#DevStories: Morphcat Games

Morphcat games was created in 2011. The small indie studio is made of two passionate video game makers, Julius Riecke who excels in innovative programing and mesmerizing sound composition, and Nicolas Bétoux, the talented artist behind the graphics and a master level designer. Their focus has always been on creating fun games that players could make their own! They have shared with us details about the incredible journey of their cooperation and their creative process.

In the beginning, there was Julius. Since childhood, this former web developer has been fascinated by the NES and always wanted to try and develop a game for the console. In his opinion, the NES was released “at a time of great creativity and experimentation. Even though some of the experiments failed, others were such successes that we still recognize them today.” In 2006, Julius started working on his first game in his free time. 5 years later, he published the demo of Super Bat Puncher: a cat in a space suit, evil bats flying around, a cute bird sidekick that one of your friends can control… This short platformer had everything to please and was soon spotted as the little gem that it was, leaving the retrogaming community endlessly asking for more. As time passed, Julius kept working on solo projects during game jams and similar events.

For his part, Nicolas had always loved his NES and the games he played as a child. Already an accomplished graphic designer, he decided to try and teach himself how to code for his favorite console. He soon realized that learning everything by trial and error was taking up an incredible amount of time, and his work seemed to progress very slowly in the little spare time he had to dedicate to his passion. Still, he persevered: retro games and consoles were treasured pastimes for Nicolas and his will to create his own game kept growing.

In 2015, the two men met in Berlin. They were soon good friends, sharing a strong creative impulse that only needed a little focus. They decided to combine their respective strengths and expertise into making a game together. Of course, the two long-time gamers had always liked to be challenged. And their first collaboration was nothing if not challenging: they registered for the Ludum Dare (32) game jam and developed, from scratch, a completely functioning game in less than 72 hours! The theme that year was “an unconventional weapon” and it seems that a purple monkey wielding a banana-boomerang was as unconventional as it could get. Banana Nana may be a very short game, but it is the one that cemented the two retro lovers as a team. The whole process was streamed, and you can check out the incredible 30-minute time lapse here.

Banana Nana © Morphcat Games

The pair spent quite some time working on expanding this first game. But at some point, they both agreed that they weren’t satisfied with their progress and decided to take a short break to work on something else; they were convinced that they would come back to the project soon. Julius had this nice idea that he estimated would take a month to bring to fruition. In the end, that little side project concluded with the launch of the game Micro Mages… three years later!

© Morphcat Games

“We weren’t expecting to spend so much time on this game,” Nicolas commented. “But we loved what we were doing so much that it happened without any of us realizing it! We spend our nights and weekend working on this project which was the perfect opportunity to take our game creation to the next level.”

What makes the 2019 homebrew a rare piece is that the whole game fits in 40 KB, that’s the size of the original NES Super Mario Bros game! “It was important for us to produce a game that could have been released in the 80s, at the same time as the NES, technologically speaking,” Julius said. “I have always been awestruck by the creativity and ingenuity that had been needed back then to create such wonderful games with so little computational tools available.” The vertical platformer relies on running, shooting magic spells and jumping against walls to reach the next, more challenging, level. While developing Micro Mages, the team had one, almost obsessive, thought: make it fun! This included a dedication to “fluid gameplay, tight controls and a carefully balanced challenge.”

Micro Mages © Morphcat Games

“We wanted to create a NES game that could prove that the console had the technical capacities to create games with modern standards and mechanics,” Nicolas declared.

With the 40 KB limitation that they had placed on themselves, Julius and Nicolas had to resort to clever solutions to fit that much entertainment in their code. One notable economy they made was on graphics: by splitting “metasprites” and using symmetries, they managed to free space for more content. They also reused some of the level designs with subtle differences to create a hard mode that allowed them to double the game content with minimal space loss.

One observation they made in their long experience as NES gamers was that the catalogue didn’t include a lot of multiplayer games. The NES only had two controller ports originally which made 4 player games possible with accessories but quite rare. “We wanted to create a NES game that could prove that the console had the technical capacities to create games with modern standards and mechanics,” Nicolas declared. “The characters were designed smaller than usual in order to give 4 players enough room on screen to goof around.” The game was also designed to allow the players who died to help their teammates or compete with them for points even as ghosts. The mechanics of the game make it fun and challenging all the time, even when you die, you don’t have to passively watch the other players go on without you, it makes it an amazing multiplayer experience.

Micro Mages © Morphcat Games

“The NES still has good days ahead, and we also hoped to inspire people to explore again old games.” Morphcat’s efforts to contradict the notion of planned obsolescence in the video game industry are undoubtedly successful. Both by the incredible technical prowess they displayed and by the imaginative cartoonish occult theme they developed, they proved that it’s not because a console is old that one can’t use it to innovate and create hours of fun and bonding experience. They ardently hope their story can inspire others to take their first step in creating more brand-new games for people’s favorite childhood entertainment systems.

