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Renaine: Phoenix Knight, and the Squidly Interview

I’m a big fan of phoenixes. What can I say? Birds that burst into flame and emerge renewed are sort of my aesthetic. I also dig knights who also happen to be ladies, fights against nearly insurmountable odds, and platformers that remind me of playing Super Mario games on my NES back in the 80’s.

When I stumbled across Renaine on Kickstarter, I had to reach out to the dev team behind this game and chat with them about it. Phoenix Knight? Countless lives as part of the story? Bright graphics, fun mechanics, and a remarkable soundtrack? Renaine just might be my next jam! Lucky for me, head developer Squidly was feeling chatty! Check out the interview below.

(The following interview has been edited for grammar and clarity.)

Geek Dame: Tell me about where the game came from – I know it started out as Super Knight Quest. Where did the name Renaine come from, and the mythology of a Phoenix Knight?

Squidly: Super Knight Quest’s transition to Renaine is basically the story of mechanics and story getting married. Essentially the story is this mirror right back at what the player is actually doing – they have infinite lives, as many as they need, to do this impossible task of beating the game. Each time they don’t get stronger stats-wise but they do get better at the game. So I took that concept and made it into the story of Aine, the Phoenix Knight, who is doing just that – she has as many tries as she needs to defeat this Dragon, and yes, your failures are canonical – she won’t get it down the first time. As for the name? Well, knowing the main character’s name should solve half of that.

GD: What was your strategy to achieve a balanced game that appeals to both speedrunners and completionists?

S: So about half of that is happenstance and the other half is solidifying an opportunity. Did I see this coming from a mile away? Hell no. But what I did say is that I wanted an arcadey fun game (and indeed this game was originally made for a legit actual arcade machine,) which by default has to be fast, and has to be responsive. I am actually a huge speedrun fan (could never speedrun myself, though) and one of my first moves was to post this on the speedrun discord. That’s actually the origins of the Renaine Discord – we were told to buster off and take the discussion elsewhere (lol) and so we obliged ?

GD: While playing your demo, I was definitely getting waves of Super Mario Bros. 2 nostalgia – so much so that using a keyboard and not a NES controller was throwing me off! How much is that just part of this particular video game form, and how much is an intentional callback?

S: I wasn’t really thinking of Super Mario Bros 2 necessarily but I was thinking of Super Mario World as well as the original Super Mario Bros. Both games have a very strong sense of “flow.” If you watch speedrunners of those games, you’ll find they almost never stop. That’s one of my objectives with Renaine, actually – if you do know what you’re doing, you should find that you rarely ever stop. All the platforms and all the enemies are on local timers that start when they’re on screen, so you have time to react. This takes the guess work away from the level moving while you’re not interacting with it and puts it firmly in control of the player, which I’m 100% always for.

In addition, the difficulty curve is very Mario-like – it’s not impossible but it’s definitely not easy. I find it much harder to design games with Mario difficulty than the recent ultra-difficulty craze because of how hard it is to keep that ‘flow’ going, where the player can know what they failed at and see noticeable improvement over time. It’s funny, a lot of the difficulty of Renaine comes from the one-life mechanic – you’ll find that in the old Mario games, before the save feature, that’s how you did it – all in one go. Of course you had multiple lives but Aine doesn’t die to one hit by a walking turtle either, it takes at least 6.

GD: Roguelikes are typically characterized in part by permanent character death. Why did you decide to throw that out and go with resurrections (i.e. that phoenix feature)?

S: IMO, there’s two dominant ways of telling a story in a roguelike, either it’s persistent or it always resets. The issue is that when it always resets, you find that you can’t really focus on characters since they’re all erased. But if it’s persistent, you often have to say “well, it’s a new knight that looks just like her.” I didn’t want that. I wanted characters that remembered who you were, and I wanted a clear identifiable player character. It’s funny, the original plot of Renaine had Aine stuck in a time loop – whenever she failed, she would retain her memories but time would reset! I decided against that as soon as towns got involved and I wanted more meaningful progress.

