Jussi Simpanen, perhaps better known as Adventure Islands, recently won the thirteenth Stencyl Jam with his Game Boy styled metroidvania platformer, Tiny Dangerous Dungeons. Jussi was kind enough to sit down and have an instant-messenger interview about his game and game development in general.
Cory: For those not familiar with you, who are you?
Jussi: I’m a Finnish graphic artist and indie game dev.
Cory: So, how did you discover Stencyl?
Jussi: Couple of years ago I was participating in small Game Dev Club in Finland’s capital Helsinki, where one of the group leaders asked if anyone had heard of Stencyl before, then he introduced us to it. I saw your game The Binding Force0 and got very inspired to learn how to use Stencyl and make my own pixel art games.
0. The Binding Force: A metroidvania platformer that was in development by Cory Martin. A demo for it was released in 2011.
Cory: Haha, whoa. I’m glad my game kind of inspired you, or at least didn’t turn you off to Stencyl.
Jussi: It has great graphics, music and sounds. It’s still unfinished, yes? You should go back and finish it at some point. The first area where you get the sword inspired the original Dangerous Dungeons, Timmy was supposed to have ability to throw knives too, but for various reasons it only came to be in Tiny Dangerous Dungeons, two years later.
1. Dangerous Dungeons: A level-based platformer made by Jussi in 2011. It was his first game.
Cory: Yeah, it’s unfinished. If I don’t go back to it, I’ll likely make a game that borrows a lot of the same elements anyway.
Speaking of Tiny Dangerous Dungeons, what’s it all about?
Jussi: It’s somewhere between a sequel and spin-off title of my very first Stencyl game, Dangerous Dungeons, I made years ago. Whoa now I feel old. Anyway, unlike the original that progressed from level to level, this game is a metroidvania1 adventure, where you can move around freely and find hidden treasures that grant you new abilities like ability to throw knives, something that was supposed to be in original Dangerous Dungeons too, but I had to cut it out because back then I had no idea how to make it properly. The game uses Game Boy style color palette, because I had originally started to make the game for Game Boy Jam, but ran out of time to finish it. However, Stencyl Jam was still going on and I decided to aim to finish the game for that instead. Total development time was about two weeks.
2. Metroidvania: A genre of sidescrolling platformers that have an emphasis on exploration and ability/item upgrades.
Cory: Was the original Dangerous Dungeons going to be a metroidvania?
Jussi: At first, yes, I had some finished graphics for ability to swim and throwing knives, but I was still learning how to use Stencyl and lot of functions were a complete mystery to me, so I decided to keep the gameplay simple. You move from one level to next, trying to get a key that opens a locked stage goal door in every room. I’m still trying to decide if possible future Dangerous Dungeons 2 should steer more to stage progression like original or metroidvania style gameplay like Tiny Dangerous Dungeons.
Cory: I’d say both gameplay concepts can be done almost equally as well, so I guess that’s something you’ll really have to ponder.
Jussi: I really liked the scrolling hidden levels of the original, and level designing for Tiny Dangerous Dungeons was fun, so if the sequel isn’t a metroidvania, I think it could be like DuckTales3 on NES, with free movement between areas.
3. DuckTales: An action-adventure platformer released by Capcom in 1989 for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Cory: Yeah, I felt that the hidden levels in Dangerous Dungeons were the best part of the game.
Jussi: Yeah, I like adventuring and exploring various areas in games and finding hidden secrets. Dangerous Dungeons were always supposed to be about exploring huge and complex dungeons.
Cory: I felt like the level design in Tiny Dangerous Dungeons was really well done, especially given the short development time and the limited number of in-game obstacles you had to work with. It almost always felt fresh and never redundant. How did the level creation process go?
Jussi: It went surprisingly well, at first I was worried I didn’t have enough tiles to work with, but in the end I like how the rooms turned out, each one feels unique. I have gotten pretty good at working with limited resources. It forces me to get creative.
Cory: What’s your process like, as far as planning and laying out the levels?
