[Interview] Jack Darx talks about the Team Grybanser Fox, Zenodeath and more!

Shooting game fans should be shivering with pleasure : Team Grybanser Fox managed to release two major titles : Super XYX, Rozyrg‘s long-term pet project reached its completion after many years, and only a few months later, we were granted the occasion to taste the audacious and massive conclusion to the Zeno Trilogy, Zenodeath.

Jack Darx, co-founder of Team Grybanser Fox and lead developer of Zenodeath, during the finish line and in the middle of the last weeks of betatesting, accepted to answer our many questions about this exciting game, Team Grybanser Fox, and its creation, its evolution, and more. Since the interview was conducted in english, we decided to grant the world the occasion to read this extensive interview, even to those who decided NOT TO learn to speak french (C’est une honte, sacrebleu!). Enjoy!

Une version française est disponible sur Shmup’Em-All.

Personal background + Team Grybanser Fox

– Could you tell us about your beginning in the video game industry ? Have you participated to the development of games before the creation of Team Grybanser Fox ? Whom with ?

I always had interest in becoming a game developer since I was a kid. My first attempt at making one was called Soulcrusher, an ambitious Doom mod that was being made in 2008-2012. I was making it with a friend, but things didn’t work out between us because of creative differences. It came out, although unfinished.

In late 2012, I started toying around with BPzeBanshee’s Warbird, his super Simple programming base for Game Maker, I’ve known BPzeBanshee for around four years by that point. I was making an « 80’s » shmup called Generation 85, that became the original Zenodyne (not Zenodyne R) later in development. Warbird was simple enough for someone with no real programming degree like me, to get things rolling.

Me and Banshee actually met on the shmups system11 forums back in 2008 or so. We shared interest in Seibu Kaihatsu and Techmo Soft games, a bunch of random conversations turned into a friendship fairly quickly. And he started to show me his stuff like GMOSSE (NB : Game Maker Open-Source Shmup Engine) and eventually the Warbird, which kickstarted everything.

I wanted to make shmups because I always enjoyed playing them since I was four playing Star Force on my Famiclone (known as Dendy or Terminator in eastern euro countries where I’m from) and Z-Out on Amiga 500. But the other driving motivation is funny in retrospect.

I wanted to make shmups because I had enough of shmups being downgraded to being nothing but otaku bait, with all the anime titties everywhere… Though that no longer bothers me. But it was enough to drive me mad and « try » to bring back the genre to it’s roots, just ships, medals and big bosses to blow up.

The magic of Eastern Europe semi-pirate consoles, here an example of Famiclone

– What has brought about the decision to create the Team Grybanser Fox ? Who were the Founding Fathers of the team ? When have you taken the decision to create the team ?

After the original Zenodyne came out, development on Zenohell became shortly after, it was our big transition from Game Maker 8.x to Game Maker Studio 1.

Originally it was going to be a freeware title but a certain individual called Nortygames, convinced me I should just go for the next big step and go commercial with it. As I was filling in paperwork for Valve to become a licensed developer, me, Rozyrg (who was just doing various stuff for us at that point), Banshee and Kitz, we decided on the name Team Grybanser Fox, because we are the four founding fathers of the team. It wasn’t just a name, it was a brand from the get go. (NB : One of Jack Darx former aliases is Kaiser, and Kitz used to be called Samurai Fox, so we have GRYzor, BpzeBANshee, kaiSER, Samurai FOX… Notice anything ?)

– What are your personal influences ?

Toaplan, Raizing, Seibu Kaihatsu, tiny bit of euro stuff like Tyrian and other japanese stuff like Tecno Soft games or Capcom.

One among the best western shooting games : Tyrian.

– Two games are currently in development and should enlighten 2020 : Super XYX by Rozyrg, and the final chapter of the cruel and exciting Zeno Trilogy, the ambitious ZenoDeath! How many people are part of the Team Grybanser Fox ?

Eight peoples, divided into team A and B :

  • Team A – me, Banshee, HeavyViper, Kitz
  • Team B – me (only as a supervisor/QA), Rozyrg and Epilis

Occasionally we ask Alex Dealey to design us new wallpapers. She’s the gal who did the updated Jet Buster v1.1 wallpapers, and Zenodeath’s.

