The Great Giana Sisters earned notoriety on various 8-bit and 16-bit computers when Nintendo had it pulled because it was a little too similar to its own Super Mario Bros. Even with this controversey Giana’s success would have been assured as it’s such a fantastic platformer. Here, Manfred Trenz looks back and reveals how it all started.
During the late-Seventies and early-Eighties, clones of popular arcade games were rampant and they quickly began to spread to home computers like a cancerous growth. Krazy Kong was a surprisingly good ZX81 clone of Nintendo’s Donkey Kong and was also the name of an unofficial bootleg of the very same arcade game, Snapper, Munchman, Hangly-Man and Munchkin were direct rip-offs of Namco’s Pac-Man, while Super Invaders, Cosmic Monsters, Space Attack and Space King were spin-offs of Taito’s Space Invaders.
As you can see, the similarities between Giana Sisters and Super Mario Bros were extremely obvious.
In the early days of videogaming, many of these clones were left to leech off the arcade originals, growing increasingly fat off the efforts of the original creators. They even proved to be easy calling cards for fledgling developers – Geoff Crammond and Jon Ritman, for example – who were eager to break into the industry. Occasionally, however, these games came under fire, with their creators having to face copyright violation lawsuits and having to pay the consequences. Sometimes just being threatened was enough, as Manfred Trenz discovered when The Great Giana Sisters, a game he’d been working on with Armin Gessert, faced the wrath of Nintendo due to it being a little too similar to one of the Japanese giant’s most popular games.
Super Mario Bros was one of Nintendo’s biggest titles and was helping the Japanese publisher to grab a lucrative slice of the Western gaming market. With its slick scrolling, myriad of secrets and superb level design it proved to be in a totally different league to many computer platformers of the time and gamers were going absolutely nuts for it.
Eager to grab a slice of the Super Mario Bros pie, the then CEO of Rainbow Arts, Marc Ulrich, saw Shigeru Miyamoto’s creation and immediately hatched a plan. “When he saw Super Mario Bros, he became very excited about it,” recalls Trenz. “Since there was no game like it available on home computers at the time, he saw a chance for a successful game to be made using very similar game mechanics.”
A team was quickly assembled, consisting of Trenz, who’d create the game’s distinctive visuals; Armin Gessert was hauled in for programming duties (he ended up coding everything with the exception of the high-score routine, which was handled by Trenz), while legendary C64 musician Chris Hülsbeck handled the excellent theme tune.
Like Super Mario Bros there are plenty of cool secrets to discover.
Interestingly, despite the sterling job Trenz did with capturing Super Mario Bros’ distinctive look he admits to never being a big fan of the actual game. “I saw the PlayChoice arcade version before I saw the actual NES game, but to be honest, I was never really interested enough to play it. I never even bothered with Donkey Kong, which was the first game to actually feature Mario. I was always more interested in games like Defender, to be honest.”
Despite Trenz’s general apathy for the game, Ulrich was determined that he should be on board the project and, with a team in place, Ulrich’s next step was to secure an actual Nintendo NES and a copy of the popular platformer. Nowadays it’s common practice for coders to have direct access to original arcade code when they’re working on conversions, but back in the early days it was an entirely different matter. Programmers would usually be supplied with nothing more than an actual arcade machine and a lot of ten pences, and intensive playing became the only way of accessing a game’s secrets. Unsurprisingly, when Trenz and Gessert finally received their console the approach they had to take was no different. There was no backwards engineering involved and certainly no help from Nintendo, just a hell of a lot of playing and note taking.
“The NES was installed with Super Mario Bros and we had to play it over and over and over again to understand how the game worked and was put together,” continues Trenz. “Eventually, I ended up seeing everything the game had to offer. Even now, providing I have lots of time and very good nerves, it’s possible for me to beat Super Mario Bros without cheating.”
Rainbow Arts’ game wasn’t on shelves for long before Nintendo had it pulled.
Charged with creating both the game’s look and its level design, Trenz soon realised that he was in a very delicate position, as he had to create a title that was immediately recognisable as Super Mario Bros, but not enough so that it would cause potential trouble for Rainbow Arts. As a result, the creation of many aspects, such as the layout of stages and the main character, took Trenz and Gessert a fair amount of time to perfect, meaning their game wasn’t fully completed until a good six to seven months of hard graft had been put in.
“I did have complete freedom of choice when it came to designing the levels but the ‘management’ had a constant eye on the graphical style. It had to be very similar to Super Mario Bros,” continues Trenz. “Yes, the graphical style was copied, but I did go out of my way to ensure that all levels were originally designed. I also found creating the main character [Giana] to be quite a hard task. It took me a very long time to find out the best look for her. I had lots of different variations but there always seemed to be something missing. It just took a really long time. So long, in fact, that practically every two weeks the management would be asking: ‘What the hell are you doing? Show us something!’”
Hassle from upper management continued, and Trenz found even the most straightforward of tasks, like creating a flashy title screen, became increasingly difficult. “I ended up having to draw three different title pictures in the end,” recalls Trenz as he looks back at the constant scrutiny that their game was under. “The first one was deemed to be far too cute, the second one was apparently far too gloomy and it was finally the third effort that ended up satisfying the management.”
To try to distance Rainbow Arts’ creation from Nintendo’s, Trenz took out the familiar mushrooms and Koopas and other enemies in the game and replaced them with non-offensive-looking enemies, such as giant ants and other cute creations. Although some of them still looked remarkably similar to the original enemy sprites.
As with Super Mario Bros you can hit blocks to earn bonuses.
“I thought it would be incredibly cheeky to simply copy the enemies exactly as they were in Super Mario Bros, so I decided to invent as many new and funny ones as possible.” Trenz’s insistence on trying to make the game his own can also be seen whenever one of the sisters gobbles up the power-enhancing sweets that litter Giana’s many levels. Whenever Mario munches on a mushroom he grows in stature and his new power is easy to convey, with the sisters though, they simply grew new spikey haircuts. This wasn’t down to machine limitations, however, but was another conscious decision on the part of Trenz. “It was simply a technical thing,” he explains. “If I had gone and created another large sprite we would have been directly copying a feature exactly as it had appeared in Super Mario Bros.”
Having to placate upper management’s desire for an identical Super Mario Bros clone and wanting to create something that felt sufficiently different were the least of Trenz’s problems, however, mainly because Giana’s distinct visuals had to be created from less than sufficient art tools. “Because there were no real tools available at the time, I simply had to make do with an existing tile creator that someone had created so I could build the graphic sets, and it proved to be a real pain to use. All the actual enemies ended up being simply placed in by hand.”
As work began to wind up, focus turned over to what the game would actually be called. “Well, we wanted the name to sound similar to Super Mario Bros, but nevertheless be a little different,” confirms Trenz. “We decided on the following: ‘Super’ became ‘Great’, ‘Mario’ became ‘Giana’, while ‘Brothers’ would obviously turn into ‘Sisters’.” It was a good plan, but like the best plans, it wasn’t going to be enough. Before long Nintendo would be calling…