Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Know This Developer: WayForward

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wayforward_logo

Yesterday I saw a tweet from WayForward, a games developer that specializes in a retro feel and hand drawn animation, that it was celebrating 25 years.  That’s impressive, especially when you consider that 1990 predates the Super NES and also because the 16-bit style has been around now for two and half decades.  If you fancy yourself a fan of that era, long for the days of gorgeous hand drawn animation with large sprite-based characters on screen, and a 2D plane then WayForward is just the developer for you.  Oh yeah, and its strongest titles are typically tough as nails so just like back in the 90s you’re going to have to die a lot and restart before you ever think about beating one.  It should also be noted that WayForward is of the few studios that can really get a licensed game right and with the amount of care and detail afforded to this company’s many licensed outings it is akin to the Capcom Disney games.  All of these reasons and the fantastic original series Shantae make WayForward a developer that retro enthusiasts should definitely know.

voldi_way_picVoldi Way, founder and current self-proclaimed Tyrannical Overlord, started the company in 1990 as an independent developer out of Valencia, California.  He had an interesting childhood that included acting – his most notable film being The Changeling in 1980 – and founded a software company for sheet metal fabrication at the age of only 14.  At 20, he broke off from his partners to form WayForward for gaming software design and development, at that time his original company was netting more than $5 million annually.  Way named his company WayForward Technologies as a reference to the Douglas Adams book Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency in which character Gordon Way founds a company named WayForward Techonologies.  Logically, the focus at the time were the current 8-bit and 16-bit consoles/handhelds: Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, Super NES, Master System, Gameboy, and Game Gear.

mickeyultchalThe company’s first release was Mickey’s Ultimate Challenge, a 1994 puzzle platformer published by Disney Interactive for the the aforementioned systems (the Master System port didn’t release until 1998 for some reason and was the final released title for that console), that focused heavily on art and animation while featuring basic puzzles for younger players.  From the beginning WayForward always had a tendency to make games look great with large sprites and fluid animation rather than focus heavily on gameplay mechanics, a tactic that lends itself quite well to games targeted at younger audiences.  Mickey’s Ultimate Challenge is exactly that, a mix of basic activities like a memory matching game or jumping on books with letters in alphabetical order, all while enjoying seeing Disney friends Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and others in a medieval setting and costumes.  Games press at the time included mostly magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly (EGM) that didn’t have the audience to reflect either younger gamers or their parents so they provided lower-to-mid level review scores (like 5s and 6s out of 10) with comments relating to it being a weak title for puzzle fans but that younger audiences should love it.  Nintendo Power was a little nicer in its review, coming right out and stating that the SNES game was for younger audiences and they will find the game fun.  Not the greatest start for an opening work but the quality of art and animation cannot be denied and it gave way to the next big project for WayForward, edutainment.

In 1994, the same year of the release of Mickey’s Ultimate Challenge, WayForward entered into a partnership deal with American Education Publishing to generate a series of educational entertainment (edutainment) titles.  This deal was a success and allowed the company to get stronger with its animation and sprite-based work as well as garner some funds and attention with awards for innovation at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 1995.  In 1997 the company switched gears with the help of CEO John Beck and focused on small teams and licensed products in a work-for-hire model that includes the entire team into the budget for the game.  According to creative director Matt Bozon, it created a surprisingly stable structure when compared to more traditional game-oriented development and allowed that team to stay together for so long.  Beck elaborated in an article with Gamasutra how they handled a limited team, “We utilize external teams for specific modular content work. For example if we need character modeling done, it’s a very well-defined, modular task that can be easily shopped out to an external company, and we’ll take advantage of that. For the most part, we don’t. We prefer to use internal team members to do work. But we will staff up with freelance help as project needs dictate.”  In addition, this smaller team size and focused project scope meant that a majority of games released early on for WayForward’s new model were portable licensed titles, not unlike a portion of the structure today, but there was usually a decent twist to the actual gameplay that kept the games interesting.  The result are games that most of us probably avoided unless we were fortunate enough to be of portable licensed game playing age in the early 2000s.

