In case you’ve been living in your moms basement playing Call of Duty for the past 5 years, there is a new Sega Genesis/Mega Drive game on the near horizon by Watermelon Games, creators of the influential Pier Solar. Its name, is PAPRIUM! A true 16-bit beat ’em up inspired by the likes of Streets of Rage and Final Fight. PAPRIUM will receive a physical cartridge release in 2017 on the nearly 30 year old Genesis hardware, but the game looks to go well beyond what its 80s and 90s predecessors have done. For starters, it will be massive. Featuring 24+ levels, dozens of original music tracks, a colossal 80 Megabit cartridge, a co-op mode for 2 player action and an enhancement chip called the “DATENMEISTER” which “unlocks the true potential of the Mega Drive.” Are you excited yet? You should be! And if you are one of the few who haven’t seen the PAPRIUM trailer yet, (it’s well past 200,000 views as of this writing) you can check it out below:
In this all encompassing interview, I talked to Gwénaël Godde, (Fonzie) lead designer, art director, background artist and co-founder of Watermelon Games. Luis Martins, (Goldenboy) art director, character designer and pixel artist. And David Burton, (GrooveMaster303) lead composer. We discussed everything from the games pixel art, to its many musical styles, to the lengths Watermelon went to push the Genesis/Mega Drive hardware to its absolute limit. We also discussed in depth many of the technical aspects of PAPRIUM and how a game like this was achieved using nearly 30 year old hardware. So, without further delay, let’s get to it!
Fonzie, what can you tell me about the early days of Watermelon? How did Pier Solar and its development influence PAPRIUM?
Pier Solar was originally an idea from Sega fans on a message board named Eidolon’s Inn. We were a couple of guys that picked up the idea and it soon grew bigger and bigger. We decided to setup a company so it could be legally viable (copyrights, etc). Like PAPRIUM, Pier Solar had many setbacks and released in late 2010 (instead of the intended 2008 as I recall) but it did exceed what could be reasonably expected (back then).
After that release, I took a break from WM but later came back to create WM’s Magical Game Factory in 2012, which was an experiment in crowd-funding (with moderate success). A bit later, we also had a Kickstarter to develop Pier Solar HD (PSHD). The game released in early 2015 on many digital platforms and late 2015 physically on the Dreamcast!
And now, once again, we find ourselves getting back to the basics with a huge new game for an old system (and not the opposite!). Plus, with PAPRIUM, we wanted to be one step ahead: Working with as many pros as possible so we could kick out a really high quality game.
How was PAPRIUM conceived and who was involved in its development in the early days?
At the very beginning, it was just an open project on WM’s Magical Game Factory. Our hardcore fans could vote for what the game would become (Game System: Mega Drive. Genre: Beat Them All. Theme: Post-Apocalypse/Cyberpunk). From those votes, I added a couple of months of preparatory work and tried to gather a team. This task was quite difficult as the specifications for the game were quite high, so we ended up having a mixed team of contractors and volunteers.
If you’d like a full list you can check our website, but here were the main contributors:
Luis Martins made character design and helped with art direction.
David Burton composed the soundtrack, later joined by Trevin Hughes.
Tim Jonsson made quite a lot of pixel art preparatory work and helped polishing sprites.
Tiido Priimägi did some of the audio tools to help composition.
There were also around 20 other people who actively helped at some point during the development.
Luis, tell me a bit about yourself. What got you into creating videos games. And what other games have you worked on?
I started around the age of 21, I began as a game tester for a small company here in Montreal. I then showed them my portfolio and was offered a job as a concept artist. A few years later I became a lighting specialist. It is a very challenging part of game development, both technically and artistically. I’m honored to have been part of a few AAA franchises such as: Tomb Raider, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, For Honor, Watch Dogs 2 and many others.
How did you and Fonzie meet? What has it been like working with him?
At the time Pier Solar came out, I was so impressed that some guys were making a new Sega Genesis game that I decided to contact them and expressed my interest in helping out. After a great conversation with Tulio (Watermelons other co-founder) and Fonzie, I told them how much I love beat ’em ups and that’s when I was given the offer to join the PAPRIUM team.
Can you tell us more about the trailer? Where was it filmed? Who is the muscle guy with the microphone?
