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Creativity from constraints: developing new games from old IP

A game's legacy is not just the nostalgia it will come to evoke after enough time has passed. Its legacy is also in the creativity it comes to inspire in the works that arise in its wake.

Alex Lotz

May 2, 2024

9 Min Read
key art from Slave Zero X with a bright red character
via Ziggurat

It no longer feels as paradoxical as it once did for Ziggurat Interactive to call itself “A New and Old Video Game Company.” 

Slave Zero X, a 2.5D hack-n-slash, is one of the few “new” video games I’ve worked on in my time managing production and publishing projects at Ziggurat. The game is canonically in the same world and storyline as an “old” third-person shooter game from 1999 called Slave Zero. I’ve come to see the “new” and “old” qualities of Slave Zero X and its IP progenitor harmonize and interact productively more than they conflict or contradict each other. Constraints can induce unexpected connections, creativity, and iteration, and as I watched a developer use an “old” IP as a foundation and springboard for their creation of something “new”, it changed how I think about my work bridging the gap between modern and retro titles.

I was working at Tommo, Inc. when they published the original Slave Zero as a digital re-release, optimized for the PCs of the early 2010s by Nightdive Studios. Long after I left Tommo, Ziggurat Interactive acquired the publishing and distribution rights to the series. At both Tommo and later Ziggurat, I wondered if anything new could be done with the game – a remaster, an enhanced edition, maybe a sequel of some kind – but there were always bigger fish to fry. Precious development funds were devoted to more iconic and headline-grabbing IPs like Bubsy and BloodRayne. Slave Zero sold better than much of the back catalog at both companies, but not enough to be considered other than a “cult classic” best remembered for its inferior Dreamcast version (if only for being part of that console’s relatively small library of games). The superior PC version of Slave Zero did not get as much mindshare with PC gamers on its original release, even those in the market for shooters, as it was released at a revolutionary time for the genre just one year after Half-Life and Unreal and the same year as System Shock 2 and Unreal Tournament. The Steam and GOG re-releases helped it find a broader audience, but it took an unusual series of events before the real possibility of a new Slave Zero game emerged.

Ziggurat founder Wade Rosen met with Wolfgang Wozniak of Poppy Works, a game development and porting company. Wade was looking for ways to bring more of Ziggurat’s catalog and recently acquired IP to the world, as old or new games, and Wolf’s team seemed like a natural fit. 

Wade eventually sent a list of the IP owned by Ziggurat at the time to Wolf. Wolf showed it to his team, and programmer/designer Tristan “Sinoc” Chapman was the one to recognize Slave Zero on that list. Tristan had been working on a prototype for a game that combined the precise and expressive combat normally found in versus fighting games (in particular anime fighting games) into a game structured with the traversal and progression of an arcade beat 'em up platformer. He remembered the world and atmosphere of Slave Zero and proposed it could be a good fit for his prototype.

I was not yet a full producer at Ziggurat when I first got to play Tristan’s prototype. I considered whether it was wise to adapt the name and world of the third-person shooter, where the main appeal is being in control of a massive flying mech, to this prototype where a ninja-like protagonist fights primarily with melee weapons, and mostly on foot. Would it not disappoint the Dreamcast and PC players with fond memories of throwing cars at buildings, blasting away with ranged cannons, and generally wreaking havoc as a giant robot in the original when the new game bearing its name allowed for none of that?

The fun I had playing Tristan’s prototype was enough to defeat those doubts, but the artistic vision in the accompanying pitch deck eclipsed those concerns further. Francine Bridge was responsible for that art and would go on to build upon the original Slave Zero’s art (by Ken Capelli) and narrative (by Margaret Stohl). As art director and one of the main narrative designers of Slave Zero X, Francine managed to make something that felt wholly “new” while also deeply connected to and consistent with the “old” of the original.


