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  • We’ve covered PPP Team’s major franchises, and their often experimental one-off games. To polish up, and possibly to set the stage for another whole realm of discussion, we’ll look at their third branch of development: the tribute games.

    The PPP Team members wear their influences like long johns; sometimes they’re under the surface of their normal clothes, and when they’re certain that no one is looking, that’s all they’ve got on. We have discussed some of the apparent shareware and Commodore references in their original games. Amongst the five surviving tribute games we find a broad and instructive spread of creative input, from classic arcade games to 1990s shareware to 16-bit Japanese platformers to Japanese anime and manga to the techniques of existing Game-Maker games.

    Perhaps noteworthy is how fully the team embodies the games that it chooses to pastiche. Some creative whims aside, they replicate the originals as closely as possible within the limitations of RSD’s game engine. Where they meet technical or conceptual barriers, rather than force the design they simply go in a new direction that follows from the original both in logic in spirit. One gets the sense that these tributes are where PPP Team really found their footing as designers; whenever they were uncertain what to do next, there was always another influential game to dissect and put back together.

    F1 Eater Mania

    The Game-Maker vault is littered with Pac-Man tributes of various aptitude and originality. PPP Team sidestepped the issue by, deliberately or not, making a clone of Namco’s Rally-X (1980) – which, granted, is basically Pac-Man with cars. There are a few differences, though, and in F1 Eater Mania those differences are compounded with alternating forced-scroll stages that call to mind Sega’s Monaco GP (1979). Or, one supposes, Matthew Groves’ Jet Driver.

    The game is bare-bones and comes off like a weekend experiment. As in other dot-hunt games, collecting a full board of blue blips opens the gate and lets you out. This being Game-Maker, counters never reset; die with three dots left to go, and all you need is three more. Curiously, the green “power pellets” increase the player’s HP – meaning that for every pellet you can crash into one opponent without totaling your own car. That’s one way to do it.

    It’s genial and it plays well, with a minimum of avoidable glitches or design problems. Aside from the counter issue, the only thing that stands out is Game-Maker’s lack of a context-sensitive idle state. Not much to do about that except ignore it.

    Commander Xeen

    Xeen also is stripped-down in the manner of Biokid or Blork Carnage, which may on reflection be a bit of a PPP calling card, with for most of the game a single regular enemy type, a minimum of counter work (even extending to HP bonuses), and fairly straightforward level elements. What makes it amongst PPP Team’s better games is the way that those elements are combined into an environment, and the accurate-feeling look, tone, and flow that they create.

    Both the decor and the architecture of the levels subconsciously lead the player forward like stripes in a Half-Life corridor. In the early levels, light and shadow created by block patterns draw attention to and propel the player along the intended path. Platforms placed just outside the player’s jump height, multiple key colors, hidden passages, and Keenesque useless-yet-tantalizing trinkets also attract, divert, and frustrate the player’s attentions at appropriate moments, creating a psychology not unlike Tom Hall’s original designs.

    Speaking of jumps, there are a few quirks of design. In Commander Xeen, vertical jumps are higher than diagonal ones. Not the most intuitive decision, but as far as RSD’s engine goes, the jump physics are about as clean as variable jumps get.

    The other main mechanic is weirder. To shoot, the player needs to collect gun icons. The game is generous and enemies are few, so running out is rarely a problem. Yet when the armory does empty, Game-Maker’s quirks get in the way again. Due to limits on button-mapping, the character uses different buttons and animation sequences to shoot left and right. Each of these animations is married to a different counter. Although the gun icons refill both counters, the act of firing only diminishes one counter at a time. Thus if the player fires to the right more often to the left, soon there will only be left shots, er, left.

    These hang-ups are minor. The high vertical jumping does have parallels in games like Super Mario Bros. 2, and the level design does seem to take the different heights into consideration as an advanced technique. If you remember that you can rocket straight up, several tasks will be easier than the layout at first suggests.

    The game is short, satisfying in its rewards, and gentle in its punishment. You only have a single hit point, so avoidance and caution become big elements of navigation, adding a bit of strategy and mild puzzle solving to some areas. When you do die, the game plays a few awkward notes and the character looks a bit sad; then you start the level over. Although as with every Game-Maker game you can save and load at will, here the design compels the player to tough it out and just try again.

    Pengo Adventure

    PPP Team’s first game arose as many first projects do, as a collage. Pengo Adventure is a tribute to Donkey Kong, assembled with a mix of borrowed parts and original elements. The character is RSD’s own Penguin Pete, lifted from a design tutorial largely intact. The backgrounds are both minimalist and fiddly but mostly original, save the odd decoration. Sounds are a mix of borrowed material and original samples.

    Although the game has its charms — in particular the premise of penguin romance and the atmosphere in some of the later levels — and you can see the budding style that would later declare itself in games like Badman 2, Pengo is just awkward to play. As Sylvain Martin has observed, RSD’s engine does not handle ladders as well as it might. There are ways to make it work, but it’s annoying – and when you’re paying tribute to Donkey Kong, you want the ladders to be perfect. So that’s a pretty inherent problem. A more manageable issue is player control.

    As adorable as he might be, Pete’s control mapping has always been a problem even in his own game. Taken out of context, with few to no changes, Pete has trouble just leaping from platform to platform. What PPP Team really needed to do was either design a new character from scratch or to ditch Pete’s character file and rebuild it with a mind to their planned game concept.

    Still, for a first game, Pengo Adventure explores just about every aspect of Game-Maker’s design options. It exhibits intertitles and introduction screens, full sound and music support, and just about every basic block feature. Even here there’s an understanding of contextual background properties, and the way to get around certain collision issues by swapping static monsters for background tiles. By many users’ standards, this would be a fairly advanced game. So, not a bad way to start.

    Twinnbee Land

    In Japan, Konami’s Twinbee series has long been the bouncy, juvenile counterpart to Konami’s flagship shooter Gradius. Outside of Japan, the series is fairly obscure. There’s Stinger for the NES, and then in some territories there’s a curious spin-off game for the Super NES, Pop ’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures. Unlike the rest of the Twinbee series, Rainbow Bell Adventures is a side-scrolling platformer in that refined and codified 16-bit mold. To hear him tell it, this game is also one of Sylvain Martin’s biggest influences.

    Thus, with a few logistical tweaks, we have Twinnbee Land. Whereas in the SNES game the sprites are kind of enormous, here they are tiny. The SNES game has rolling terrain with plenty of diagonal surfaces, allowing characters to bowl along; here we have a maze-like level design with huge jumps across open spaces. The game takes more liberties as it goes on, with odd character transformations – first the ship grows in size, then turns into a huge Mazinger-style mech. Combine this absurdity with the deliberately cutesy voice samples, and perhaps you can take Twinnbee Land as an affectionate satire.

    The game is actually rather long, and is dotted with fairly complex boss fights in the vein of the Badman games. Naturally enough, many background elements are borrowed from PPP’s earlier efforts. Sometimes they fit well; sometimes not. The character floats about half a tile above certain platforms, for no discernable reason.

    Of particular note is the jetpack, which – rather like Xeen’s vertical jump – allows the player to rocket upward much farther than a normal leap will allow. It’s a little awkward to use, and one forgets about it, which is as well for such a powerful feature. As with Xeen, this command often lends the level design another layer.

    Unlike Xeen, the design itself is often confusing. The geography tends to lead the player away from goals rather than toward them, and the properties or behaviors of background elements are not always clear, occasionally leading the player into inadvertent traps. Combine this frustration with slightly awkward control mapping, and at times it feels like the game is deliberately undermining the player’s efforts, as in games such as I Wanna Be The Guy.

    The question of tone is central to Twinnbee Land. It seems like a straight tribute, until it starts to get bizarre. It seems inviting until it starts to pull the rug out from under the player. It’s unclear exactly what the game wants to do. Whatever it presents, it seems to immediately subvert in some way, whether deliberately or not. There’s even an animation where the character holds up a nudie picture for the player to see. Why? Well, presumably to subvert expectations. Which seems to sum the game up.

    Dragon Ball Z 2: The Death of Vegeta

    Of all of the surviving PPP Team games, this is probably the strangest. Pascal, a friend of the founding members, was a huge anime nerd and also a beginning user of RSD’s tools. With his dubious illustration skills he roughed out a couple of games based on Akira Toriyama’s famous manga and TV series. When he showed the Team his second game, they took the game into their fold and adapted it to their developing house style.

    As Pypein has it, they were at the time unseasoned to anime in general, never mind Akira Toriyama’s particular illustration style, so they ran the game through a Badman filter. The result looks and feels very much like a stock PPP Team game – and very much unlike Dragon Ball. Thus, Pascal thanked them and took the game back. He undid most of their work and decided to remix his original sprites with new backgrounds scanned in and colored from the manga. This was an arduous process, to which Game-Maker was less than ideally suited, and so Pascal soon abandoned the project.

    Thus there are two versions of the game; a cartoony European-flavored one, and a much rougher-looking remix that ends after one or two levels.

    As for the game itself, apparently it’s an adaptation of a specific story arc from the manga. The sprites are appealing enough, and the backgrounds are atmospheric. The controls are a little strange, with a stilted repeating jumping animation, a dash move that’s about the same speed as walking, and special attacks that don’t always work as they are meant to. The game is largely silent, aside from the rare anime voice sample or occasional borrowed music file.

    DBZ2 is far from PPP Team’s best work, but it has some interesting properties. One assumes the game was a learning experience for everyone involved.

    There are still at least eight missing games, and apparently a large chunk of Badman III, probably lost to time. For now, though, that’s PPP Team’s catalog. Pypein, aka Sylvain Martin, would go on to develop his own code, and is currently working with the Nintendo DS hardware. His brother Piet would go on to sequence his own music, much of which is now available under the artist name Cyborg Jeff. It is thanks to some of Pypein’s later efforts that we have some of the images used in the course of this column. Thanks also to Sylvain for his time in recounting his long-dormant memories.

    You can download this final batch of PPP Team games at this link. Remember to run the games in DOSBox, and to turn up the clock cycles as far as they’ll comfortably go.

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