*The majority of this article is based on a series of interviews I did with Tulio Adriano Cardoso Gonçalves, co-founder of Watermelon Games. He was incredibly gracious with his time and the information he provided me, particularly in reference to Pier Solar. The block quotes and story of Watermelon Games represented in this article are his personal insights taken directly from our interview. I also reached out, on multiple occasions, to Gwénaël Godde (the second co-founder and current head of Watermelon) to get his side of the story, but he declined to be interviewed (although the invitation is still open). As a result, this article may read as one sided. Now, let the story begin…
Once upon a time, the beat ’em up genre was alive and well, punching and clawing it’s way to the top of the video game charts. Games like Double Dragon, TMNT, River City Ransom, Battletoads, Final Fight and of course, Streets of Rage, were but a few of the big names in the business. But times change, and some genres of video games just didn’t translate well into the 3D space. As technology progressed, beat ’em ups faded into relative obscurity. Granted, the DNA of the genre is still present throughout modern AAA games. Look no further than the Batman: Arkham series if you want proof of that. And while we have gotten some modern gems in the genre in the post 2000 world, (Castle Crashers and Dragon’s Crown come prominently to mind) outside of the indie scene, you’d be hard pressed to find a “pure” beat em up experience. Especially one of the 16-bit variety, which was arguably the heyday of the genre. But in 2017… a resurgence is fast approaching…
Enter “Paprium” formerly known as Project Y. First announced in 2012 by Watermelon Games, the company responsible for the legendary 2010 Sega Genesis/Mega Drive RPG, Pier Solar. The game was created by a small team of passionate developers headed by Gwénaël Godde, aka “Fonzie.” It’s development was funded by fans via a “gem” system that allowed investors to donate money towards the development of the game. Their return being the game itself, plus some exclusive merch. But due to a long production time, numerous delays, and what was perceived as a general lack of communication by Watermelon staff over the 4+ year development cycle, many investors began to lose hope that Paprium would ever see the light of day. The departure of Tulio Adriano in 2015, the co-founder of Watermelon, seemed like the final nail in the coffin for many. However…things sometimes have a way of working themselves out. And if the below trailer is any indication, the 90’s are back, and it was well worth the wait:
“A guy named Fonzie was doing more work than anyone else and ended up taking over everything from the programming side.”
The fact that Paprium, a 16-bit “envelope pushing” Sega Genesis game will likely see a physical release in 2017 (nearly 30 years after the Sega Genesis first began production) is quite an accomplishment. But to understand Paprium, you must first understand Watermelon Games, and the story is a fascinating one. The Genesis of Watermelon started back in the early 2000’s on the forums of Eidolon’s Inn, a Sega hobbyist website and home of the infamous Kega Fusion emulator. These forums aka “The Tavern” are where Fonzie and Tulio, the founders of Watermelon, first met and where the core team of Watermelon Games was formed. They conceived of a Genesis/Mega Drive game called “Tavern RPG” which would use many of the forum members as the characters in the game. Although once the scope of the project grew, it was decided that the game and characters should be completely original to appeal to a wider audience. The game was thus renamed “Pier Lunar” as a tribute of sorts to the Lunar game series.
“Super Fighter Team stole our thunder.”
Then in 2006, a company called Super Fighter Team released a localized version of the Mega Drive game “Beggar Prince.” It was an expansive JRPG that never made it outside of China upon it’s initial release in 1996. It was heralded as a “new” Sega Genesis game, despite the fact that at the time of it’s re-issue, it was over a decade old. However, all three production runs of Beggar Prince sold out, thus proving that there was a healthy, albeit niche, demand for “new” physical retro game releases. So while Beggar Prince may have frustrated the team that would soon become Watermelon Games, (you know, timing and all) it was likely instrumental in reigniting interest in the retro gaming scene as a whole.
“At first, the heroes were based on emulator programmers, with the NPC’s representing the rest of the forum members.”
