Interview: Tangram Games - Tobu Tobu Girl & beyond!

cover image tobutobu

A few days before the launch of their phenomenal 2017 Game Boy release Tobu Tobu Girl, I had the chance to travel to Odense, Denmark to meet with Tangram Games. Lukas Erritsø Hansen, the game’s artist and Simon Jonas Larsen, the games programmer were both on hand to discuss their love affair with dash mechanics, the joys of working within the Game Boy’s limitations and more importantly, what makes Tobu Tobu Girl great!

 

First off thanks for meeting up with us so close to the launch of the game! Should we start with a little bit about the studio?

 S - Maybe studio’s is a little too much (laughs). So it started back in 2013, or a little before, we are old high school buddies. I’d been making games myself but I really can’t draw, so I was looking for someone to take that burden away and that was Lukas. We did our first game that we released in 2013 called Mr. Rescue.

L - Actually, we started working on another game a little bit before that. Which was sort of the way I started to make pixel art. I didn’t draw too much before Simon hijacked me, sat me down and said 'I’m going to make you draw so you can make art for games! I’m really bad at pixel art but I’m going to show you how anyways!' I think for our first failed project, Simon probably did all of the coding and half of the graphics, the game assets while teaching me. I just kinda took it from there!

 

Do you like making pixel art then? 

 L - Yeah, it’s very fun! I definitely think it’s my fortay. I don’t do a lot of hand drawing, I started doing that specifically for Tobu Tobu Girl, for the manual and the box. I really had to learn from the start because I really hadn’t drawn much before that.

 So you’re naturally talented then haha!

 L - I wouldn’t say that! 

 S - Oh I don’t know about that! I watched it quite closely & you really picked it up quite quickly, especially the free hand stuff and it was really cool to watch. We both could not draw, at all, and I still can’t! But one year later and you can do it very well!

 L - It’s about survival! I really want to make games. I really think it’s very fun, so I had to make myself useful and not just be an idea guy. 

 

You’ve mainly been making games so far as side projects and as part of game jams. With Mr. Rescue being the first you completed. There’s obviously pixel art in that game too, but is there any direct influence from the Game Boy in that title too?

 S - Actually yes. So I think I did the main sketch and I was looking at Game Boy Advance pallets for the style there. 

 

Is this true of all your games? Is there a retro influence in the games you make? Or do you come up with core mechanics and see if pixel art fits?

 L - On the Graphics side, pixel art is something we do because it’s something I can do and love doing. That way I’m able to produce at a faster pace than if it were hand drawn, I don’t know how to animate that. 

 S - It's the same reason all the game’s we’ve made so far are 2D also. Neither of us knows any 3D modelling. But I generally think we’re not very retro inspired, neither of us is really a retro gamer. It’s just that we both like really complicated games, especially those with mechanical depth. So maybe we’re trying to push that into really simplistic [looking] games and sometimes that works and sometimes maybe not.

 

But if you don’t consider yourself retro gamers, what made you want to enter a Game Boy Jam?

 L - Actually, we did a Game Boy game before Tobu Tobu Girl called Super Catacombs. It’s sort of a rogue-like meets Sokoban puzzle game.

 S - Though we’re not retro gamers -

 L - You do own like 11 Game Boys!

 S - (laughs) So yes, I guess in some ways I’m a bit of a retro gamer!  But I really just like the Game Boy. It’s so simple! I don’t know a lot about electrical engineering, but you can still learn a lot from how it works, it’s weird quirks and it’s bugs. It has hardware flaws and I think that’s very cool.

 L - I definitely think from a graphics side that there are really a lot of limitations on the Game Boy that make it frustrating but fun to work with. There’s colour and sprite limitations. I think there’s no animation in Tobu Tobu Girl that has more than 2 frames, so it’s very simple and very quick too. The game got a graphics overhaul where I replaced just about every sprite about half way through the dev cycle and I think it took maybe a week to replace them.

 

The version of Tobu Tobu Girl made for GB JAM 3 seems to be a very different version of the game with more puzzle focus than the final release. Did you make the prototype for the jam and then find yourself troubled by how to build those mechanics out into a full title?

