Lizard-An Interview With Brad Smith

Posted November 18, 2014 by Kevin Pourmostofi in Video Games


So called “Retro-Gaming” has been proving more and more popular in recent years, with developers increasingly creating games for the growing fanbase of these older consoles. One such developer is a man called Brad Smith, who is working on his new game for the NES, PC and Mac. Kevin caught up with him to ask him a few questions about the intriguingly titled “Lizard” – his new game. According to Brad’s Kickstarter, “Lizard” is a “platforming adventure about free exploration while wearing a lizard.” Here is the interview:

We The Nerdy: Hey there! Nice to meet you. My name is Kevin and I am a writer at We The Nerdy. I will be carrying out this interview. Perhaps we could start by you telling us a little bit about your game and why you decided to make it for the NES of all consoles?

Brad Smith: There are two parts to that: my personal history with the NES, and what I think of the machine.

Video games were part of my life since I was very young. I think it began with an Atari ST that my family got when I was 3 years old. Growing up I owned many different game consoles, but never an NES. Many of my friends had one, though, so I had no shortage of time spent playing Nintendo games.
I have a background in music, and I’ve always been interested in the music of games. For a good composer, the constraints of the hardware call upon inventive musical solutions, so chiptune has a lot of unique music to it. A few years ago, I found a program called Famitracker for making very authentic NES music. I’ve always had an interest in transcription, taking music from its original orchestration and trying it out on a totally different set of instruments. I used Famitracker to make a complete cover of the Pink Floyd album, Dark Side of the Moon.

From the positive response I got to the Dark Side of the Moon project, I got drawn into the internet community of people who make music for the NES.  I bought my first NES. I started doing research on the hardware, and I began maintaining an open source NES sound emulator called NSFPlay to put the new things I’d learned into practice.

I found my way to the NESDev online community. It is a very welcoming place with a rather positive culture, in my opinion. People sharing ideas about the Nintendo and helping each other make software for this old machine. I don’t think any other old game system is as well loved as the NES, and we have such a great wealth of technical information about it collected over many years. I made my contributions to sound emulation, but at the same time I learned everything else I could about the NES. I found it fascinating.

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The NES came at a very interesting point in the history of game consoles. The previous generation was so limited by the machine that the games always felt small. As a game developer, the machine tells you too much about what your game can be. Pitfall doesn’t seem very expansive by today’s standards, but it was a truly monumental effort to build even that on an Atari 2600. To me, this is too much restraint. On the flip side, the generation after has games of soaring scope. I feel that on the SNES, the hardware has a much weaker impact on the game’s design. This is no longer interesting to me; if I’m going to go through the challenge and effort involved in working with these older consoles, I want to have to deal with the constraints of the system more visibly. The NES sits right in the middle, where it’s still awkward and kind of a nightmare to work with, but just powerful enough to be extremely versatile and capable. It’s a machine that really puts its mark on the games you make with it, but still gives you enough room to try a lot of interesting ideas.

The sound hardware itself is rather unique, as well. A lot of contemporary systems had audio that could produce just a couple of square waves for tones, and noise for percussion. This includes the ubiquitous AY-3-8910 (ZX Spectrum, Atari ST, MSX, Amstrad CPC) and similar chips like the one used by the Sega Master System. The NES is similar in scale, but a few tweaks give it a very distinctive sound. First, it has two square wave channels, but the width of the square pulse is variable, giving 3 different tone qualities. This does a lot for the variety of sound. Secondly, instead of a third square wave, it has a dull sounding triangle, very well suited for bass. The triangle has no volume control, and this forces the rest of the music to be balanced around it. The unique tone of the triangle wave feels like the heart and soul of the NES sound to me; it’s difficult to work with, but solving that problem is what brings out the spirit of NES music. The third component of NES audio is the noise channel. It is not particularly unique, but well suited for percussion and sound effects. Lastly it has a very limited sample playback device. A lot of games don’t even use samples,because they take up too much precious space in ROM. None of the Mega Man games used samples, for example. Many games use samples for drum sounds (e.g. the bongos in Super Mario 3), but a few games made extreme use of it like in the loud basslines of Journey to Silius.

So, that’s my long answer to why I want to work with the NES. Yes, part of it is nostalgia, but I am nostalgic for many other systems too. There is really something special about the NES itself. It has some strange goldilocks balance of constraint that lends a wonderful character to its games.

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WTN:  I have noticed that with each passing year, people start to become more and more interested in the older consoles. Did this have any impact on your decision to develop for the NES?