It was one thing to develop the game to be played on an emulator, it was another to wonder if that new creation would work on the original hardware. In the world of retrogaming, many creators aspire to go beyond the ROM file played on a computer and implant their games into a cartridge that could be played into the physical console. It’s the ultimate test for the game, isn’t it? In the early days, blank cartridges were rather hard to come by, so homebrew developers had no choice but to sacrifice one of their store-bought games and erase the cartridge to copy their homebrew on it. Thankfully, the process has gradually become more accessible, but it is always a gamble for small studios to produce a physical copy. That’s why many talented independent creators turn to the community to support them through crowdfunding. This ensures that the production only starts when enough people have expressed the desire to purchase their copy of the game.

With that in mind, Julius and Nicolas embarked on their first ever Kickstarter adventure. “With the conception of the physical copy, we were able to explore completely new creative angles around our game: we designed the stickers to put on the cartridge, chose the paper for the manual, spent time hiding jokes in the texts, were able to expand the art design in drawings…” With an initial goal of 15 000€, Morphcat’s Kickstarter blew up and, with the second campaign that they did for late comers, the team gathered over 200 000€. The extra income allowed Julius and Nicolas to include surprises in the packages they sent their backers. “We loved the idea of adding something extra and unexpected that people could discover with their games.”

Micro Mages © Morphcat Games

Although it represented a heavy workload for a team of two, they both enjoyed the new experiences created by such an extensive project. “We’ve sold about 6 500 physical copies so far and over 75 000 digital games were downloaded via Itch.io or Steam. We were really not expecting the project to be so successful,” Nicolas added. “The support of so many people meant so much to us… but it also put a lot of pressure on us to deliver the best possible experience: we really wanted people to relive that old feeling of receiving a game, opening it for the first time, discovering the box, the manual… Above all we wanted to create a feeling: we remember very fondly our own childhood experiences, that’s what we wanted to bring back to people.” The cartridge can be played on your original NES or using a cartridge reader. Indeed, Morphcat partnered with Piepacker for our own Kickstarter to produce the PieReader: a new way to experience Micro Mages’ cartridge with friends online. If you missed our Kickstarter, and the exclusive Micro Mages cartridges that Morphcat provided, you can find Morphcat’s breathtaking cartridge here.

Micro Mages was ranked 58th on the list of best games for the year 2019 by French newspaper Le Monde, outranking popular games produced by well-known and established studios such as Nintendo or Activision. That alone could have been enough to persuade Nicolas and Julius to turn their passion for making games into a full-time activity, and after the Kickstarter campaign was completed at the end of 2019, they did.

Micro Mages © Morphcat Games

They’ve been working on several projects since then. Yet, they have been struggling with completing long-term undertakings. They sometimes feel they have worked too long on the same game or that they have too many ideas to sort through. Fun is always what they aim for, both in their work method and the final delivered product. While developing a game, they often realize that something is missing to make it reach a satisfactory level of entertainment: “It can be a missing pattern, or connection; usually we have to admit that the gameplay just lacks that one tiny element that will transform a good game into a great one.” The team confessed that they have a few very promising games whose development in on hold that are just waiting for the right time and the right idea to be completed.

There are still extraordinary circumstances that have given the two friends the extra push they needed to publish new games. Specifically, two editions of the NesDev Compo, a homebrew NES competition whose purpose is precisely to help passionate developers focus their energy on a finished project. They participated for the first time in 2019, through hard work and incredible concentration they managed to develop an entire game in less than a month. They were both very surprised when their fun project, Böbl, won first place. The initial concept for the game was incredibly simple: recreate the fun times most people have spent in water as children, in the bath or at the beach, submerging a buoyant object and watching it bounce out of the water from the effect of the upthrust once it was released. “We were delighted when the speedrunner community took over the game and ran with it! And we love the Böbl rap that the fans made! It’s always so great to see the players take something you’ve created and add their own creativity to it.”

The following year, Morphcat entered the Nesdev Compo again, and won first prize, again, with Spacegulls, a platformer finished in a record time of 7 days. “The competitions have been great motivators for us, we worked non-stop for days to meet the deadline and were glad to have a functional game to share at the end,” the team commented. “We never really aimed for the first place, but it shows that people enjoy our games and that’s the best thing we could ask for.” Incidentally, both Micro Mages and Spacegulls have been used during the Games Done Quick charity speedrun marathon in the past years. The team seems to thrive on producing games that can be altogether fun, nostalgic and challenging.

Spacegulls © Morphcat Games

When Piepacker contacted Morphcat to build a partnership, Julius and Nicolas were both enthusiastic. “It was a great way to add another dimension to our games and create even more shared experiences. Our objective is to create moments favorable to laughter, cooperation, or cunning dirty tricks in good play. Piepacker allows our game that extra feature of playing online while seeing and talking to your friends. It was a great way to have more people enjoy our games,” the team said. “The project seduced us especially because everything was done by the book, all game publishers were contacted, and they all agreed to have their games on Piepacker, guaranteeing a broad, legal distribution.” Nicolas also really enjoys helping the Piepacker team turn his pixel art design into 3D masks: “yet another way for me to explore the art of our games in a new form!”

Super Bat Puncher, Micro Mages, Böbl, and Spacegulls are all available to play on Piepacker! And if you want to support and learn more about Morphcat games, the two game makers hold regular live developing sessions on their Twitch channel, it’s the best place to stay tuned on what they’ll do next!

Böbl, Micro Mages and Spacegulls © Morphcat Games

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