Sunday, March 14, 2010

Lords of the Turbo Pantheon: ICOM's Dave Marsh and Todd Papaleo

As the TurboGrafx-16 pitifully floundered its way to a dead-last finish in America's 16-bit race, developers turned their noses up at the notion of supporting a system that had been mismanaged and destined for a premature death right from the start. Even in the rare instances when NEC was able to enlist help, the results were typically atrocious and did little to assuage fans who pored over reports on remarkable PC Engine releases with envy and disgust. Falcon made no man stop yearning for Parodius. TaleSpin was hardly the Disney-themed equivalent of Dracula X. Manley & Associates were seldom hailed as the next Falcom for their work on Night Creatures. But one group that made a mark with its TG-16 products was a Chicago-based company called ICOM Simulations.

ICOM enjoyed pushing the Turbo beyond its perceived boundaries. While FMV-reliant Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is no longer looked upon favorably, it was an indisputable technological landmark, a tantalizingly impressive product to those who hadn't been aware of the vast possibilities of CD-based gaming. Players also found themselves amazed by Shape Shifter's gorgeous parallax scrolling, Beyond Shadowgate's masterfully painted backdrop portraits, and Camp California's vibrant environments and enormous sprites.

But ICOM didn't rest on their laurels once impressive visuals were in tow; they explored fresh terrain conceptually as well. Shape Shifter could have been a gem of a straightforward hack-and-slash game, but ICOM took the project to another level, crafting a sprawling, unforgettable adventure featuring the themes and action of a Legendary Axe along with the environmental structure of a Metroid. In similar fashion, The Addams Family and Ghost Manor eschew the idea of level breaks, requiring players to complete open-ended quests instead. Not to be left out of the nonlinear crowd, Camp California presents immediate zone selection options and stars a large group of cartoony characters, each adept in particular areas and necessary for specific playfields.

No one can claim that ICOM invested little care in their Turbo products; the heart and creativity that went into each title are obvious. But opinions are split on how said products turned out and how they've held up in the long run. Many players have called for more polish, citing horrid controls as the downfall of games that contain no small share of fascinating ideas. Even those who leap to the company's defense acknowledge issues that seem indefensible: one-spot saving in Shape Shifter; unfair, time-wasting traps in Ghost Manor and The Addams Family; necessary failures when scouting out the enormous stages of Camp California; and the unwieldy skateboarding mechanics and the near-invulnerability of certain enemy groups in Yo Bro.

It's interesting how titles that were so beautiful and so innovative in certain respects ended up with such severe--and, in some eyes, unforgivable--flaws. The Brothers Duomazov, after many sleepless nights pondering these very issues, eventually saw no other option but to speak with the men who actually produced these items of intense debate. And so we tracked down Dave Marsh and Todd "Toby" Papaleo to discuss all-important Turbo matters ranging from the agility of Shape Shifter's panther to the Yo Bro Amoeba Theory.

Dave produced hardman-favorite Shape Shifter and Camp California and also created the classic adventure game Shadowgate. As we discovered quite quickly, he's a brutally honest fellow, holding back nothing in his assessments of NEC's mishandling of the TG-16, the potential of the system itself, and the success of his own creations. Of course, the champions who have conquered Shape Shifter's challenges are the sternest of warriors and have nothing to fear here; in fact, they may feel an even greater sense of pride in their accomplishment after perusing Dave's revelations regarding the making of the game.

Todd worked as a designer and as an artist on The Addams Family and Yo Bro and also wrote the incredible rock number "Slipping into Nowhere" that accompanies the Shape Shifter credit scroll. He provided us with detailed, well-stated defenses of the work his teams did on their Turbo projects--without coming off as a company apologist in the slightest. He also wrote a brilliant retrospective on the making of "Slipping," the track that is treated as an anthem by badass Turbo warriors everywhere.

We thank Dave and Todd for the time they put into this piece and the information and materials they shared with us.

Dave Marsh Talks Shape Shifter and Shadowgate

The Brothers Duomazov: Shape Shifter is brilliant in concept. There were never enough sidescrolling quest games, and a protagonist who can assume a variety of cool forms only adds to the appeal of this one. How were the basic ideas behind the game first conceived and proposed, and at what point did you become involved in the project?

Dave Marsh: Well, first, let me say that I produced this game I *think* in the early '90s, so I'll try and remember what I can. ICOM was a very small shop and we had been mostly doing adventure games for the Mac, PC, Amiga, Atari, etc. We decided to get into SNES development when Kemco did a good port of Shadowgate to the NES. So I was designing and producing a number of Looney Tunes titles for the SNES when NEC came knocking. They were just down the road and they needed content BADLY.

So, as I remember it, we were sitting around a conference room and talking about what licenses they had and what kind of content they wanted to create. And they had this thing called Camp California (these bears and birds who were the mascots of the Beach Boys) and The Addams Family. They also got this one realm from a game called Dangerous Dimensions--a new D&D type game from Gary Gygax. So, we had the horror part of that game (I guess there were other genres like western, fantasy, cyberpunk, etc.).

Anyway, I take the information home and find that Gygax pulls this stuff right from the Satanic bible. So I go back and point this out to NEC and they (wisely) decide to walk away from it. Then, from what I remember, myself and Karl Roelofs (another producer/designer) come up with this sidescroller in a fantasy/horror world where the player changes shape.

TBD: SS has had a polarizing effect on the Turbo community. Some of us love the high level of challenge and the demanding gameplay and hold that practice leads to perfection. Others believe that the controls are lacking and the challenges, cheap. Was there conscious effort on the designers' parts to make the game extremely difficult? Were you satisfied with the feel of the game when it was completed?

