Xerra's Blog

Drunken coder ramblings

Syntax Bomb competition 11 – Go Nuts —

One of my more recent games – and I say that casually, as it was actually released in 2020 – was for the 11th Syntax Bomb competition, and had a theme which was simply “Go Nuts!”

With a lack of ideas for a theme at the time, it was thrown in the air that we could all just make whatever game we wanted in 9 weeks. As I’d never done a platform game since my Vic 20 days, I thought the time had come. I had seen some interesting sprites that were freely useable and could be used together to form the parts of a large soldier strutting on the spot, or walking, which was what gave me the idea to have a military theme. I knocked up a simple title sequence to do this by using a gamestate that had several different poses he’d do, such as crouching to shoot, marching left and right etc.

With this in place I had the name Tommy Gunn in mind for the game, realising much later that this unfortunately had been used before.

Yeah, I knew I’d heard it somewhere. Regardless, this game has nothing to do with boxers, action figures (although that’s pretty close), and, erm, any kind of actor demonstrating the kind of talents most of us mere mortals can’t actually do. I’d got the name in place, and started using it in forum posts by then, so it stayed, regardless.

At this point I’d started showing off what I’d done thus far with some general approval, and more or less committed myself to going this route. I’d had a couple of weeks tinkering with ideas by then, and even laid out a very simple platform system for a mock early level to try out some player control code. It was after some of this had been shown (some video’s I think are still up on my youtube page) that I had another Syntax bomb user post some nice small soldier sprite animations that he’d developed, but never used, a few years earlier. These were really cool and he was more than happy to let me use them as well as offer to help out with all the artwork assets I’d need for the game idea I’d been mumbling about already.

You don’t turn down an offer like that – especially with my poor artwork ability. So, I didn’t. It turned out to be a great idea, even though it meant axing all the assets i’d foraged up and attempted to draw thus far. It wasn’t much of a loss, I assure you. Although I did kind of lament the loss of my big soldier strutting his stuff on the title screen because that didn’t fit and had to go too.

Fortunately, the platform system I’d already put in place – as crude as it was (is) was just a case of swapping sprites to use the revised ones that Blinkok supplied. Once a suitable background was in place for a desert setting, I didn’t bother using a tile system, and just laid on each section as an object because it’s ridiculous how effortless it is to do stuff like this in modern game making systems without even challenging the lowest spec computers.

The first level was something like four screens across by four screens up, as I recall. This was because I had already decided that I wanted a scrolling scene for all the levels, as this encourages exploration to see where everything on the level is, and the object of the game was to find missing scientists and escape the level on a waiting helicopter. I created a very rough story around the theme of how I hoped to get the game to turn out and it was about six weeks in by the time I had the first level in place pretty much as I wanted it. Fortunately Blinkok had been busy in the background and most of his graphics for the rest of the game were already created. He also turned out to be a wave of great ideas and had put forward many suggestions to me that I just had to use, and, unfortunately, a lot that I suspected I wouldn’t have the time to implement. My list of stuff to add, and stuff maybe to add, was massive by this time. And there was something like three weeks left to work, with only one level in place, and none of the presentation stuff that I had the art for already.

So, once the first level was in place, I really got cracking. Fortunately I’d got Aaron as well as Blinkok to help with the testing side, and I quickly laid out another two levels that would be the Syntax Bomb base, with the arch nemesis Qube himself, and also a jungle themed one, with water pits and spike traps, that ended up becoming the second level.

I was originally intending to just stick with the three levels due to the time restriction , but Blinkok came up with a fantastic set of images that could be used for a train station level that he showed me. I was desperate to use this in the game, so had to modify the story slightly, and also the theme of this additional level, as it couldn’t really be approached as a platform game level. I asked him to rename the station signs to Harrow on the Hill, as that’s where I went to school, and then set down all the elements for a level that would only scroll right and left, rather than requiring the player to reach the top/right of the screen. So, in effect, it was almost another game, as it became a run/gun level (although you did control the speed of movement), where you jumped gaps in the platform, avoided mines, watched out for the ships that flew across the sky above you, firing deadly lasers.

There was also the random train in the background zooming both ways. This was just background animation but probably scared many people the first couple of times they saw it. It took another week of time I didn’t have to get this section added into the game, but I think it added a lot to the same kind of thing the other three levels had.

By this time I had my friend Carl doing some music for the game based on the Blue Thunder theme (helicopter reference) and also had a chap from the gamemaker forums volunteering to do some sound effects for games that I hastily added to the people helping me with the game, as it was becoming a project in itself. They all had a bit of input into how the game worked as testers, too, so a much bigger part of the whole development process was managing all of this, and the many tasks to tick off, as well as coding.

As well as some wonderful logo animation to run between the levels, Blinkok also came up with some comic strip panels that he wanted me to use for a game loading intro, and start of each level, as well as the completion/game over sequences. Again time had become really tight, but I got them in each screen as separate panels so it became kind of an interactive comic between levels. This also worked out extremely well, and gave the game that extra bit of polish to boot.

I eventually got the game completed and submitted with a day to spare (much to my amazement) and, at the time, it was, by far, the most ambitious game I’d ever written. At the end of the competition it won third place as it was pretty flawed as a game, in retrospect. The artwork, presentation, music and attention to detail were all elements I’m very proud of, however. Little tricks like changing the volume of the helicopter blades as you got nearer to it, and things like that were little tricks that really helped me get better at doing more of the stuff that usually doesn’t get noticed, apart from by other game developers, but are essential to make the game feel like it’s something that’s been worked on passionately.

In retrospect, playing the game itself ended up being far too easy, mostly. I even had one player who advised me that he’d managed to play through and complete the game without even firing a shot through all four levels. This was helped by the fact that I’d not been able to put in an end-game boss fight against the evil Qube, so just had a find the key to unlock the door and arrest him in the end. If only……

Other flaws with the game were elements I half built into the game but didn’t develop further due to time constraints. I had moving tanks that you couldn’t destroy, and were just background animations in the end. While I did have the crates for extra score and health, i had to scrap using the grenades that were planned to destroy the tanks, because of the same reason. I also had pits of quicksand, water traps, electric rails that were put in, but the collision detection was rather suspect with my player code, so it was actually quite hard to fall into one, instead of being very hard to avoid.

The spike in the nuts animation was probably not seen by most people, but the electric shock when you hit the train station rails was rather cool to make up for it.

Tommy Gunn, like a lot of my games, is one I always tell myself that one day I’ll go back to and either sequel, or remake it with more time on my hands. I rarely ever do this, though, because it’s mostly the deadlines that get me to actually finish most of my games, so, never say never, but, probably never.

Happy new year for 2024, everyone.

This year I will make more games, I’m sure.

Categorised as: Competition | Development | Game Studio 2 | Syntax Bomb | Tommy Gunn

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