The game is set in Asia, after the Apocalypse. We wanted something that looked like a 90s ad with live action elements. We filmed the trailer close to Shanghai in China. The Golden Muscle guy is actually a character from the game (not playable). It was a lot of fun to make that film and I hope you enjoy it. Of course, more details will be unveiled as we approach release because you only saw part of the whole thing.
Why did you move production of the game to China?
It may sound ridiculous now, but at the time Pier Solar was made, there were no previous attempts at making real, new Mega Drive games (they all used old stock or pirated parts). We had to design our manufacturing process from scratch, make new (cartridge) molds, etc. I also live in China and supervise every single production batch to ensure quality is as high as possible.
What is it like working on a game that runs on 30 year old hardware?
Honestly, it’s awesome! There is nothing more satisfying then making a game for the Sega Genesis. I wish more companies would still support older consoles, even if it was only lower scale projects with small budgets. I’m sure many people would support the format.
The graphics in PAPRIUM look fantastic! Other artists have been involved but you were responsible for much of it correct? Can you elaborate a bit on your job and what it entailed?
I can say to some extent that PAPRIUM looks this way due to my hard work and involvement. But it is also a shared collaboration between Fonzie and myself in terms of art style, design and direction. We shared ideas while creating the story for the game and how the scenarios would play out and in which level. That’s when I started creating the characters and back story. Fonzie already had a great prototype with WM written down, but eventually we pushed it further. Fonzie created most of the backgrounds with some initial help from Tim Johnsson and I helped with direction and some concepts. Suffice it to say that the quality jumped tremendously and the fact that Fonzie knows the hardware very well helped to push the hardware graphically.
As for the characters pixel art, I created all the initial templates for style consistency. Then we hired a few other pixel artists but initially didn’t get the quality we were looking for. I had to go over a lot of the animation sheets and make corrections. In total there were a good few pixel artist that helped out to some degree. But eventually, Tim Josson joined on and with his help we were able to keep the quality at a much higher standard. He followed the templates perfectly which led to less retouches to do. In a nutshell, FX is a mix of pixel art and clever programming.
What sort of graphical tricks did you use to get the most out of the Genesis hardware?
The whole game was optimized with the Mega Drive VDP (GPU) limitations in mind. Life bar sizes, sprite sizes, backgrounds, colors. This already gives quite a great boost comparatively to many games back then (which were made with multi-platform in mind or just butchered jobs). More over, there is the “IPL” tech to bring more parallaxes, “DATENMEISTER” for extra audio channels, and the “EXS-VI” for “Expanded Sprites Mode VI” which allows the game to exceed other games limitations and quite some more surprises. Really, our hope is to have created the ultimate Mega Drive game!
What more can you tell us about the DATENMEISTER enhancement chip? It is purely for sound? Or does it help with actual processing and sprites?
I won’t go into too many details here because I don’t think you need a 30 page long answer. But what I will say; due to Sega design choices at the time the Mega Drive was designed, neither the Mega CD (Sega CD) nor the 32X can really improve the stock Mega Drive graphical capabilities when it comes to 60fps performance (most of the Mega CD or 32x games with extra graphical capabilities run below 30fps). So as much as we are fond of those hardware add-ons, we can’t compromise ourselves here!
There is however, a back-door Sega left to us in the audio department. We developed a special chipset (the DT128M16VA1LT “DATENMEISTER”) that adds, among other things, several more channels of audio to the existing hardware and fixes the issues the original hardware had (poor SFX quality mostly). We made our own audio drivers and tools and now the only real limitation is in the composers ability to create music. I hope you enjoy listening to the hours of music that were composed for the game!
David, while we are on the topic of music, can you tell us what method you used to compose for the Sega Genesis? For people who aren’t familiar with the process, how is it accomplished?
We used a custom made tracker code named: Wavemelon, which Tiido created. He would then routinely ask for feedback regarding bugs and features we wanted implemented. Tiido’s tracker gave us the option to create custom instruments for the YM2612, (Genesis sound chip) so if we ever needed a certain sound, all we had to do was tweak away in the software until we got the sound we wanted. I included a demo track (which you can listen to below) which demonstrates a programmed TL tweak (Total Level, a volume setting that distorts sound) right at the beginning of the track. This helps create a more dynamic sound.