Between 2006-2008, the evolution of Watermelon continued with their RPG being renamed yet again, from Pier Lunar to the less copyright infringing “Pier Solar.” It was now conceived as a Sega CD game with a fully realized soundtrack. This was because Watermelon initially wanted to release the game for free via ISO file. This way fans could simply burn the game to disc and play it in their Sega CD with little hassle. Unfortunately, due to the technical difficulties of debugging on a Sega CD (no one had access to a dev kit) the idea of a CD version was scrapped in favor of a cartridge. However, Fonzie created a rather ingenious work around that allowed the cartridge to communicate with the Sega CD directly and play the arranged soundtrack. It was the first time it had been done on the Genesis.
“When Microsoft sent over the contracts to sign, I realized that we needed an actual company.”
Once the switch was officially made to cartridge, it was decided that a proper production run for the game would be done. Pre-orders began in 2008 and were a massive success. So much so that during this time, Tulio was contacted by Microsoft about a possible port of Pier Solar to Xbox Live Arcade. However, in order to accomplish this, Tulio and Fonzie’s company needed a name and proper permitting. And thus (thanks to Tulio’s wife, who was the only one in the states to take care of the paperwork) Watermelon Games was born.
“Early in development, a guy named Boris donated $20 to us through PayPal. As a tribute to him, we created an NPC who gives you 20 gold just because he’s awesome.”
Pier Solar’s original release date was 2008, but due to the ever increasing scope of the project, it was delayed by over two years. This delay would prove to become the norm with Watermelon games going forward, and a massive frustration for the future investors of Project Y/Paprium. However, Watermelon eventually delivered a complete, professional quality game. On December 20th, 2010, Pier Solar had it’s world wide release on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive in physical, cartridge form. In all, the games development spanned 7+ years with a core team of 8 people, 14 freelance artists, and hundreds of others who contributed to various aspects of the game. Pier Solar also holds the distinction of being the first completely original Sega Genesis game released in physical form in the new millennium.
“The Dreamcast code can be compiled for PC and virtually any other console, making the Dreamcast version the template for Pier Solar HD.”
In 2012, it was decided to upgrade Pier Solar to HD and port it to modern consoles. On Fonzie’s recommendation, Watermelon ran a successful kickstarter campaign to fund development. The games graphics were entirely re-done in high resolution and it was ported to every imaginable platform including the Dreamcast, Xbox 360, PC, Mac, Linux, Android, Ouya, Wii-U, PS3, PS4 and Xbox One. A PS Vita version was also in development but cancelled due to Sony’s lack of interest in the console. Pier Solar became not only a success on the Genesis/Mega Drive, but on many other platforms as well. Perhaps a business model that favors development on a long defunct console isn’t as crazy as it sounds?
“Pier Solar HD was reviewed as if it was supposed to be on par with modern RPG’s. In reality, it’s a tribute to old games. If you look at an RPG released today and you play Pier Solar, it’s going to feel lacking and antiquated. You won’t get the same feeling you get with modern games. Some people didn’t get that.”
Upon release, some reviewers claimed Pier Solar HD was too old fashioned and suffered as a result of it’s repetitive combat system and punishing, maze like dungeons. And if we’re being honest, that is a fair assessment. You have to be forgiving and patient in order to fully appreciate the game. Older RPG’s, especially JRPG’s, tend to be extremely grindy in their execution, and Pier Solar was no exception to that rule. Despite this however, Pier Solar was an unmitigated success. This enabled Watermelon to expand and start planning new games, the sky seemed to be the limit….but storm clouds were beginning to form.
“Fonzie wanted to create a game to prove why the SNES was inferior to the Mega Drive, and he ran away with it to China.”
