Dev Talks Making a Retro Arcade Game in Today’s Industry

Dev Talks Making a Retro Arcade Game in Today’s Industry

Abathor is a 2D arcade action platforming game that enables players to team up in four-player local or online co-op, with some competitive gameplay elements tossed in for a nice twist. Players choose between four fighting heroes in a quest to defend Atlantis, playing as a Warlock, Valkyrie, Assassin, or Barbarian, who also have individual storyline agendas and unique fighting abilities in a modern arcade game experience.

Game Rant recently spoke with one of Abathor‘s developers, Xavier Garay, about Abathor’s action heroes and enemies, their inspirations, and its mix of co-op and competitive gameplay. Garay also spoke about the pixel art creation process and the importance of retro arcade games in the modern landscape. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.


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Q: What inspired the name Abathor, and can you tell us a bit about the game’s story?

A: The name of Abathor came because we wanted to have a resounding name, but one that’s easy to remember. We know that there is an unwritten rule that you should name your video games with something to remember. We like the resounding sounds of Abathor – it has the ‘Thor’ in it and because Abathor is a world. It’s a world beneath the true face of our world. It’s related to the plot of the game, which is located in Atlantis. We have done a lot of research, we have read the Plato writings about Atlantis, and we have a late map from the 17th century about Atlantis. The heroes go to Atlantis because the Atlantean civilization has committed a sin, and the Gods beneath the surface, the Gods of Abathor, have decided to wipe Atlantis out of the world.

Abathor playable characters Crantor, Sais, Kritias, and Azaes

Q: Could you tell us more about Abathor’s heroes, their personalities, and what inspired their designs?

A: Yes, this is a game that is a homage to the ’80s and ’90s. For example, our character is a barbarian based on Conan. The Valkyrie is based on many woman fighters of the 80s in the Conan movies. The warlock is based on Eric of Melnibone, a character of dark fantasy literature, so there is a homage to all these games, movies, and series.

We wanted to give each character a different experience of the game, so if you choose one of the four characters, you have a different experience. For example, Crantor the barbarian is like the typical all-around fighter. He’s strong, he can do everything okay. He has a dodge ability that can go through enemies and strike them from their backs. Sais is the Valkyrie. The Valkyrie has a magic shield that can parry almost all attacks. She can parry mighty attacks; she can parry sword attacks. And if you parry the attack, you can do a counter-attack, so we have a strong character and we have a defensive character.

Then we have Kritias. He’s the thief and is, of course, the quickest of all. He’s very agile, he has the longest jump, he has the quickest attack, and he’s the most technical character. You need a bit of skill to play with him. The last one is Azaes who is a warlock. He’s half demon and half human. He’s a sorcerer, and he has to mix sorcery and sword to defeat the enemies. He has a skill called Soul Absorption. If you kill an enemy, you use the skill, and you absorb the soul. When you absorb three souls, he can channel power through his sword, and he becomes maybe the most powerful character.

Abathor Azaes character profile

Each character has a driving motive in the game. For example, Crantor the barbarian is looking for revenge. Something has happened to him, and he’s looking for revenge. The Valkyrie has been expelled from Valhalla for something – you don’t know now, but you will guess while you run through the game. She has been expelled from Valhalla, and she wants to break back into Valhalla. Then the thief has some kind of mysterious secret related to his life and to his death, and you will have to guess what this is. And the warlock is half demon. He has some story that people will discover through the game because he has sworn to destroy all demons.

The names are real. All the names are related to Atlantis. We have been doing this research in Plato writings and Crantor is one of the dialogues of Plato related to Atlantis. Sais is the Egyptian city where allegedly some documents of Atlantis were found, and the other two are also related to historical documents.

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Q: Could you tell us more about each hero’s unique play style and special abilities?