GD: Who are the hearts and minds behind Renaine?

S: Squidly (that’s me!) is the programmer, designer, storywriter, primary animator, and overall main guy. Mason Lieberman is the musician, who’s been with me since about two or three months in to the project and has done an incredible job with the music. Carrion is the newest addition and is the tile artist as well as overall art director, he’s the reason why Renaine doesn’t look as… amateur as it used to be. We’ve had TONS of help along the way, though, and Renaine wouldn’t be anything without all the smaller hands chipping in. SinclaireStrange helped a lot with art/music before Carrion and Mason stepped in. Our poster art was done by the incredibly talented Ayaka. And finally, BM13 helped me a ton with the world building details (to which the whole concept of Renaine would’ve been a LOT weaker) as well as a ton of the concepts of characters in the game’s “high rez” images along with the original symbol for the logo!

GD: The art is truly exquisite and remarkable for such simple graphics. And the bluebirds are my absolute favorite – they convey such birdiness. How did you choose this art style?

S: It was a lot of things coming together at once. Stylistically, I’m inspired by my years playing Maplestory that has permanently and irreversibly cute-ified my art, hence the creatures all looking adorable. The idea of single colored sprites actually came from another game I was doing before as a tech demo that emulated the style of Hero Core – a game entirely done in two colors (white and black.) I adopted this as my dominant spriting style after having a lot of fun with it, and when it came time to do this game I had the idea of coloring in the sprites different colors as a direct contrast to another project I was doing (Authentic Octopus Game) that had hard single colored black sprites for all “living” things and 4 color Gameboy-style backgrounds. So this is the evolution of both of these things getting locked in an abandoned Crayola factory together.

GD: Your music is something else and as vibrant as everything else about Renaine. You mention branching paths keeping the music fresh on your Kickstarter page – do you mean the music evolves as you play and replay?

S: The music doesn’t evolve across runs (though that is a neat idea, actually) but it does evolve across your playthrough of a level. What you’re hearing in Shellwood Forest is actually five tracks overlayed, each an individual instrument, separated into several branches. These then get messed around with depending on where you are in the level and how things are going. When I got Mason on board, I told him specifically to not do chiptune and give me something that sounded like nothing else. Needless to say, sax in the medieval forest isn’t exactly the standard approach to that theme but it works surprisingly well.

GD: How does Mr. Octopus leg it around the forest so well? I love octopi so I ain’t complaining, but there doesn’t seem to be an ocean for miles!

S: The one known as “Mr. Octopus” is actually one of several octopi that make their homes around Lineria. They have different approaches to things, but they all share a common tendency to sell convenient items to wealthy adventurers in extremely dangerous areas. The Shellwood Forest isn’t a place you can just walk right into, let alone haul tons of items. How do they do it? Who knows…

GD: How many levels do you have in mind for Renaine?

S: Five. Well, five in the main quest, as in, if you’re gonna go lay the smack down to the Dragon as quick as possible you need to do five. But these five have alternate paths, levels, and maybe a few secrets (though as a certain mouse said, there are no secrets in this game!). What’s the final tally for levels in the game? You’ll just have to wait and see.

GD: What’s in the pipeline for your team after Renaine? What do you noodle at when you’re taking a break and dreaming of the future?

S: I’ve promised Carrion to work on his Project OvO in some manner after this game, but other than that I’m assuming we’ll go our separate ways. I absolutely love working with both Carrion and Mason, but at heart I’m a drifter who likes to constantly find new people to work with; it keeps things fresh and the art of game design interesting. Anyhow, Authentic Octopus Game needs to be finished in some manner, likely going to be rewritten from the ground up, and other than that I’ve been shooting some ideas with my friend SinclairStrange so you might be seeing a collab then if our schedules align and we find ourselves free to try something.

Renaine is now on Kickstarter – back them before their campaign closes on October 23! You’ll find links for a downloadable demo of Renaine on their Kickstarter page, or you can play it over on Newgrounds

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