Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Heroes of the Midnight Sun: Manley & Associates

Night Creatures came and went about as quietly as a game possibly could have back in the 16-bit era. By the time it was released, the TurboGrafx-16's unfortunate fate had already been sealed, and the few stragglers who remained loyal to the console paid no mind to the horror-themed, hardly hyped title. It took its place alongside fellow also-rans Ballistix and Gunboat in silly, ineffectual ads and found itself deemed average in a couple of rote magazine reviews, the tones of which betrayed complete disinterest on the parts of the writers. With all kinds of circumstances already arrayed against the chip, its general profile wasn't helped by the fact that the team that produced it was a contingent of a tiny development group called Manley & Associates--a group that no Turbo fan had ever heard of before.

The true advent of emulation a number of years later meant that overlooked gems, anomalies, and atrocities in the gaming annals were granted second chances to make their marks with players. Indeed, many a ROM-downloader took note of Night Creatures--but the game's emulator-brought-about fate ended up an unenviable one. With wretched gameplay and a head-shakingly bizarre visual style, NC became the object of point-and-laugh-variety ridicule. Smirking players derided its extraordinarily goofy creatures and characters, shook their heads as the awkward-looking protagonist got juggled about by oddball critters and vermin, stared in disbelief as an overweight soothsayer granted them stilted lines of counsel, and shielded their ears from music lugubrious to such an extreme it ended up laughable. Yes, Night Creatures had finally garnered some attention--the kind that no developer would ever desire for its product. Rather than fading away honorably in anonymity, NC had become a complete laughingstock.

But there were a few intrepid players who overcame the poor coldet, who accepted the game's graphical missteps, who played deep into the affair and discovered something obscured and unexpected: promise. At some early point in its development, Night Creatures had the potential to be phenomenal. It's easy to imagine the wondrous possibilities that must have existed for a title that offered a Simon's Quest brand of sidescrolling questing and starred a protagonist capable of shifting forms and wielding a wide variety of weapons. One can't help but speculate as to the types of puzzles and battles that might have been wrought with the basic elements that were in place, the sorts of rewards that might have been reaped by exploring a fully realized realm of horror and astonishment. What some players felt they had on their hands, believe it or not, was a precursor of sorts to the renowned and historically significant Symphony of the Night.

Which all leads one to wonder just what the hell happened during the making of the game. How did a project of such incredible promise end up mired in a bog of ridiculousness? How could a title share myriad elements with one of the most beloved action-adventure games of all time yet be viewed by many as sub-Impossamole-caliber dreck? And what of the ever-elusive Manley & Associates, the folks who delivered this one very curious game before abruptly up and vanishing from the sphere of the TG-16? Being that these questions were weighing heavily on my mind, I decided to track down the man who ran the show for M&A, Ivan Manley himself, and get his own thoughts on the obscure little title that had suddenly found itself the focus of numerous discussions and debates in Turbo circles. Said Manley,

"We had great hopes for the product in the conceptual days, but budget made it what it is. NEC wanted product on the cheap. We were not happy with it, but the publisher rules and I needed to make payroll.

"M&A survived on a shoestring. Publishers beat up on independent developers and even drive them out of business. They would pay us peanuts to get a gem of a game. We took many projects just to get by.

"We designed and started to develop the sequel to Pitfall. During the early stages, Disney showed their next generation of animation at CES. Activision called us and said that our animation needed to be better than Disney's. We told them that Disney had over twenty artists on the project and a budget of $1,000,000 just for art. Activision canceled our contract!

"That's how brutal the industry was."

Brutal seems like an apropos term, not only for the state of the industry at the time as concerned independent development teams or the dilemmas faced by Manley & Associates in particular, but also for NEC's misguided, doomed-to-fail, bottom-line-prioritizing practices in attempting to dig themselves out of the deep hole they had plummeted into. Cheap, rushed labor was apparently the method by which they hoped to stock store shelves after tactless negotiations with successful developers had gotten them nowhere. But the company's many blunders seemed a topic for another time while I was in correspondence with the former head of Manley & Associates. I was more interested in discussing the elements that were compromised, the hopes that were dashed, as Night Creatures began to take form in the M&A shops. But when pressed for specifics, the otherwise helpful Mr. Manley was at a bit of a loss.

"Dave Albert was responsible for the game. Since it paid little, we paid little attention to it.

"See Dave Albert."

All right then.