WWF_Betrayal_CoverartWrestling Gameboy Color title WWF Betrayal is one of those titles that transcends whatever the media said about it – I didn’t even bother to look it up – because the WayForward take on the WWF/WWE license created an addictive game that players’ anecdotal remarks are all positive about.  The game only fetches about $10 or less on eBay and might be worth picking up if you have interest.  I’ve also heard that Godzilla: Domination for the Gameboy Advance, a WayForward port to portable of the very well received Pipeworks Software title Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee!, was worth a look but in closer analysis with overall review scores, GameRankings, and personal experience most of these positive reports must be remembering the PS2/Xbox/Gamecube original because much was lost in translation.  One positive note is that all reviewers agreed that the visuals were particularly compelling for the Gameboy Advance, but the gameplay itself couldn’t make the jump to handheld, which was common for the time.  For good or for bad, WayForward continued to create visually compelling works that garnered enough attention to keep work coming as it led up to the first original intellectual property (IP) that still remains one of the best games for the Gameboy Color: Shantae.

shantae

Of all the personalities at WayForward, the individual you are most likely familiar with is Matt Bozon, who is now creative director at WayForward and creator of the infamous Gameboy Color platformer Shantae.  Fun fact: he’s also brother to former IGN journalist Mark Bozon, which is why the last name may ring a bell if you followed IGN from 2005-2010.  Oddly enough, Mark worked on the Nintendo team and frequently heard about his brother’s work on the Nintendo Voice Chat podcast or among the other IGN reviewers, but to my knowledge has never reviewed his brother’s games (and never should have).  Back to Shantae, it was the first original title from WayForward and was a puzzle platformer featuring a young half-genie (genie mom and human dad) that is protecting a small fishing village when pirate Risky Boots and his band of thieves steals a steam engine.  The character Shantae is actually the brainchild of animator Erin Bell, who worked with Matt Bozon at the California Institute of Arts (CalArts as it’s often referred) and worked as a freelance animator with WayForward from time to time.  Spoiler alert: Erin married Matt and is now known as Erin Bell Bozon and the two came up with the defining characteristics of the character while together.  Erin based Shantae on one of her campers back in her camp counselor days and pictured her dancing and summoning animals as special powers, but it was Matt who came up with the signature hair whip move based on Erin’s long hair constantly whipping into Matt’s face when she would quickly turn around near him.  Matt Bozon went to work on the project as an internal labor of love to flesh out the character’s origins and create a game within the team’s spare time.  Development began in 1996 and was originally intended to be a PC or Playstation/Saturn game until owner Way scaled back the project and internally it was moved to the Gameboy Color.  Using the engine created by Jimmy Huey for Xtreme Sports earlier, Huey made an art capture tool that allowed for quick and easy transition from canvas to game engine.  While not talked about much, Huey’s programming skills at transitioning art are quite impressive and his work at WayForward for more than a decade reflected that.  After about 4 months and with a few changes to the mechanics and aesthetics (Shantae was originally a brunette and she had dancing as specific moves instead of animal transformation), the game was wrapped up and ready to start looking for a publisher in 2001.  It should be noted that this long development cycle is due to the fact that the game had potentially many iterations, changed platforms, and was clearly something to do on the side when current projects weren’t in the way, so it is logical that this would stifle the completion.  Finding a publisher had proved to also be a challenge because aside from the relatively low publishing budgets of original IP on portables, the Gameboy Advance was releasing and shadowing Shantae’s home platform on the Gameboy Color, and the game required a special cartridge to produce its impressive visuals that made it more expensive to manufacture and thus reduced profit margins.  Eventually Capcom did agree to publish the game, but held it into 2002 to allow the Gameboy Advance launch craze to taper off, and unfortunately the game did not perform as hoped.  As a silver lining, Shantae received high critical praise, many above 9/10 or 90/100 on review scales and is still considered one of the best Gameboy Color games to ever release.  For a long time players wanted to get their hands on and play the title but its low sales made it a rare and expensive find online until its recent re-release on the 3DS Virtual Console (worldwide) in 2013.  Now anyone who wants to check it out can on a 3DS for the worthwhile price of $6.