 L - Every time we do a game jam, we often don’t finish because we just want to rap it up. Here we said let’s just spend 1 or 2 weeks, maybe a month and wrap this project up, but then it ended up taking 3 years! We went through a lot of iterations in the mechanics and gameplay, so it changed a lot. 

 ttg ingame3

Was it just the challenge in limitations or did you just really love the characters and mechanics that kept you going? 

 L - At some point, it just clicked game play wise and we really liked it. It’s also the thrill of making an actual Game Boy game!

 S - I think it was the platform rather than the design that drew us in. It was just something different to work with which is kind of fun, right? Especially when we got to the point where we thought maybe we can make a physical game that we can sell and people can have it in their hands! It just felt like a really cool thing to do!

 Everything else we’ve done has been completely free, so the business side of this was also very new too and is hopefully something we’ll never, ever have to do again (laughs).

 L - It ended up being the most challenging part! You’d have thought making the actual Game Boy game would be hard, but the business side of things, getting it all printed and assembled, that was tough!

 I guess this is why publishers exist!

 S - Absolutely!

 

So there’ll be no more cartridges from Tangram?

 S - It all depends! Now we’ve seen all the problems and know there are solutions, so we’re over one of the biggest hurdles. But also while the limitations are fun, they can also be frustrating. The ghosting is a pain. On the DMG it can really be an issue unless you’re under a nice reading lamp or something. 

 L - You can beat it for sure! Just conditionally there are better options!

 

While lighting might cause some issues, the music defiantly won’t! How did potato-tan become involved in the project?

 L - I started talking to them on Twitter through a shared interest in games and anime. At some point, I just shot them a message saying ‘Hey, do you want to make music for this?’ I might have even done that before I asked Simon about it.

 S - (laughs) Yup, you did!

 L - I think he pretty much agreed straight away and they said yes! 

 Have you ever met them in person?

 L - No! They live in America somewhere… 

 S - They're very mysterious, it’s very interesting!

 

Toby Tobu Girl is also an interesting game because it feels very modern. Though you’ve described it as an arcade game, it certainly isn’t what you’d expected of that label on the DMG. Were you trying to make such a fresh feeling game on an older system?

 S - I think we were at least trying to use some modern design philosophy going in. Games have obviously evolved a lot, especially when it comes to quick run based, short burst, rogue-like ways of approaching things.

 L - In the jam version, you didn’t even have a jump. You were just falling and bouncing. At some point  when we made what would be the full version, we had a jump button and that’s how you would progress, by jumping. I think I suggested the ideas of a directional dash, inspired by Street Fighter IV. Which is of course, a very modern game compared to the Game Boy and it totally changed the game. We had power ups and it was all about moving upwards!

 S - I think it went from being very simple, to very complicated, to not as complicated. Half way through we realised that a lot of the stuff didn’t add anything but more stuff. 

 

Were there any other things you were playing at the time that inspired Tobu Tobu Girl or was it organic?

 S - I think we both have a shared love of dashes and dodge rolls. We both love Japanese Action RPGs and games like Bayonetta. A dash just feels very good, its a really satisfying mechanic when it works well. It’s definitely not the first time we’ve included one in one of our games or the last. 

 

Speaking of the dash, how the hell did you manage to make is so fast and the controls so tight without tearing up the screen?

 S - I think nothing in particular to be honest. The Game Boy screen will refresh at 60 hz if nothing slows it down. Just making sure it doesn’t drop frames is the key. Not caring about ghosting helps us a lot, as most older games really cared about the high contrast, especially the earlier ones. You’d have a lot of white backgrounds, with mostly black sprites and so you wouldn’t have this high speed of movement because it would make it so ghosty and blurry. We just didn’t want to consider this, so we’ve mainly been testing it on the Game Boy Advance SP because of how crystal clear and crisp it looks. I guess it came from just not caring! (laughs)

 L - I think it ended up working quite nicely though. I think you had to do a lot to reduce the slowdown during development, especially with the music.

