Neon beasts scurry through dayglow undergrowth in a techno-organic jungle. The player’s task is to navigate platforms as cleverly as possible as creatures both totally new and distinctly familiar – they are the Mekazoo.
Oh, and it’s Mecha-Zoo, not Meek-A-Zoo. These are robot animals, not pocket monsters.
A Different Kind of Retro
While a lot of indie games lately have gone for the retro-look, aping NES and SNES graphics, or trying for a more cutesy, memetic look – the Good Mood Creators wanted a more slick, 3D world.
“We wanted a really flashy and kind of stunning aesthetic,” explained Mekazoo creative director Jarrett Slavin. “We knew we wanted to combine organic with mechanical and we wanted it to be super colorful.”
He could understand the desire for simpler look and cheaper production values, but the team wanted triple-A value for their first game.
Mekazoo still has a retro tone though.
“We wanted to capture that old school Nintendo feel,” Slavin said. “It still reminds people of those old 16-bit games, but not stuck in the 90s. If they had the technology we have now at that time, [their games] would probably look something like this.”
As the wallaby character’s main mechanic involves jumping on enemies, and the armadillo rolls into a ball to spin dash into targets, the crew at Good Mood Creators don’t mind surface comparisons to popular game properties (especially considering Sonic the Hedgehog was almost an armadillo) – their game has a different enough spin that it pays homage to the classics without retreading old territory.
“We all grew up playing the 16-bit classics as kids, and we set out to create our dream platformer,” explained Mark Naborczyk, Good Mood Creator’s product manager. “We wear a lot of our interests and influences on our sleeve, so you’ll see the spinning armadillo as very reminiscent of Sonic or Metroid. When you defeat the boss, you unlock the next animal, so very much Mega-Man-y in that sense. … It’s just in our gamer DNA.”
The Genesis of Mekazoo
When Slavin arrived at the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Washington as a student, his dream was to start an independent company.
“I didn’t want to work for The Man,” Slavin explained, lighting up as if he was recalling the uniting of superheroes behind a common cause. “I wanted to assemble a team.”
Good Mood Creators assembled at DigiPen, and the small group has grown over the years to include over a dozen creative professionals.
Focused on platform-style games from the start, Slavin’s initial idea was Everball, a musically influenced perpetually bouncing ball with player-controlled undulations. Slavin thought the game would take him years to develop, imagining it as something of an opus.
“That was like the game I dreamed of making, but in my second semester at DigiPen, I made that game, and I was like, ‘okay.’ I realized I could do a lot more. That eventually turned into the mechanic for the wallaby.”
With a bouncing character established for the game, Slavin and his friends imagined other animals that could have other distinctive mechanics. One suggested using a rope mechanic for a frog’s tongue, and a class project involving an excavation mechanic morphed until it became the flying mechanic for the bird.
“I came up with pelican design, and that kind of spawned the idea to make this game with animals. That was actually the first animal, and I wanted to make a game that was just a pelican. “
The wallaby and frog joined, followed by other animals. In the early build, players couldn’t switch between animals on the fly, but as the game progressed, new tricks were added. The latest build includes an interesting take on co-op, as switching between animals can mean switching between players, which can either lead to success or rivalry among experienced players, or enable mentor players to guide younger gamers through tough spots.
The game was designed to give casual gamers a chance to try out new game strategies, and for experienced players to learn the nuances of each animal pairing, skill set, and hidden secrets.
Ease of gameplay was important, which also means short cutscenes and no dialogue.
“The story’s more implicit than explicit,” Slavin said. “One of my least favorite things about really modern platformers, is that they stop you and give you this [story], but that’s not why I’m playing the game.”
Only the armadillo is available at the start, and as the game progresses the player faces off against other animals, seeing their moves in action before unlocking them. Each subsequent creature is given a solo level – negating the need for more traditional tutorial levels – before being paired with another member of the Mekazoo.
“The frog is probably, at this point, the most ubiquitous or popular character, but I like the idea of not having one of them be the lead character and all the others being sidekicks,” Slavin said. “My favorite is probably the wallaby.”
When and Where Can It Be Played
Mekazoo is targeting an August 2016 release on PC, Mac, and Linux, via Steam. Ideally the game will hit consoles soon after, with the dream of a mobile device version down the line. For now, Good Mood Creators are casting a net for participants in the closed beta.
Having the game ready for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One shouldn’t be too much of an issue, but Nintendo’s current home console isn’t compatible with the Unity software Mekazoo is built off of.
“Nintendo keeps saying that they are updating, and they are going to start supporting this version of Unity,” Naborczyk said. “We definitely don’t want to leave out the Nintendo fanbase.”
While Wii-U is unlikely to be Unity-ready before the NX launches, the New 3DS is reportedly set, and Mekazoo’s pick-up-and-play atmosphere may make it an ideal fit for the handheld.