A: Yes, there are special abilities. You can play the game solo, but the optimal way of playing is playing with up to four friends. The game is designed for four players. We wanted to go back to these kinds of games where you play along with your friends. Today, it is very easy to have a life without going out of your home, so we wanted to make a homage to these old games where life was easier. You gathered with your friends in person or online, of course, and you press start in these retro games. There are no dialogues in a battle, there are no subplots, and there are no long conversations with NPCs that you don’t care about. You just press start and play.

Taking this into account, we wanted to make a cooperative game, so each ability complements the other. Crantor the barbarian can defeat enemies very quickly, and you have a player that is very defensive like Sais the Valkyrie – she can protect the other fighters. You have a player who can reach other places quicker than the other three, and you have a specialist in sorcery that can invoke demons.

Abathor Sais character profile

The fun part is the players should cooperate, and each player should use their abilities to help the common good. But we wanted to make another twist, so it’s also a competitive game. This is the Roguelite part of the game. Atlantis is full of treasures to loot and sack. There is this metal of Atlantis called the Orichalcum alleged to be royal, and if you collect this metal, you can offer the treasures to the Gods.

At the end of the level, all players offer their treasures to the Gods. The player that offers more treasures receives a special item. The item can be better armor, a better sword, a ring with magic, whatever. But it makes the player more powerful in relation to the others. There is only one prize for each level, so the player who has looted more treasure is the one who is going to have this treasure. They have to cooperate, but they also have to compete between them. We have been doing some play testing, and it’s very fun to play in this way.

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Q: Is the competition at the end of each level the main competitive PvP side of the game, or do players get to fight each other in any sense?

A: Yeah, the competitive part is not a main mechanic, it’s a side mechanic. You could play the whole game without making any big competition. You cannot fight each other, there is no friendly fire, but there is a limited amount of treasure that you offer at the end of the level. Players could make a deal and say ‘okay, this level it’s better for you to take all the treasure because you are the only one that doesn’t have anything, right?’ They could, but if there is a greedy player who is good at looting treasure, he can take all the treasure and all the items for himself. But he cannot hit his friends. You cannot damage your friend, just loot the treasure.

And also, if one player dies between the level – the levels are like three minutes or five minutes of play each level – there is a chance that the other players resurrect him or her. There will be some kind of special orb in the middle of the level, and if one player is dead and the other player hits the orb, the other player resurrects. But as a payment, the player who resurrects him or her and takes out all his treasure. This is like a Roguelite right – when you die, you lose your items.

Abathor Kritias character profile

Q: So, it’s like a shared life system?

A: Yes, it’s a shared life system. Life is represented by a statue, and you have five shared lives. You only lose a life when all four players die in the level. When you lose a life, a black screen appears and one of the statues’ arms blows up, and then the other, then the shield, the sword, and finally the statue’s head. For this to happen, all players must die. If one player survives – imagine that three players die in the level and one player survives – all players are resurrected again in the next level, and a life is not lost.

Q: Okay, so it’s not too punishing?

A: No, it’s not too punishing because we wanted it to be fun.

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Q: Could you tell us more about Abathor’s bosses and enemies and what inspired their designs?

A: In Atlantis, we have two kinds of architecture. One is the Atlantean architecture, and one is the invader’s architecture – it’s the Abathorian architecture and the enemies are those of a Sword and Sorcery world. So we won’t find orcs, we won’t find elves, and we won’t find unicorns, right? In our fantasy world, we’re going to find something darker, like Call of Cthulhu monsters, more demonic monsters, more Hellish monsters – those kinds of enemies.

There will be, I think, 10 zones in the game. In each area, there will be five levels and each area has a theme. For example, the first one is the landing from the ship, the second one is a forest, the third one is a mountain, the fourth is a swamp, and the fifth is the city of Atlantis. In each area, the enemies are completely different. When you play an area, you will find some kinds of enemies, but when you reach the next area, the kinds of enemies you do find are completely different. They don’t repeat each other.

