The concept was simple enough on paper - create a 2D platformer with an almost overwhelming number of heroes, each with their own abilities and traits, so players would have to constantly adapt to whichever hero they happened to be given next. Unfortunately I had a fascination with the number “88”, and so it was settled - we were going to make a game with 88 different playable characters! Over the following two years the game would span three studios, three programming languages, and would become the most ambitious game that most of us had worked on.
During the development of our previous platformer, “Super House Of Dead Ninjas”, I was thinking about the array of weapons we had in the game, and how each one had an effect on the gameplay. In SHODN you would choose your weapon loadout at the start of each game, but we also had a ‘random’ option which would give you a random loadout. I think it was largely this that led to the initial concept of 88 Heroes, but I had also been considering developing a game called “Agent 99”, where you played a single special agent that had to make his way through a building containing 99 floors in 99 minutes - you also had 99 lives and you carried 99 bullets for your pistol. 88 Heroes became a fusion of the two concepts, and we made use of every opportunity to use the number 88, even awarding 88 points for every vanquished enemy, and we just had to make the trailer 88 seconds long too!
The game still required a purpose though, and this is where Doctor H8 came in - unsurprisingly he's the game's bad guy, voiced by the superb George Exley who really helped bring the character to life. Dr.H8 is holding the Earth ransom, threatening to annihilate it in 88 minutes should his ransom of 88 octillion dollars not be paid. The Earth’s only hope is to send in the 88 Heroes, a collection of z-list not-so-super heroes, who have just 88 minutes to traverse the game’s 88 rooms for a showdown with Dr.H8. The countdown timer can be seen on the Doc’s control panel and there is also an 88 second time limit for each room too, so you can’t hang around too long!
With the concept more or less nailed down we started designing the first few heroes to put together a prototype build, initially using SHODN’s 2D AS3 engine. We wanted the game to feature heroes with a diverse range of skills, so whilst there are a few that run, jump, shoot etc, we also introduced some more quirky skills, taking inspiration from classic games; we have “Hammerstein” who can destroy blocks beneath him, much like Lode Runner, then there’s “Blocktopus”, an octopus magician that can conjure up his own blocks, rather like Dana from Solomon’s Key. Some of the weirder inclusions are “Retro Reptile” who controls much like the classic Nokia mobile phone game, Snake, and “Booster Goose” who essentially controls like the ship from Asteroids. We also wanted to pay homage to one of our previous Flash games, Time4Cat, where time only moves when you do - we applied this mechanic to “Bat Bot” and it worked pretty nicely - Time4Cat was also the inspiration for Superhot!
With the prototype taking shape nicely, we needed to make a decision on how the game would progress. The initial idea was that you’d start the game with just 8 randomly selected heroes, and you had the chance to rescue the remaining 80 during the course of the game. This didn’t seem right though - it could take some time before you got to play with all of the heroes, and some heroes would be unreachable dependant on which hero you happened to be playing as. So we decided to let players start with all 88 Heroes, with a new hero coming into the action every time a hero died or you completed a room. Losing a hero meant that they were removed from your roster of heroes and wouldn’t be available later in the game, but we felt this was a little unfair particularly if it was one of your favourite heroes, so we added a coin system whereby upon collecting 88 coins you’d be given the chance to revive a previously fallen hero from a selection of three chosen at random.
So things were going fairly well - we had 10 heroes in the game, the concept of the constantly changing heroes was beginning to shine through, and we had a few levels and assets in there too. Getting to this stage had taken a few months though, and with another 78 heroes to produce it became apparent that this project was going to take some time! We also had to create 88 levels spread across 4 different tile sets, as well as enemy sprites, background clutter, sound effects, voiceovers for all of the heroes, art and voiceovers for Dr.H8, foreground “border” animations, boss battles, an intro, an end sequence, credits etc… With just myself and our artist Stef working on the game at this point, the task was more than daunting, and there was no way we were going to get it finished in a reasonable time without some help. Luckily we had 2 other artists that we could enlist as well as several game development students from the local Solent University to help us with level design and QA.
A few months later, the content was starting to come in and the game was starting to feel more complete, despite there still being a long way to go. It was at this point though that we signed a deal with our publisher, Rising Star Games, having shown them a video of 88 Heroes running on a PS4 devkit. This gave us the impetus to get the game finished, as well as some much needed funding, although signing with RSG meant that we needed to deliver on what we said we could do - not only were we now committed to producing PS4 and Xbox One ports of the game and everything which that entails, but we also had to support 7 languages. At this point a lot of the text was hard-coded into the game, so that all needed to be externalised, and we also needed to tweak some of the UI elements to make sure they were within the dreaded “safe zone”. As a developer, these are two practices you should be following right from the start as it will save you a lot of hassle later on!
After a monumental effort by our team we finally had all of the heroes in the game, all 88 levels etc, and even a couple of new game modes that we’d come up with during development. It was a crazy amount of work and without Unity there’s no way we could have brought it to so many platforms in such a short time frame, so massive thanks to them!
So after something like 2 years the game is now finally ready for release on March 24th, and is our debut title under the “Bitmap Bureau” studio. After working on something for so long you can end up loathing it, but I can honestly say that I still enjoy playing 88 Heroes, and even now I keep discovering little tricks and shortcuts to make the journey to Dr.H8’s lair a little less arduous each time I play it! We hope that at least 88 of you out there will enjoy playing it - thanks for reading!
Mike Tucker, Design Director at Bitmap Bureau Ltd.