Episode 26: Ratcheteer

Christa Mrgan: In a world of ice and snow, you’re doing your best as an apprentice mechanic, just trying to maintain the cryogenic chambers for the people who chose a deep freeze nap over braving the surface of a post-asteroid planet. But when your master mechanic is kidnapped, your only choice is to strike out on an adventure. Brace yourself: it’s going to be a long impact winter.

Welcome to the Playdate Podcast, bringing you stories from game designers, developers, and the team behind Playdate, the little yellow game console with a crank. I’m Christa Mrgan.

Today, I’m talking with designer and developer Shaun Inman, along with sound designer and composer Matthew Grimm, about Ratcheteer-- a wonderful adventure game inspired by Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, and which won Game of the Year in the first annual Playdate Community Awards by Donald Fraser and Andrew Gant, who runs Tiny Yellow Machine. There’s a link in the show notes!

Slight spoiler alert: we talk about the overall gist of the game, as well as the first two ways you can use the crank in the game. But Shaun and Matt try to keep it mostly spoiler- free. Okay. Let’s say hello.

Matthew Grimm: Hi, my name is Matthew Grimm. I sometimes go by 8bitmatt and I was the composer and sound designer on Ratcheteer.

Shaun Inman: I’m Shaun Inman. I design and develop games, and I also build web applications like Pulp and Caps.

Christa Mrgan: Pulp is the browser-based game editor for Playdate, where you can create games without even needing to know how to code. And Caps is the online bitmap font creation tool for Playdate. Shaun was the main force behind Ratcheteer.

Shaun Inman: I did the design and development and the story.

It’s like a top-down 2D exploration, adventure game in the vein of Link’s Awakening for the original Game Boy. And story-wise, it’s about this sort of Steampunk Society. An asteroid hits the planet and throws it into an ice age, basically. And there’s two factions and one decides like, okay, we’re gonna use cryogenics and freeze the population and wait until the world thaws out. And there’s another group who decides, no, we’re gonna try to, eek out a living on this frozen surface.

And there’s also a bit of mystery about a third party that may or may not have something to do with this asteroid that hit the planet. And so you are an apprentice mechanic who is tasked with maintaining these cryogenic plants for the people who chose to freeze wait out the impact winter.

And your master is kidnapped by someone or something, and so you go off in an adventure to rescue them and you end up helping friend and foe alike and saving the world! That was a bit long winded.

Christa Mrgan: N ah, it was great! So, where did this idea come from?

Shaun Inman: You know, I, I was reading through, I kept a journal for the first like two years of development. And then kids happened and I was reading through that before this call. And I can’t really identify where the ideas came from. At least narratively, they sort of just like, they sort of trickle in over the course of a couple months.

And then you know, while I’m designing like pixeling or programming the sort of gelling in the back of my head and then make connections and I can’t think of like any one genesis. But for like, the game mechanics a lot of that came out of just exploring the crank interaction and seeing, you know, what new ideas were fun and interesting.

And then the homage to Link’s Awakening was kinda like an anchor point, like somewhere I could like branch out from like take something familiar and then build on that. And there was actually a point in my notes where I was like worrying, was I adding to the conversation or was I just cloning Link’s Awakening? And I think that I extended the idea a bit more.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, I guess maybe the difference between paying homage and directly copying something comes down to really making it your own and saying something new. In everything from video games to literature to filmmaking, you can show your love of other works by reinterpreting and adding to them in your own unique voice.

And I think Ratcheteer absolutely does that. It references and kind of rhymes with Zelda games, without feeling at all like a rehash or a carbon copy.

Matthew Grimm: Shaun and I both love the Zelda series and the Ratcheteer is obviously influenced by Link’s Awakening-- gameplay and music. I really love when that comparison is made, too. I think it’s an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence as that game.

So while writing, I was playing through Links Awakening on an Older Game Boy for inspiration. I was also listening to the soundtrack pretty heavily. And I started development on the Ratcheteer in 2015 and Shaun had started even earlier than that.

Shaun Inman: Yeah, and I, I think that probably the idea of the Ratcheteer came out of this idea of having this crank and like, that’s sort of a similar motion to working a ratchet. And then, you know, you’ve got a ratchet, well, who uses a ratchet, a mechanic, but then not wanting to just make like a mechanic works on cars or something like that.

And it just, it grew from there.

Christa Mrgan: And kept growing! For a Playdate game, it’s pretty long!

