Hyper Light Drifter: Retro is back

How a hospital, anime and Conan combined to make Kickstarter's most exciting action epic yet.

Hyper Light Drifter artwork
Hyper Light Drifter: Retro is back

Sometimes the greatest endeavors come from serious hardships or misfortune. In the case of 29 year-old Los Angeles-based animator Alex Preston, it was a lengthy stay in hospital which gave him the focus to create the kind of game he'd always dreamed of playing. "I've always been a sick kid, so I have a long standing relationship with hospitals and doctors and the whole sterile medical institution," Preston explains to Red Bull. "Being hospitalized early in the year made me realize that I need to only do what I absolutely want to do - no more freelance or client work. Since I was mostly relegated to a bed during these types of visits I was allotted plenty of time to think, digest and process everything I wanted out of this game."

The game in question is Hyper Light Drifter, a heartfelt tribute to 16-bit gaming which features intense action, other-worldly environments and a captivating RPG-style storyline. "It's put plenty of things into perspective and given me the motivation to move forward with this project," Preston continues. "It's very personal and I hope that shines through in the end." Launched earlier this year, it didn't so much break its modest Kickstarter goal as smash it to pieces. Preston asked for a relatively humble $27,000 and got over $645,000, meeting all of the project's stretch goals bar one and allowing Preston to hire additional staff and fully realise his original vision without any compromise. He admits that the overwhelming response to his unique vision has taken him entirely by surprise. "The community and press has been amazing," he says. "We started with a low goal as that's what we could scrape by on in hopes of making this thing a reality. Now we aren't limited to such a tiny budget and everything we wanted this world to be is possible." The team that is spending this considerable budget is small, but incredibly dedicated.

Although Preston and his team are relatively new as a group, individually they bring with them a lot of experience and talent. Beau Blyth - the creator of Samurai Gunn, the forthcoming PC title which caused a stir at both PAX Prime and Independent Games Festival - has been working with Preston for the majority of the year. Two additional team members - Casey Hunt and Teddy Diefenbach - have also come on board recently, while the game's stirring soundtrack comes courtesy of Fez composer Rich Vreeland, better known as Disasterpiece.

Described as a mix between Diablo and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Hyper Light Drifter pulls in influences from several other retro gaming greats - all of which are close to Preston's heart.

"The exploration and sense of adventure is pure Link to the Past, as well as some of the core puzzle elements, and the elegant and beautiful simple design," he explains.

"From Diablo, we've taken brutal combat, huge amounts of enemies, big beasts wandering the lands, a bit of loot and collecting and skill upgrades. Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy VI are also major influences in design and aesthetics." Of course, Hyper Light Drifter has plenty of ideas of its own - although Preston is understandably wary about revealing them before players have had chance to experience the game first-hand.

"We're shooting for an entirely text-less adventure," he reveals. "That's not to say you won't have interactions with the town's people, but we want something different out of that experience." He also adds that there may be a 'fun vehicle section', possibly using a 'Mode 7' effect - similar to the kind you used to see on the Super Nintendo back in the day, where backgrounds or floors would scale and rotate smoothly to give the effect of 3D movement. Speaking of Nintendo's 16-bit console, it's worth pointing out that although Hyper Light Drifter performed well above expectations during its funding campaign, it didn't hit the final stretch goal - a SNES 'demake' at $1 million dollars - which would have seen the game scaled down and ported to the classic platform. It's tempting to question just how sincere Preston and his team were about this potential version, given the fact that it's for a console which was released over two decades ago.

Screenshot from Hyper Light Drifter
Screenshot from Hyper Light Drifter

"This was serious - we all have a deep love for the platform, and that type of money would allow us to hire someone full time to 'down-port' the game," he explains. "Of course, it would be a hefty task and there would be significant differences - fewer enemies, effects and animation frames due to memory limitations - though I think we could adjust and make something incredibly special with 'Super Hyper Light Drifter' regardless. It's a dream goal to put it up on my favorite console of all, and I hope to accomplish that dream sooner than later. Maybe once we release the game we will have the opportunity to accomplish this." Preston is a massive fan of classic gaming, but inspiration also comes from outside the world of interactive entertainment, with the animator citing both American and Japanese comics as a significant motivator. "The Akira graphic novels are a major influence from a young age, as well as all of Masamune Shirow's work," he continues. Shirow is better known to western audiences as the creator of Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed - two successful Japanese imports from the world of anime and manga.