DM: Well, no, I wasn't satisfied with it. It was too damn hard and the panther had a terrible time jumping. The collision rectangle around him was too small, but I had these German programmers who insisted that this was how it should play and that anything less would be too easy.

Also, we were running out of time. I mean, all-nighters for weeks and we're throwing power-ups in there without a lot of thought, etc. We introduced this new super-powered guy at the last stage and gave the player no warning on how to play him. Bad design there on our part.

It's funny looking back at it now. We had to video tape the thing all the way to the end for the NEC testers, and only one guy in our office (an artist) could beat the end boss, but apparently, that was good enough for us!

Super-powered Lykos vs. He Who Crushed the ICOM Team

TBD: Even those who despise SS concede that it is a marvel graphically. Such beautiful parallax scrolling is hard to come by in Turbo games, even if we include the hundreds of titles that were never released in the US. Was it difficult to achieve those effects on the hardware? Do you think the lack of such visual work across the system's library was a result of legitimate difficulty to produce it or simply different aims (or lack of effort) on the part of game artists?

DM: We did have awesome graphics. We had a pretty large team working on the project and decided early on to make it stunning. The programmers really wanted to push the parallax beyond what they were doing on the Amiga and way beyond what other teams were working on in the studio. Of course, I wish we had spent more time on the design and controls than on the artwork.

To be honest, I believe that the only reason more games didn't look great graphically is that NEC had VERY short time frames for getting games out on their new platform. The hardware rocked, AND it could play CDs, which they never really advertised well (at those times CD players were like $300-$400 each!).

TBD: SS succeeded not only with its graphics but also with its music; and one of its best tracks is "Slipping into Nowhere," the vocal number that plays during the end credits. The song was performed by a group called Zipnick Youth and dedicated to Tod Zipnick. Is there any backstory you can provide us with regarding the song or the band? Was the tune composed specifically for Shape Shifter (playing off all the allusions to "Nowhere" in the game script)?

DM: One of our artists named Todd Papaleo had this band and he asked if he could do a song for it and I said, "Sure, why not?" So he wrote this song and ended up doing most of it by himself and decided to call the band Zipnick Youth. Tod Zipnick was the founder of ICOM Simulations and died of cancer right when the company started taking off...

TBD: Shape Shifter bears some similarities to other successful games that preceded it: The Legendary Axe, visually and thematically; Simon's Quest, structurally; and Shadow of the Beast, presentation-wise. Did any of those titles have a direct influence on how the game turned out? Were there other titles that Shape Shifter emulated in certain respects?

DM: Well, we were playing a lot of games on the Amiga that were coming out of Europe (especially the Psygnosis games), and we played Shadow of the Beast like crazy to see their parallax stuff.

TBD: SS is very memorable for many reasons. The fantastic audio and visual work, the gigantic bosses, and the cool hero certainly stand out; but so do little things like the designers' names being written on the wall of a hidden niche, beggars who won't attack the player if they're given a little money, and a triceratops who randomly comes plodding along in the middle of a jungle. What were some of your favorite elements of the game--be they bosses, tunes, Easter eggs, or whatever?

DM: I have to be honest, I remember so little of that stuff now, and your question brings back some great memories! I seem to remember that there is this big spider thing and a huge cat temple.

TBD: Shape Shifter fared pretty well with reviewers when it first came out, and it seemed to sell fairly well for a late-release Turbo CD title. But obviously, being a TurboGrafx game, it didn't stand much chance of achieving high sales numbers or receiving acclaim to begin with. Was the SS team satisfied with how the game performed on the market? Do you feel it might have gotten a lot more attention had it been released for the Sega CD instead?

DM: Well, we knew the TurboGrafx was failing as we approached the end. The titles were just crap and, like I said earlier, I don't think they marketed the hardware well. With so few quality titles, we pretty much knew that anything we created in such a small amount of time wouldn't do well. There was never a conversation about putting it on another machine, but I don't think the Sega CD did much better. We produced some full-motion video titles for that (Dracula Unleashed and Sherlock Holmes), and they didn't fare much better...

TBD: One ICOM Turbo release that has gotten quite a bit of attention in recent years is Beyond Shadowgate. The original Shadowgate is one of your most famous games, but how much of a role (if any) did you play in BS's design? It's a beautiful game, but it seems quite different from the other Shadowgates stylistically, playing more like Sierra's old "Quest" titles. Were you happy with it as a sequel?

DM: Well, I created Shadowgate with Karl Roelofs back in 1984 (and would you believe that I did the art for the Palm version no less than seven years ago???) and we had an unbelievably cool design for Beyond Shadowgate that revolved around this civil war and some high-level betrayals (Karl and I had always felt the original Shadowgate had awful puzzles, so we were anxious to create a much better adventure game). The Mac/PC version was about halfway programmed when it got shelved (don't remember why) and we had this design sitting around. NEC showed interest in it and it went to another team who decided to make it more humorous and a sidescrolling thing as well. I really didn't have much to do with it, but I seem to remember that in its limited form, it was pretty good.

TBD: Years later, Shadowgate 64: Trials of the Four Towers was released for the N64. It was much more like the original than BS was, and many of us loved its music and atmosphere. Unfortunately, game critics were not fond of it, and it wasn't very successful. Do you think that a title along the Shadowgate lines just isn't something that's likely to be successful in the modern video-game market? Or do you feel Four Towers had its own failings, regardless of market conditions (it's occasionally criticized even by its fans for obscure puzzles and a lack of monsters to contend with)?

