Interview with Space Invaders Extreme’s lead artist

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Being kind of a fan of all things retro, suddenly finding I had the opportunity to speak with the people behind the upcoming 360 version of Space Invaders Extreme was exciting to say the least. Taking a game praised by so many gamers to be virtually perfect and improving it before putting it on a new console is no simple task, but Backbone Entertainment seemed like an ideal studio to take on the job, considering their history with retro-love titles such as Super Street Fighter Turbo HD Remix, 1942: Joint Strike, and Gauntlet DS on the way.

I had the chance to sit down with Arvin Bautista, lead artist on the Space Invaders Extreme project, and talk about everything from the meaning of “the new retro” to why four player co-op is going to rock your socks off. Hit the jump to get the skinny on the delicious new content you have to look forward to.

Destructoid: So, we get the gist that you guys have a thing for all things retro! It’s not a surprise considering your project history! Well, before I dig into questions about Space Invaders Extreme, I’d be curious to know what your favorite vintage console is.

Vintage, hmm. Does Game and Watch count as a console? Not really. (laughs) Maybe that’s too vintage. But that’s definitely up there, there’s so many memories with that. When I was growing up in the Philippines, I didn’t have access to games persay, so what happened was I would go to these stores that rented Game and Watch systems for a certain amount of time, so you’d play for thirty minutes. I played stuff like Manhole, straight up old school games. After a while I bought an Atari 2600 and a ton of hours of my life were spent playing that. That would have to be the vintage console that I would gravitate towards. We played a lot of Adventure

Destructoid: So did I! What about the rest of the Backbone team? Does everyone share a similar love for old consoles and old games?

There are two artists, myself and Conrad Seto. He is definitely a classic gamer. I’m not sure if he would go as far back as Atari. I could me wrong — forgive me, Conrad, that I said you don’t go as far back as Atari! (laughs). But yes, everybody at Backbone definitely has gaming roots. We have a bunch of arcade machines, like Rampart, Defender, Joust, lots of super old school games. They would get really into it, with scoreboards and everything. I can’t even get close to beating these guys when it comes to scores. You should arrange to come for some sort of tour!

Destructoid:  No kidding, I was going to say I’d love that.

People here generally love the classics. They would go out of their way to try to hunt down these arcade machines. One of our programmers has a bunch of machines he would always maintain and he proudly kept one by the cafeteria and we’d play it all the time.

Destructoid: Sounds like you guys were an ideal team to work on a title like Space Invaders Extreme.

Arvin: Absolutely. We’ve worked on a lot of emulated games already, such as Sonic Ultimate Genesis Collection, some Midway classics…

Destructoid: Backbone is working on Gauntlet for DS, right?

Arvin: Yep, that’s right. We also did Bomberman, Super Street Fighter HD, Puzzle Fighter, 1942, Commando, so yeah, we love this kind of stuff. We eat it up.

Destructoid: It shows! Well, tell me a little bit about the challenges of bringing Space Invaders Extreme over to Xbox Live. I know it was originally a Taito title, but I assume you wanted to present it on 360 with a little bit of your own stamp, yes?

Taito was pretty accommodating on the changes we wanted to do. Of course, there’s a certain extent to what things we can change. They were fine with changing the backgrounds as long as it was still within the license. For the most part, everyone on the team were fans of the game before we got the project. It came out on the DS and I thought, “Wow, this is the best thing ever!” (laughs) So I was already eating it up, so it once it came to us, I thought, wow, this is awesome. I didn’t want to mess with it too much.

One of the things that happened was that we were thinking about how we would “up res” these aliens. I didnt want to make them smoother. People would walk by my desk and say “Are you sure you up-resed these guys? They still look kind of blocky!” They’ve very iconic that way though. I did a test to see what they would look like if I smoother them out, or filled in the curves, and it just didn’t look right. It lost its iconography. If there was any doubt at that point whether I should change the look of these guys, it was gone at that point.

We put minor touches in it, like we added a nicer gradient to the invader or a one pixel outline to make it look even sharper, but that’s it. As far as the shape of the aliens, we wanted to keep it that way. And actually, so did Taito. They actually brought in the original sprites for us to use. In my head, that’s our main difference from the DS and PSP versions, because those assets were actually not pixel perfect.

Destructoid: Well, that leads me to my next question: As far as presenting the game in HD, did you feel that this crisp new look could appeal to not only longtime fans of Space Invaders, but also younger people who never played the original Space Invaders?

Arvin: I think so. I think the biggest indicator of that is when I was at GDC this past year, we would find people milling around who had never played Space Invaders, even though they knew what it was. People would come up and want to play –even though we couldn’t let them play the game yet! — strictly because of the way it looked. I think a lot of that has a lot to do with the presentation and the visualizer by Jeff Minter. It’s just very striking. It appeals to a certain younger generation aesthetic that’s apparent with a lot of these retro games coming back.

Destructoid: That leads me beautifully into my next question, in fact! “The new retro”, as it’s sometimes called, present crisp new graphics with retro sensibilities at its core. What do you think about it and what games do you think have done it really well in the last few years?

I’ve always liked these types of games, even more now that I’m older. I simply don’t have time for these 80 hour RPGs anymore! These kinds of games attract me a lot, it became apparent to me that there was a huge market for this when Geometry Wars came out. It’s not really an old game made new, but it does have older sensibilities. When that exploded, it kind of surprised me — in a good way! I thought, wow, people really love this stuff, and they’ll pay money for it. Not every game has to be an epic first person shooter to attract a market.