Shaun Inman: Yeah, it’s probably first playthrough is-- could be up to like six hours. It’s a sizable game.

Christa Mrgan: So Shaun developed most of Ratcheteer while working at Panic, where he also worked on the SDK and tools like Pulp and Caps. So I wanted to hear about his games background and how that all unfolded.

Shaun Inman: So, my background is in graphic design and found my way into programming through web development. And so I built a couple of web applications and then I got back into gaming, playing games, and then realizing that I had, like, have a background in music, I have a background in design, and at that point I was familiar with programming.

So I’m like, those are the three pillars of game design, or game development at least. And so I started doing that, like exploring that. And then me and a couple friends formed a group called Retro Game Crunch and we did a Kickstarter and we built six games over the course of a year.

And really, I guess built my chops doing that and then Panic approached me with the concept of the Playdate and asked if I wanted to make a game. And I was like, yeah! Because uh, around that time I was struggling with like, okay, am I gonna target computers or consoles or touchscreen, like pocket phone devices?

And it was just like kind of a mess of options. There were no constraints. It was like you had to account for like all these different input methods and so they Showed me the Playdate with the d-pad and two buttons, and I’m like, yeah, constraints! And then I pitched the Ratcheteer and they thought it was a cool idea and I started working on that.

And then after a month or two, I sort of came on full-time and also helped work on the SDK. And it’s, yeah, and it sort of snowballed from there.

It wasn’t hard to come up with new things. It was It was hard sort of settling on which ones I was going to keep. Let me think. There is, I’m not gonna say them, but I’m gonna count them out.

Christa Mrgan: He literally paused to count them out!

Shaun Inman: There’s at least five different behaviors that use the crank. Sorry. Six. I forgot about that one. And they’re all kind used in different ways. There’s a little bit of overlap. But with each one, I tried to approach it from a different angle. See what would be interesting. It’s really hard to talk about it without talking about it.

The first two things are, they’re within the first like 10 minutes, so it’s probably fine to talk about, but like the first item you find is a lantern and it’s a crank powered lantern. And so initially you had to crank continuously to keep the meter up. But that got strenuous over the first half of the game.

Um, So now it’s just whenever you turn it on, it creates a little cone of light around you. But if you crank it all the way up it, it throws a wider light cone out in front of you. That’s directional. And then when you get the wrench sword if you crank, you can do like a spin slash and so.

Yeah, I don’t know if I wanna say much further than that, , but there are some secret items. There are some items that don’t use the crank or some tools. So it’s not like a one trick sort of thing. It’s not completely dependent on the crank.

It’s interesting cuz these are items that you use, but they also act as keys. So you can basically create lock. So a hole can be a lock if you don’t have the ability to jump. And so for every tool that I came up with, I came up with a couple of basically locks or, walls or things um, that I could use to let the player encounter the path forward before they have the means of passing through. I mean that, I guess that’s fundamental to like Zeldas and Metroids styles games. But it was kind of a fun puzzle to work out.

I did have like, all my notes in text documents and so I had a flow and I had an "atoms" text document where you have like your ability and then you have the different things it can do. And then the way that I laid out my levels was each region has a Tiled file, a .tmx file.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, a lot of Playdate designers use Tiled, a 2D game level editor.

Shaun Inman: And then I have a pre-processor script that will take that giant region sized file and split it out into individual room files. And it also generate preview images for all that. And so then I have all those in a big PSD, or Photoshop document, and I can look around and see.

What’s been done and, and what’s not. And actually, as I was developing, I created these GIFs. I would take screenshots of my progress as each region was coming together. And then at the end, I would put 'em all into the Photoshop document and just convert all the layers to frames and export it as a, an animated GIF.

And it’s cool to see the world sort of build up, refine itself over time. But As far as planning goes, it was, it was really sort of just organic. You know, an ability would lead to an idea for an environment which would lead to an idea for a story, which would then sort of roll back around and then it was just connecting those pieces together.

The game was originally written entirely in Lua and about halfway through I poured it all to C to get more performance out of it. So that was interesting. I had never really written a pure C game before. So that was interesting. I think I may have talked about this during the Crankin’ interview, but I created sort of like a pseudo language called Cross that lets me write something in a style that I’m more comfortable with. I’d have to manage like headers and source files separately. It was like they got generated from a single source file. And that was sort of designed around more object oriented ideas than C, which is mostly functional. So that was cool. I got to use that on multiple projects.