 S - I think the biggest sacrifice we had to make was with the visual density. We used to have a lot of nice little particle effects and fluffy clouds floating around, which really added a lot to the visuals. But also when you can only show 20 sprites at a time it’s a trade off, so we had to cut down on this stuff which was a shame. We’d rather have the game run fluidly!

 L - Especially when the game is as twitchy as it is!

 

Do you think you’ve been enabled to make a game like this, that runs so fast and fluidly on the Game Boy by looking at those games that came before? 

 S - I think so, not really from a technical point of view though. Especially playing old games and seeing what doesn’t work is incredibly valuable in game development. You will instantly feel when a game doesn’t work. In the early 90s you didn’t have as much reference material, so it was harder to nail what does. I think it’s a lot easier now because there have been so many really great games, you can really learn what to and not to do.

 L - From a graphics point of view, I didn’t really take that much inspiration either. I think I looked at Pokémon sprites, but I didn’t take much from that.

 

Beyond having to reduce the graphics, were there any mechanics the system wasn’t capable of that you needed to strip back? 

 S - Not really, just some of the enemies. At one point, we had the idea of small walls of enemies blocking off half of the screen, but we just couldn’t, it wasn’t possible so we took it out. But from a mechanics point of view not really. I think that was the main priority so if we had to sacrifice something, it wouldn’t have been the mechanics, it would’ve been something else.

 ttg intro

In terms of the game’s story, much like an original Game Boy game, the storytelling is done through the game’s manual and a small attract screen at the start. Would you have liked to have fleshed this out with more cutscenes as the player progressed?

 L - Actually, I really wanted to have little cut scenes after every level showing the girl’s progress. But I really don’t know how Simon made the cutscenes work for the intro and the end of the game! But he said he wouldn’t do any more than that!

 S - (laughs) It was a tedious and painful process! I’m sure it could’ve been done more elegantly, but it was mainly hard coding. It was like ok, for the next half second, this sprite has to move to the left, then when it comes to this point, something has to stop. So it was really, really not good!

 But if we just look at the story we have, mysteriously, the game’s protagonist and her cat do not have names, they’re just referred to as ‘The Girl’ and ‘The Cat’. 

 L - (laughs) I think that just comes down to us not being very good at coming up with names!

 S - But we also didn’t want to! I think them just being referred to as ‘The Girl’ and ‘The Cat’  is more fun.

 Do you have names for them in your own head cannon?

 S - No! And her name certainly isn’t ‘Tobu Tobu Girl’ either! That’s the name of the game!

 Which means Jump or Flying in Japanese Google tells me?

 L - Or leaping! 

 S - We were very inspired of course by Japanese games in the name, also with the visuals. You have things like Chu Chu Rocket or Doki Doki Panic, where you either have a verb or an adjective then an English noun as the game title. It’s a really fun way to name a game and we wanted to play around with that. 

 physical package 2

This inspiration even extends to the box right! There’s an initial run of 75 copies styled like the Japanese Game Boy box rather than the Western design. Was it just the Japanese influence or were there elements of avoiding potential copyright infringement with the Western one?

 S - Honestly, it just looks better! It has a nice, long format that looks great. Usually, on the European and North American design, you’ve got the silver boarder and the words ‘Game Boy’ and it’s just distracting.

 L - On the Japanese games, you’ve got a full piece of key art with no framing. It just looks nicer. Originally for the cover art, I had the idea of doing something more ambiguous like the Japanese cover of Mister Mosquito. Which is just a giant foot! We wanted to grab a photo of a hill with clouds and just have that be the cover and lean fully into the Japanese style!

 S - For the game jam we also had a different cover. With just an extreme close up of her, showing like 1/3rd of her face.

 L - I don’t know what that was about! Even the title screen on that version is just the top of her hair…

 But you did use the framing of the Japanese Game Boy launch titles on that box with the silver framing right? Did having that key visual just not feel right when it came to the physical box?

 S - You of course have to need to be careful when it comes to infringing copyrights (laughs). 

 L - You’ll not find the word Game Boy or Nintendo on the box for sure! It also just looks cleaner.

