On this day, 10 years ago, we released Wind and Water: Puzzle Battles for the Korean handheld GP2X. It ran on our proprietary “Puzzle Elemental” engine, made from the ground up by Hao. This marked our first ever, solo indie debut.
Prior to that, we had worked on miscellaneous parts for different games. We also experienced development hell, projects that got canned, reworked, or changed to other teams. Even though we definitively have no regrets, and it was all in all a great time, it was a little frustrating to work so hard on some stuff that would never get released, nor that we could ever share with anyone.
A problem of that distant past was that developing for a commercial console was very difficult for a number of reasons. For one, becoming a licensee and acquiring a development kit was next to impossible for aspiring indie teams. Many times some large publisher obtained them, then they would hire a smaller, sometimes nominal studio, which would in turn hire some tiny, anonymous studio that would handle the development.
Large publishers had financial priorities, and emphasis was usually put on sure-hitters, like the sports games of the year. These were also economically difficult times when such game companies were making significant cuts to personnel, and as a result, there are tons and tons of games that you and I will never play.
Enter the GP2X. An open, dream-like handheld console that was itself the dev kit. To run code on it, you well… simply ran the code. On the same consumer hardware that you bought. In addition, it was a relatively powerful multimedia player with a decent screen.
The GP2X was the successor of sorts of another portable device, the legendary GP32: South Korea’s first serious attempt to build an international gaming machine, just like the other electronics giant, Japan.
It had its share of interesting games, and we own an entire collection courtesy of GamePark through developer Byulbram, responsible for the Her Knights games. Being “jailbroken” by default, it was also a haven for emulator ports and all kinds of homebrew, and created a community that exists to this very day.
After its release, part of original the team broke off to found GamePark Holdings and designed the GP2X. To attract developers they held a world-wide contest for the new “open console”. So we put together some puzzle demo and took 3rd place. A year afterward, Wind and Water: Puzzle Battles was finished. We worked around 14 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, frequently in crunch time.
Development was nonetheless, way easier than say, Game Boy Advance. The people who made GBA (and all other traditional console) games were truly masters. GBA used specific tile and color compression, there was no dedicated audio hardware (the better the game sounded, the worse it ran), and had a pretty weird architecture, with Game Boy Color hardware sandwiched inside. At the time of release, the GBA was truly way ahead of competition. It was like a better, faster, portable SFC/SNES (except for sound). However, it still inherited a lot of DNA from that era.
The GP2X, on the other hand, was a totally different beast. It really felt much more like developing for PC than proprietary hardware.
It was of course challenging to include everything we wanted and maintain the framerate, but we can pretty safely say that Wind and Water: Puzzle Battles is simply not a game that could’ve existed for GBA and perhaps even DS, at least not in its arcade-like glory.
As the designer/artist/animator, etc., I felt more like I was making a Neo Geo game, than something that ran on a handheld device. Every animation frame went in. Every sound effect, every cutscene, every background tile (more than 700 just for the overworld).
The GP2X version turned up pretty close to what we envisioned.
It was the very first iteration of the game, unique for several reasons. The GP2X could be overclocked safely to squeeze more performance, but at the expense of battery-life. So upon startup there is an option to “overclock” your GP2X not present in any other versions. The screen’s color space was also apparently not properly calibrated and would miss subtle tones. At certain point we incorporated a fix that an independent developer devised to solve the problem.
Subsequent revisions would add small and large changes, and in a Star Wars Trilogy fashion, the untouched original only exists for the GP2X.
Shortly before release, we put the game up for preorder. And since we knew that the user base wouldn’t be super huge, we decided to add a little extra feature. As a special preorder bonus, you could send a picture, and your game profile would have a pixelated version of yourself as an avatar.
The response was, to put it one way… underestimated. So many people go their “sprite” done, that I’m pretty sure the sum of their graphics far surpasses the number of frames of all playable characters combined. In hindsight, there were whole days that I almost exclusively just drew people, but it brought us close to our fans and it was very unique at the time (perhaps even now!).
Though we tried to make the game flexible, it was basically made to cater a niche of very skillful puzzle game enthusiasts. At the time, most were going the current match three way, and allowed very little control for chains or combos.
We were making a more robust game system with a much steeper learning curve, where you could play indefinitely if your skill allowed. Panel de Pon style.
Wind and Water: Puzzle Battles keeps stats for everything. There were a huge number of unlockables rewarding achievements and difficult moves. We even concealed theoretical ways to beat the long Story Mode in a very short time, true ending and all, by skipping certain parts. This would require enormous skill to discover and perform. But it was there, you know, just in case someone was crazy enough to get to that level.
In August of 2015, player vergeofapathy uploaded a speedrun on Twitch and Youtube, where he marginally beat his own previous world record. Years after the game was released, this player devised a perfect plan to play as few stages as possible, and executed it perfectly, in a puzzle game where you get random pieces you can’t predict. The skill and practice to do this live without mistakes is simply ridiculous. How many tries did it take? Why would someone, anyone, care about our game as obsessively as some people do for say, Ocarina of Time?
And not too long ago, we stumbled accidentally upon this page featuring crazy trivias about Wind and Water.
Someone found so many obscure and weird references even we the creators don’t remember because it was so long ago. Some of them were inside jokes, never really meant to be discovered, so the level of scrutiny this person subjected our game to was severely profound.
One can only be flattered by such dedication and passion. In the case of master players, they have dedicated more overall time to the game that even ourselves, development and all. They have studied the game frame by frame, even discovered moves we never thought were possible. And that is truly very humbling.
Wind and Water: Puzzle Battles wasn’t a huge commercial success story. It’s no Angry Birds. Not too many people are familiar with. But it made us some life-long fans. It even allowed us go to the IGF as finalists, a feat that had never happened in Latin America before, and only a few times ever since. On average, reviews were extremely positive, and we got so much encouragement through emails and other outlets.
Ten years ago, on this day, a bunch of people were up all night, excited about an indie game that would be released for an obscure Korean handheld. Awaiting the original digital download to be available to play it on day one. It is because of them, in part, that we do what we love today. And for that, we will always be thankful.