Christa Mrgan: Yes, you can hear a little more about why and how he did that in Episode 4, which is all about Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure, another game where Shaun collaborated with Matthew Grimm.

Shaun Inman: Yeah. So, the sound and music were all done by a frequent collaborator of mine, Matt Grim. And so he worked with Retro Game Crunch and he also did the sound for one of my iOS games and I dunno, he just has a great ear and uh, he really likes that 8-bit, NES aesthetic.

And so he got to dabble in Game Boy aesthetic with this one. We have a really easy working relationship. I just float some ideas and then he comes back and he’s got like this great song, and then I give him like a list of sound effects and situations that might require sound effects I haven’t thought of that he could think about.

And yeah, I mean, he has never disappointed.

Matthew Grimm: Shaun and I initially talked about influences, and that was for the gameplay and the music. It was just to get, you know, an idea for the feel of the game. And I can’t remember how far development was at that point. But I know we had something. I feel like we might’ve even had a small list of songs that we knew we needed, too.

I know pretty early on in our discussions we had talked about using recurring themes and melodies that were tied to like a specific character or a region. So as I was composing, I just always had that in mind. And then Shaun just kind of let me go for it. I’d compose and then we’d try it out in the game, like live with it for a while.

See if we wanted to keep it around. Luckily there were not a lot of revisions and only a few songs were cut, and I think that’s because we have pretty similar tastes and we also just had a good understanding of what we were after. My personal favorite song in the game is Recluse and I think it’s a beautiful song and I can’t believe that like came out of me. I just feel lucky.

So development and composing were happening at the same time. I would get builds of the game and that would allow me to like play that specific section and then go write music for it. Which I actually really liked because it didn’t all have to happen in my head. I got to actually experience it.

And sometimes Shaun would send me just short video clips of something that was usually maybe for like sound effects. And we would sometimes export those at like slower frame rates. So I could actually like watch the animation and like figure out the timing because we actually like took the time to fine tune some of the sound effects and like get the way that it felt, right.

Which is kind of hard to explain, but it definitely made a difference. I was writing all the music on a MIDI keyboard inside a DAW, and that’s a digital audio work station. And my do of choice is Q bass. The MIDI keyboard I was using was an Akai MPK249, and the majority of sounds that you hear were from a plugin called Chip Sounds by Plogue. And I tried to stay somewhat accurate, with Game Boy sounds, but I didn’t like stick to exactly what hardware could do. I like embellished a little bit, but it’s still like pretty close to Game Boy-ish, I guess. Composing music and designing sound effects were happening at the same time. Not like literally the same time, but like I was working on them at the same time.

But with sound effects, I kind of took a different approach. So all the sound effects were actually written in code and it was using a language called MML, which is Music Macro Language. , and that’s just a simple programming language that controls the sound channels of an NES. So for me, I was just faster and more comfortable with that, like to get the sounds out of it that I wanted rather than like sitting in a DAW with a keyboard and trying to figure it out.

Shaun had created this massive list of sound effects that we needed. And I would fill in the gaps, like as things came up. But sound effects like were happening all the way throughout development. Like from day one all the way until I was actually done. The sound effects was probably the last thing I worked on.

I think we ended up with around 170 total sound effects in the game.

Shaun Inman: For the Ratcheteer, I made a sound test app that, I’m trying to remember how that one worked. It was so long ago. It may have been just a Lua file that he could compile and run.

Yeah, there was a JSON file where he could edit like the properties of, like for a song, he could set a loop point where like after this point it loops when it reaches the end, back to that point. And he could individually set the volume and everything so you get the levels all right.

Matthew Grimm: Forgive me because my memory is a little fuzzy on this one, and it’s been about five years since I’ve last thought about it. When we started development-- that includes music and sound design too-- there was no SDK build tools or core framework fully in place. I believe Shaun was working on that stuff at the same time.

So I had no easy way to test sounds in the game. And I know builds were slow and I just needed a quicker feedback loop. So I don’t know what wizardry Shaun cooked up, but. If I remember correctly, I was able to just put wave files into a specific folder and somehow they would get loaded into memory.

And we wouldn’t have to rebuild at all. I think if anything, we might have had to like reboot the simulator or something. Maybe not even that, like they might have just shown up. I really can’t remember. But that obviously allowed me to iterate much faster. So I could try out a sound effect in the game. If it didn’t work, like go work on it, import a new one, and like nothing really slowed down the workflow.