At some point during 2012-2013, while Pier Solar HD was being developed, Fonzie and Tulio were hatching an idea for a new Genesis/Mega Drive game, code named Project Y. Little is known about the development of Project Y, or as it’s known now, Paprium. Other than the aforementioned gem system for the games investment budget, it’s development is marred in mystery and secrecy. What is known is that Tulio recruited Pier Solar alumni and Streets of Rage Remake mastermind Groovemaster303 to track the tunes for the game. With the help of another chiptune artist named Jredd, they created a massive amount of classic, albiet, varied sounding music. The samples are fantastic and can be heard below:
“We have to write music that would make Yuzo Koshiro cry.”
“Genesis music sounds more natural because it is actually being wave formed in the machine, rather than through compressed samples like the SNES uses.”
This is when things began to fall apart at Watermelon, so to speak. At some point early in the development of Paprium, Fonzie left for China, taking all work on the game with him. Tulio stayed at the Watermelon offices in Iowa to handle distribution of Pier Solar re-issues, customer service and other, upcoming Genesis ports such as Sacred Line. But as time went on, Fonzie became more reclusive, only emerging to give small updates and cryptic messages to backers. Constant budget issues forced Watermelon to lay off most of it’s office staff until the only person left working there was Tulio himself. This, the inability to have any meaningful input on Paprium (outside of the music), and Fonzie’s hands off, cryptic style led Tulio to finally leave Watermelon Games in July 2015. By many, Tulio was regarded as the heart and soul of Watermelon, the spiritual leader on a mission to bring new retro games to the masses. How could the company possibly go on with out him?
“We talked to Sega about officially licencing Pier Solar for the Mega Drive. They told us they no longer managed the console. However, they did appreciate our effort, and wished us luck.”
Up until this point, very little information was known about Paprium other than the fact that it was a 90’s inspired beat ’em up with a somewhat steam punkish theme. There were some low quality screen shots and a single, minute long “Tea Time” video showing off minimal footage, but it wasn’t enough. It drove investors and fans mad with anticipation. But this was Fonzie’s way. He is known to be inspired by the early days of video games, back when you read about new games in magazines and heard little to nothing about their development for months, or even years at a time. Fonzie took this approach when developing Paprium, literally. Many investors lost hope, some even demanded refunds. After all, these people had invested money in this project years ago, with almost no progress or updates to show for it. Most modern gaming companies, especially ones who take money from backers, keep their investors in the loop. Although in Fonzie’s defense, he did offer a consolation prize in the likes of Papi Commando. An indie PC game Watermelon ported to the Genesis/Megadrive in 2016.
Ultimately though, like it or not, Fonzie believes that in order to build hype, a tiny drip, drip drip, of information goes a much longer way than a flood. Good things come to those who wait. Or as another saying goes, a game is done when it’s done. Remember, “delays are temporary, but mediocrity is forever”.
“To simulate Mode 7 like effects in Pier Solar, we got the Genesis to process 3D graphics in real time using a piece of code supplied to us by the programmer behind the Sega Fusion emulator.”
But then…something happened. On March 27th, 2017, despite years of delays, investor outrage, cryptic messages, months of non-communication, and the dissolution of a partnership that had lasted over a decade, Paprium was unleashed! And the response was fast, furious and positive, amazingly positive. Gone were the nay sayings and snarky comments about vaporware and missed deadlines, replaced by genuine joy and excitement, coupled with compliments on the style of the trailer and graphics of the game. Watermelon finally delivered some amazingly good news. It appeared, at least for the moment, that Fonzie’s less is more scheme had paid off. If you need proof, look no further than the trailer (which you can view above if you haven’t already). It garnered more than 100,000 views in the first 48 hours. Unless you’re the Angry Video Game Nerd, you don’t get numbers like that.
Shortly after the trailer launch, a pre-order campaign began with a release date set for September 16th, 2017. Whether or not Watermelon hits this date is yet to be seen. Based on their track record (and the insane complexity of manufacturing cartridges for a 30 year old system), another delay could well be incoming. But something else that is certain about Watermelon is the quality and attention to detail of their physical releases. The game will release, the question is when. Keep your fingers crossed because 9/16/17 is not too far off.
