One of the most memorable features of Another Star was its secrets. You had to keep an eye open and scour the world in search of hidden areas and secret passages, searching every corner in the hopes of finding a good reward. The game took a lot of inspiration from the original NES/Famicom Legend of Zelda in this regard. Though that game was so simple, there was always an excitement in never knowing just what you might find.
Likewise, almost everyone who has played Another Star absolutely loved looking for secrets. It’s often mentioned in reviews, and it helped the game to forge its own identity.
But there was also a small minority of players that didn’t care for it. While there were usually obvious tells to guide players to a secret area—a lone group of trees on the overworld here that warps you to an area full of treasure, or a strange and narrow corridor there that seems to be a dead end but really leads you through the wall—some were not so obvious, especially when the rewards were very good. This meant that some players felt like they had to trek over every tile and bump into every solid object just to make sure they didn’t miss anything.
It’s impossible to please everybody, so it’s easy to ignore such criticism by deciding that this style of game is simply not for them. Indeed, sometimes you have to accept that you can’t make the perfect game for everyone to love equally. But, like all the responses to the game, I made sure to take note of it. Over time I continued to digest the complaint and, almost by accident, I think I stumbled on a sort of solution, at least in the case of the overworld.
Wait, what was that? Was this here before?…
In Another Star 2, locations on the overworld are sprites instead of being part of the tilemap. In the game’s code, they’re referred to as “pois”, short for “points of interest”. I mentioned them in my last dev log here. They spawn as they come into view of the screen, and then despawn once they’re a little ways out of view.
This was originally going to be a way to get around tile limitations, because having lots of unique locations would eat up a lot of source tiles even when they weren’t visible on-screen. But even after I loosened restrictions I went ahead and kept this implementation. As I was programming it into the game, I started to realize that, since the locations are sprites, they don’t always have to be there, even when they’re within the screen’s view. Hidden areas can wait until the player gets much closer, and then they can suddenly pop into existence. This allows for the thrill of discovery without having to physically comb over literally every single tile. And, once revealed, they can stay in their “discovered” state so that the player can find them again easily if they need to come back for some reason.
I’ve been using simple caves as the early test pieces for this concept, since there’s a lot of mountains in the player’s starting area, and caves are a quintessential RPG staple anyway. This meant I needed a cave tileset, of course, so I went about whipping one up.
An old cave tileset from a game idea that I never did anything with.
One thing that 8-bit games tended to rely on, especially with the super-limited palettes of the NES/Famicom and the later Game Boy Color, was to use separate color palettes for walls and floors. This made it easy to tell what you could walk through and what you couldn’t, and it became a distinctive artistic feature for those consoles. Originally the walls and floor of the caves were going to be the same color, like in the old tileset pictured, but it looked kind of boring. So I made the walls gray and the floors brown. Of course, each individual cave can have its own palette, so there will likely be lots of color variations as you explore the world.
First step is getting the basic walls and floors to look okay.
I kind of wanted the transition between walls and floors to be more natural, more like a real-life cave than some artificial tunnel, but it would have required a lot more tiles, and I’m not sure how well it mixed with the game’s art style. (I want the tile grid to be obvious, but not too obvious, if that makes any sense.)
With lots of debris and other little touches added for interest.
The brown of the floor is the “transparent background” color, which lets me do neat tricks like have tiles that appear “above” character sprites without using multiple layers like a 16-bit or modern game would. Master System games absolutely loved to do this all over the place. Granted, it means those “above character” tiles can’t have any little bumps or stones in the part that’s the floor, because anything not the background color will appear above the character sprite, ruining the effect.
“Look! This wall is in front of me! No, really!”
It also sort of breaks down wherever there’s a shadow meeting a bottom wall, because the color of the shadow isn’t the background color. Thus, it appears above the character sprite. This can be partially hidden by the fact each 8×8 pixel corner of the sprite can independently be set above or below, just as on the Master System, but I can’t make it go completely away unless I make the walls perfect rectangles. The effect was too much fun and too iconic to loose altogether, so you’ll have to just ignore where it breaks. Old games had to make a lot of these very same trade offs, so I don’t feel too bad.
“Pay no attention to that tile in front of the curtain!”
Speaking of which, caves in RPGs tend to be… well, boring. They’re usually filler, they’re usually very samey from game to game, and they’re almost always a repetitive grind. The original Another Star was certainly no exception in this. It’s a shame, too, because in real-life caves are pretty cool. They feel so foreign to us surface-dwellers; at the same time wondrous and imposing. I’d like to try and do better; to capture a little bit of that feeling.
One way is by making caves some of the more treacherous areas of the game to chance upon. Exploring them might be a bit of a gamble when you first stumble upon them. But I’m not quite ready to talk about the ways that the game balances area difficulty yet, so I’ll leave that for another day.
The other big factor is lighting. 8-bit games were very limited in this regard. They couldn’t use layering to hide parts of the screen behind semi-transparent circles like later consoles, emulating the area of a light’s effect, and real-time GPU-driven 3d per-pixel lighting is of course right on out. Pretty much everything has to be evenly applied to the entire screen because it’s all the same palette. But it doesn’t really have to be anything fancy in this case, I don’t think.
You see, you’ll have some caves that are brightly lit (never mind where the light comes from; that’s just how caves work in video games). These will probably not be too much more dangerous than any other area you might discover. But then you’ll have dimly lit caves that have a darker color palette. They’ll contain more difficult foes, but also more desirable treasures.
And then you’ll have this…
I think I’ll just curl up into a ball right here.
Pitch black caves where the walls are only barely visible. Sure, you might be able to see those walls, but you can’t see what’s hiding on the floor! There’s liable to be spikes or instant-death pits scattered about that maybe you normally can’t walk into, but with no lighting they’re the same color as the floor. Battles could be compounded by having your party unable to see the enemy, lowering their hit rate. And maybe even the game won’t even show you the enemy you’re fighting. Or tell you what they are.
You’ll no doubt need to have some sort of torch or lantern to explore these darkest of caves, moving them up a notch from “dark” to “dim” so you can see what you’re doing. And maybe there will be some of these caves with really good loot that are worth the risk to try and venture into early, even without something to light the way? As a game designer, I can’t wait to explore the possibilities.
And I know what you’re probably thinking: I’ll have to make sure that said lighting isn’t too much of a hassle to stock up on and use. Lantern oil that only lasts a couple minutes before having to be restored isn’t much fun. Likely I’ll end up having your torch/lantern/whatever last until you return to the overworld. Could even have some cheap ability or early item that won’t run out and that only lights the screen for a moment, allowing you a glimpse your surroundings just long enough to make a little progress before stopping to use it again.