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Designing boss fights from the bad guy's POV in Nefarious

“It's a big love-letter to video game villains. Being the villain informed a lot of our decisions, from reverse boss fights to which side of the screen your health bar goes."

Nefarious, the first project from the two-man team at Starblade, is an interesting experiment in side-scrolling action platformer design. The game, which launched last month, rejects the standard construction in which the player is a hero traversing levels and defeating bosses on their way to some ultimate confrontation with a powerful villain. Instead, Nefarious lets you become that villain.

Stealing princesses and piloting giant robots and other massive death machines that harken back to boss battles of the 8- and 16-bit eras, Nefarious’ protagonist inverts the standard formula in an attempt to stand out in a marketplace flush with indie platformers. We reached out to one of the developers about what inspired this fresh take, and how he and his partner brought it to life.

“It all began as a thought exercise,” says Josh Hano, an animator, illustrator, and designer and half of the Starblade team. “I've always been a big fan of video games and Disney villains. So I began wondering: how would being a bad guy affect a game? How would this change game mechanics?”

Instead of relying on standard design tropes that give players the option to choose either virtue or villainy (a choice that  generally doesn’t affect the structure of the game to any large degree) or cheat in a reveal of the player’s atrocities at the end of the narrative, Hano wanted to commit early and build the entire game around playing the scoundrel. Nefarious would be a game that wasn’t just narratively about being the bad guy, but mechanically as well.

“That's what led to the idea that kidnapping princesses (a time honored villain tradition) could affect gameplay in some way,” Hano says. In Nefarious, when you snatch one of the princesses, a new wrinkle is added to the platforming, from auto-scrolling to adding the ability to create platforms with waves of lava. “We didn't stop there; we couldn't have a game about being the bad guy end with you fighting a big oversized boss. You had to become that final boss! All in all, it became this one big love-letter to video game villains.”

Hano says the team looked back at some of the boss fights that they’d most enjoyed (or found most frustrating) playing through as kids. One direct inspiration was a Dr. Eggman battle from the original Sonic the Hedgehog.

“The idea that you could control a giant wrecking ball and that a little hero would be jumping all over the place was cool, and it immediately helps illustrate the idea we were pitching. We prototyped that in the real world by holding a controller and swinging it around. We built on the idea and added the mechanic of Dash [the heroic good guy antagonist] raising honeycomb towers for the player to knock down.”

The challenge of this sort of ambitious design, where each bossfight constitutes an almost entirely new style of gameplay, is building them all in the same engine and ensuring that the game doesn’t grind to a halt to drop tutorials on players before each battle.

“Each fight was a challenge to design. We had to basically invent a new type of game every time. The controls had to be simple and intuitive, because the encounters were designed to only last a few minutes. Making the fights challenging but winnable was important.” Hano says he aimed to emphasize the cerebral side of the mad genius archetype. “The player had to be able to pick up the fight, figure it out in relatively short amount of time and then develop a strategy to win. To be a successful villain, you have to be smart as well as over-whelming. After all, the heroes you fight are used to winning. “

Hano wanted every element of the game to coalesce around the idea of being one of the traditional antagonists of classic side-scrollers, and so each element of the team’s design was filtered through that core tenet.

“Being the villain informed a lot of our decisions, from reverse boss fights to which side of the screen your health bar goes on when boss fights begin. Some battles you can take several small hits; but if the hero gets three major hits on you, you go down.” As important as it was for players to feel like villains, it was also crucial that the enemies feel like heroes. “If you fly your Dr. Wily-esque flying pod next to them, they will leap up to you and take a chunk of your health.”

One of the most challenging and most-revised battles was an encounter inspired by Super Metroid’s Mother Brain, where players finally come face-to-face with a hero that’s been impacting the story from the beginning. 

“We took the basic idea of large screen-sized monster that shoots lasers and saw what we could do with it,” Hano says. “At first, it was simply a blast-fest. Mack was shooting at you, and you could block his shots with one hand and fire back with your other hand. However controlling both arms with two different joysticks was challenging. Most people ignored the blocking hand and took the hits while focusing on the blast hand. No strategy or thought, and we wanted winning the reverse boss fights to be an action-oriented puzzle in some way.”

The solution came when the team considered the boss fight in a larger context.

“Eventually we simplified it down to one hand that fired, and blocked incoming shots. Thematically, the level itself was about absorbing energy. The princess being kidnapped in this stage is composed of pure energy and super charges the player so they can escape. We ran with this idea and had the mech also absorb incoming attacks. After collecting four shots, you may shoot back a sustained laser. Personally, it's one of my favorite fights from a game mechanics perspective.”

Inevitably some of the boss fight concepts had to be shelved, but Hano says the potential is there to revisit them in the future.“We had a few more ideas for reverse boss fights we wanted to explore. So we decided to hang onto them for now in case we wanted to produce additional content or DLC.”

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