Interview with Matt Phillips on Tanglewood (SEGA Genesis & PC)



Making a new game is a challenge process, one which many studios work hard to get complete. But how about doing something not very common in the gaming industry; making a new game on old hardware from generations prior. This is where Tanglewood comes into the picture, a recent Kickstarter project taking inspiration from classics like Genesis Lion King, Oddworld and Sonic the Hedgehog.

This title is a new game releasing on the SEGA Genesis (Mega Drive in Europe) in the near future and today I have the developer behind this project with me to answer a few questions I have on the title. Matt has a developer background of working within many major studios and his history with Tanglewood is one I really enjoyed learning about. Hope you all enjoy this interview!

RK: Can you introduce yourself?

Matt: My name is Matt Phillips, I’m a video games programmer currently living in Sheffield, England. I’ve worked on 14 triple-A titles from Traveler’s Tales, Crytek, and Dambuster Studios, and I’m the creator of Tanglewood for the SEGA Mega Drive.

RK: That is an impressive line up of studios you worked for! Happy to have you here with me today. What was your very first video game?

Matt: The first game I remember was Buggy Boy for the Commodore 64. I absolutely loved it, I don’t think the tape left the machine for a few months. I still remember the sound effects!

RK: Never played a Commodore 64 but respect hardware like that and the original Atari consoles as they were the foundations for console gaming. When did you first play a SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive and what was your favorite game form the Genesis/Mega Drive? I love the Sonic series and many of SEGA’s iconic franchises like Golden Axe & Vectorman from the Genesis era.

Matt:  A friend of my parents lent me their Mega Drive for a few weeks, along with Sonic 1, The Terminator and… my memory escapes me… probably Bubsy. I was around 8 years old. Sonic was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen and still my favorite Mega Drive game today, I don’t think I played the other two games. I was so upset when the console had to go back, but a week later I came home from school to find my mum had bought me one!

RK: Sonic really showed how impressive the Genesis hardware was. The game demonstrated such speed that many other games at the time didn’t really have, so it stood out for sure. Can you explain the origins of Tanglewood?

Matt: Tanglewood dates back around 5 years, when I started learning 68000 assembly language, and started a small 2D game as a test. Initially it was an amalgamation of many ideas from other games, but after a while it started to form its own identity, adding new ideas and playing around with new mechanics until it evolved into something that was purely my own. The Fuzzls came from a game some friends and I created at University, for a Microsoft XNA competition.

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People loved the little things, and the game won a small prize, but we never finished it. I still had the sprites, so I converted them for use on the Mega Drive just as a test, but fell in love with them again and integrated them into the game’s puzzles properly. After a while I decided I was far enough along to stop referring to it as “Test Game 1” and wrote a proper design document. The working title was ‘Watershed’ – both because it refers to the player being out after dark, and it’s my favorite Opeth album – but it was renamed since the word doesn’t retain its intended meaning very well outside of England.

RK: That is great to hear that the origins of Tanglewood come from such humble beginnings. Must have been nice using an original idea you had again for a larger production! Any games that you feel are a big inspiration on the title?

Matt: I always had it in my head that I was going to make a platformer, and I wanted it to be something like Abe’s Oddysee or Flashback with its static screens and puzzles, since those games had resonated with the game designer inside me for a long time. I’m also a big fan of LIMBO’s dark, quiet and atmospheric environment, and I wanted to try and replicate that feeling of loss, terror and desperation. The current demo doesn’t show that side of the story very much, but the game will definitely get more intense and dark as it goes on. The Lion King similarities were purely coincidental, but it was such a common comparison I’ve rolled with it.

RK: I really love the Oddworld series and enjoyed LIMBO a lot as well, so hearing that those games are some of the titles you looking into for concepts for ‘Tanglewood’ sounds very exciting. What made you want to put the game on Kickstarter and are you happy with the Kickstarter campaign so far?

Matt: Originally I was going to work on it in my spare time, saving up as much money as I could to pay for some contract art here and there, but the progress was so slow and the game wasn’t getting the time and attention it really deserved. Some friends of mine put the Kickstarter idea in my head. Initially I was adverse to it, since I didn’t think enough people would be interested in order to raise the amount of money needed for development, manufacturing, and logistics.

I warmed to the idea and put out a free tech demo – the Internet was all over it! I was getting emails from publishers, people were streaming their Let’s Plays on YouTube, I was getting sent fan art and ideas for merchandise, and site visits to my development blog exploded. It became clear very quickly that people shared my passion for this, so doing it properly with the proper funding, team and process was absolutely crucial. As for the campaign right now, I’m so happy that we reached 25% in the first three days! I’m very confident we’ll reach the target if I keep putting the work in.

RK: Do you plan on offering a retail release of Tanglewood (Genesis/Mega Drive Cart) as a Kickstarter backer reward? That would be really cool to see brand new game get a retail Genesis cart.

Matt: Yes! That’s the whole idea. It needs to be a real Mega Drive game on a real cartridge for the real console, or it’ll be a huge anticlimax to the project. I’m putting an emphasis on quality and authenticity, which is why I’m using original development tools, languages and processes from ’90s.

RK: It is great to hear that! Must be surreal having a retail Genesis cart in your hand of a brand new game releasing in 2017. What made you want to make the game on the SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive? It’s clear you love the hardware and software the system offered.

Matt: I originally just wanted to learn an assembly language to improve my programming skills, since I didn’t come from a computer science background and I was missing some skills that would have helped with my job. When I was working for Traveler’s Tales, some of the Amiga veterans convinced me that the 68000 CPU was the best place to start learning, and since the Mega Drive was my favorite console and has that particular CPU it gave me the inspiration to get started. I loved it right from the start, and after learning the basics decided I wanted to take it all the way and make a small game. That ‘small’ game grew out of control, and here we are.

RK: Very interesting to hear that. Wanting to experiment with projects is a great way in expanding out skill set. Any challenges you faced while working on this project and was it hard to program a new game for Genesis/Mega Drive hardware?

Matt:  The biggest challenge was lack of resources for Mega Drive development. There were some basic tutorials to initialize the machine, some bits and pieces about the separate subsystems, and some home-brew forums to ask questions, but there was no definitive guide in one place that covered the graphics, input, sound, memory management, or any way to put all of those together neatly into a real engine or game framework.

I took it step my step, day by day, and made sure to keep a record of my progress on my blog so I could refer back to bits I’d forgotten or messed up. It took almost three years from the first post (my first line of code) to the last, and I’d eventually covered text, sprites, animation, sound, memory, input, and everything else required to make a very basic but flexible game engine.

RK: Any other platforms you are considering bringing ‘Tanglewood’ too after it’s launch on PC/Genesis? Would love to see the game release on PlayStation and Nintendo platforms.

Matt: I get asked about a SNES port a lot, to the point where I started integrating SNES support into my tools. Since deciding to run the Kickstarter, though, I couldn’t really dedicate any more time to it – it would mean learning another assembly language and another machine all over again. I would love the challenge, so maybe after the Mega Drive version ships I’ll think about it again.

I’d definitely like to bring it to modern platforms, but it would have to be a proper port and not emulator-based, so we’ll see how it goes. I would love to do an HD version with high resolution art, lighting, and a composed soundtrack!

RK: That is great to hear! Looking forward to the possibility of a Super Nintendo version of Tanglewood in the future. Any final comments you want to share before we end the interview?
Matt: Sure! I have some friends in the US who share my love for the machine; go check out Coffee Crisis for the Genesis! It’s pretty metal.

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