Jussi: In Tiny Dangerous Dungeons’s case I had first drawn the overall layout of the dungeon on a regular piece of paper, with lines showing where every door takes and I had marked where every item is hidden. I didn’t have exact plans how the actual rooms would look like, but I had marked the major puzzles locations, and build the levels in Stencyl around them. For example, the hallway that takes you to the Power Glove has pushable blocks on your way you can’t move yet, but when you get the glove and have to backtrack, this time you can’t go through the hall quite the same way as before, but have to push the blocks around to make yourself a new route. In a way, it’s kind of like two different levels in one.
Cory: I get the sense that you were consciously trying not to make one part of a scene feel like another part as far as gameplay and the placement of obstacles goes, and you seem to have pulled it off very well, especially considering this is a metroidvania.
Jussi: Yeah I tried my hardest to avoid repeating puzzles and object placements. I have very low tolerance for repetition in games so I tried to make every room feel clearly different. This was my first time making a metroidvania style game and I’m very content how it turned out. Repetition is one of the reasons I don’t like AAA games much these days. Too much copy paste in environments and characters.
Cory: I think it’s something I’m guilty of myself. Level design really is a craft of its own. Like, I think everyone thinks they can design levels. Like, yeah, you can place tiles and enemies and stuff, but making actual good levels—where each section serves a purpose and feels unique—is the hard part.
Jussi: Yeah, these days I’m trying to make the levels as unique as I can, with every tile and block placed with care. I’ve improved a lot in level designing during these years, even if some of my friends say my best levels were in original Dangerous Dungeons. I always try to avoid things like unfair jumps. For example, you are almost never required to jump and fall down while unable to see what’s underneath you. But in case you have to, there is never anything harmful beneath. Old Megaman games very guilty of hiding insta-kill spikes in unseen locations and it always pissed me off.
Cory: It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, actually. I mean, I’ve been making games for years, but I’m just now finally deeply considering what goes into making a good level. Any game developers out there reading this should definitely consider it if you haven’t. It’s important.
Jussi: Every game is a learning experience, every one of my games have taught me lots of new things I didn’t consider before.
Cory: May I read you an excerpt from the review I wrote for Tiny Dangerous Dungeons while judging Stencyl Jam #13?
Jussi: Yeah, sure
Cory: Anyone reading who hasn’t played through the game, I recommend doing so, because I’m about to post a mega-spoiler.
“When I started walking on water, for some reason I experienced an incredibly strange feeling that seemed like a mixture of happiness, disbelief, fear and shock.” How does that make you feel?
Jussi: It’s interesting to hear you feel that way. Reminds me how one of my friends said how the same thing made them feel… powerful.
Cory: Yes, precisely.
Jussi: One of the major obstacles in the game suddenly becomes harmless. It’s amazing and one of the reasons I like metroidvanias so much. You start as a weakling, but slowly becoming more and more skilled and powerful.
Cory: Yes, that’s the essence of a metroidvania, but I honestly don’t think I’ve ever felt it done so well, I mean, I haven’t played a ton of metroidvanias, but you start out almost useless here, not being able to kill enemies, and a while into the game you finally find way to deal with them and you feel much more powerful, but you still have to worry about falling into the water, and much later in the game you get the ability to walk on water, and the second I hit the water, all these emotions rushed into my head, like, “Oh my god, is this real? Am I really walking on water? Am I safe? Whoa! I’m unstoppable!” And I think the fact that you’re walking on the water is perfect. You’re not swimming; you’re walking. You’re that powerful.
Jussi: Haha. Actually I had originally planned to include actual swimming to the game. But turns out I couldn’t create it in any smart way and without code, so I decided to borrow the “swimming” from Persist4, which was essentially walking on water. Except this time I gave the water much bigger collision box, so it really does look like you are actually walking on water now.
4. Persist: A sidescrolling game by Jussi in which you gradually lose your body parts and the abilities associated with them. Made in April 2013 for the two day long Ludum Dare 26 competition.
