Creating a Dreamcast rail shooter may be an odd thing to aspire to create in 2016, but that’s the dream that the developers at Retro Sumus are living out with Xenocider. With their Kickstarter underway and a new demo out to introduce players to Xara and her planet-destroying capabilities, we reached out to talk to them about making a game for the not-quite-dead console.
Xenocider is a rail shooter for Dreamcast. What got you interested in making something like that in 2016?
Abel, Chui, and I became friends while working or collaborating on Pier Solar. Abel specifically designed the 3D stage from the HD versions of the game, which had been created in Mode7 for the cartridge version. After that experience, he suggested created something with a similar perspective, and we have always loved both Space Harrier and Sin & Punishment, so we really felt like creating a game that drew inspiration from both. Then Xenocider came to be.
I had come up with the concept for Ameba, our detective adventure currently in development too, which is also a revisiting of an old genre like the Japanese visual novels. We began work on both projects, and Xenocider reached the playable demo status first, so here we are now, begging fans of rail shooters to help us bring the genre back from the dead.
What is the Dreamcast development scene like now? How would a developer begin to work on something like that these days?
Well, there a few active dev teams, which is something we’re really happy about. The teams behind Elysian Shadows, Saber Rider, and Alice Dreams Tournament, all of them successfully funded on Kickstarter, are doing a great job and I think we all support each other instead of competing or whatever, which would make little sense considering we are not rivals. It’s not like this is FIFA versus PES in your Christmas shopping list…
First thing, in our opinion, you have to learn low-level programming in C. And then SDL or OpenGL, so that you can start creating things that can be compiled for both PC and DC with only slight changes.
You are also working on having the game on PC and 3DS. What challenges do you meet in developing a game for three different platforms?
Fortunately, even though you still have to write a lot of low-level code and such, our engine/framework Dreamer is really versatile at that. That being said, we keep our 3D models very low in polygons, and also use a custom-built tool that allows us to visualize 3D objects exactly as they would look on a Dramcast. We are constantly measuring memory usage, counting vertices, and whatnot. Then, we know we can let go for the PC version. But we have to keep in mind the limitations of each hardware: while the Dreamcast may be weak in CPU and memory by today’s standards, the 3DS is lacking a higher resolution and VRAM.
What sort of various mechanics will be on the different levels of Xenocider? How will each level be different?
Obstacles and physics, mainly. One of the planned stages is a volcanic world, so you must do your best to jump from platform to platform and avoid stepping on lava (because it burns). Another one is an underwater city, so your moves are slower and you need to calculate your jumps more carefully. When there’s lower gravity, you can pretty much fly, as long as your jetpack doesn’t get jammed… and so on.
You mention that players can upgrade Xara. What sorts of skills will they be upgrading? How can they customize Xara to their personal play style?
Upgrades are intended to add a little strategic factor to the game. Between levels, players will have the chance to improve Xara’s firepower or her jetpack’s energy reserves. But, what if your next destination is a world with a super high gravity and you won’t be able to jump for long anyway? This circumstance, along with some level-branching, will give Xenocider a higher replayability.
Why is Xara blowing up these worlds? What is the back story of Xenocider, and how will it be featured in the game?
Xara wakes up in the middle of a space base. She has no idea why she’s there or where she came from. But, she can hear a voice telling her to blast her way out and await further orders. It suits her fine, as she feels an uncontrollable thirst for killing, even if she doesn’t understand why yet. As she keeps defeating bosses and devastating planets, she begins to wonder about her origins.
The little plot an old-school arcade may need will be revealed at the end of the game, with little hints between levels, probably during the upgrade and loading screens.
What are key aspects of a good rail shooter? How do you intend to ensure those aspects are in Xenocider?
I think both Space Harrier and Sin & Punishment, while more or less belonging to the same genre, are radically different from each other, so we tried to come up with a middle term we thought will be fun for a wide range of players. You cannot just stop running and take your time to aim carefully like you’d do on the latter, as we wanted to keep the fast and hectic pace from Space Harrier, but you can jump and aim. However, depending on the environment, the mechanics will also change so the gameplay will fluctuate more towards one or the other. This is all made in a way that feels natural in the course of the game, with the level-branching and the upgrades and the little bits of plot that will be revealed.
How do you create enemy attack patterns and challenging bosses for a player in Xenocider? What do you have to keep in mind to satisfy a fan of this genre?
Believe it or not, I think this may be the hardest part for us… and the hardest question of this interview! At this stage, our demo is still a bit repetitive in terms of enemy patterns, but you can already see how they behave: the flying jellyfish float together and then come for you and explode on touch; the rockmen either charge throw big rocks at you from the cliffs; manta rays fly in pairs and shoot you after a few seconds. The stage boss, as you will see, doesn’t even begin to make sense and that’s exactly how we want it. Did stage bosses in Space Harrier make sense? No, because it was a hectic arcade and a ridiculously alien world!
We think and hope fans of the genre, and fans of classic arcade games in general, will appreciate this kind of game design and the user experience it provides. Easy to play, difficult to master has been a constant for good arcades since, well… since Space Harrier? I pretty much consider that game the grandfather of all great arcades.