"Plenty of American comics destroyed my mind as a kid - Uncanny X-Men and Deadpool to name just two.” Preston also has a lot of admiration for the late Frank Frazetta, the acclaimed fantasy and science fiction artist who brought Conan the Barbarian to life. Preston also reveals he's a massive fan of the Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary Japanese anime director behind Howl's Moving Castle, Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke. The influence of Miyazaki's 1984 fantasy epic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind can be felt in the stylish artwork which accompanies Hyper Light Drifter's pixel-engorged screenshots. Preston's vision is no less original and thought-provoking than the best Miyazaki or Shirow have to offer, mind. Set in a fantasy world which seamlessly blends magic and technology, Hyper Light Drifter revolves around a mysterious character who is searching for the cure to a disease which is slowly killing him. Preston readily admits that the storyline borrows from his own personal hardships, but also from more positive memories about growing up. "The idea has been an amalgamation of ideas from my childhood and difficult life experiences, plus a variety of influences from all of the media I consumed growing up," he says. "I'm just making the game I've always wanted to make." The incredible success of the game's crowdfunding campaign stands as testament to the intoxicating power of video game art; while the assurances of old-school gameplay undoubtedly help, it's fair to say that Hyper Light Drifter's visual hook seems to have had the biggest impact with backers.

The game forms part of a pixel-art revolution which is currently sweeping through the world of smartphones, tablets, PCs and consoles, and places the game in the company of Ouya multiplayer hit Towerfall (Think Bomberman with bows and arrows). Preston is flattered by the comparison but is keen to stress that despite the artistic similarities, they’re very different beasts. "We've played a fair amount of Towerfall at the studio and love it to bits, but I'm not sure the games share much in the way of gameplay or style, besides them both being low-res pixel art." Downloadable games may feature innovative ideas and unique visuals, but the small size of the teams making them usually means they're brief - yet enjoyable - adventures. Will Hyper Light Drifter fall into the same category? Preston is reluctant to say at this stage. "We're making this game a complete experience and the story is incredibly important, so specific length isn't a concern," he explains. "We want this to feel 'right' and whole and vast and grand, so whatever the relatively arbitrary number of hours ends up at is anyone's guess right now."

Speaking of time, that is the one thing giving the team its biggest headache right now. "We have resources and talent - now we just need all the time to ourselves." At least from Preston's point of view, he has no other distractions - the incredible response to the Kickstarter campaign has allowed him to focus on the project full time. He'll need that time, too - the game is slated for release across a wide range of platforms, including PC, PS4, PS Vita, Ouya and Wii U. Given the differences between each platform - especially the Vita and Wii U, which offer touchscreen capabilities - will the team look to add value to certain versions?

Screenshot from Hyper Light Drifter
Screenshot from Hyper Light Drifter

"We want the experience to be the same across all platforms," maintains Preston. "We may try a few interesting bits with the Wii U touch or Vita touch [pad on the back of the handheld], but nothing that breaks the mold for the other games. For now we're going to have to play with the hardware a bit to see what we can or want to implement."

Juggling all of these editions presents another obvious question - that of a simultaneous release. "That's what we are shooting for, but we can't make any promises at this point." One thing Preston can't talk about yet is sequels, though the game’s eerily beautiful universe is certainly ripe for expansion. "It's way too early to talk about sequels," he says. "We have so much work ahead of us on this current labor of love." It's obvious that Preston has plenty of ideas inside his head, and is clearly keen to give as many of them flight as possible. "I think we will have to asses our brain-space after the release to really see if a sequel is the best fit for the next game, or any number of other great ideas we all have instead. I want this to be a huge universe with lots of related games and lore and side stories, so at the very least we'll likely stick to exploring this vast world."