So that was really great.

Shaun Inman: I don’t think we had anything like that for Crankin’, because that was such a complicated sound engine.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, the process of slowing down, speeding up and reversing the audio and Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure would have made that extra difficult. But again, you can hear more about that game’s development process and why the sound in particular was so challenging in Episode 4.

Matthew Grimm: I guess while we’re still talking about Link’s Awakening, let’s talk about one of the original composers that’s Kazumi Totaka. So if you’re into Nintendo games, I guarantee you’ve heard other music that he’s composed.

Think like Wii channel music or like basically every Animal Crossing game. . Uh, But two games I guess in particular that I was listening to during this time when I was writing. Cause I just wanted some good inspiration. The first one was Wave Race 64. I just love every track on that. And then Super Mario Land Two: Six Golden Coins.

That’s like one of my all time favorite Game Boy games. I think it’s a masterpiece. Everything about it. For other inspirations, I guess we can just go through a short list of my video game Composer Heroes and the stuff they made that I was listening to at the time. I didn’t really pull inspiration for much outside of video games, at least not intentionally.

So first is Hirokazu Tanaka, also known as Hip Tanaka or Chip Tanaka, and he is my favorite of all time. And that’s not just in video game music. Music period. He’s the best. He’s my favorite. So he is best known for stuff like Metroid, Kid Icarus, Dr. Mario, like early Nintendo stuff. But the game I pulled the most inspiration from, I think anyway, is Mother.

So that was Japan only, or at least we didn’t get it in North America for a long time. You probably know it as EarthBound Beginnings, if you played it recently. I just think that everything about that soundtrack is amazing. The game’s also great too. Other games of his that I was listening to at the time was Balloon Fight.

I just love how quirky that game is. The sound too. And then Super Mario Land, which is also like an all time great Game Boy game. Next on my list is Jake Kaufman, also known as Virt. And just like Hip Tanaka, I basically love everything he’s ever released. It’s all mind blowing. Amazing. Just go find anything he’s made.

So the game that I pulled the most inspiration from, that was still new at the time, was Shovel Knight. I think it had been out for about a year at that point, when I started working on the Ratcheteer. So I have like really fond memories of like mowing the yard that summer with my earbuds in, like rocking out to the Shovel Knight album.

And the last composer on my list is Masashi Kageyama. He was the composer of the game Gimmick. He might have heard of it, but maybe not. It flew under the radar for a long time. and now it has like a cult following, at least in chip music. It’s definitely a masterpiece, the game and the music.

So if you’ve never heard that soundtrack, like go listen to it right now, it’ll change your life.

I was listening to a lot of video game music while I was composing. Most of it was from the NES and Game Boy era. But I guess there’s at least two other things I wanted to point out that I was listening to a lot.

Pretty much all of the Pokemon Game Boy games, those all have amazing soundtracks. And then the other one, which is kind of obscure it’s a fishing game on the NES called the Blue Marlon. And it absolutely has like no business having such good music for a fishing game. . Go check it out.

Shaun Inman: Another thing we haven’t touched on is another past collaborator that I’ve worked with before: Charlie Davis did the illustrations for the game. And so that, that was really fun. He did the graphics that are shown during the ending and the title screen graphic. So I did all the Sprite work. . And so his illustrations were based on those. So I sent him a little story synopsis and then kind of like a family tree graphic of like how all the different characters related.

And so they could see like all their different like, uh, uh, physical characteristics. I would just, do like my, basically like pencil version of programmer art for like these ideas that I had for scenes, for the end credits and for the title screen.

I’d send them off to him and he would just come back with these, this great art in his style. I love the style. It’s like a simple, almost like early… Is it HAL Laboratory? Like the Kirby Devs? Just simple flat shapes. I think it’s a good pairing with the pixel art 'cuz they’re kind of reduced in their complexity.

In order to get the proportions on screen that I wanted, I had to go with a kind of odd pixel size. So a lot of times when you’re dealing with pixel art games like this, you’re thinking units of like eight or 16 pixel squares and it settled on 12 to get like the right scale that I wanted.

And so like eight is can be a little constrictive. Uh, 16 sometimes can feel like a bit too much 'cuz like I’m not really an illustrator and so a lot of my pixel art design is more kind of thinking architecturally. Not, I don’t know how to describe it. And so that, it was a kind of an extra tight constraint that was fun to work within and figure out the limitations of and how best to communicate such tight constraints.