aliensinfestationWayForward continued on despite the lack of success with Shantae and continued to garner work with licensed properties on portable consoles and eventually transitioned to the Nintendo Wii.  Of these projects some of the more notable is the fantastic Contra 4 on the DS that perfectly captures the feel of old school 2D Contra and picks up right after the events of Contra III: The Alien Wars on the SNES, abandoning all that had released since.  Despite critical praise, it didn’t sell well, and lately there seems to be some backlash against the game for being “too hard”, which will remain consistent with a majority of WayForward’s games.  Thankfully there are still enough copies around that it only fetches about $15-$20 online.  Another great revival from the past is 2009’s A Boy and His Blob for the Nintendo Wii that features some of the best visuals that console has to offer, a much improved mechanic and campaign than the original, and is just about the cutest title core gamers would be interested in playing.  I’ve never gotten around to playing the game, but it is on the shelf, and it will probably have to become a game club title sometime this year to finally push me into giving it a try.  What makes this title so intriguing to me is that I loved the concept originally introduced in A Boy and his Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia by David Crane (Pitfall) on the NES, but it has too many fail states that even if you know exactly what to do there’s a high chance you will not complete the game.  This title was also praised critically, especially for WayForward’s incredible ability to update a game “the right way” and keep it faithful to the original while tweaking what didn’t work.  At the same time that old complaint of the game being too easy for adult core gamers that might remember the original and twitchy controls prevented a many gamers from picking it up, although this could also be due to the Wii just not being a popular platform for that crowd.  Another decent DS title that won’t cost you much is the licensed game Aliens Infestation that might be one of the best, if not the best, Aliens licensed games to ever come out.  It’s a MetroidVania set on the USS Sulaco (the ship from Aliens) after it is intercepted in open space following the events at the beginning of Alien 3.  You play as one of four marines in a team sent to investigate the abandoned ship and series planet LV-426 to uncover the activities of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation and the bio weapon project involving the aliens.  When you die the adventure continues with one of the other four marines unless you lose all of them and then it’s game over.  I’ve not gotten a chance to try this gem, but like most of WayForward’s library, I picked it up with the intention of playing it and haven’t gotten to it yet.  Everything I’ve heard from those that played it were unanimously positive.  Also if you are a fan of the original, WayForward did manage to get a sequel to ShantaeRisky’s Revenge, out on the DSiWare store and it can now be downloaded on either a DSi or 3DS as well as recent releases on the PC and iOS store (although I have no idea how a puzzle platformer takes to touch controls).

bloodraynebetrayal

It was at this time, around 2011, that WayForward made the next jump into HD consoles Xbox 360, PS3, and PC with several re-hashes of previous properties.  I was reviewing games at this time so I had a chance to try most of these outings such as Double Dragon NeonBloodrayne Betrayal, and DuckTales: Remastered.  Most of these games are consistent with previous re-hashes in that the graphics are gorgeous (and unique for an era where the hand-drawn sprite was almost completely replaced by the 3D rendered model) and that they are too difficult.  It was at this point that I realized too many individuals had an idea in their head of what these retro games were, but few of the people playing them – including reviewers – had actually gone back recently to see these beloved franchises for their flaws.  Double Dragon is the easiest game to poke at given that in hindsight there leaves a lot to be desired from both the arcade game and the NES version that is longer, clunkier, and more positively regarded.  I bring this up because Double Dragon Neon is a stronger and oddly enough more fair game than the originals it stems from and the biggest gripes or gameplay mechanics that modern reviewers poked at were series staples from the originals that WayForward transplanted in.  It just goes to show that most of the audience of remakes are living in nostalgia world and don’t really want games that are the same as the way they used to be.  This is double for Bloodrayne: Betrayal, which I found to be a fantastic new 2D platformer/brawler take on the 3D original that offered every bit as much care, content, and challenge as any old school 16-bit title but most reviewers completely dismissed for being too hard and even bragged that they refused to complete before writing a review.  Well I played it, I did complete it, and I reviewed it positively.  While I will admit that no reviewer’s opinion is wrong, especially if properly backed up, I do take large issue with anyone who reviews a game and does not either complete it or see it completed by someone else in person.  Finally there is DuckTales: Remastered, WayForward’s tweaking of the original NES title DuckTales, that I just didn’t agree with.  Many liked it and even more of the audience had a much easier time with it than me, but it all boils down to the simple fact that I did not care for the inevitable tweaks of this remake.  Regardless of how you felt about these games, there’s no doubt that they can be polarizing, which isn’t good from a sales perspective.  All are available digitally on the 360/PS3/PC and a couple have been given out through the Playstation Plus program, so check if you have added them in the past.

shantae_HD

Recently WayForward has continued on doing what they do best: licensed games on portables that look amazing an add something new to a genre that is almost universally made up of terrible games.  Perhaps there are more re-hashes for the future and possibly even some new properties, but regardless WayForward should be commended for twenty five years of fantastic titles, tech, and never forgetting its roots.  Someday I hope to try out that new TMNT title Danger of the Ooze, see what all the fuss is about regarding these Adventure Time games, and finally getting to Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, the recently released third Shantae installment, before the release of the successfully Kickstarted Shantae 1/2 Genie Hero later this year.

References:
Wayforward to the Handheld Future – Gamasutra
Godzilla Domination Review – IGN
Shantae Wiki – Wikia
Wayforward Jumps on the Wii Bandwagon – IGN

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