The YM2612 is a 4OP chip. This means that it has four Operators (labelled in the image below as 1-4). Each Operator can be used to add depth on any given channel of a track. And by combining various parameters such as feedback, for example, all kinds of amazing sounds can be created. In a nutshell, the Mega Drive was actually a pretty powerful synth device, but only with the right tools. Yuzo Koshiro, for example, had the tools to shape his own sounds which is why his FM soundtracks sounded so good.
The Wavemelon also includes virtual cutoff and resonance knobs which can be found on most real hardware synthesizers. These offer the ability to filter sound so it can be very crisp, sharp, or muffled. Many dance acts use this technique to create variation in repetitive patterns. And thanks to the Wavemelon, we can now do it on the Mega Drive.
Demo Track Example:
Other than Yuzo Koshiro of course, what other music did you draw inspiration from for PAPRIUM?
One of the best things about working with Trevin (Jredd, who also helped with the compositions for the game) is that we both share a common interest in video game music, but we also have different influences. So when we combine them, we seem to always be able to create interesting, new sounds. The track Electro Rock has a nod to Tim Follin, while another is inspired by Shenmue. Also, one of the boss tracks (while not directly inspired) always makes me think of the boss tracks in Double Dragon 2.
Will the music in the game match the feel of the environments to an extent? And what is the total number of tracks composed for the game?
We started composing early in development and created a large variety of music to cover all kinds of scenarios and stages.
As for the total amount of songs, I believe we composed almost 70. Though I have no idea how many will actually make it into the game.
Will different bosses have different themes? And can we expect to to hear the full soundtrack before the game releases?
We composed quite a few boss themes so there should be some variety throughout the game.
As far as hearing the full soundtrack before release, I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure Fonzie wants us to boot the game up and play while getting totally immersed in the soundtrack. If it was released prior to the game, a lot of that initial audio/visual impact would be lost.
What is your personal favorite track?
That’s a tough one. From a composers point of view, I would say Electro Acid Funk, but from a sheer technical point of view, I would say Dark and Powerful Madness. Some of the things we did on that track shocked even Tiido. We were able to accomplish things that shouldn’t have been possible on the tracker, let alone in the game. We basically exploited various commands to create all kinds of cool sounds. I think it’s fair to say we pushed things pretty hard.
Next I’d like to discuss some rumors and negativity that we’ve seen around the internet. There are rumblings going all the way back to 2013 that PAPRIUM has borrowed code from older retro games like Streets of Rage 2. Is there merit to these rumors? Why would people think this?
Maybe it came from the fact that, at the beginning, we were using arcade games sprites to test our engine performance. We made a couple of internal demos and our goal was to display as many “big” (ie: boss) sprites as possible and attempt to out-perform existing games and systems. Be certain, the games code is 100% custom made and there are less than a dozen lines of code from Pier Solar that were re-used. FYI: You can’t re-use existing code from existing games anyway, only bootleg guys do that.
There is also a small, but vocal minority of people that are critical of certain graphical aspects of the game, such as a perceived lack of polish in certain areas. What is your response to this?
To be fair, there will always be something that will not look perfect to some people. All I can say is that we made a lot of sacrifices with our time, sleepless nights, hard work and personal lives to achieve something that no one else would have done. Sure it can be better, we asked for support and would have hired talented pixel artists, but none came at that time. So I am proud of what we created.
Now I’d like to get into the technical aspects of PAPRIUM and what it took to create the game. How were you able to achieve a solid 60fps with so many sprites on the screen at once?
The game constantly monitors every single process and re-organizes itself in real-time. In other words, the CPU re-arranges tasks so urgent processes are always processed ahead of the less critical ones. Therefore the CPU usage is always close to 100% and frame drops do not happen often. From the VDP (GPU) side, this beast is very constant and precise so we could calculate exactly how much it could handle and get close to 100% capacity at all times.
On a side note, it may sound disturbing to most, but: The Mega Drive, when in 50hz (PAL) mode, has greater video memory bandwidth compared to 60hz (NTSC) mode. We used that discrepancy to boost the 50hz gameplay so it performs (speed-wise) as close as possible to the 60hz gameplay. In PAL mode, we also use the 240p resolution for a more full-screen image.