DM: Oh, what an awful game. Listen, Karl and I were brought in when Infinite Ventures purchased the rights to the property. Kemco (a Japanese publisher) decided they wanted to make the game but design it in Japan. When Karl and I saw the design we revamped it, removing all the stuff that didn't make sense and adding a lot more intriguing stuff. We also hated how the player moved, and the puzzles were awful. It was super clunky. Unfortunately, Kemco decided to do what they wanted and released the game in the form you see it today. I never liked it.

TBD: I still lament the fact that Shadowgate Rising was never allowed to see the light of day. Can you give us an idea of what was in store for us in that game?

DM: Ah, Shadowgate Rising, we hardly knew ye. IVI hired another company in Michigan to make the game based on this Raven character we designed. Kemco would publish it. Well, the company IVI hired really struggled with it and Kemco (who was financing it) killed it. It was going to be very Zelda-like with a busty sorceress lugging around a talking skull. It featured the return of the Warlock Lord and (did I mention?) a busty sorceress. I would have to dig through some old files to see if I can find some screenshots from it. It was fully 3D and very nice.

TBD: Returning to the TG-16 for a moment, did you participate in the making of other ICOM Turbo releases (such as the Sherlock Holmes games, Camp California, Yo Bro, Ghost Manor, and The Addams Family)? What did you think of the overall quality of ICOM's Turbo lineup? The aforementioned titles receive a lot of criticism, but they have their share of defenders as well, especially Ghost Manor.

DM: Sherlock was an "A" title, IMHO. I mean, video on there was a pretty amazing feat at the time and the UI and story were top notch. I didn't work on that. I DID work on Camp California (C-) but we had sooo little time to get it out that we were just trying to get the levels to be decent so we could ship it. We had so few people on that as well. I wasn't involved in the other games, but again, these products suffered from small staffs and smaller time frames. Ghost Manor (F) was just downright awful.

Arthur gets an "F"

TBD: Speaking outside the realm of game design, were you much of a Turbo player yourself? How did you feel it stacked up against the Genesis and the Super Nintendo?

DM: I didn't play it that much as the games weren't great. I was a big fan of SNES because Nintendo was good at putting out the best titles and their approval process was stricter to ensure better titles.

TBD: Finally, you've earned a lot of respect over the years for your contributions to gaming. Which projects that you had a hand in are you most proud of, looking back?

DM: Oh, I am most happy with Uninvited for the Mac and Road Runner's Death Valley Rally for the SNES. I did like Shape Shifter a lot. Dracula Unleashed was fun to shoot and play in its own campy way. I really can't complain. :)

Todd Papaleo Looks Back at Yo Bro and The Addams Family

The Brothers Duomazov: ICOM seemed to have an affinity for adventure titles and often went beyond typical action fare with their projects. Yo Bro was somewhat of a forerunner to Konami's successful Zombies Ate My Neighbors with its visual style and overhead-view, save-the-kids gameplay, while The Addams Family gave the player one gigantic mansion to explore rather than proceeding in typical stage fashion. How much of a say did you have in the direction that these projects took, and do you feel the design teams made the most of the atypical concepts?

Todd Papaleo: Being the lead artist on all of the projects I worked on, I had a lot of input in the game design area, although much of it was take-it-or-leave-it kind of input. In most cases, the producer and the art staff would leave the real play-mechanics decisions to the programmers and lead designer.

ICOM was already pretty established by the time I came on board in 1990. They had developed Shadowgate and Deja Vu and were already at work on Sherlock Holmes when I was hired to work on what was then Camp California CD, which due to time was scaled down to the product that shipped, "Yo Bro."

The kinds of things I'd concern myself with were the number of sprites and animations and how characters would behave and how much time we had to get the stuff done so the programmers could start implementing their code.

On the whole, personally I didn't play a lot of games, so when I had a suggestion, it would be a "Wouldn't it be cool if..." kind of thing. But because of the urge to innovate on some aspect, we probably stepped outside of the common language that the average player was expecting from a game.

I had more impact on the design of Addams Family than I did on Yo Bro, but I co-wrote the design specs for each. In Addams Family, we kind of knew that if we made it strictly Level 1, Level 2, the game wouldn't have much longevity. But if we made it where the mansion was wide open, it would not only make the experience different from what was out there, but would compound the overall difficulty, giving us more game as a by-product.

The mansion itself we decided to treat more like a character than a location, so that also contributed to that decision.

But I would have loved for us to do so much more with the titles we worked on. Yet if I had my way, we would still be working on them and they'd never ship!

TBD: How did you feel about the properties you had to work with (Beach Boys mascots and the Addams movie license)? Would you have preferred to work on an original concept instead? Were there any other ICOM TurboGrafx titles that you would've liked to have had a hand in but didn't for whatever reason?

TP: Well, for years we worked on licenses because it was a great way to subsidize development costs while making inroads into the entertainment world. As I understood the company's mission, Tod Zipnick had always intended to merge multimedia and filmed entertainment. Sherlock was a successful quantum leap towards that goal.

So we all kind of knew that licenses were our bread and butter, although don't get me wrong: we all really wanted to break new ground and we were always considering original material or trying to work that original concept into a compatible license.

Viacom bought us because they wanted that synergy, too, only in the other direction. They saw the millions being generated by games and saw that as a way to add income. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not.

The Looney Tunes games we did, like Road Runner and Daffy Duck, were from properties that were perfect for games. But then you take The Addams Family and we were scratching our heads trying to read the script and figure out where the game was. And Paramount and Orion really wanted the game to be as closely associated with the plot and characters of the movie as possible. Honestly, I didn't think it was even a very good script, but we had to make the best of it.

I think that everyone in the company was working towards someday doing original product, and in 1997, we started a top-down shooter Xevious-type project called Violent Seed, which was totally unrelated to any show or movie. That was great, but then they closed the doors shortly after, before we had a chance to finish it.

I and others began to be very vocal in regards to the considerations of working on licensed entertainment and the pitfalls of picking source material that wouldn't translate into a good interactive product. We were trying to help them save money and energy, but I'm sure the folks in New York thought we were being difficult. Seriously, it felt like every Viacom network wanted to make a game. Just because they had this little shop in Chicago to make it for them.

TBD: Dave Marsh mentioned that NEC granted ICOM's teams very little time to complete their TurboGrafx projects. Was there more that your teams would have liked to have done with Yo Bro and Addams if they had simply had more time?

TP: Yo Bro initially had a very expansive scope and seemed like it would be a lot of fun. Because it started out as "Camp California CD," there was a lot of space for cool animations and music and levels and movies. But when the schedule for it shrank drastically (can't remember why; I think they wanted to release it way sooner), all of a sudden you don't have the time to create all those cool assets. So then if there's not enough content, there's no need to store it on a 650 MB CD. So then we were forced to work within the confines of the cartridge. I think we shipped on an 8 MB (or smaller) cart. So with that little space, in the end, we did the best with what we had. Most of the animations weren't over six frames! I mean, come on. NEC eventually did release a Camp California CD, but I didn't work on it. I would have loved to. I'd have created so much for it.

Looking back, I'm not surprised at all that ICOM never had a AAA hit; those things take time and resources, neither of which we had the luxury to have. It seemed we were always cranking the games out to keep the money coming in. But I don't know for sure.

TBD: Who was calling the shots on the Turbo side of things in those days, NEC America/TTI or Hudson Japan? Aside from those related to time, what (if any) kinds of restrictions did they place on your teams during the development process?

TP: I don't remember exactly, but I'm pretty sure everything came to us through NEC. Whether it came from them or Hudson is unknown. I do have a feeling Japan didn't really like our games. Shrug.

As far as restrictions, I think they just wanted the games to be better. Again, we couldn't really do anything about that without more time, and hence more money.

TBD: ICOM's TG titles are often criticized for sloppy controls. Dave mentioned that Shape Shifter's programmers intended for the game to play the way it did, but what about Yo Bro and Addams? Do you feel the controls for those games could've used more refinement?

TP: Hmm. I don't know. I know no one really set out to make the controls bad, but I think the nature of the games and their uniqueness often introduced control schemes that were unintuitive or too "analog." In Bro, the skateboarding relied on pedaling like a motherfletcher, which to me got really annoying, but without it, the game would be too easy if you were self-propelled.

For me, controls and AI always come down to a balance between the sophistication of the programmer and designer and their willingness to give a little back to the player, who may not be as good as they are. I think they were always making games for people who were as good as or better than they were, which yielded really unforgiving products. I would audibly groan sometimes when I had to test an area or level. I knew it wouldn't be an enjoyable experience.

Not being a huge gamer, I always thought the games should be nice and easy for the first few levels, to get you into it and excited to play it. And also state a clear goal, even if you had to literally slap the message on the screen. I admit I didn't always follow my own advice, especially when the game was of a more exploratory bent, because for some reason I thought it was supposed to be fun to figure out what you were supposed to do.

For instance, MTV's SlamScape for the PlayStation was like that, and although some players like that aspect and felt good that they were "smart enough" to read our minds and divine the goal of the game, mostly I regret it. It stood in the way of its success.

TBD: Yo Bro also comes under fire for its graphics, as some don't believe they measured up to the standards of the 16-bit era. Were there factors (such as time constraints or system limitations) that had an impact on how YB's visuals turned out? Do you feel they served fine given the premise of the game?

TP: Bro was my first finished game as a computer artist. Before that I worked on a coin-op game for Sunsoft Japan called Doomwalkers, about walking tanks. Very mechanical stuff, and much easier to animate. Very inorganic.

So to work on a game about a skateboarding bear and bomb-throwing rats in leather jackets and such, it was quite a challenge. I'm proud of the art in that game, mostly because we had so many enemies and animations and levels, and so little time and space to do them. I think we all should have been knighted by the Queen for getting that thing out the door and into some shrinkwrap.

Granted, the backgrounds were not so hot; I did those, but if you look at the game, ALL the cities are composed of almost all the same 8x8 pixel tiles. My Bro animations were sometimes as little as three frames in a 32x32 pixel area. I think I did all right.

The game really owes its completion to Brian Babendererde, who went on to design Beavis and Butthead, Road Runner, and Rocko's Modern Life, and Jeff Troutman, who helped design Road Runner and was its lead animator. Bro was also their first game and they handled all the rest of the art. They really stepped up. Mike Garber, our programmer, poured most of his blood into it to get it done. I mean, he literally coded that game by hand, singlehandedly. I don't think he ever received all the credit he deserved for finishing it. He and I worked on Addams, too.

But given the art limitations, I'd defend that game any day. For a bunch of first-timers, we got the job done. Anybody else who thinks differently, I'll fly you out to Chicago so we can fight.

A look at the character editor program used in the design of Yo Bro and Bro's skateboarding animations

TBD: Sticking with technical elements, what did you think of the capabilities of the TG-16 and Turbo CD? You worked on SNES games too--how well did the Turbo stand up to its rival?

TP: I loved the TG-16. SNES was nice, but it was obvious the TG was not ever going to be the belle of the ball. I remember when I worked for Sunsoft, they gave me a PC Engine to get familiar with the video-game world, because I had just come up from college, and being an English major, had no prior experience with video games other than what I played in high school.