“Originally, we pushed the Genesis hardware beyond the 64 color limit in the cut scenes of Pier Solar. We were using crazy raster techniques to make it look like there were more colors on the screen than there actually were.”
Along with the release of the trailer and start of pre-orders, a decent amount of actual hard information was also released. As it turns out, Paprium is a bit of a technical marvel, at least by Sega Genesis standards. The game features a customized chip called the “DATENMEISTER” or “DT128M16VA1LT” that allows for 24 channels of audio running in 48Khz (4 times as many as a regular Genesis game) for extremely rich sounding music and crystal clear voice samples. It isn’t yet known if this chip will somehow enhance gameplay or graphics, but there is speculation that the chip also handles decompression which could take some of the strain off the Genesis itself, allowing for more fluid action and loads of sprites on the screen at once. The claim has also been made that the game runs at a fluid 60fps, another hint that the DATENMEISTER may add extra processing power to the console.
The cartridge is the largest ever for a 16-bit home console (we aren’t counting the Neo Geo, because who the hell could afford it?). Clocking in at a whopping 80 Megabits (10 Megabytes), it’s a truly massive size for a 16-bit Genesis game (for comparison, Streets of Rage 2 was 16 Megabits). Paprium also features 24+ levels, 5 playable characters, multiple game modes, 1 or 2 player simultaneous play, and three save slots, which we can assume use modern flash memory (no more dead batteries). But perhaps the most fascinating thing about Paprium is the addition of RPG elements, something rarely found in retro beat ’em ups. Providing the gameplay holds up (and we know little to nothing about it at this point), this facet could add an immense amount of replay value to a game that is already shaping up to be a powerhouse as it is.
The game will also feature 5 editions. One solely for investors, a limited edition that comes in three flavors (Japanese, USA and Europe), and a classic edition with a black “classic” clamshell box. There are also various other goodies to be had if you order early, and there are 10% off discount codes floating around the net that will save you some change. The limited edition will set you back $89 while the classic edition runs $70. Pricey, but not anymore so than many classic RPG’s back in the day.
Oh yeah, and there’s a limited edition bad-ass looking Paprium fighting stick that you can purchase as well, for a cool $150:
On a personal note, I’ve been anticipating this game for over 4 years now. The Genesis is my favorite console of all time, so this is a big deal for me. At one point, I too had lost hope that we may ever see this “spiritual successor to Streets of Rage.” But I’m happy to say that things are looking great and Watermelon appears to have survived the storm. Paprium looks fantastic, more like a Neo Geo or early to mid 90’s arcade game than a game on the Genesis. It oozes style and detail, with a polish not found in many retro inspired indie titles. Are there some rough edges? Sure, I noticed a few here and there. But overall, I truly believe that Genesis owners everywhere are in for an incredible treat when Paprium arrives at their door.
I also appreciate that this game pushes the envelope in what a 30 year old console can do, in fact, I love it! It also combines new tech into something old to improve it’s capabilities, and I love that too! But most of all, I love that it keeps the Genesis and Mega Drive alive for not only us old cats, but future generations of gamers as well. I hope to play this game with my nieces some day when they are old enough. And I also sincerely hope that Paprium is ported to modern consoles and Steam so a wider audience can enjoy it (online co-op please!). With the retro resurgence that’s currently going on, it should thrive. The ports could help fund Watermelon Games for years to come. One can hope…
As far as the future of Watermelon goes, we’ll have to see. The real test will come when Paprium is officially in the hands of consumers. If it ships on time, the gameplay holds up and the game is well received, the sky could be the limit. If the initial response to the trailer is any indication, there is a market for this sort of game, however niche. That being said, Watermelon has plans for future games. One is a Super Nintendo release code named “Project N.” And to that I say, bring it on Watermelon! Keep ’em coming!
“Delays are temporary, but mediocrity is forever.”
If you’d like to pre-order Paprium (and by all means, you should), you can visit the following link: