Joining The Switch Effect on today’s Industry Interviews is Joe Granato, filmmaker and game developer extraordinaire. Having found a box of old illustrations designed for an NES game when he was eight years old, Joe decided to put together a team and build Mystic Searches using the tools of the past that he created. During his journey, Joe also created a documentary, The New 8-Bit Heroes, to allow all of us the experience of taking this journey with him. Plus, there’s a prequel game now available! Without giving too much away, let’s learn more from Joe himself!
Joe, thank you so much for allowing us to speak with you. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Certainly. I’m originally from Central New York. I moved to Baltimore for college, where I studied film and became heavily involved in the music scene. I toured nationally with the rock band Eat Your Neighbors on and off for a few years and put out a few albums, but never quite permeated the proverbial wall. Eventually I settled down in Baltimore and opened my first production studio, and ended up teaching production in a high school. It was then that I reignited a childhood interest in game development, teaching young students the basics and rediscovering my love for the games I played as a kid. Now, I reside in Sarasota, FL and work for Ringling College of Art and Design.
What was the first console/game you ever owned?
The first console I was deeply immersed into was the NES. However, prior to the NES, I believe the first game I ever owned was actually a Mrs. Pacman mini arcade. I must’ve been 3 or 4 years old and I remember spending hours on that thing on family road trips.
Your story is one that resonates with so many people! Much like a lot of us, we tend to hold onto items of our past. However, it’s not every day that we find concept artwork, notes for a story, or some other “dream” idea and decide to do something about it. Can you tell us about the humble beginnings of Mystic Searches?
The beginnings as in its 1988 origin? Well, I was an imaginative kid with a lot of imaginative friends. As if plucked out of a Spielberg movie or Stephen King novel, the kids in the neighborhood adventured in the woods and swamps at the foot of our neighborhood, inventing complex mythologies that pitted us against unseen and supernatural forces. I guess Mystic Searches was born from that. In the same way that The Legend of Zelda draws heavy inspiration from Miyamoto’s childhood adventures, Mystic Searches drew heavy inspiration from ours. And I suppose that there is a definite line from that point through 30 years of my creative pursuits that always draw influence from those experiences. So in a very literal way, as someone who is now a creative for a living, those juvenile Mystic Searches concepts were truly formative, and have probably formed a lot of who I am and what I do today.
Can you give us some background as to the team that you’ve put together to undergo this project?
There have been a lot of people involved over the past few years. Most prominently is Austin McKinley. He is a comic illustrator and fellow filmmaker. He has been integral to both parts of the project, the film and the game. Fantasy novelist E.A.A. Wilson has been on the team since day one as well. It’s been very fun working with her, as she has no concept of gaming at all, but a great sense of writing compelling fantasy narratives. This has helped us keep the narrative fantasy without ever having it dissolve into too derivative. I’ve been doing all of the coding in 6502 Assembly language, and have had endless help from the community of homebrewers. Josh Fallon has been integral in our creation of development tools to help us mine for data and do menial coding tasks in more efficient ways. We’ve had several artists who have leant their skills, either as pixel artists or for concepts. Brendan Becker, also known as Inverse Phase, gave us a good running start with developing chiptune music and sound effects. Additionally, we’ve had the benefit of collaborations or guidance from some very interesting people. Piers Anthony, 21 time best selling fantasy novelist of book series like Xanth and Incarnations of Immortality. David Sardy, producer and composer who has worked on films like Zombiland and Premium Rush, and has worked with artists like Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Nine Inch Nails and System of a Down. Just being able to discuss the project and how to approach developing assets for the infinitesimal box its elements must fit in has been fascinating!
Homebrews are becoming more common today as people yearn for retro games. However, you’ve gone one step further and built the NESmaker, software to build actual hardware playable cartridges on the NES without ever having to write one line of code. First off, that’s simply amazing! Secondly, tell us more!
That’s correct. We didn’t have a choice. We had to develop a suite of tools to help create Mystic Searches. Having someone on the team whose job was solely to help develop those tools led to an unexpected outgrowth of the project. Once we began combining the tools (an animator which spits out data for our animation engine, a screen tool that spits out data for our screen loads, a text editor that spits our NPC strings that can be read by our text engine, a monster behavior designer, etc), we realized we had effectively created a drag and drop tool for developing NES games. From there, we began optimizing the game engine to work with the tool and vice versa. And we realized…why not share this tool when it’s done? I think there are a lot of people that would love to create an NES game, but who jump ship after struggling with ASM. And once they pass the fiery moat of learning ASM, they have to contend with memory management. It seems there are infinite technical obstacles that prevent one from just being creative. Our concept is simple – what if we can remove the technical obstacles so a potential developer can just be creative, and in the end, have their project on a NES cart with one click of a button, without ever writing any code? That’s the idea behind NESmaker.
If building a game and creating software was not enough, you also are a filmmaker and have put together a documentary, The New 8-Bit Heroes, to allow the viewer to go on this journey with you and learn more about the process of following your dreams as you create an original NES game. Nominated and winning multiple awards, it’s clearly evident that people can relate to your story. For those that have not been able to watch the movie, can you provide some highlights as to your story?
Well, as a filmmaker, one of the reasons this project came about at all is that we realized it would make a compelling story. There are so many developers still creating for the classic systems, and there is not a lot of knowledge that it’s happening, even among gamers who love those retro experiences. We wanted to create a movie that brought attention to it. That’s how it started anyway. It started as this novelty project about building a video game for a now-archaic system. It ballooned into a 3-year journey of self-discovery, examining the values of the ambitions we shed in our youth, and the unexpected consequences of introducing them into our adult lives. The project has seen amazing highs, such as having a prototype of the game being featured on ABC’s The Goldbergs. It has also seen amazing lows, such as one of our animators dying tragically in a car accident. You don’t work on a project for three years and not have it intermingle with major life events.
What has the reaction been to those fortunate enough to view the film?
From our vantage, reception of the film has been incredibly positive. Of course, there are strong, positive reactions from the nerdy, retro gaming community, and that’s awesome that they’ve embraced what we’re doing. The most humbling reactions, however, have been from people who have stated that they have no interest for video games, but that this film reminded them of that old comic they used to draw or that novel they were writing or that album they never got around to recording, and that the film has compelled them to want to revive those old passion projects. As a creative, there’s no better review possible than someone saying a thing you’ve created has had that effect on them.
Can you tease when The New 8-Bit Heroes documentary will be available for purchase as well as Mystic Searches?
Absolutely – the film hits Amazon New Year’s Day! We’re encouraging everyone to enjoy on January 1st as what will hopefully represent a great way to start the new year. The official release of the physical copy of the film is at PAX South a few weeks later, which is also when we’ll be unveiling NESmaker. The game…well, it’s a constant struggle to fit all that we want into that cartridge, so I don’t want to commit to the date. However, for those that want a taste, a prequel which we’ve dubbed Mystic Origins is available on a cartridge right now. It’s a much shorter adventure than Mystic Searches will be, but it makes for a nice little NES game in its own right.
Mystic Origins is now available on the The New 8-Bit Heroes website!
We at The Switch Effect are big fans of the Nintendo Switch. What are your thoughts on Nintendo’s console?
It’s great that Nintendo continues to reinvent itself and the way we interact with games and technology in general. That’s the company that I was introduced to in the mid 80’s, and it’s always existed that way through to now.
How have you enjoyed seeing a resurrection of retro-inspired indie titles on the Switch and other platforms?
I love that pixel art and self-imposed constraints have become a creative choice. Sure, these things began as limitations, but now having 30 years of gaming vernacular to consider, it’s great to see that some developers appreciate the quality of experience that the retro aesthetic can provide.
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share?
I hope that everyone checks out the film in January. For those that may be interested, the blu ray comes with over 2 hours of bonus material, including extended interviews, a deleted sequence, and even a 40 minute featurette of an abandoned documentary about the cultural influence of The Legend of Zelda.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. All of us at The Switch Effect wish you much success as you continue to bring your childhood dream to creation. We will definitely be watching for future updates and can’t wait to get our hands on the final version!
Visit www.thenew8bitheroes.com to purchase Mystic Origins for the original NES today!