From a purely technical standpoint, how far is the Genesis being pushed with PAPRIUM? The game looks on par with 2D, 32-bit games of the same era. How was it accomplished?
We are indeed pushing the system to the limits with nearly 100% CPU usage and 100% DMA bandwidth (graphical bandwidth) at all times on every single frame. The game is mostly programmed in C. We did however code some of the critical parts in assembly. Fortunately, the Mega Drive is very well designed and withstands hammering without major glitches. There are some other games that push the 16-bit hardware quite far as well. Some examples are: Panorama Cotton (rasters), Toy Story (3D visuals), and Sonic 3 (scroll speed) to name a few. To put that in perspective, no system today (consoles, computers, phones) can handle 100% CPU and GPU usage at full clock: They would burst into smoke within seconds as they are not designed for such intensive tasks.
At one point you said something along the lines of “PAPRIUM will have the most parallax scrolling ever on the Genesis.” How did you guys use parallax scrolling to enhance the look of the game and depth of the backgrounds?
The stock Mega Drive has only two scroll layers, (A & B) but here we can have up to 446 individual scroll layers (Infinite Parallax Layers aka “IPL” technique) that can be scrolled in any direction individually. Of course, in practice, there is no need for such an insane amount of parallaxes, but each level will still have quite a few layers, which adds a great depth effect. I think this is the first game of its kind to feature such effects on the system.
Many people have referred to you as a coding wizard, and the only person who could accomplish this feat. How difficult was it to create a game with the complexity and polish of PAPRIUM on such old hardware?
I’m not exactly a coding wizard, I’ve just spent a lot of time experimenting. I was not supposed to program this game, (I was working on another project, but it’s been put on hold since) but because we failed at recruiting a decent programmer, someone had to do it. One major challenge is that every piece of art/sound is precisely made to the absolute specifications of the hardware, so any mis-estimate can leave you with a lot of useless material. We constantly optimized everything so it could fit. I can’t remember how many hundreds of hours I spent optimizing backgrounds or resizing/tweaking the sprites.
Let’s move onto the gameplay. Luis, people have been clamoring to know more about how the game actually plays. It looks to play similar to Streets of Rage or Final Fight, but we also know that it incorporates some sort of RPG elements. What else can you tell us about the gameplay in PAPRIUM?
The gameplay is similar to a typical beat ’em up. I think I played almost all the beat ’em ups out there for research, haha! It was awesome! Some of the ones I played were Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, Streets Of Rage, Final Fight, Punisher, Metamorphic Force and many others. Making sure the game is fluid and fun is our main goal.
Will PAPRIUM have branching level paths? Or will all 24 levels be played in order?
The city of PAPRIUM is divided into four districts, interconnected in various ways. We arranged the branches so each play through does not exceed the classics in length, (Streets of Rage, Golden Axe, etc) because too long of a game spoils the fun. However, to complete the whole game, it takes a lot more time, there are conditions required to reach the final levels and some slight RPG elements. We also have a unique branching mechanism that hardcore fans should enjoy!
Was BioShock an influence on this game? There is one level that looks like it takes place in an underwater city, and there is a decidedly steam punk vibe.
After nuclear war, the survivors gathered and built a new city in the triangle of the former Pyong Yang, Shanghai and Tokyo. The city is built like Hong Kong with various “layers” and most of its inhabitants are from Asian origin, so there is a lot of Asian vibe all around.
We tried to have as little inspiration from existing games as possible. The pixel art, the game type (beat them all), the system, (Mega Drive) is already quite limiting so the more fresh ideas we could bring from outside, the better. Again, this is a beat them all game and it’s meant to be fun, we tried to minimize the talking and cut-scenes so most of the PAPRIUM world will be in your imagination (or from more readings, we have a Manga, instruction manual, etc).
I understand that a standard Genesis 3 button controller will work, but that the game will be difficult to play with it. Can you elaborate at all on how the 6-button controller will be used? Will we see moves performed with Street Fighter style movements and button combinations? Or will it be more simple like Streets of Rage 2?