At the end of each area, there will be a big boss. In the first area, it’s a Kraken with tentacles, a very big octopus. There will be giants, you will fight giant lizards. There are big but also lots of small and quick enemies as bosses. Each boss area is related to the theme of each area. We have put a lot of thought into the enemies, the design, and the kinds of monsters that we want for each area.

Abathor heroes battling a boar monster in misty forest

Yeah, and I guess it must make each area feel different, so it’s not repetitive. You’ve got different enemies to fight.

Yes, we have 50 levels – we are a bit crazy. The game will have 50 levels. It’s too much, it’s a lot of work, but we are going to make it.

Q: How did retro games like Goldenaxe inspire Abathor’s pixel art style?

A: Well, Goldenaxe is one of the biggest games in history because it changed the way that people play beat ’em ups. Everyone who is interested in retro games knows about Golden Axe, but we wanted to make our game current yet beautiful. This is not a retro game, like completely retro, because it’s a new game. It’s what is called a neo-retro, so we are taking all the big points, all the strong points of the old games like they are quick, they are fun, but we are also developing a lot of new things.

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This game is a neo-retro because it takes the ideas of retro games from the ’80s and the ’90s, but we use the technology of today. This game could not be supported by Sega Genesis probably. Pixel art is one of our main strong points because we wanted to make colorful, fun, and beautiful art with big enemies with a lot of diversity. We know that developing pixel art is very, very difficult, and it requires a lot of effort because it’s like a craft. You have to draw each pixel. For example, the main characters have 32 pixels, more or less, of height. It’s so difficult because a pixel that is not in its place or has a different tone of color can mess up the complete character. So it’s like sewing, right? It’s very demanding, but the result is very satisfying. We have presented the game in two events in Spain, and people really love the pixel art. We even have people who study for a Bachelor of Arts come to us to ask about the pixel art.

Q: Could you tell us more about how you created the game’s pixel art?

A: Yeah, it’s a very long procedure. Our team – it’s not only my brother and me, we also have our collaborators, and we have helpers. We work with side people. For design, first my brother and I think about it and make a little sketch because we are not artists, we are developers. We made the sketch, we have a very strong concept, so we give this character or this enemy a concept line of personality in three words. Then we design and draw. We don’t draw too much, but we can make a sketch, right?

Then we pass this design to the pixel artists on the art team, and taking into account the concept line, the personality, and the design in the sketch, they develop a character. But that’s not the final one because we do an iteration. So they give us the character back, and we have to polish it. We make some points and give them back to the art team again, who give the final touch. It’s a very demanding process, very, very demanding because when you have an idea for a character or for an enemy or a boss you see it clearly in your head. You have a great idea, you see it clearly, but it’s very difficult for that idea to go into the mind of another person. It’s very difficult, so you have to make this continuous feedback with the design team.

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Q: Why did you decide to create a retro arcade game?

A: There are two reasons. One is because my brother and I have been developing games since we were small right, since when we were teenagers. My brother also has completed a lot of games. He’s a software engineer. He has completed a lot of games, but he has never published one. He has been developing games for himself just to have fun.

He wanted to finish one game, so he asked me to help him. One of the reasons that we made an arcade game is because it’s the world that we have lived in. We have lived in all the arcades in Spain of the ’80s and the ’90s. We played Street Fighter when it was released. We played Castlevania when it was released, and we played Zelda, Super Mario, and all the classic games at the moment, so we wanted to make homage to all these games because it’s the games that we grew up with. We also like new games, but we wanted to make this homage to these games. And because these were easier years, right? You didn’t have troubles, you didn’t have responsibilities. You have a lot of free time as a child, so you took your Genesis, you took your Super Nintendo, you went to the arcades and started playing and forgot about everything.

Abathor playable characters Sais, Kritias, Azaes, and Crantor

Today’s video games are great. It’s like a very big experience, it’s almost like a mystical experience – I have learned a lot with a lot about the human condition with The Last of Us, right? Okay, that’s great. I really love it. But I want to play for fun. I have 10 minutes. I want to play; I want to laugh with my friends.