 S - We’re not afraid of getting a cease and desist of course, but obviously we didn’t want to even risk it. 

 

Maybe that would be good promotion! But probably not the best marketing strategy if you want the game to see the light of day! Speaking of reaching the end of something, at the end of Tobu Tobu Girl’s stages, there’s a ranking! Does it signify anything? 

 L - When we just had scores, it didn’t really tell the player anything. I mean, scores are a very nebulous thing, what’s a good score? We wanted a way of telling the player how well they did and imply a depth to the game.

 S - I just wanted to show the player you could do better. I think after testing this game millions of times, I’ve gotten to a pretty good skill level. Comparing it to people who’ve just got the game in their hand though, there’s a very clear difference. After they clear a stage for the first time, they think ‘Yeah! I nailed it!’ but then they see that they got a C Rank. It shows them they can do better.

 When I played it the first time, that happened to me. It did however make me analyse the score breakdown and map that onto how I was playing. How can players get a better score?

 S - First priority is speed, going fast is a real priority. Then it’s stomping enemies is second. You really have to balance this. We wanted to encourage people to play a little differently. You can of course beat each level without stomping an enemy, but as it’s a mechanic that we want people to use and it’s a fun part of the game, we want them to use it. Of course also having rankings adds a reason to replay the game. If it didn’t have something to drive you to replay levels, the game has 4 stages so it wouldn’t be very long. But if you get a C, you know you can get a B, or an A, and it just adds a little more to it.

 To be clear though, I don’t have to torture myself by trying to getting an A rank to unlock anything?

 S - No, not through the rankings, just through progression.

 ttg winscreen

Great! To increase the fairness of rankings, did you spend a lot of time balancing the game to insure each run was balanced?

 L - Absolutely, also with balancing spawns. At one point, we had the HUD at the bottom of the screen, which meant you had 16 pixels less vertically. Meaning you had less time to react and were closer to the top & had less time to react to enemies. It was probably the biggest change to try to make the game as fair as possible.

 S - There’s also balancing because each level has a progression. They won’t have the enemies all the way though because there are discrete steps. So of course, balancing this to insure it’s varied and fun was a big task. But there really weren’t that many parameters to play with, so it wasn’t a huge nightmare. It was just a matter of playing the game until it felt fun. It’s also the blessing of the limitations. You really don’t have that many things that can interact and cause complications.

 

Thanks to the flag on the right, there’s almost a Cup Head like progression to the game. You get past a certain point then die to a new enemy and you know when you pass that point again, you know what to expect. Though I hate dying with the flag right on the portal!

 S - I cannot wait to have more people share that pain with me! Having that flag right dead centre on that portal! It’s the worst!

 

I’ve never sworn so much at a Game Boy game! But saying that, it’s always felt fair. I never got to a point where my death wasn’t down to my own impatience or lack of skill. Is there anything in place to limit say, 12 blades spawning in one row?

 S - Yeah, so there are some internal counters that monitor the amount of stuff you can jump on. The Bats would be fine because you can jump on them, but when there are 2 or 3 blades in a row, the game knows, Ok, we need to put something you can bounce on now. You can’t technically run into an impossible level because that’s not fun at all.

 Another really important thing is getting you back into the game as quick as possible, so it has that really Flappy Bird feel when the game restarts. You’re still angry, so you channel that by playing again!

 L - Also it was really important for us for the music to keep playing. It would be very, very frustrating if it continuously started over again!

 S - Yup, you’d really get to know those first 10, 15 seconds of those tunes, While they’re really good, so is the rest of the music! 

 

The game is structured around being fast. With the boost and the dashes, there were times where I felt overwhelmed and wished I could just stop to take the level in.

 L - I think the boost came from a time where we had power ups. You’d collect gems and eventually, you’d get a limited jet pack. When we removed the power ups, we thought that was still fun and something to help new players. Of course, you can also use it to really master the game. You can use it to hover to stand still and survey the level in the early stages. But later in the game it allows you to really move with speed which feels nice.

 

There’s a dash counter above the players head also. Is mastering this mechanic key to beating the game?