Pac Man Championship Edition and Bit. Trip. Beat were a few other games that I thought did it right. I love that people are) bringing back this kind of sensibility. Aesthetics are definitely good to draw the player in, but to me, it needs to go further than that, have a deep gameplay experience that I can enjoy, that really hooks me. I think that’s what these “new retro” games are doing.

Destructoid: How important do you feel the music is for Space Invaders Extreme 360? Does it really pull the gamer into the experience?

Arvin: I think the music draws that connection to the younger audience. It’s got this “hipper” vibe to it. (pause) Just saying hipper makes me feel old. (laughs) It connects people to the game a lot more, it’s more aural. The original game has the sound linking to when the Invaders would explode or when the shot would hit — they would purposely delay sound effects to match the beat. We actually accommodated for that, and Jeff Minter’s backgrounds are tied into the music, so you’ll see stars pulse or certain colors shift with the music.

Destructoid: Tell me about the logistics of working with Jeff Minter on the visualizations. Did you give him the game and say “Here, do your thing”, or did you actually sit down with him and discuss your ideas and work together from there?

Arvin: It was pretty good collaborating with him. What we did was there were certain themes that were already in the DS and PSP versions that Taito wanted to mirror in the 360 edition. There are five levels: universe, earth (above the earth), nature, Tokyo day and Tokyo night. Basically kind of a little progression of the aliens as they come in and invade Earth. So we gave Jeff those themes and then he came back with a few rough ideas, which we would discuss back and forth until we came up with something that we wanted. At first, in my head, I was like “This is Jeff Minter, he’s awesome. I don’t know how to work with him, how do I work with him?” but he was so accommodating and he really appreciated the feedback. He came up with some really wonderful stuff. Some of my favorite stuff is in the third level, nature, which featured a lot of organic looking shapes.

We had him tie in not just the sound but also the state of the enemy patterns. You know how the Invaders start going nutty when there’s just one of them left? Well, at that point we have a slow shift of color and look to the visualizer so in the beginning it’s a bit more mellow, with cooler colors, and the more aliens you shoot down, the colors become warmer and more violent.

Destructoid: Sounds like it’s going to be really organic too, there’s a lot going on that’s naturally pulling you in. Let me ask a little bit about working on downloadable titles versus hard copies — do you feel there are more advantages working on a game that can be released straight to Xbox Live or PSN rather than a physical release?

I think I kind of like working on downloadable titles. Maybe its my background. When I started at Backbone we were doing Game Boy color games, so everything is very limited: limited colors, limited memory space, limited amount of animation we can put in. I kind of like that constraint, because it makes me say to myself, “I’m only allowed to do this, how do I work around it to make it awesome?” Downloadable games definitely force you to do that.

Aside from that, I think he other plus point of a downloadable title is that it is easier to publish. There’s no need to worry about the production of the boxes, the manual, etc. It also makes it faster as far as the turnaround time and how quickly they can be published. We don’t get the exposure of shelf space, but anyone online can browse and find the game with ease. It definitely makes it convenient for the player too, since they don’t even have to leave the house to buy the game.

Destructoid: I’m not gonna lie, we kind of enjoy not having to get up off the sofa to play a new game around here!

Arvin: Yeah! And I like this trend of demos being available for the downloadable games too, that way people can really get a good look at what they are going to get.

Destructoid: Definitely! Well, it seems like the the 4 player co-op is one of the big things that Backbone stepped in to bring to the 360 version of the game. Tell me a little bit about that.

Arvin: For the multiplayer, the co-op and versus modes, Taito gave us a little leeway, and one of our versus modes will be really standout — I think people will love playing it. It’s a mix that work soff of the puzzle elements in the game, and you can play with 3 other people on or offline. The versus mode allows you to shoot a certain number of enemies and send them over to the other side, a la’ Twinkle Star Sprites. It’s also kind of got a Puzzle Fighter twist to it for every three invaders you shoot, you put one into your queue, which you can store up to 12 Invaders in. When you shoot a UFO that’s flying by, you send whatever is in your queue over. Depending on the UFO that you shoot it changes what type of aliens you send over. It’s a lot of fun, it’s definitely our favorite mode in the office.

We also have the standard co-op mode, which you can play with up to three friends, and score attack, which is laid out similarly. Everyone is laid out on one screen but everyone has their own point and combo count, and whoever racks up the highest score wins. There’s also Endless Mode, which keeps you shooting until you die — definitely a leaderboards type of thing.

Destructoid:  I’m looking forward to playing those, although I’ll probably get my ass beat in some of those co-op modes. (laughs) You guys must have planned some really cool achievements — can you tell me about a few of your favorites?

Arvin: We have quite a few in there, ranging from simple ones such as beating a certain boss tor scoring a certain number of points, but I think my favorite is a classic homage to the original Space Invaders, called the Nagoya Attack. If the aliens get to the very last line and you shoot them there in the original game, the aliens can’t shoot you — they shoot and it goes right through you. Some people would use this to their advantage, wait for it and kill that last guy, but obviously it’s a risky move. If you actually fulfill that in Space Invaders Extreme 360, you get the Nagoya Attack achievement.

Destructoid: That’s awesome! Ok, just one more question for you. If you had your pick and could remake any retro game you chose, what would you pick and what would you do to it?

Arvin: That’s tough! A lot of the games that have recently come out would have been my first choices, like Space Invaders and Pong the way that Bit. Trip. Beat. reimagined it. One of the games that we love here at work is Rampart. I’m not sure what I would do to it though (laughs), it’s genius by itself already. I would have to play it with a trackball. What would I change to it? I can’t answer that question!

Destructoid: That’s ok, I’ll let you off this time. Thanks for your time, Arvin!

Space Invaders Extreme comes out for XBLA on May 6th.

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Colette Bennett
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