For some, the 16-bit glory days ended far too soon. When sprites and text-based dialogue were the staples of any story driven title, many considered these elements to be the best way to tell a tale. It’s hard to doubt these claims, especially when you look at some of the renowned games that come out in the 90s – Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 6, Phantasy Star, Lunar and so on. The death of the cartridge and the rise of 3D removed most limitations, and some would say, the creativity which blossomed while finding ways around them.
For a global group of diehards, though, an ambitious new project to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Genesis/Mega Drive moved quickly from concept to reality. Pier Solar, the first brand new title to be developed for the MD/Sega CD, has almost completed its lengthy development. One of the first successful projects of its size, the developers originally began as a small forum community and grew quickly into a small indie development studio.
Indie game projects based on older genres and art styles are certainly nothing new, especially RPG titles. With the creation of sophisticated development software like RPG Maker, its relatively simple, along with some hard work and artistic skills, to develop some certainly interesting ideas. Others have gone a step further, in the most recent examples, of attempting to develop entire sequels or remakes to professionally developed games, hacking the original titles to extract models, battle systems and the like.
Where Pier Solar differs is in its dedication to making as professional a product that you might find on a shelf circa 1992. With teams dedicated to sound authoring, sprites, story and plot development, multi-language translation and the like, you could be excused for thinking they were making games for a handheld. But the most interesting part of the story is not that they are creating a 2D RPG, it’s that they will be the first company since 1998 to develop a brand new IP for the decidedly dead Genesis.
The developers, Water Melon Development, have been working on the title since 2002, when they were operating under a small group via the Eidolons Inn Sega Homebrew forums. The scale of the development, as well as the dramatic expansion of the concept to one of full scale publishing, and yes, that means creating actual cartridges AND Mega CD discs, pushed the team into a larger, dedicated form. Determined to sell an extremely professional title, the team will be printing a 24 page glossy manual as well as designing an authentic box to accompany it.
Like most modern independent fan-projects, Water Melon Dev. stretches across the world, united via email, a special developer forum and MSN. A team of professionals dedicating their time to the project covers all cultures and locations, from Tiido Priimägi, Estonian student turned Music engineer, to Gwénaël Godde (or Fonzie) a French graphic designer turned lead programmer. Other team members hail from European destinations such as Sweden and Germany, all the way over to the US and Brazil on the other side of the pond.
The plan was to develop not only a great title, but a completely original one. It would be easy to borrow or tie-in to any of the original RPG’s from the Genesis era, or save time and money by using open source music or sound effects created by others in the home brew community. Pier Solar, according to Water Melon, will feature 30+ hours of gameplay, a completely originally composed score, specially penned story and handcrafted sprites and landscape. A hefty feat, by any indie standards, particularly due to the sheer size of the title, many JRPGs can take up to 3-4 years for professional studios alone.
The team have created everything in the game themselves. Utilizing a fan-developed SDK for the base engine, the rest, from sound effects to battle mechanics, have all been carved to fruition inhouse. This isn’t yet another RPG Maker project folks, we’re talking unique sprites, unique sound effects, battle system – the lot. Not only that, but the team needed to navigate around the console’s limitations and its proprietary code base to make sure they could utilize the co-existing connection between the Genesis and the Mega CD.
This is no mean feat. Ask any developer who worked on a cartridge based console in the late eighties to mid nineties and they’ll all tell you the same thing. It’s hard, its long, and its expensive. Imagine creating an idea, then forcing that idea into a memory space the size of an iTunes setup executable. Now you can contemplate the scope. A quick look around the title’s community forum reveals some interesting information into how it’s been done. It’s interesting to note that even back it was new, no game had ever tried to use the Genesis and the Mega CD simultaneously. Certainly a challenge indeed.
When asked questions relating to unknown game specifics, Pier Solar PR man Matthew Bennion remained tight lipped. With a rabid (and dedicated) forum community salivating at every announcement, video and information tidbit, its obvious that the team want to keep everything under wraps. Aside from a brief summary of plot and story, very little is known about the title outside of the characters and some media, gradually rolled out as the development progressed.
Some information is known though. The cartridges will be custom made in China, and will be compatible with any Genesis or MegaDrive that was originally released. Same goes with the Mega CD media. Keeping in mind that Sega cartridges/consoles were never region locked, this wouldn’t have been much of a problem, but it would be essential to get that part right. Nothing would be worse then getting 10,000 made, along with the custom, latest generation chipsets to find that none of them actually fit in a range of different systems.
The release date is something of lore. The team are savvy enough to not promise anything, although they have made the mistake a couple of times with a tentative release. A project like this, one created completely out of free time between a small group of developers, pushes a traditional dev period (a couple of years), out to up to 10 or 12. That Watermelon are close to completion, so they have murmured at times, is definitely an accomplishment.
As such, there have been 2 different “pre-order” packs available for purchase. The first, named “Posterity”, includes the cartridge, specially designed clamshell box, manual and Mega CD supplement. This particular pack was developed for early supporters of the project, and was considered “limited edition”, due to the ability for purchases to have their name in the credits as well as a slightly different box.
The second, named “Classic”, is identical to the original pack although it omits the credit and has a different box. Going along with the enormous amount of detail involved, purchases can choose from a special “Japanese, Europe or US” boxstyle, designed to fit alongside your other titles on display. Classy. I’ve already pre-ordered myself, although I found myself saddened to miss out on the special edition!
Watermelon have certainly gone above and beyond what most would consider possible when developing an independent production. From what I’ve seen, heard, and read the game looks to be a stellar one, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. If it sounds like your bag (baby?), then trundle your way over to the Pier Solar site and take a gander.