 S - I think mastering the vertical and diagonal dashes are key for mastering the last levels. You can traverse a lot of space by using these dashes a lot and I think that’s pushing things to the next level. You should save that third dash in case you screw up though. With 2 dashes you can clear an entire screen and in doing so, see something you weren’t prepared for.

 L - Seeing different people play the game, I really think there are a lot of tools at the player’s disposal to win. 

 S - Some people will only use boosts to get through the game -

 L - And only use their dashes to stomp!

 Which is how I play! I did discover through an awkward death that I could dash diagonally though! You do learn a lot by dying in this game… But while I’ve learned a lot playing the game, there must be some people out there who are going to dedicate a lot of time to mastering Tobu Tobu Girl. Can you see Speed Runners taking to the game?

 S - I think one issue is the randomisation. There are some speed running games where this is part of the fun, but here I think it depends a lot on the seed. Of course we thought about when designing the game because we watch a lot of speed runs ourselves, but I don’t think it’ll take on.

 Fair enough! But what’s the fastest time you’ve seen someone clear a level?

 L - I once saw a friend clear Plains in 14 seconds! I think that’s the fastest I remember. I think I’ve done it in 32.

 I did it in 44 and felt pretty good about myself… How big exactly is the timer? Does it vary from stage to stage? 

 S - So here’s the thing. When you make retro games, everything is to the power of 2. So I think the full clock is 64 seconds and it starts at 48 maybe. Then each clock you pick up I think gives you 8 seconds.

 

 And is there programming in place that determines when you get a clock?

 S - Yeah, they’re at fixed intervals. It was important to evenly space them to make sure the levels felt fair.

 L - It was something when redid when we were went over the game for balancing. I think we actually added twice the amount of clocks. 

 S - We doubled the amount of clocks and halved the amount of time we gave you.

 L - So now you can actually miss clocks, where as before you couldn’t before.

 S - Even in the later levels you can skip a few. It’s a trade off though, as sometimes they won’t be placed somewhere easy to get. I think they might even give you 4 seconds… So you need to weigh up if it’s worth the time to get it or if you should just keep going up. 

 ttg ingame1

I’ll keep that in mind as I play on! But what’s next for Tobu Tobu Girl? A DX version? A Super Tobu Tobu Girl? 

 S - I was actually thinking about this yesterday. There’s one thing I was really sad to not include in the game and that’s a Super Game Boy border, because it’s just really cool! I think having a colour version would be fun.

 L - We actually started working on it with the old sprites, about 2 years ago, but we dropped it in the end.

 S - The thing one problem is, if you have sprites you design to be monochrome and then you want to add colours, that doesn’t really work. I think if you look at Links Awakening, all the blue sprites are blue at different darkness levels, and that’s something we really didn’t want because then it looks like an after thought. I think it would’ve been nice though!

 L - Especially a Super Game Boy boarder though, that could’ve been fun.

 S - But programming for the Super Game Boy is very strange! We’ll get there one day! 

 

But will there ever be a sequel? Or will we ever see the game on another platform?

 L - I don’t think we really feel any need to revisit these characters or even these themes. This is something we do in our spare time and we don’t have much of it, so we want to try new stuff every time we make a game.

 S - Sticking to old projects almost feels like a waste of time because we’re not out to sell these games, we just want to have fun!

 

In that case, what does the future hold for Tangram?

 S -  We’re working on something else right now that came out of a Game Jam that we thought would take, 1 or 2 weeks to do and that was 6 months ago.

 L - A year and a half ago…

 S - (laughs) Really? Wow! But we also put it on hold when finishing Tobu Tobu Girl. Now that this is all over, we really want to focus on finishing up the new game… Then we have something much bigger planned! 

  L - Something that’s probably way too big! 

  S - But that’s ok, it’s part of the fun!

 

For more information on Tobu Tobu Girl or to download the ROM, check out Tangram's website here!

To hear what Mat's final verdict on the game was, go here!

Article edited to reflect small grammatical changes.

 


Last Updated ( 11 December 2017 )  

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