Cory: It’s a happy accident.
Jussi: It looked so good in the first test room I created where I tested all the tools and I was really happy how it turned out.
Cory: I think I saw you tweet that someone complained about the difficulty in Tiny Dangerous Dungeons. By and large I see it as being a pretty fair game, I mean, I think the boss is a giant pain, but most of the game feels totally fair. How did you approach and balance the difficulty this time around?
Jussi: I don’t think the game would have turned out anywhere as good as it did if I had not had my good friend Constantin Graf playtest the thing for me. Game design is complicated and especially metroidvanias require lots and lots of testing to make sure everything is working correctly. When working solo like I usually do, it’s very important to have people test your game. I got lots of important feedback about puzzles, enemies and etc from my family and friends. Remember folks, always have other people playtest your game, as the developer you can get easily blind to your mistakes.
Cory: Absolutely. And as the game’s developer, you’re going to be better at the game than pretty much everyone else, so it’s hard to accurately gauge how difficult something is by playing it yourself. Did you watch your testers play the game, or did they just relay feedback to you?
Jussi: One of the reasons original Dangerous Dungeons is so difficult, especially the boss fights, is because I didn’t have enough people test the thing, and those who did like my little brother, loved the extreme difficulty. When my folks are testing, I can just sit next to them and watch them play, my friends play through the game and then write me a memo about all the issues they find.
Cory: I think I was actually going to interview you a couple years ago when you released the original, but I just couldn’t beat that last level and I insisted on finishing every game I interviewed someone about. Haha.
Jussi: The final level of original is insanely hard, after finishing my 10th game Duke Dashington I decided to stream a playthrough of original DD and the final level took me by surprise. Back then I had the mentality “if I can beat it, anyone else can too!”. Needless to say, that is a very bad philosophy to design games on. Or perhaps it isn’t so needless, as it’s a very common rookie mistake. if I ever end up remaking the game I’ll be making the bosses bit easier, or making the bosses slow down a tiny bit to a certain cap every time you lose to them.
Cory: How long did you spend on the final boss in Tiny Dangerous Dungeons?
Jussi: It took a half a day to draw the boss graphics and program the movement and attack pattern. Originally he was supposed to just move back and forth sideways, and lunge down every time you were directly underneath him, but decided to go with much simpler approach that combines both, and made him just move diagonally and bounce off when ever he hits something.
Cory: As much as I enjoyed the game, I did feel that the boss was kind of a weak point.
Jussi: Agreed, it was perhaps a bit too much of a rush job and didn’t receive enough testing. The game has no story so there isn’t much of an ending for beating it either.
Cory: Every boss I’ve ever made has been a rush job. They’re always done very close to a competition deadline, usually on the final day, and sometimes in the final few hours. Even Team Meat5 admits that their bosses were rushed in Super Meat Boy6, and a lot of people felt they were kind of a weak point. Perhaps a good moral is to plan ahead and set aside a good amount of time to work on your bosses if you can.
5. Team Meat: An independent game development duo composed of Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes.
6. Super Meat Boy: An incredibly successful level-based platformer released by Team Meat in 2010.
Jussi: I suppose bit of a same thing happened in case of Tiny Dangerous Dungeons. Time was running but final challenge had to be done. I didn’t have the boss tested thoroughly enough and it hurt the overall game, lessons learned. I’ve gotten some messages and reviews that have said there should have been another save point next to the boss door. Not a bad idea. I’ll aim for better boss balancing from now on.
Cory: Fortunately, there are a couple health upgrades hidden in the dungeon that make the boss a little easier. The health upgrades are the only hidden items in the game, at least that we know of. Why’d you decide to hide ‘em?
Jussi: It serves as little extra reason to explore around and I wanted the players to earn them. I was originally planning there to be 3 actual treasures hidden away, but because they didn’t affect anything I never even started to implement them. They could have perhaps affected the ending in some way, if there was one.
Cory: I think the health upgrades were fun to find, so it was a solid decision.
Jussi: There was originally going to be at least one more tool too, a necklace that would give you ability to walk through dark, poisonous waterfalls. But I felt it was bit too forced obstacle and couldn’t come up with any better use for it quick enough, so I cut it out as well. Perhaps I bring it back if I end up making another metroidvania at some point.
Cory: Let’s shift gears over to the music. Who’s responsible for it?
Jussi: I asked around in my Twitter for someone who could compose for the game, and Nik Sudan responded. He’s a moderator at GameJolt and fellow indie. He also participated on Game Boy Jam the last time and has the experience to make this kind of music. I think it really fits to the game. He did great job.
Cory: Yeah, absolutely. I thought it was great. I was also very fond of the art.
Jussi: This was the first time I was making graphics with such a limited color palette. The whole game uses just 4 colors and I really like the end result. Main character Timmy’s design is much more refined too compared to the original game’s sprite.
Cory: It’s really a pleasing game to look at, and I feel that you pulled off the Game Boy style well while the game itself still has a unique style and charm of its own.
Jussi: I was really inspired by classics such as Wario Land, Kid Dracula and the 2D platforming segments from Link’s Awakening. I wanted to make something that looks and feels like old classic Game Boy game but in my own style. I’ve greatly enjoyed the comments where people have said the game reminds them of the good old GB times or their childhoods, because that’s what I was aiming for. The whole game is one big nostalgia trip for folks who had and loved their Game Boys.
Cory: Nostalgia’s definitely a strong feeling. Most games that try and be nostalgic don’t really work with me—probably because I’ve played enough indie pixel art platformers to last a lifetime—but when they do succeed, it really is a cool experience.
Jussi: Nostalgia is a big factor in my works. I grew up with Nintendo consoles and love pixels and games with pixel art. I aim to make games I would want to play.
Cory: What are some of your favorite video games?
Jussi: Link to the Past6 and Yoshi’s Island7 on SNES are some of my favorites. On original Game Boy I loved the Wario Land8 series and it has been the biggest inspiration source for Dangerous Dungeons games. From more modern games I greatly enjoyed Terraria9 and Rogue Legacy10. I have lots of fondness for difficult 2D platformers.
6. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past: A top-down action-adventure game released by for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1991 by Nintendo.
7. A platformer released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1995 by Nintendo.
8. Wario Land: A series of platformers published and produced by Nintendo. The first in the series, Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3, was released for the Game Boy in 1994 by Nintendo.
9. An independent sidescrolling action-adventure-sandbox game inspired by Minecraft, released in 2011 by Re-Logic.
10. A roguelike platformer released by Cellar Door Games in 2013.
Cory: The last two you mentioned I believe make heavy use of random generation. Is that something you’re interested in?
Jussi: Yes, I would want to make a some sort of randomly generating roguelike11 game sometime. At the moment I don’t know how I would go around doing it, though. I don’t know how to make randomly generated rooms or terrain.
11. A sub-genre of role-playing games traditionally involving random world generation, turn based actions, player leveling and permanent death, among other things. Games that borrow only some elements from the genre are sometimes referred to as “roguelike-likes.”
Cory: Yeah, I suppose it does require a fair bit of programming knowledge. Perhaps in the future.
Jussi: Perhaps. Or I could cheat and make various doors and ladders take the player randomly to one room from dozen of handmade ones. That would require lots of level designing though.
Cory: I’d be interested in seeing what you could do with the roguelike formula.
What do video games mean to you? Why do they matter?
Jussi: I have always had passion for videogames. I grew up with them and have been playing them since I could first hold a controller. When I was a kid my dream was to become a comic artist, but during recent years game developing has become much easier to get into thanks to programs like Stencyl and I have shifted towards the world of game developing. I have found my true talent and I’m sure I’ll be doing this for a long time.
Cory: Thanks a lot for taking the time to do this interview. It’s been real.
Jussi: Thank you too, it was pretty fun.
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