One of Jet Buster wallpapers

– Are there different group working under the Team Grybanser Fox banner ?

Originally Rozyrg and Epilis were working as a « team » under our team, but at this point, we are just equals, cue the Team A and B structure.

– How are assigned to a specific project ? Are the teams fixed or is the organization more fluid?

The teams are for the most part fixed, however this doesn’t stop us from helping each other.

– Is it the first time two Team Grybanser Fox projects are being worked on at the same time ?

Nope, Fire Arrow was being co-developed alongside Jet Buster, there was a major break mid-way through Jet Buster’s development but we resumed afterwards.

– Your games usually dance between a true old school vibe that could be described as « Toaplan-like » (rough first approach, pixel art visuals, fast bullets) and a modern approach of the genre with loads of rewarding medals and a smaller hitbox. Thus the player faces both old school pattern encouraging « outside escape » but is at the same time encourage to navigate inside slower patterns in a more « danmaku-like » way. It confers a solid and coherent identity to your productions, a unique approach to the shoot’em up genre. Could you define the general guideline behind Team Grybanser Fox productions ?

Pretty simple, we choose a specific era and style of shmups we aim to recreate for the project, whether that works out happens in the final product. However we do not restrict ourselves to the hardware limitations of the old, we just aim to make stuff inspired by those forgotten eras.

– The first steps in your games are often violent, even though, if the player gives a chance to the games, they turn out to be more subtle and rewarding than one might think on first approach. What is your approach of difficulty in the games you develop ? Is it a reflection of what you expect personally of a shooting game ?

I like my shmups to make serious statements on the first two stages, telling the player that we mean business, there’s no training wheels here. Although hilariously, testers can tell you that we had to nerf the difficulty of those early parts since Zenohell!

Originally I was designing difficulty on a per-stage basis, meaning the difficulty was all over the place, with Jet Buster however I started to shift towards looking at the difficulty as per the whole game. Meaning I wasn’t looking at individual pieces of the puzzle, but the big picture, the entire experience from start to end.

– When comparing both Zeno games to Jet Buster, it seems that you tried a different approach in the latter with a more complex scoring system and a less punishing difficulty (at first, at least, even though the first stage seems to say «  you’re not here to f**k around  !  »). How has your relation to conception of shooting game evolved in time, difficulty-wise, but also in general  ?

Over the years, talking past approximately 25 years of my life, I’ve went from playing them casually (late 90s-early 00s) to 1cc’ing them on a regular basis (mid-late 00s) to playing them casually again (since 2012). I can still 1cc one here and there if I want to with enough time and practice, but I spend more time developing.

I believe shmups are more than just a throwaway niche genre, and that their experience can contain many times more intensity than anything else in terms of delivering action and hype per minute. That’s one of the things that keeps pushing me towards making more of them, to try to find new ways to amp up the intensity.

Zenodeath

– Zenodeath comes as a conclusion to the Zeno Trilogy, available on Steam, with its own surprises, easter eggs, fan service, and its massive gameplay twist : the inclusion of two completely different gameplays : the traditional sky stages typical to the series, and the appearance of top-down « ground » stages in which the player walks and can shoot eight directions in a maze-like design, a first in the series. Even though rare in oriental shooting games, this kind of approach, the mixing of genres, was not uncommon in eastern shmup (we have a few excellent examples that come in mind from the Amiga 500 era) Could you tell us more about how you decided to implement a brand new gameplay in a series with its tropes already well in place  ? Was it a story-driven decision or a decision to explore other gameplays  ?

I wanted something new, fresh that would be a gamechanger for us as devs and me as a player. I was always fascinated with top down run’n’guns, so I figured why not try to make Zenodeath one, in part.

The way we approached this idea is that we wanted our shmup stages to be as hype as possible for our current skill level as devs, but the running stages, were the slower counterpart, that were intended to calm the player down between the shmup stages.

– Is it your first experience in this specific branch of shooting games ?

Yep! Hopefully not the last one.

– What were your main influences in elaborating the game system of these levels ? What games served as examples to follow (or to avoid) ?

Mercs, Desert Breaker and Gundhara. I recommend all of those.

– Was it difficult to develop what could be described as two games in one ?

Yeah, the running stages were difficult because we had to code new systems to make them work, it’s a miracle we even got them working early in development. And also because it was challenging for Kitz to do the player sprites for them, with rotations and animations at the same time.

– Have you ever developped a game of this scale ? How long have you worked on this project ?

This a first for me when it comes to making games of this scale. I’ve been working on this since November 2017.

– Has the size of the game induced different process of development from your previous creations ?

Yeah, I had to start planning everything out from start to finish. It’s extremely easy to fall into development hell with a shmup of this scale. I learned the hard lesson that many of the greats in the genre took a lot of time and heart to do.

– How has the decision to create a « big » beta test crew occured ? Is it something you usually do or is it specific to this project ?

To be honest, me and Banshee were unsure of how Zenodeath would turn out with the running gameplay, melee mechanics and other experimental things. With the game taking so long to finish we realised that our perception of the game had become warped and biased. There was no way we could judge the game’s quality ourselves.

So we decided to get a bigger beta test team, consisting of people who are likely to give us serious criticisms. And that’s how the tweet started.

– In what way has it influenced your approach of the game ? Could you elaborate on the positive and negative aspects of this experience ?

I’m happy with all the feedback people have given us. It’s definitely a positive experience because they open your eyes on all the little things you don’t notice, testing yourself. At first we found it overwhelming but slowly, we went through all the feedback.

The beautifully designed medals in Zenodeath feel like a true reward!

– As mentioned before, medals have always been a big part of your games’s scoring systems. In the excellent Jet Buster, you managed to offer a different approach of the scoring mecanics concerning medals (NB : to sum it up briefly : when you shoot with your main shoot, you get gems which fill a gauge, and when you use your secondary shoot, you transform onscreen gems into medals : the more gems you eat, the higher your gauge level is, the most rewarding medals you get).

Even though Jet Buster and the Zeno series are set in very different universe, Zeno being much darker, you managed to assimilate this dimension of Jet Buster scoring system in Zenodeath (with its own twists and specific mecanics, of course!), and you managed to unify Zenodeath scoring system so that both of its main scoring mecanics (chains of destruction + medals) remain pertinent and applyable on both types of gameplays.

Zenodeath feels like the accomplishment of years of developping shmups. Is it fair to say that it is a kind of the sum total of your previous works, and your most ambitious game so far ? What is your own approach of Zenodeath ? How do you consider it in regards of your developper’s carrier ? Will it be the End of an Era, so to speak ?

Yes, I consider Zenodeath to be my magnum opus, a natural conclusion of all the years we spent working together as a team and the peak of my shmup design. It is the end of an era, but it’s gonna pave way for a new era in my gamedev journey as well.

After Zenodeath

– When do you plan on releasing Zenodeath ? How far are your from your end goal ? What would be your ideal version of the game (how many different ships, different mode, hidden stages, etc) ?

Funny you ask, Zenodeath was originally the end goal! We were aiming to make a shmup with 9 stages and see if we could get away with a 40+ minute run game. As for the future, I think it’s best we scale down slightly until we learn to work better with new tech, on more ambitious projects. Definitely a minimum of 2 ships, offer caravan/time attack modes.

– Have you already ideas for future games ? What will you do after Zenodeath ?

There’s always ideas, but whether they’ll become a reality, that is the big unknown.

– Do you intend to exploit the new direction developped in Zenodeath and make top down shooters ?

I would love to, but like I said, there’s no telling what will actually end up being made.

– What does the future holds for Team Grybanser Fox ?

Hopefully more games! And maybe, more shmup experiments. Outside of Zenodeath, I’m currently involved along with Kitz and HeavyViper (which is doing an amazing job with it’s soundtrack) in Nortygames and his Chronoblast Maximum Force. Be sure check it out on Steam and wishlist it ! By supporting that game you also support future Team Grybanser Fox stuff.

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