With the PlayStation 4 Pro on the market and Microsoft's Project Scorpio looming tantalisingly on the horizon, it's fair to assume that the focus of many video game developers right now is on cutting-edge hardware and the incredible possibilities these super-consoles bring with them. However, for WaterMelon Games, the allure of 4K visuals and hitherto unprecedented processing power pales in comparison to the raw thrill of getting ancient gaming hardware to do tricks that simply shouldn't be possible; this enigmatic indie studio has made this its primary focus since the release of its first title, 2010's 16-bit RPG Pier Solar and the Great Architects.
Rather than tackle the big systems of the period, Pier Solar was released initially on the Sega Mega Drive (known as the Genesis in North America), which was originally released almost 30 years ago. The critical acclaim convinced WaterMelon to ported it to modern consoles such as the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Wii U in 2014 with a raft of improvements, but that hasn't changed the studio's dedication to dead platforms. Since the conclusion of those versions WaterMelon has been hard at work on its next project, and unsurprisingly it's once again on Sega's vintage 16-bit system. The brave step was taken by asking the fan base exactly what they wanted from WaterMelon's next game, and the developers used that as the starting point for Paprium, a side-scrolling fighter which has been in active production for four years.
"Game design was a bit special because part of it was chosen by our most hardcore fans through an online voting system at our community website, WM's Magical Game Factory back in 2012," explains Gwénaël Godde, founder of WaterMelon games and pixel artist on Paprium. "They had decided the game system, game type and theme. It ended being a Mega Drive brawler with a cyberpunk / post apocalypse theme. From there, like any other game, we developed a whole universe around this – the story, characters, gameplay concepts, and so on."
Since then, Paprium has enjoyed a rather turbulent road to market, a consequence of the small size of the team and the challenges in creating content for a platform which is no longer in active production, and therefore receives no development support from the original manufacturer. "The development itself wasn't exactly smooth, [it] had lot of hiccups and setbacks," says Godde. "We had experience of a long development process with our previous project, but this time, the requirements were one step ahead and our fans required the best of the best. Making a 2D game for 1988 hardware requires very specific skills with unimaginable constraints for today's artists and programmers. People also have to realise that all our favourite games from back in mid '90s were the made by the top talent of the era, who all already had over a decade of experience and millions of company dollars backing them up. All those skills disappeared in the late '90s with 3D games or more advanced game systems. Therefore, consolidating a team to push such a project is a major challenge no matter how much money you would want to throw. Many people joined, many people quit. Contractors, volunteers. As always, the game still releases!"
That’s not all, as Godde tells us, one huge setback cost the developers more than just lost time: “Back in mid 2016, an airline lost Paprium’s custom development hardware, computers and game systems! We produced a new devkit from scratch at high cost and used our backed-up data.”
Given that modern developers are working with consoles that offer plenty of memory, highly-developed middleware and other technological creature comforts, surely it must feel incredibly limiting to be coding for a system which is now comfortably eclipsed by the average smartphone? For Godde, that's all part of the appeal.
"The hardware has only four palettes of 15 colours in 9 bit definition – which means there are only 8 shades from black to white. There are a lot of video memory constraints as everything displayed must be packed in less than 64 Kbytes. Programming wise, you need to work with a 7mhz Motorola 68000 processor and the code needs to be 100 percent customized for the game because that processor is so slow, any single operation eats several percent of your processing time – you can forget about using any divides or multiplications in your code!
“Creativity is more about finding ways to handle the hundreds of simultaneous tasks such a game would require without any slowdown. The game runs at 60fps, in full progressive resolution. We've also ensured that latency between the joypad and the screen is as low as possible – response time is actually much faster than 99 percent of the console games released nowadays. In other words, the game gives you a slap in your face and makes you wonder what's going on with your Sony PS4 or Nintendo Switch."
Such confidence is admirable, but it's tempting to ask why WaterMelon didn't consider the Mega Drive's rival – the Super Nintendo – as a better choice of platform, given that Nintendo's 16-bit system is generally regarded as superior in terms of graphical grunt and audio; surely that would have made things easier? Not so, according to Godde. "We also have an unreleased SNES project in development so we have some experience on this hardware. The SNES definitively cannot run Paprium as-is, because there is lack of raw processing power. Moreover, the hardware is very picky and prone to glitches if brutalized in the way we work, resulting in sub-optimal performance. To be fair, a SNES port could have more colours and slightly more detailed backgrounds, but on the other hand, it would have far less enemies on-screen and a lower screen resolution. We tailor made Paprium for the exact Mega Drive specifications – it is not meant to be a SNES game."