Dave Albert, a game industry veteran and estimable designer who had somehow gotten himself involved in the debacle that was NC, was very amiable upon being approached about the title and very willing to reflect on his experience crafting it. So we posed a few questions to him...

The Brothers Duomazov: It seems that the Manley & Associates crew was working mainly on computer games prior to releasing Night Creatures. How did it come about that M&A produced this one title for NEC's system, and how did the team come up with such an unusual concept for the project?

Dave Albert: M&A developed a relationship with NEC and submitted the basic concept of Night Creatures, which was based on an idea from Carol Manley, their in-house designer. As a freelancer, I was asked to elaborate on and take over the concept, which I did, and we were awarded the project. While M&A had been developing computer games, they had in-house expertise on game console systems, so it wasn't a stretch to take on the project.

TBD: Night Creatures is often compared to Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, another sidescrolling quest game with horror undertones. Did Simon's Quest provide direct inspiration for NC? Were there other games that lent some ideas to certain elements of the title?

DA: Not really. The comparison is purely based on genre, not on any actual intent. At that stage in the game industry, horror was a genre that many wanted to pursue--in advance of actual system capability, I might add. Thus, most attempts in this arena were more humorous than shocking or frightening.

TBD: People frequently remark that Night Creatures seems "unfinished." It's very short for an adventure game, and it features only three tunes and hardly any spots that require usage of the animal forms. Was M&A pressed for time, or was constructing a quest that could be quickly completed the plan all along?

DA: M&A were pressed for money, not time. While schedules are often the bane of the developer, funding is really the critical issue for most independents. If you stop to consider the typical dynamics of a publisher-developer deal, it becomes obvious pretty quickly why most are doomed to fall short of the original vision. Proposals are considered and objectives agreed upon. Then the deal dance begins and usually takes months to close. At that point both the scope and schedule of a project are compromised, but the publisher usually insists on adhering to goals that were set when there was more time and better funding on the table. It's a recipe for disaster, but it is also the standard modus operandi for young publisher producers who think they are doing their company a favor by saving time and money. In that era publishers also back-loaded their contracts, feeling that money after Alpha and Beta was an incentive to ensure developer performance. Instead it just meant that the actual dollars put into production were greatly reduced. You would often see as much as 50% of the funding coming in after the product was essentially complete... and in the end, the dollars spent on actual production are what make the difference in the quality of a game.

TBD: Many players dislike NC because of its floaty controls and poor collision detection. Indeed, even fans of the title concede that the gameplay could've been better. Was the development team truly happy with the feel of the game?

DA: No, there was disappointment in several different areas... Personally, I felt that the art direction was far below par and that a lot of time and effort were wasted trying to address that issue. The art side not only impacts the aesthetics of a game, but often the collision boundary boxes and overall feel. For me the issue of art direction is the single biggest reason I discontinued my association with M&A. From a hardware viewpoint, the severe storage limitations of the TurboGrafx memory card also hurt the game. The TG was an intriguing but ultimately flawed console.

Dave has a point about the art...

TBD: Night Creatures definitely amuses players with its funny-looking characters and stilted lines of dialogue, but fans sometimes wonder if they're laughing for the right reasons. The game seems to have a dark theme from afar; even its cover art projects an air of seriousness. Where did M&A plan to draw the line between horror and comedy? How much of the "comedic effect" was intentional?

DA: As I mentioned before, the limited graphics capability of consoles in that era ensured that horror was not achievable. Yet the themes of undead/dark creatures are universally appealing--you need look no further than TV and movies to see evidence of their appeal. When faced with the hard choice of attempting harder-edged entertainment and failing or going more for Addams Family/Munsters charm and humor, we chose the latter.

TBD: NC is frequently dubbed a "kitsch classic," famous among Turbo players (and loved by some of them) for being laughable. Is this a bitter pill to swallow considering the promise of the original concept, or is it gratifying in a sense that the game has at least managed to endear itself to a certain pocket of its audience?

DA: It is always gratifying to amuse and entertain people. To the extent that we did I am pleased. For the ones who were not happy, I am disappointed.

Believe me, Dave, we're amused...

TBD: When the time came for the game to ship, how did the team anticipate it would fare with critics and players? Aside from a few magazine reviews branding it average, it didn't get a lot of attention, and it wasn't a bestseller (even by TurboGrafx standards); but to this day, people still find themselves intrigued by it.