In researching the original Slave Zero’s development, inspirations, and even its canon, it was clear a lot of iteration occurred throughout that game’s development, marketing, and eventual release. There were early concept artworks and even renders of the main character in early development screenshots, which indicated a different vision from what ended up in the final game, which had been “toned down” from more extreme biopunk imagery at the direction of the game’s publisher, as revealed by Ken in an interview with Retro Gamer. This inspired the Slave Zero X team to not only find creative ways to connect their ideas with the original Slave Zero world but to draw from the same influences shown in the original concept art for Slave Zero. There were parts of Slave Zero’s backstory and on-screen plot that served the original game well enough, but left sufficient room for interpretation and expanded ideas. 

One key narrative detail was that the giant mech piloted in the original game was “stolen” by the ‘Guardians’ faction using it (according to the game’s prologue). This eventually led to the idea of making Slave Zero X a prequel which would [spoilers for Slave Zero X in the rest of this paragraph] tell the story of how the faction came into possession of that mech and justify why the player is fighting in a smaller biomecha suit on foot in Slave Zero X rather than piloting the giant mech found in Slave Zero.

Miles Luna joined the Slave Zero X project as a narrative consultant and worked with Francine to develop centuries of backstory consistent with Slave Zero’s established story and the one they sought to tell with Slave Zero X. There are characters who make appearances in both games (such as the central antagonist, the Sovereign Khan or ‘SovKhan’), but most figures that appear in Slave Zero X were wholly created by the Poppy Works team. SovKhan’s lieutenants, called the ‘Calamities,’ serve as the game’s main boss fights (most of them taunting Shou over a radio transmitter while the player works their way through the stages of each Calamity’s domain). Each has a mind and agenda of their own, but are also defined by their relationship to and feelings toward the SovKhan, which helps build up SovKhan as a looming presence in the background before he finally makes his appearance in the game’s final chapter. The emphasis Poppy Works placed on unique and memorable characters with colorful dialog differentiates Slave Zero X from Slave Zero, yet also feels very connected to the original game in how SovKhan remains a “big bad” whose face haunts every nook and cranny of the world which the player must fight through to reach him. It shows, again, how much Poppy Works were able to do their own thing while remaining true to the original, and even enriching the world of Slave Zero, as you’ll gain a lot more insight into SovKhan’s rise to power and background from playing Slave Zero X (especially if you discover the lore drops hidden throughout the game). 

The gameplay also took on new mechanics and visual qualities inspired by the new setting. Much of what made Tristan’s prototype fun in its original form persists in the release version of Slave Zero X, but many of the protagonist Shou’s attacks and abilities make perfect sense for a warrior in a biomech but wouldn’t for the character depicted in Tristan’s prototype. The game’s setting also became deeply enriched by the biopunk backdrop: while the sprawling Megacity present in both games has clear visual connections to the prototype’s world, there are more organic and ornate geometric formations in the backgrounds of stages that take direct inspiration from Slave Zero and its aesthetic influences, where you cut your way through the laboratories, weapons facilities, and the palace of the mad-scientist-as-deity SovKhan. In both the gameplay and the art direction, that connection to the source material served just as much (if not more) as inspiration rather than guardrails or borders within which the developers were constrained.

Seeing how Poppy Works iterated on the narrative, mechanics, and world of Slave Zero X throughout the game’s development allowed me to witness the emergence of a game I never would have imagined when I worked at Tommo, or even when I started at Ziggurat, in my vague daydreams about what could be done with Slave Zero. The development team brought so much of their own creativity to bear, and Ziggurat was happy to let them take the game and its story in many directions we (as the publisher and IP owner) never would have expected. Yet it’s clear that the “new” they made would not have become what it did without the “old” that inspired it, and it was amazing seeing this team run wild with a new vision for Slave Zero’s setting and gameplay and how they honored and enriched the vision of the original and its inspirations, too.

Some Ghetts lyrics that have stuck with me came to mind again in writing this reflection on an unexpected usage of a “retro” game IP:

Let's talk about legacy

I don't care about nostalgia

My best years are ahead of me

A game’s legacy is not just the nostalgia it will come to evoke after enough time has passed. Its legacy is also in the creativity it comes to inspire in the works that arise in its wake. An IP need not be a giant (or a giant robot) to have shoulders worth standing upon.

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