It's not just the hardware which is old-fashioned – the genre in which Paprium is set could also be considered archaic. Side-scrolling fighters like Double Dragon, Final Fight and Streets of Rage used to be one of the biggest draws in the '80s and '90s but they've since fallen out of favour with mainstream players – although retro addicts clearly hold them in high regard, hence the choice of genre for this project. "Every single Mega Drive fan wants a brawler because that's mostly why the 16-bit console is remembered, along with platformers," Godde says. "The Mega Drive had Streets of Rage, and we all awaited for the fourth installment which never happened!"
Those expecting a deep and engaging storyline may be disappointed to learn that Paprium stays very true to the classics of yesteryear. "Such kind of games do not usually have any deep scenario: It's just about a evil guy named Mr X or whatever awaiting with his cigar or glass of wine to kick your ass at the end of the final level," laughs Godde. "So it's always very tricky to keep the fun and replayability while having a decent scenario. We definitively have a scenario with lot of background but in the end, while we have the overall mood intact, the story is a bit toned down to leave more room for the arcade fun. 16-bit is not about endless cutscenes and over-complicated scenarios!"
One area where Paprium won't tow the line with the past is audio. WaterMelon has gone to extreme lengths to overcome the limitations of Sega's hardware, which by Godde's own admission was never the most adept system on the market when it came to producing decent tunes. "The Mega Drive had big fans and just as many detractors when it comes to sound," he admits. "The system has one Yamaha six channel FM chip and one four channel PSG chip, similar to those in many 8-bit systems. The FM can also support one DAC channel for SFX such as punches or voices but everything must be fed manually by the sound processor. The sound processor, a Zilog Z80, is not exactly good at handling such tasks and many Mega Drive games had extremely grainy, low quality SFX.
“Moreover, Sega didn't put much effort into providing developers with proper tools and documentation, so many games ended up sounding much worse than what the hardware was capable of; to setup a single FM instrument requires an expert several minutes of hard work because there are a dozen of parameters to define and anything wrong produces trashy sound. With proper skills and time, this setup can sound amazing – check out Sonic, Shinobi, Streets of Rage, Ristar – but developers had no time back then, so they used the default instruments provided by Sega most of the time."
The team's prior experience with Pier Solar came in handy here. "There weren't any audio tools available publicly when we made Pier Solar so we gained experience by creating our own," reveals Godde. "For Paprium we went one step ahead – we developed our own chipset and used a backdoor left by Sega to allow additional audio channels to be mixed with the existing audio hardware of the Mega Drive. It's the dream of any Mega Drive fan: crystal-clear sound effects! Our chipset also adds multiple channels for the music too; never has 16-bit music been so advanced. Now the only limitation is the composer's imagination, and since everything is played in real time we can tweak the music in on the fly depending on the on-screen action."
With incredible audio, slick animation and plenty of eye-catching, hand-drawn content, it should come as no surprise to learn that Paprium will comfortably be the largest game ever to see the light of day on Sega's 16-bit console. "We tried to stick to the original Sega spirit," says Godde. "Our game is 80MEG, but is heavily compressed and very well packed. The actual game would be more like two or three times the size. Of course this helps when it comes to adding variety and the amount of levels and playable characters, but it helps very little when it comes to displaying more enemies on-screen. For that, we had to use our own skill."
Paprium is available for pre-order now, with an estimated release date of September. Godde insists that unlike Pier Solar, a port to other systems may not happen. "Paprium is tailor-made for the original Mega Drive hardware; a ROM release or Steam port won't do it any justice," he explains. It's clear that this game is pushing Sega's decades-old hardware to its very limits, and beyond.
The company's aforementioned SNES project is still under wraps and it will be fascinating to see what WaterMelon can achieve with that equally beloved hardware, but for now you need to focus on dusting off that Mega Drive or scouring eBay for a console – if you're a fan of retro gaming, this is a brawl you won't want to miss out on.