BS: I don’t have a very good gauge for how popular retro consoles might be, because I’ve always played old games as much as I do new ones. I have definitely noticed emulation and preservation of old games getting better and better over the years, and especially the last several years as Nintendo and other companies have embraced emulation commercially. I’m sure that the increased interest has improved the community, and that must be part of the motivation to make Lizard, but in an indirect way. It comes out in individual interactions, talking with people about games, the encouragement is on a more personal level.
WTN:  What can this community of gamers expect from Lizard?
BS: Lizard is an open world platforming adventure. The emphasis is on exploration and experimentation, making your way around and seeing what you can do. There are no guns or swords, as I am trying to keep the emphasis off of that kind of action, instead focusing on how to move safely around dangerous obstacles, and finding effective ways to get to new places. There are six different lizards to find and wear, each with a different ability. For example: the Lizard of Bounce can make long jumps with a suitable platform to bounce from, and the Lizard of Stone can petrify itself to hide from danger. Choosing the right lizard can make a big difference, but at the same time, I want the player to have the choice to try a different route, or even just do it the hard way. The world is connected and nonlinear, letting you pick your own path.lizard 3
WTN: I have been playing Lizard, and I have noticed it is quite hard in places, which is a good thing to me. Do you think modern games have become too lenient and they “hold players’ hands” too often?
BS: I think there is a good variety of difficulty available in games today. Some games have annoying forced tutorials, and many games seem built to reward persistence more than skill, but if you’re looking for a good challenge there are recent games that will scratch that itch, e.g. Dark Souls, XCOM, Volgarr the Viking.
Making something difficult but fair is hard to do, and this is something a lot of older games struggled with. They were often hard just because they were poorly designed, awkward, erratic, or obtuse. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES comes to mind as an example as an unsatisfying kind of difficulty, getting through it is too much about learning its obscure behaviours and exploiting them. There are many very hard games for the NES, but only a few I think were a worthwhile challenge, like Battletoads. .
I don’t really want to make Lizard as difficult as some of the games I’ve just mentioned, but I do want it to offer a satisfying challenge at times. I’d like the player to be able to pick their path, so that if something is too difficult, they can try something else for now, or even find a different way around. Choosing the right lizard to wear in a particular situation might make the difference between easy and hard, and doing something the hard way might reveal a secret you might have otherwise skipped.
WTN:  The Music in this is great, do you think that a downloadable/retail soundtrack would ever be a feasible option?
BS: Actually, I have released the soundtrack for free download here.
WTN: You are very talented and will be an inspiration for NESDevs and other retro console developers. What advice would you give to new devs who are hoping to make a game or who are wanting to get their game noticed?

BS:  A lot of people just starting out immediately begin a project of very large scope. They want to make a game just like the ones they are playing, but it helps to learn if you pursue smaller goals that you can finish in a reasonable time-frame. It’s important to see what a project looks like in a finished state, even if it’s a small thing. Finishing a well polished Tetris clone will probably teach you better than eventually giving up on a sprawling RPG project. Save the bigger project for when you’re ready, and if you keep at it, eventually you will be ready.

It took me a long time to learn this lesson, myself. My past is littered with unfinished projects that I couldn’t see were too big for me at the time. Today I am much better about finishing what I started, because I always keep in mind how long it should take, and how that fits into my life.
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WTN: One more question. What was the most enjoyable aspect of making “Lizard” to you?
B: What I’ve always enjoyed most about making games is just getting something to work. To play it and have it feel the way I want, to interact with it and be satisfied by it. Design and ideas come relatively easy, but a good implementation of an idea takes frustration and trial and iteration. It’s a wonderful feeling when it finally clicks into place.
WTN: Thank you very much for taking time out to answer my questions. Is there anything you would like to add or is there anything extra you would like to tell our readers about your project?

BS:  I can’t think of anything else to add. If readers are interested in learning more about the project, I would encourage them to take a look at the Kickstarter page. I’m very excited to be making this game! Thanks for talking to me about it.

After playing Lizard, I must say, it is a unique and extremely fun game. Exploring the world is incredibly enjoyable and finding new Lizard costumes to help progress in the game is rewarding. The colors are vibrant, the music is catchy  and the gameplay is pleasantly challenging, yet won’t have you ripping your hair out in frustration. As for its authenticity, it really feels like an old NES game, with side scrolling adventure tactics. Meeting enemies and finding unique ways to avoid them is interesting and kept me on my toes. It was a pleasure to play and a breath of fresh air to play a game with so many things to do. The checkpoints, as with many NES games, are not exactly what I would call few and far between, but they are spaced out at strategic positions to ensure you have a small challenge ahead of you to get back to your previous position. Overall, a very good game and one I will be backing on Kickstarter soon enough.

If you would like to contribute to Brad’s upcoming game, his Kickstarter Page can be found here. Brad has produced a demo for the NES, PC, Mac or emulator available at  Lizard’s web-page. Brad says he is expecting the game to be finished by January 2015. 

About the Author

Kevin Pourmostofi

A Canadian Film Buff, Kevin is in love with the works of Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard and Charlie Chaplin, amongst many others. He can usually be found reading books on the cinema or watching films. Oh yeah, he plays some video games and reads some comics too. He can be found on PSN or Twitter at Momoguy123.