All the PC Engine games were in Japanese, but me and my roommate Greg would play 1941, Alien Crush, Baseball, and Keith Courage in Alpha Zones constantly. I don't know, the TG just had a great feel that I can't explain. I wish I still had that console today!

Papaleo-approved Turbo titles

TBD: Going back to Yo Bro, some of the enemy designs (such as the baby dinos who gobble kids up) were brilliant, while others were rather pedestrian (such as the fires and beehives). Do you feel the game could've used a little more "wackiness" (for lack of a better term) to hold the player's interest?

TP: We tried to be as innovative as possible, and with thirty levels to fill, sooner or later you gotta phone it in a couple of times. I know, we already had all the enemies appearing twice in the game, but again, time was never on our side. ICOM literally had like a garage mentality, all these small groups in these tiny garages under one roof, with four or five people working their asses off in each one.

I want to stress the homemade tone of those ICOM days, but I also don't want your readers to walk away with the feeling that all I wanted to do was make excuses for what we did. Almost all of it I'm proud of, even if it wasn't successful across the globe and into eternity.

Anyway, there was one thing that tied all those enemies together. In some fashion, they are all related to the state of California: dinosaurs from the La Brea Tar Pits, forest fires (we needed an enemy that would start those fires, and a book of matches or smoldering cigarette butt was even more boring than a lighter), killer bees, etc. So they weren't just random choices.

TBD: The Yo Bro shoot-'em-up bonus rounds are really interesting--and quite a departure from the core gameplay. They're cool, but they almost seem to have been designed separately from the YB project and then shoehorned in. How did the idea come about to go in such a different direction for the bonus stages?

TP: We wanted the bonus rounds to be... well, a bonus, so we felt they should look and play different and also give the player a break by introducing some sidescrolling action in there. If you look at them all as a group, they're based on Hollywood movies, Hollywood being in California. So we picked some really popular sci-fi flicks that lent themselves well to the game. Superbro, Marty McBro on his hoverboard, Robobro (or Brobocop)...

TBD: Speaking in general terms again, ICOM is somewhat notorious for doing things with their games that frustrate players to no end. There's only one place to save in Shape Shifter, there are doors that send the player back a ridiculous ways in Ghost Manor, and there are fuel constraints and a general lack of direction in Camp California. You didn't design those games, but you did work on Yo Bro (which featured insanely difficult "amoeba" stages that the player had pretty much no shot at beating without a healthy stock of rocket-weapons in tow) and The Addams Family (which featured the same kind of "screw you" send-back doors as Ghost Manor). Was making titles as difficult as possible a priority for ICOM's teams? Do you think you guys went a little too far with some "challenges"?

TP: That's a good question. I think because we didn't have a lot of ways to expand the value of the games, we had to do it by imposing limitations such as the ones you mentioned. "Boy, adding that trap door will really add hours to the playtime of this game!" And not in a good way. Some of the save restrictions may have been due to technical limitations, which I can't clearly recall at the moment. Also, like I said, maybe because the programmers and designers and testers knew the game so well, they thought it was no big deal. I apologize to all the readers on their behalf, if that'll make it better. ;-)

TBD: How long did you end up working for ICOM? Did you have a favorite platform to develop for during that time? Which projects really stand out in your memory, be it for positive or negative reasons?

TP: I worked for them from 1990 to 1997. I was one of the last people out the door of Rabid Entertainment, ex-Viacom New Media, ex-ICOM.

I moved up to Chicago from Bloomington, Indiana, and moved in with my buddy Greg and slept on the floor of his studio apartment near Loyola while I looked for a job. I eventually got a gig cold-calling businessmen for a brokerage firm. We'd get a stack of computer cards every morning, and we'd sit at the desk in front of the broker, dialing the phones all day, getting these dudes on the line so the brokers could give them their sales pitch. I actually got John Z. DeLorean's card one day; that was cool. The broker who got me that job was actually my writing partner Brad's older brother, who is also Greg's brother-in-law now, and his name is also Greg. And my friend Greg was childhood friends with Brad. Still with me?

So one day at lunch I picked up the Sun-Times and flipped through the jobs section. I saw an ad that Sunsoft America placed for an artist, computer knowledge not required. I set up the interview and got it. Met my band's first Chicago drummer at that job.

Then it folded about a year later and after some lame freelance gigs, I saw another ad for a computer artist. I called ICOM and either talked to Dave Marsh or left a message saying, "Pull the ad; I'm your man!" I know, kinda ballsy, but it got his attention and I really needed and wanted the job. He had me come in and do an animation test for one of the Camp California characters, Screech. He was impressed and I got the job. To this day, I'm extremely grateful.

We really only did games for the TG, SNES, and PlayStation, and some PC stuff. There was also the Mac stuff, but that was before my time.

I really enjoyed the freedom that the PlayStation gave us so that we could try and introduce new game concepts like SlamScape. I really look back fondly on that project in particular because it brought so many creative people into my life and really seemed to show me that there was a way to make a game that could emulate music-making and incorporate puzzles and mystery and emotion. For a first pass, we laid some great groundwork but it's largely under the dust created by games like RockBand, which frankly I don't think has anything to do with music other than the timing. If asked to defend how SlamScape has anything to do with music, I can only offer that it turned music into both a physical space and also a way to navigate a world. Volume, stereo, additive tracks, and many more elements. I think if we'd had a chance to refine the concept, it could have been an important product.