That, of course, is all on top of the black and white!

Christa Mrgan: And this was all before Shaun had created the Caps tool for drawing bitmap fonts on Playdate. So creating the text in the game was extra laborious.

Shaun Inman: It came well before CAPS , like five years before maybe . So it was all the type was designed in Photoshop and then I used a tool called fontstruct.com to turn it into a TrueType font, which I could then bring back into Photoshop and lay out the HUD and work on my window chrome and stuff like that. Originally there was a font tool for the S stk that was just Mac- specific and as we were opening up the beta to more developers, we realized we’re gonna need something that’s more cross-platform. And I I’m trying to think, I think we started Pulp before Caps, and so I had a lot of the the rendering logic worked out using the HTML Canvas. And so that got up and running pretty quickly. And a lot of the design was informed by the original Playdate font tool. Coupled with my own past experience designing pixel type and stuff like that.

I think the Zelda -like is well tuned to continuing to pull the person in because you’re constantly unlocking new things and being reminded of past areas you couldn’t get to previously. But then as far as balancing for difficulty and stuff, it’s funny as a dev, you’re working on your game so much and you’re play testing it yourself so much that like, you don’t even realize that you… you basically just have a mastery over every system. You understand how everything works intimately, like behind the scenes. And so a lot of times you’ll find that you’ve tuned it way too hard. And so play testing helps a lot with that. So I have couple close friends who have played it. And then we did QA with Plastic Fern and that helps sort of get that balance right. And hopefully, on top of all like the game systems and the mechanics, the narrative as well is sort of keeping people interested and trickling down little bits of information and fleshing out the story as you go.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, I think the game feels pretty well balanced in terms of challenge, but there is a spoiler free hint guide that Shaun put together. I’ll put a link to it in the show notes, just in case. So what does Shaun think about creating more games for Playdate in the future?

Shaun Inman: I’ve got a bunch of prototypes in varying states of completeness. But yeah, I definitely love to, make more!

Christa Mrgan: And actually, in the time since we recorded this conversation, his game Word Trip launched with Catalog, our on-device game store. Word Trip is a light action word building game with three levels of difficulty, daily challenges, and a stress-free free play mode. It includes online leaderboards and it’s a lot more challenging than it might seem at first. So definitely check that out if you’re into word games.

But what are Shaun and Matthew’s hopes for people when they turn on their Playdate to play Ratcheteer?

Shaun Inman: I hope that they enjoy exploring the world and learning about what’s happened to the people and why they’re acting the way they are. And I hope that they find the third group interesting. Yeah. And I hope that they just have fun learning the game and finding all the secrets that I’ve put in there.

Matthew Grimm: To explore, find some secrets, just fully experience it and see it through to the end. I know Shaun poured his heart and soul into this game, and I feel the same way about the music and the sound. And as the composer, I hope I wrote some melodies that are catchy and stick with you long after you’ve played the game.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah. From the NES and Game Boy musical inspirations to the overall homage to Link’s Awakening, I definitely hope you enjoy exploring this frozen world and uncovering its mysteries in Ratcheteer. There are a ton of links in the show notes where you can learn more about Shaun Inman, Matthew Grimm, Charlie Davis and the bunch of the tools, games, and composers they referenced in this episode.

Thanks so much for listening. And stay tuned for more episodes, coming soon to the Playdate Podcast feed. Bye for now!

Matthew Grimm: Thanks!

Shaun Inman: Bye! It was good talking to you.

Christa Mrgan: The Playdate Podcast was written, produced, and edited by me, Christa Mrgan. Cabel Sasser and Simon Panrucker composed the theme song.

Additional music and sound effects were composed by Matthew Grimm and come from Ratcheteer. Plus, this episode includes music from the games and composers he referenced, including Kazumi Totaka, Hip Tanaka, Jake Kaufman, and Masashi Kageyama.

Huge thanks to Tim Coulter and Ashur Cabrera for wrangling the podcast feed and working on the website, james Moore for making me an awesome playdate audio extraction app and Neven Mrgan, who created the podcast artwork and site design. And thanks as always to everyone at Panic. Playdate is shipping now and available for pre-order at play.date.

Matthew Grimm: So we had been into it for a few years and we’re like super surprised when Nintendo announced the remake of Link’s Awakening. And that was in 2019 on the Nintendo Switch. We obviously were like super happy to see that revive, so we played through it immediately…