Q: What’s it like making a retro game in an industry that’s sometimes dominated by the next big technology advancements? Obviously, Abathor uses modern technology as well.

A: We’re using Game Maker – I think it’s not very well known because everyone uses Unity today – but we think it’s easier to make a 2D side scroller. We think it’s easier to build up the stages. But in relation to today, it’s very difficult because today there are, I don’t know how many games get published each day, but many. We are an independent studio, it’s just my brother, me, and some people who help us. I think we are maybe nine people more or less, and we were told: do not release your game at Christmas, do not release your game at the beginning of summer – okay, when do we release our game? Because if released at Christmas, you compete with all the AAA games. It’s a challenge really, it’s a big challenge, but we think that we are making a great game. It takes a lot of hours and a lot of work, but we’ve realized that people like our game. The people who have played it really love it. We haven’t had any single bad review.

We have this work of developing the game, and then we have another completely different work that’s to promote the game. It’s so difficult because it demands as much work as developing, like we have to maintain daily our social media, right? It’s very manual. We don’t have, as the AAA games have, teams to promote the game. It’s ours.

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Q: What do you think makes Abathor unique compared to other retro 2D platformers? What’s its unique selling point would you say?

A: There is no almost any game that is a 2D side scroller with up to four players. It’s very difficult to find, we have been looking for them and there are some, but so few action platforms with up to four players. I only remember one Mario game with up to four players, but it’s very difficult because it brings out a lot of challenges. What happens if someone gets out of the screen? What happens if someone goes quicker than the other? What happens with the screen movement with a camera?

It’s very difficult, but we think it’s fun. It’s the kind of game we would have wanted to play when we were children. My brother and I were talking – what kind of game would you have liked,? A classic game, a 2D side scroller, but one to play with our friends. I think that’s the point that makes our game different from the others. I think it makes the difference. You could play local right in a friend’s house, or you could play it online as well.

Abathor characters

Q: You can play the game solo as well?

A: Solo, yeah, of course. It will be a challenge playing solo. Most people will play solo because most people play alone in many games, so the game is also designed for solo playing. The challenges and the difficulty adjust if you play solo, or if you play with two, three, or four players. The difficulty is different for each amount of players. It’s very difficult to design that.

Q: On Abathor’s Twitter it says the game even has a Mario World-style map. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

A: Yeah, I know we have said that. My brother is a big fan of the autonomy of Mario World, and the maps of Mario World or Super Mario World and others are like small areas where you pass through a few levels. And then you go into the castle, right, and then go to the next world.

We wanted to make an arcade game, but in arcade games, each phase is a world, you go through a first level, you have the boss at the end of the level, you go to the second level, and you have the boss. This is not apt for a game that you play in your home, you need something longer. If you play at the arcade, the duration is like half an hour. Ten minutes, half an hour. But if you play for a game to play at your home, you want to play, I don’t know, 10 hours at least. So, we discovered this Mario World structure, that each world has four different levels. All the zones of the game, all the areas follow the same structure to go like three or four levels through an open field, and then you go into some kind of Dungeon. It could be a castle, it could be a fortress, it could be a cave, some kind of dungeon, and then you have to defeat the boss there. So we took that, of course, from Mario.

Q: Is there anything else that you’d like to add today?

A: Yeah, sure. Well, everyone that has played this game wants to play more because it’s very addictive. It’s very addictive because it’s quick, the levels are quick, and it’s changing. It changes the design, it changes the enemies and the music very quickly, so you get this feeling of progression. Many people are telling us that. They want it to be released now, but they will have to wait because it’s a very, very, very big effort. I can say that maybe at the end of summer or maybe at the beginning of autumn, we will release a free demo on Steam. Everyone who wants to could download the demo and play maybe six or seven levels, maybe between five and seven levels for free, and they could try the game and become more addicted to it [laughs].


Abathor is currently in development.

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