The game can be played with both controllers. However, we recommend 6 buttons because it enhances the gameplay. In 3 button mode there are some shortcuts you must use to perform certain special moves (press A+B+Down to kick someone on the floor, or hold A for 1 second to take a pill). While on 6 button controllers, those actions have dedicated buttons (and the shortcuts are disabled) resulting in faster and cleaner gameplay.
We also made a custom arcade stick named the GRAND STICK III. Its button layout has been optimized for the game (FYI: The stick is also compatible with other games too).
There’s a rumor that the mode button (on top of the Genesis 6-button pad) will do something fun. Can you give us any hints as to what?
Indeed, you’ll see! It actually influences game-play! I don’t remember any other beat them all game to have such a feature, but I could be wrong. Lets keep it a surprise and we may put that feature as a unlock-able (yes, the game has unlock-ables).
I’d like to ask you some questions now about compatibility and potential ports of the game. Will PAPRIUM be compatible with any of the Sega Genesis clone systems on the market? Like the ones you see for sale at Toys R Us or Bed Bath and Beyond? What about the Nomad?
The game only runs on REAL systems. The “non-Sega” systems you mention are emulators or Chinese clones, they can’t handle any elaborate games and they are also prone to dropped frames, graphical glitches and horrible sound. If you were to try and run PAPRIUM on one of them, they would likely blow a fuse or show a black screen. It’s those manufacturers choice to provide fake hardware, not ours! ONLY stick to the original game systems manufactured under Sega supervision, they are much cheaper and perform much better. I would recommend a Mega Drive II or Sega Genesis II.
Are there plans for a ROM of the game to ever be released? Maybe for backers?
It won’t happen because it makes little sense to us. The game is meant to be a real Mega Drive game, not a ROM to be played on emulators. Otherwise, we could have gone straight to mobile or modern systems, no need to go through all this trouble :).
Despite Pier Solar being ported to many different platforms, Watermelon has expressed in other interviews that porting PAPRIUM isn’t a priority. Do you think this will change? I’d love to see PAPRIUM with online co-op on Steam!
The past is the past. Ironically, it’s not very feasible to run a 60fps co-op beat them all over the internet in 2017. You can see this issue on the latest Street Fighter games; There are only two players on-screen and they had to deploy very elaborate algorithms and techniques to make you feel like you’re playing in real time against a friend. In reality, there are always uncertainties due to variable internet connections and it makes the game perform worse than it normally would. Our aim is to make the best game for a said system and said configuration. Therefore, we don’t have plans for any ports at the moment.
What about the possibility of a de-port? How cool would it be to have PAPRIUM on the Sega Master System or Game Gear??
That could be cool :). Game Gear would be awesome but I think it would be very hard to find a programmer willing to do it! Streets of Rage 2 on Game Gear was quite fun.
One more question for you Luis. PAPRIUM has received a massive amount of attention. The response has been almost universal praise. Does that put pressure on Watermelon to deliver a game that meets everyone’s expectations?
A little to be honest, but I am confident that the final product will surprise many. It will push the quality standard to new heights on what can be achieved with a small studio on the Sega Genesis platform.
And to wrap up, for people who are unhappy about how long the game has taken to produce, what would you like to tell them Fonzie?
Expectations are extremely high, the budget extremely limited, and the skills required are almost non-existent in today’s job market. Many setbacks have happened, many disappointments, and tears. Here are a few things people should keep in mind:
– Game development isn’t fun to watch day after day.
– When you’re several years late, and you have shown one screen-shot every month, you would have ended up spoiling the whole game!
– When you make news, you end up not working on the game as a result.
– We always offer full-refund options and people who don’t want to participate, well, they don’t have to!
Lastly, fans with patience are rewarded with a lot of exclusives and possibly a good game. Otherwise, what’s the point! I’d like to thank everyone for their support. Now, I’m going back to polishing the game.
This interview is part of an ongoing series I have written on new games released on old consoles. If you would like to read any of the previous entries, you can find the links below. I’d like to thank Gwénaël Godde, Luis Martins, and David Burton for their time and insight. It is very much appreciated.
New Game Old Console Part 1: JRPGS AND UPGRADED SYSTEMS
New Game Old Console Part 2: RETRO RESURGENCE
New Game Old Console Part 3: PAPRIUM, PIER SOLAR AND THE HISTORY OF WATERMELON GAMES