DA: By the time it shipped I had parted ways with M&A, so I wasn't there for the release and cannot really gauge the team's hopes and expectations. That being said, I am sure they were both disappointed and engaged in some degree of denial about what did actually ship. Sadly, most games are shipped before they are ready, due to a combination of forces that almost always ignore the consumers' interests and needs. I would suggest that the blame for that rests equally with developer and publisher for different reasons. Publishers tend to forget that they ship products and instead focus on shipping schedules. Developers try to maintain some form of profit margin on their developments in order to keep the doors open and thus rush things out the door.

TBD: With an extremely interesting premise and a few impressive visual feats, Night Creatures seems to show that the development team had talent and the potential to do some good things with the TG-16 hardware. Unfortunately, M&A never worked on another Turbo game--why not?

DA: We were actually engaged with NEC on a potential next project with them--I helped out by creating market research for them on a set of licenses they held. However, that sort of dissolved when I disassociated myself with M&A. I also think that NEC was coming to grips with the limitations and issues with the TG. We were looking at doing a CD-ROM game next, and looking at what had been done with Ys as a basis for the system capability.

Ys: A small step above Night Creatures as far as production values go.

But, much as was the case with the Sega CD system, a slow, tacked-on mass storage device didn't really add much to the system's capability. Pushing camels through the eye of a needle is not a good path to artistic fulfillment.

TBD: What kind of impression did the TurboGrafx-16 make on you, both with its technical capabilities and its library of available software?

DA: It had a lot of potential but did not ever realize it. While the memory card was a cool form factor, it was also a severe restriction. I did very much like the Ys games, and felt that there were a number of good, well-realized titles on the system (Bonk, while derivative as all get out, was still a lot of fun). The problem with consoles throughout their history (and I will credit Nintendo as being smarter than the rest) is that they were designed and marketed around discrete components instead of being conceived as integrated systems. As a result, learning to produce and refining production on each one were challenges that could only be mastered in serial production.

TBD: TurboGrafx fans tend to know of Manley & Associates only through Night Creatures. What were some of the other titles that you worked on over the years, both with M&A and with other companies, and which were you most content with?

DA: Not sure I can answer this in any sort of satisfactory way. My career spans thirty years of which M&A was less than a year. M&A was one of those B-houses that underbid other developers, and their output reflected their business approach. I did games with them that total design time was less than a week, reusing in-house "engines" to crank out games in less than a month. I learned a lot and it was good exercise, but nothing to be particularly proud of. As far as titles throughout my career, I worked primarily as a producer/designer in the early days and then later in more senior executive roles. I have touched well over a hundred titles in my time and found something to love in many of them. However, I feel some of my best design work never made it into final production and resides in dusty archives somewhere. I will mention the original EA Wasteland, Origin's Moebius, and Penguin's adventure game Transylvania as ones I had deep creative involvement with and felt came close to being properly realized.

Dave's revelations regarding the crafting of Night Creatures are interesting in a number of ways. His statements in regards to funding are pointed and significant--though, of course, not particularly surprising. The conscious attempt to go a comedic route with the basic concept and the reasons behind the decision are likely to be scrutinized. While I believe most would agree that survival-horror-type thrills were unlikely to be evoked via 16-bit superficials, the unsettling music, ghastly enemies, and well-implemented visual effects to be found in the likes of Splatterhouse and classic Castlevania episodes surely established eeriness and produced suspense to some respectable, unignorable degree. Still, it's safe to say that the Manley & Associates crew had nowhere near as much money to play with as the respective in-house development teams of Namco and Konami nor the caliber of artists that could have made their title nearly as graphically effective or as playable as the aforementioned gems. And so it would be easy to write off Night Creatures as a lamentable tragedy of budget-related circumstances.

I'm vehemently opposed to doing that, though.

Maybe it could've provided a deeper questing experience. Maybe it could've made better use of the alluring elements it comprised. Maybe it could've been a lot like Shape Shifter or Simon's Quest. But for those types of experiences, we're fortunate enough to have those particular titles. Goodness knows the world has seen more than enough "Metroidvanias" come down the chute. But there isn't a single game out there that's truly comparable to NC.

I'm tired of viewing and discussing Night Creatures as something regrettable, as an early promise that met an unfortunate end. Accidentally or not, NC has endeared itself to many players who have experienced it beyond its discomfiting opening moments. It bears a distinct brand of goofy charm; it's a title so lacking in grace that it ends up lovable for its awkwardness. It is absolutely and undeniably unique... and very, very memorable.

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