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Interview: Matt Phillips, Tanglewood Developer

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If you’re a big fan of the Mega Drive, you might have noticed a Kickstarter project floating around online recently by the name of Tanglewood. The campaign is currently about 70% funded, with about £34,000 raised against a goal of £48,000, and has ten days to go. If you want to see the campaign for yourself and download a playable demo, click here to visit the campaign page.

We couldn’t help but be intrigued by the project, especially as the lead developer Matt Phillips has a background in developing for modern platforms with companies such as TT Fusion and Deep Silver Dambuster Studios. We spoke to Matt to find out more about the game, as well as why he’s taken such a leap back in time:

Retro Gamer: Can you tell us a little bit about the premise of Tanglewood?
Matt Phillips: Tanglewood is set in a world of thick forests and barren deserts, multiple suns and moons, and a long history of now-extinct races of creatures. Those remaining are split into two factions – the timid day dwellers, and the vicious nocturnal hunters. The game stars Nymn – a member of the former – who has gotten stuck out in the open, away from the pack’s underground home, and must survive the night and get to morning with all limbs still intact.
The game is a 2D, side-scrolling platformer, and the player must utilise Nymn’s skills of evasion, as well as tricks, traps, and special abilities to escape or eradicate intimidating predators.

RG: The Mega Drive was blessed with a wide variety of platform games. How does Tanglewood stand out from the crowd?
MP: Tanglewood has a few modern game design tricks up its sleeves – a day/night time cycle, which affects the types of enemies Nymn will encounter, as well as physics-based puzzle elements that weren’t introduced to gamers until relatively recently. It also sports a dark and unnerving tone that breaks the mould from the typical Disney-inspired, bright and colourful platformers of the ’90s.
I’ve also stripped away some of the arcade-style elements present in most console games of the era, and reworked it to better suit the living room where the player has the advantage of being able to take their time. The game has no weapons, no HUD, no limited lives, no looping background music, you don’t kill enemies by jumping on their heads, and it tells a story entirely through gameplay with no text or spoken-word narrative. This approach isn’t uncommon by today’s standards, but for the ’90s this may well have been a set of traits that stood out.
RG: You’ve been in the games industry for a while now, creating games for modern platforms. Why take on a retro project?
MP: The idea has been at the back of head since my childhood and it wasn’t fading away with time.
I’ve also grown fond of the simplicity of programming for older machines. It’s a bare metal experience, and the machine does exactly what you tell it to with few surprises, a novelty that’s been lost to modern languages, compilers, device drivers and other abstraction layers. It comes at a cost, though; the machine’s specs are a whole world away from what I’m used to with current platforms, and I’ve cut corners that I’ve never had to consider before – things so seemingly basic as whether or not to support lowercase characters in the font to save graphics memory, limiting collision detection to just floors and walls to save CPU cycles, and trying to create a diverse cast of supporting characters by only changing the colour palettes. I’ve also lost portability – I can’t build this code for other 16-bit platforms, so it’ll need a lot of work or possibly an entire rewrite if I wanted to create a Super Nintendo version.
RG: Why did you choose the Mega Drive as the platform for the game?
MP: I’ve always wanted to create a game for one of the machines I grew up with, and the Mega Drive stands out as my all-time favourite, so I gravitated towards it. The idea was planted further into my head during my time at Traveller’s Tales – a studio still rife with passionate Amiga and Mega Drive programmers from their Puggsy, Toy Story, Mickey Mania and Sonic 3D days – and I was convinced that it’s an achievable dream I should finally see through.
RG: You’re using original Mega Drive development tools from the Nineties, which is an unusual step to take today – why have you chosen this approach?
MP: I wanted to put an emphasis on authenticity – if I was going to follow my dream of creating a Mega Drive game from back when I was 9 years old, I’m going to do it like it was done when I was 9 years old, which means learning the programming language of the time and getting hold of the tools and software that would have been available back then.
It was also a big unique selling point, one of the hooks that would make my game stand out from other homebrew releases. It seems to have worked; I’ve had amazing news coverage and a big community behind me who either think I’m completely crazy or commend my drive for an authentic-as-possible Mega Drive game over 20 years since its manufacture was discontinued.
RG: Who are your collaborators on Tanglewood?
MP: So far it’s a very small team – three artists and a composer – and myself. I have the pleasure of working with Simon Butler, a veteran from Ocean Software, and Adoru, who was a character and cutscene artist for Pier Solar, the last big game to be released on the Mega Drive. I’ve also had a big hand from my friends, undergoing playtests to help shape the prototype into what you see today, and masses of encouragement to see this project through. They’ve helped me iron out the creases in its core gameplay, and I wouldn’t have such a firm base on which to build if it wasn’t for them.
RG: You’ve already announced PC, Mac and Linux support for those who want to play Tanglewood but don’t own a Mega Drive. Are any other platforms planned for the future?
MP: I’ve been asked about a SNES port, and I gave it some serious consideration, to the point where I started integrating SNES support into my tools to see how it goes. It’s going to be quite a big job, though – I’ll need to learn yet another assembly language and a completely new system, then rewrite the entire engine and game code from scratch, so for now it’s on the backburner. The other platform I’ve considered is the Dreamcast. It still has a considerable following, and new games are generally well received on the system, so perhaps I’ll try integrating support for it in my PC game engine.
As for further into the future, I would love to do a high definition re-release on modern consoles, with updated graphics and an all-new soundtrack.

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