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The Game-Maker Archive: Matt Bell

OPENPAP Last week we presented a brief overview of Recreational Software Designs’ Game-Maker, a boxed design suite from the early 1990s. In its prime, Game-Maker enjoyed a large network of users, connected through dedicated dial-up boards and old-fashioned floppy exchanges. Development on Game-Maker ceased around the time that the Web began to enter the mainstream, and a few years after that Mark Overmars’ unrelated Game Maker (note the absence of hyphen) replaced its namesake, to find its own development community.

For the next few weeks we will explore some of the stronger voices of the Game-Maker scene: how they stretched the software, how they influenced future development, and what role they played in making Game-Maker the revelation that it was.

Matt Bell

Though I’m not sure if he concerned himself with the broader community, Matt Bell’s Paper Airplane is perhaps the most widely-distributed Game-Maker game, and Yuphex is one of the most sophisticated. Matt’s games are defined by a meticulously clean visual style and a talent for both subverting and capitalizing on Game-Maker’s design quirks. It’s not that his games are purely experimental; that same sense of cleanliness and discipline extends to his design concepts, lending his games a strong feel of professionalism.

Matt began his Game-Maker work in high school, as was common to most of the designers I encountered. Most of my our communication was through the post, and carefully packaged 3-1/2″ floppies. From what I remember of Matt he was fairly reserved and didn’t mince words, which shows itself in his art. Offhand I am only aware of three of his games, which I will discuss below. If anyone can fill the gaps, please consider this an interactive discussion. All the better to unearth some indie game history.

Paper Airplane

spap Guide an airplane through perilous obstacle courses, in various industrial settings — warehouses, power stations, ventilation shafts. Initially takes only a touch to wreck your plane, and there is some clever action puzzle solving to be had. Much of the action involves air drafts — a practical use of Game-Maker’s directional gravity variables. On the backend, Game-Maker users will also notice how carefully Matt organizes his monster and background tiles by level, so as to allow plenty of space in each tile set. More ambitious designs are often hampered by Game-Maker’s strict limits on tile counts; between the clean designs and fresh tile sets for each scene, Paper Airplane demonstrates how to work with the limitations rather than just struggling against them.

Yuphex

yuphex The title refers to the second planet of the Yuphlaxian star system, one of the worst possible targets for a holiday. The player controls a squat, through spry, reptile who finds his vacation on the verge of ruin due to an unexpected supernova. The task is to find several pieces of shielding, so that the player can dive into the nearby sun and defuse a bomb.

Yuphex is basically a character platformer, with standout design and a few neat elements. Especially notable are the space ship sequences; rather than a straight level-to-level progression, the game offers some freedom of exploration on an overworld map and an endgame inside the sun itself. The platforming also avoids much of the usual frustration in a Game-Maker game, as the reptile rockets out at forty-five degree angles, allowing plenty of room for aerial maneuvering.

Anyone developing a Game-Maker platformer would do well to dissect this game in Character Maker for a tutorial in overcoming Game-Maker’s limitations in control design. Likewise, the visuals display an attention to detail yet a simplicity that lends the game a sense of place found only in the top-rung Game-Maker games. The only thing I’d add to the backgrounds is that I’d change up some of the overt repetition.

All Quiet

allquiet The simplest of the three games, I include it partly for posterity and mostly for the circumstances of its development. Assigned a book report on Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Matt Bell asked, and was granted, special permission to instead adapt the book into a videogame. As it happens, the game fails to capture much beyond a basic WWI setting. The player starts off in a trench as it begins to fill with mustard gas, and is forced to go “over the top”; as he works his way across the battlefield, the player will encounter barbed wire, mortars, more gas, and machine gun fire that seems to follow the player around like angry bees. The player’s only defense is a single-shot rifle, and it’s not really enough to get far. If the game does express one thing, it’s a certain futility.

Bringing it Home

Though a quick Google search will bring you several results for Paper Airplane, the other games are somewhat harder to unearth. With that in mind, I have uploaded the shareware episode of Yuphex for your perusal. For the full effect, and Sound Blaster support, I suggest playing it with the aid of DOSBox or a similar utility. Mind also that Yuphex was composed with an earlier version of Game-Maker than I have here, so there may be a few minor artifacts from the export.

Next Friday we’ll take a look at the secretly prolific Eclypse Games, originator of many advanced techniques and publisher of few complete projects.

[Read all of our Game-Maker Archive editorials]

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