The only negative thing I can recall was having to literally try and pigeonhole the product so that Viacom could sell it. Unfortunately, because it involved a rocket sled and explosions, they put it out there as a driving/shooting game. But it was always a puzzle game and I think it died because of that confusion. Also, it turned out to be insanely difficult, in part because it lacked a clear interface and customizable options. We used to joke that the tagline was "SlamScape: You have no other options." I know, real funny, right? Although I heard it may have been big in Russia. I did an interview with a slick magazine from there, and they really seemed to like it.

TBD: Finally, speaking strictly as a gamer, what did you think of the Turbo and its software library? Any particular titles stand out as favorites?

TP: Alien Crush. I played that constantly. Oddly enough, I never got my hands on a Devil's Crush. I really thought the handheld Turbo was very cool, though I never had one.

Todd Papaleo, on "Slipping into Nowhere"

"Slipping" was a great opportunity, and I have Dave Marsh, Ken Tarolla, and Carol Balkcom to thank for that. It was actually my first published work as a musician and songwriter, a path I'd been on since my teenage years.

ICOM was a tremendously versatile group of creative people. There were several guys there who played music of some sort or another, but I was the most extroverted about it, having been running a band together with my college writing partner Brad. We had been writing songs since 1984 or so as The Mess, and that was the whole basis for my decision to move up to Chicago from Bloomington, IN, where the band had been based before. Chicago would be a great place to continue playing, and we ended up having a good run at it, all told.

Only thing is, after having had a trademark on the name for so many years, we let it lapse and now there are quite a few Messes out there. I'm sure they all think they're as clever as we thought we were. But we were a REAL mess: kinda sloppy and a thousand different styles of music. Country, metal, blues, punk... We love it all.

I can't remember who had approached whom about doing the song, but as Dave tells it, it may have very well been me, or he kind of half-suggested it and I pushed the idea to make it happen.

So we kind of had a few meetings about it, went over the budget (400 bucks!), and we discussed how the song would reflect the plot of the game. I was working on a different game at the time (Daffy Duck: The Marvin Missions, I think), but I was familiar with the basic concept and Dave filled me in on the particulars--the significance of Nowhere, for instance.

Dave was (probably still is) a big Psychedelic Furs fan, and he wanted kind of a sound like that, mixed in with a little bit of The Church ("Under the Milky Way Tonight," you hear it everywhere!). Having been born in the mid-'60s myself, it goes without saying that we were both growing up in the '80s, so we had our preferences.

I had spent a lot of time in college listening to Oingo Boingo, Fishbone, The Smiths, and Echo & the Bunnymen, and when I moved to Chicago, my other friend from Purdue, Greg (who I was rooming with), had turned me on to The Jazz Butcher and XTC and Paul Weller (from The Jam). So while you don't hear all of those influences in the song, they all somehow colored my approach to writing it.

Speaking of writing it, at one of our meetings, Dave presented me with some great direction: he had written these lyrics entitled "Beyond the Blue," which pretty much solidified the approach he was looking for: a mythical epic journey of one man against the unknown and everything it had to throw at him. I think I still have the words somewhere.

At that point, I'd brought in another coworker I spent a lot of time playing with and doing Theatre of the Mind-type stuff, Rob (Sven) Herman. We were going to try and team up to get this thing done quicker. He's a great musician and he definitely adds a lot to the feel of the song. He was in a band called Mentally Ill.

We actually decided to try and make a go of these words. Rob and I decided to record our ideas for them separately at home, then bring them in and have the producers vote on which version they liked. Actually, I think we both had separate ideas, then we collaborated on each other's demo.

We weren't personally invested in the song, so most of the time it was easy to take criticism, and Dave and Ken were very thorough and articulate with theirs.

The hardest thing I discovered about singing "Beyond the Blue" was making the words work. See, I had this idea back then that this song, no matter how tiny the market was for the game, could actually be an entity unto itself. Maybe it could exist on its own merits. It would certainly help my songwriting career if it could!

So the lyrics were so specific and painted such a literal concrete picture, I felt there was really no way anyone could think of anything other than Medieval Times and moon-lit, blood-soaked battle axes. No offense against Dave's lyrics; they were fine for the subject, and also, he doesn't profess to be a songwriter, which did a lot to give his material a great deal of honesty and sincerity.

So I asked Dave if he would mind if I retooled the words to make them more abstract and possibly more singable. He had no problem with it, so off I went. My buddy Brad would drive up from Indiana and we would jam, and I got him involved in my cutting of the series of demos. The reason I mention this is that we also did a funny rockabilly/blues version of "Beyond the Blue." It had a lot of energy and laughing, seeing as we were making it up as we went along. Thinking back, it was almost like cleansing the palate before the next course. Just to get it completely out of our systems before tackling the new task of coming up with the song from scratch almost.

So... now we had no words. We did this thing that I'm sure most writers do, or maybe not: boil the idea down to its essence, its bones, then hang new muscles and flesh and clothes on the skeleton. And part of doing that, for me, is that if a line has ten words, I'd see if I could write that same line in only five words. It feels great when it works, and also, I think it helps hone your communication skills in general. You convey thoughts more gooder with succinctificationism.

So I did that with the entire song, and it did come out spookier, more foreboding, more uncertain. When lyrics are used that sparsely, then each listener has a lot of latitude to interpret the song on a much more personal level other than what you primarily intended. They can put themselves in the song if they want. At least, I hope that happens.

After that, the song proceeded to completion fairly quickly. I had just purchased this mini sequencer, the Yamaha QY-10. We called it the Qwi-Chang. It was amazing. The size of a thin VHS tape and it had a kajillion sounds. It sounded really good, and opened up a whole new world for me, as far as getting ideas to tape. I could work on a song anywhere. Having just bought the thing, I decided I would try and learn this baby and use it in the song. Maybe write the entire song on it, which is eventually what ended up happening. The only analog instruments were the rhythm and lead guitars. I still have it and it probably has the original sequence on there somewhere.

We were inching closer to a completed demo. Brad and I had probably six different demos for that song before handing it off to Rob, each radically different: layers of guitars and feedback on one, or one with about five screaming vocals with reverb and delay, one with little guitar bits that came in and out, etc.

I'm kind of schizo when it comes to a song. First, I can't ever play the same part the same way twice, no matter how hard I try. Second, my gut instinct is to have it be some 32-track opus, but once you put so much crap into a song, it doesn't leave room for much else and the texture evaporates into... Nowhere.

I still needed Rob to do some tracks, so he came up with a great intro piano and I think he played that intro guitar, too.

There was one change that I kind of didn't want to make, but ultimately Dave and ICOM were my clients, and I could see his point. The whole time, the chorus of the song was "Tripping into Nowhere," just because the song and the game had that insinuation of trippiness, the unexpected, the surreal, the dangerous... the fight to maintain control over your universe. But Dave really didn't want to use the word, and of course, it implies stuff you don't want in a game that's mostly for kids. Fair enough, so we made the change and it really didn't affect the song overall.

The actual recording of it was fun, if a little stressful. We hit the studio after work. It was in Northbrook, not too far away from the office. Brad drove in from Indiana to play rhythm guitar, and Rob's brother Chris came to lay down the lead. To this day, that lead gives me chills every time I hear it. He did a great job. I think without it, the song would just be, you know, "bleh."

Another thing that helped make the song what it is is Rob had gone and assigned almost all new sounds to the original sequenced parts I had laid down. Since it was all MIDI data, it was pretty easy to do. I liked what he did. It's got that classic early-'90s sound, whatever that is.

Other things we planned to do were add more vocals and guitar parts, but by the time we got everything recorded, there was literally only enough time to do about three or four takes of all the vocals, which included the background vocals that Rob sang. I'm still not that totally happy with my singing voice, but then I never am, so I guess it's moot. I think about remixing it someday, but some wise men once said, "Let it be." I was playing it on my guitar last night, actually. The chords, if you change the rhythm a little bit, are "Smells Like Teen Spirit," of all things. You're welcome, Kurt! ;-)

So there we were in the studio, everyone was pretty much putting their coats on as I was singing the last few lines because we had to clear out of there before we were charged another 100 bucks or whatever for an additional hour of studio time.

And actually, I never thought I'd be doing an interview about that song almost eighteen years later. I guess we kind of figured no one would ever really hear it, you know--they'd finish the game, listen to the first verse and chorus and that would be that. But it's nice to hear it's gotten the acceptance that it has. Who knew?

Now, the name Zipnick Youth was kind of a whimsical gesture and was also meant to kind of honor Tod Zipnick, the company's founder and without whom none of us would have had these important opportunities in our lives. It's a shame he never saw his total vision completely realized, but his life is an important lesson to anyone that if you have an idea or a vision, the only thing that really can prevent you from making it happen is yourself. And Tod didn't have this problem. He saw what he wanted, and he took the necessary steps to make it happen and found talented people to do what needed to be done. He was a tough cookie, but I think we see that everywhere: when someone has invested so much of themselves in bringing a notion to reality, they are gonna know what they want so you have to trust them and go along, or get out of their way and find a new path. We all stood behind Tod, and he had no problem making us all feel like we had a stake in the dream, too. He'll be missed, and hopefully none of us will ever forget. There are about five people I owe my success to, and four of them are mentioned in this interview. The other one is my mom, of course.

If you'd like to hear the original version of "Slipping into Nowhere," demos that show how the song evolved, and the incredible 2010 remake, you can download them at

An examination of the Shape Shifter design doc

It didn't take long for Dave to realize that, in the Duomazov brothers, he wasn't dealing with casual fans of his work, but fanatical Shape Shifter-loving zealots instead (I do believe the baffled fellow muttered a comment or two referring to us as "madmen"). Upon learning of our unusual regard for his creation, he decided to share with us an incredible tome: the Shape Shifter design doc. Dave thought little of this gesture, but the object was a treasure to us, as it contained the entire game script; meticulously detailed stage descriptions; and character, enemy, and level artwork. Indeed, we discovered many aspects of the game turned out quite differently than originally intended; some amazing concepts were even left on the cutting room floor. Here is a look at a few items that were of particular interest to us:

~ Lykos was originally named "Hawk." His repertoire of attack moves included punches, chops, and throws in addition to the squatting kick that did make it into the game.

~ Four weapons were to be available for Lykos to acquire: the axe and the bow that made it into the game along with a dagger and a hammer that did not. The dagger was to be tossed at foes, while the hammer was an elementally charged tool of lightning. Three suits of armor were to be included and three suits of armor are indeed obtainable during the adventure; the design doc labels them Mystic Plate Mail, Banded Force Mail, and Power Chain.

~ Time of day was to be an even more significant factor by playing a role similar to the one it plays in Simon's Quest: certain locations were to be accessed (and certain characters, encountered) only during the day or at night.

~ The Ring of Five was intended to be a six-wizard group at first, consisting of Talotin the Grey, Tenmakk the Protector, Magnas the Wise, Garolin the White, Framis the Golden, and Rastellian the Pure. Interestingly, there is one instance in the game script (during Lykos' conversation with the priestess in the cat temple) where the final label of five was used rather than "Ring of Six," but it's unknown if plans had already changed by the penning of that line or if it was simply an error.

~ As you might have surmised, being that one of the Ring wizards didn't make it into the game, neither did a form that Lykos was intended to assume: Night Wing, the Fury Bat, who would have been able to fly, sneak through small openings, and attack via a boomerang-like sonar blast.

~ In fact, there was one other form that didn't make the cut: Hydra, a four-headed dragon. Hydra was intended to be used for the final battle against the Dark Ones, but ultimately Lykos' "super-hero" form was implemented in lieu of it. The plan was for the last fight to be a top-down-view confrontation with impressive visual effects employed in the background. A time limit was to be imposed; once it expired, the Dark Ones would assume their human forms and annihilate Lykos. To destroy them, the Hydra would utilize four different breath weapons (fire, lightning, laser, and plasma blast--each head emitted a separate one). Head formation was to be adjustable.

~ Why plans were altered and the bat and the hydra failed to make it into the final version of the game is unknown. A note in the design doc cautions that the forms available to Lykos would change during the design process if the Japanese audience would have any philosophical objections to them.

~ Some bosses were originally intended to have different attack capabilities. The three Dark Ones (named Ubb-Hogg, Cernibog, and Sargoth) were initially designed to have lots and lots of attack types at their disposal. Ubb-Hogg alone was to be able to utilize an acid weapon, a poison quill, a mace arm, an eldritch blast, a bite, a mindstorm attack, and body spikes.

~ Another creature who was altered (and ended up a nearly defenseless shell of what he was intended to be) was the Yeti King, who was to be invisible lest the player utilize reflections in the icy surface serving as the fight's foundation.

~ Other bosses made it into the game pretty much exactly as they had been drawn up. The notoriously challenging air-tube blob is one such foe; he was originally called "Air Vent Blocking Cylindrical Putty Blob." The large head inside the moon was another such beast, but he had a simpler name: "The Void." The design doc describes his attack method simply as, "SUCKS YOU IN, BABY."

~ Some planned bosses didn't make it into the game at all. One of the most interesting of the omitted designs involved a magician casting spells out of an enormous book. Once his summons was defeated, the book was to slam shut, crushing him in the process.

~ Certain interesting enemy designs were also left out, though in some cases the designers might have made the right call. An extremely fast thief capable of stealing Lykos' hard-earned gold might've proven to be a real nuisance (note that this particular foe was to be included in addition to the crippled beggars who did make it into the game).

~ A few intriguing area designs were drawn up in detail but ultimately left out of the product. Following the fight with the Seeker boss (who was originally dubbed the "Watcher"), an entryway to what the design doc calls an "Indiana Jones section" was to be revealed. This was to be a trap-laden pyramid controlled by a machine. The hazards here were numerous and involved huge boulders, deadly spikes, swinging hammers, conveyor belts, spear-shooting booby traps, and stone elevators.

~ The bell tower did make it into the final game, but the player was originally supposed to visit it much earlier in the adventure, and waiting at the base of its interior was to be a four-armed hunchback rather than the flying bone monster who ended up residing there. The catacombs below the tower were to be expansive, containing jail cells and torture chambers, executioners and iron maidens.

~ Sadly, a few NPC designs that seemed to have a lot of potential were left unutilized. Lykos was eventually supposed to visit a ruined mountain village that had been raided by pirates. There, he would meet a little girl named Frog. A conversation later in the game was to reveal that Frog had already died long before Lykos somehow encountered her. Lines in the script make it clear Lykos felt affection for the little bugger, and his interplay with her, as brief as the village scene was planned to be, might've provided an interesting contrast to his discussions with the other NPC whom he feels affectionately towards, the old woman.

~ Speaking of the old woman--or the "Great Mother"--while her identity is left ambiguous in the game, the design doc is rather specific in its description of her role: Her character represents Mother Nature. Lykos' conversation with her at the very end of the adventure plays out almost exactly as originally intended, but it was scripted at first to be a little longer, as the hero requested that the Great Mother give his love to Frog.

~ From his encounter with Frog, Lykos was to journey to a Nordic pirate ship to aid abducted villagers. Yes, Shape Shifter was supposed to feature Viking pirates, perhaps the coolest enemy design ever devised. The prisoners held aboard the ship could be killed during Lykos' assault on their captors. The people held in webs by the spider folk early in the game were also to be vulnerable to attack. Too many deaths in either case would lead to new lines of dialogue and, ultimately, the killing of Lykos himself.

~ Not quite as enticing as the prospects of raiding a Viking pirate ship and murdering townspeople was the developers' plan to incorporate full-motion video scenes into the game. The opening sequence was to feature a wizard relaying the Shape Shifter story while images on a stone tablet "came to life" as video still shots.

~ The designers knew they were on to cool things with their level concepts, though. One sequence description in the document is written as, "[...Lykos] must head to the moon (you read it right)[...]".

Indeed, Dave's team seemed to be on track to create an even greater masterpiece with many of their ideas. I pondered the "might have beens," dreamt of what would've been possible had the plans for Aztec torture chambers and Viking pirate ships and an utterly insane hydra fight ultimately been utilized. But then my sensible brother Alexei pointed out that Shape Shifter is perfect to us at it is. It always has been, and it always will be. And as I told Dave, while he himself might not have been completely satisfied with the product, what he and his team crafted was true gold in our eyes.


m1savage said...

Great read guys. Interesting to read the opinions of these people on the games they were involved with and the TG16 in general. Bonus points for the Slipping Into Nowhere section. Good stuff indeed!

#1VandDammeFan said...

That was awesome. Shapeshifter is easily one of the most memorable games I've ever played- the atmosphere was unbelievable and so far beyond most games of the time it was like playing a fantasy book. Makes me want to play through it again.

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