore that I’ve always wanted to explore. As far as when they can happen, who knows, but I won’t give up.
What do you hope people most get out of Vitamin Connection?
Montagna: Simply put, I’d really like them to have a lot of fun. I want people to be entertained, but more than anything else, if Vitamin Connection can be the sort of game that helps people bridge a connection with each other, thus the name connection, that would be really powerful to me. If it’s something where a family can play a game together, a parent and a child, or siblings, or a couple, and after playing it, feel closer to each other or have built a camaraderie between each other, I think that’s where the magic is. Something where people can feel like they’ve had a significant experience shared between them after playing the game.
One more question before you go.
Montagna: Of course!
If people love Vitamin Connection, what do you recommend they play next?
Montagna: Oh gosh. Well of course, this game gets compared to Snipperclips a lot, and as I mentioned, I’m a big fan of that game. Another one came out during the course of development on Vitamin Connection that I felt had a really similar spirit behind it, and that was BoxBoy + BoxGirl! for Nintendo Switch, which is the latest in the BoxBoy! series that started on Nintendo 3DS. If people really enjoy Vitamin Connection, it stands to reason they might enjoy that game too. Personally speaking, the creations of HAL Laboratory have been an inspiration to me as a game designer for many years, so to see them come out with a concept that felt in a similar vein made me very happy.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity.