The Great Giana Sisters is one of the most infamous clones in video game history. Developed for the Commodore 64 back in 1987 by German programmer Armin Gessert, with graphics by Manfred Trenz and music by Chris Hülsbeck, both of whom are now considered legends by retro gaming aficionados, it was clearly inspired by Nintendo's NES classic Super Mario Bros., something which didn't escape the attention of the Japanese giant.
Thanks to pressure from Nintendo, but not legal action, as was rumoured at the time, the game was voluntarily withdrawn from sale by its creators soon after launch. For any other title, this would have been the end of the story, but The Great Giana Sisters was different. While Nintendo might have been hopeful that this action would make the gaming public forget about the game, it actually had the opposite effect; Gessert's creation would become a cult classic whose sequels, somewhat ironically, have since found their way onto Nintendo systems once again.
The most recent entry in the series is Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, which was successfully funded via Kickstarter back in 2012 to the tune of $190,000 and has appeared on a wide range of formats, including the PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and even the Nintendo Wii U. The game is now getting the next-gen treatment with an enhanced, 1080p Director's Cut, which is coming to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Twisted Dreams has already received its fair share of glowing reviews, and this high-def re-release marks a new high point for a series which has perhaps been unfairly treated over the years. However, as Adrian Goersch, managing director of developer and current IP holder Black Forest Games, exclusively explains to Red Bull, this is a story which is tinged with tragedy.
"Giana Sisters was property of Spellbound Entertainment, the studio founded by Armin Gessert, who made the original game, and Jean-Marc Haessig, who soon after the foundation left the management to Armin and focused on the creative part," Goersch says. Spellbound would go on to create Desperados and Airline Tycoon for the PC, but in 2009, Gessert suffered a fatal heart attack. Thankfully he was able to savour the glorious return of his creation before then in the form of Giana Sisters DS for the Nintendo DS, which gained excellent reviews, but the title would be Spellbound's last contribution to the world of games, as it was unable to continue following the passing of its founder, leaving the future of the Giana Sisters franchise once again up in the air. Thankfully, from the ashes of one firm another company rose. "The key members of the team, among them Jean-Marc, founded Black Forest Games, hired most of the Spellbound team and took over all of Spellbound's IPs," recalls Goersch.
Having identified Giana Sisters as the property with the most commercial potential, the team at Black Forest Games quickly began to come up with new ideas which would elevate the series beyond the traditional view of it being a simple Mario clone. "We did lots of research on lots of platformers out there," says Goersch. "There was a point when it just became clear that fast-paced gameplay like Sonic the Hedgehog and hardcore difficulty like Super Meat Boy and Donkey Kong Country was the best match."
It's perhaps unsurprising that Black Forest was initially unable to secure publisher interest for its new vision, given the niche nature of the licence. It's possible that rumours of Nintendo's legal challenge back in the '80s put potential partners off, but thankfully the game was able to make it to market due to the support of the people who would ultimately play it.
"It was a good time for trying out crowdfunding and a good option as we were not able to close a publisher deal," explains Goersch. "This gave us, besides the cash to finish development, lots of publicity." Black Forest's Managing Director also reveals that by using Kickstarter to produce the game, it allowed his team to become more closely attuned to what the games-playing public wanted.
"It was the first time that everyone in the team came out of the closed box we had been in as a studio before," he says. "That's satisfying in a way as we got lots of positive feedback, but also quite challenging as we are experiencing with our other game DieselStormers, which is currently in Steam Early Access after a second Kickstarter campaign. You are forced to talk about decisions in design, art and tech very early while some of them are pure gut feelings that will shine only when the game is finished."
Goersch reveals to Red Bull that the PC version of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dream is still the best-selling "by far", and even with the HD Director's Cut, he doesn't see the console sales catching up. He is also able to announce that the once-mooted Ouya version has finally been canned. "We had it as an unreached Kickstarter stretch goal and as far as I know Ouya is not performing that well," he explains. However, other platforms could see the game arrive in the near future. "Why not tablets with a controller?" asks Goersch when we quizzed him about possible iOS and Android ports. "We believe it could work. Wii U owners love playing Giana Sisters on the console's GamePad. We also would love to do a PS Vita version but that is not a priority currently."
The success of the Giana Sisters Kickstarter and positive sales of the game have certainly transformed the fortunes of Black Forest Games, but Goersch is quick to point out that it hasn't enabled the staff to start buying Ferraris or holiday villages in the Mediterranean. "We got our development costs back so we were able to invest the money in DieselStormers, but it was not enough to make us rich," he says with a smile. While crowdfunding is an exciting new way of creating games and frees developers from the limitations of working under a publisher, it comes with its own risks. "It is still a challenge for a studio with 30 team members to feed," Goersch adds.
Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams Director's Cut, which launches this week, is the definitive edition of the game, boasting better visuals and improved gameplay. Goersch happily lists the various enhancements, all of which prove that Black Forest Games is committed to making its popular platformer even better. "HD graphics, 60fps framerate, optimized boss fights you can take step by step, all of the extra levels from the PC version, free access to each world, even if you haven't finished the ones before, and some unfair peaks in difficulty have been optimised. Honestly, it was a pleasure to port to the powerful new gen. Even the submission processes with Sony and Microsoft are smoother now."
DieselStormers is the studio's next original project, but Goersch admits that the crowdfunding process didn't go quite according to plan. The first Kickstarter campaign failed to meet its target goal, but thankfully it was successful at the second attempt. "In between Giana Sisters and DieselStormers Kickstarter changed a lot and it became very difficult for game projects to raise money," he says. "We will have to see if this still makes sense in the future."
And will the future involve more Giana Sisters? Thankfully for fans of the franchise, the answer is a positive one. "Expect a new Giana early 2016," Goersch proclaims with a grin. "Also we are considering bringing the Dream Rush multiplayer mode we just released for PC to consoles if it is received well by the community." As if Black Forest didn't already have enough on its plate, Goersch reveals that the studio has another ongoing venture which is rather different from its past titles, as well as a unique way of interacting with its fanbase.
"We’re pitching a project that has nothing to do with platformers and several publishers are very interested. Beside that we started a YouTube channel together with other developers. We do partial Let's Play videos of our games, always with developers from the other studios. The idea is to give some insight into games development. The channel is called DevPlay."
After braving the uncertainty of a crowdfunding campaign Black Forest Games, and the Giana Sisters themselves, have come through the other side in better shape than ever, and the Director's Cut remaster of Twisted Dreams will bring the siblings to an entirely new audience. However, for the staff at the studio, the fact that the creator of the series isn't here to see its newfound success gives reason for reflection.
"Armin was a man of no compromises," Goersch says. "Therefore I believe he would have loved the new Giana Sisters. If not for the soundtrack, the beautiful art or how the sisters evolved, then for the straight-forward hardcore gameplay." Twisted Dreams is a fitting tribute to one of gaming's most underrated developers, and places the Giana Sisters back in the pantheon of platforming icons, where they undoubtedly belong.
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