From Chrono Trigger To Super Mario RPG, The Varied Influences Of Sea Of Stars
Messenger made a noticeable impact when it arrived in 2018, with its crisp design and Ninja Gaiden-inspired gameplay that also gave way to a serious twist and very modern design. In this case, developer Sabotage has captured the imagination of retro gamers and those looking for a strong and extremely entertaining challenge. It was published by Devolver Digital, but Sabotage is self-publishing its next game, which will have been in the works for over four years by the time it arrives later this year – a sea of stars.
While The Messenger’s acclaim and the publicity that Devolver Digital can bring may tempt many studios to make a simple sequel and spin the wheel again, there’s a lot to admire about Sabotage’s approach. While Sea of Stars has some ties to the studio’s breakout hit, they’re in the same “universe,” and the gameplay and feel is serious fun. This time we have an RPG with different approaches – most of the gameplay is top-down and relatively close to the action as you move through towns and dungeons, sometimes it gets smaller to move around the world, and so on.
The areas we were shown were similar to those in our original description below, although we’ll also outline the updated build we saw. However, for us, this preview was a chance to look at evolution games and the impressive scope that it now demonstrates. What was clear to us in the preview area is that Sabotage retains the same humor, style, and attention to detail that was so impressive in The Messenger. The artwork is fantastic, and from the opening village to the smart dungeon playing with light refraction, the animation and visuals were top-notch. The characters also have great personalities, with the same light and casual approach to dialogue evident in the interactions we’ve seen.
The success of the studio’s first game, along with the Kickstarter campaign, successfully allowed the studio to actually make the game it wanted. Thierry Boulanger, President and Creative Director of Sabotage Studio, spoke to us about the preview and explained that the company had put all of its profits from The Messenger into the project along with Kickstarter funds. As we will continue to discuss, this not only allowed the team to expand from around eight people to over 20 but also gave the game its true scope.
Sea of Stars, thanks to the support of fans and the funds raised, looks like an impressive RPG, not only in terms of the main game but also in terms of small details. We talked a lot about the importance of side quests and mini-games to flesh out the experience, extra goodies for those who want more. With cooking, fishing, a mini-game called “Wheels,” and more, what we see is a game that will feel alive.
Another highlight of the gameplay was the game’s movement, traversal, and combat. They have a beautiful flow: Sabotage modernizes the genre and moves away from the grid-based movement. You can climb and jump around the environment while the battles are running in the world without any battle screen cutouts. The camera zooms in and out in skill-based combat that is reminiscent of the Super Mario RPG and its conceptual successors (Mario & Luigi, Paper Mario). Depending on the character’s abilities, you can parry attacks, pick up enemies to throw them together, build power to unleash magic, and more. The fights looked fun, creative, and dynamic.
Thus, the overall impression of the demonstration was extremely positive; this is definitely a game worth keeping an eye on. When the gameplay was finished, we had an interview with Thierry Boulanger, which you can see below.
What have been the most notable changes since the Kickstarter campaign? Has this success changed the scale of the project?
Firstly, it is allowed, and this is a very broad concept, but I would say systems. So it was originally supposed to be closer – if you don’t mind the reference – to The Gaia Illusion, a little shorter and more linear. Deadly enemies, limited experience, and the like. Now we can work in full swing; this allows things like more inventory the ability to cook, collect and return to previous locations for additional side quests and the like. It basically allowed full vision so you could touch it more have your own side adventures. This is something that we would have to put aside or make more minimalistic.
Even in the mechanics you showed, there is a lot of room for experimentation in things like cooking; is that an example?
Absolutely, It also allowed us to look at these systems, so if we send you to do something, you will stumble upon other things that you can take, use later, and so on. So you can say, “Oh, I’ve wanted to do this for a long time.” There will also be a little official game that you will play when you go to taverns and such. It will have its own collectible layer and the ability to customize things a bit. It’s all optional, but we heard from the demo, which was only navigation and combat, “can I do more? Is there a reason to stay, like fishing and so on?” That’s all you can do for 0 minutes or 10 hours, depending on how you feel. You live more within the world.
We hope our perspective is fresh enough – either by rethinking things or by keeping others that have aged well – and providing a distilled modern version of what was good about those ideas, as well as bringing in what is interesting today.
We saw in the official details that you mentioned “wheels” is this a game?
Yes, this is it! OK, wow (laughs).
I read somewhere; it seems on the official page of the game! How important these additions are in terms of enhancing the impact of the game. For example, there are several retro RPGs on the market. Does this extra opportunity help fans get noticed and excited?
Absolutely, It becomes its own meta, its own way of playing. Some players maybe, but many players you don’t expect will be like, “Oh yes, I care so much about Wheels that I could play them for hours.” But even for players who want to continue and complete the quest, when you’re done, you may need an excuse to come back.
The idea that even when you “finish” the game, maybe you want to listen to more music or don’t cook every meal, maybe I can still fish, or maybe I can find that cryptic clue right now. And of course, in the tavern, you might be thinking, “OK, let’s give the Wheel another round when the story is over.” So adding these other things means you can just spend time swimming, playing more mini-games, fishing new sports. This is an excuse to spend more time playing.
In terms of inspiration for the game, it’s easy for fans and critics to say, “Oh, this retro game is the same,” but what would you say, what was the biggest inspiration for your team, and how did you work through the creative process to then apply your own take on these classic ideas?
Let’s start with the mini-games and activities we’ve added; you always want them to fit into the larger game. So let’s go fishing in Aida. It’s not very difficult, it’s a quick button press, but it works very well in a fast-paced game flow. But in our fishing game, Breath of Fire 3 comes closest. It’s the kind of game where you take your time and need some depth. It’s not that either of these two is “better,” but they both do a good job in tune with the game they’re part of. This is true for wheels and even things like sailing.
In the gameplay you’ve shown, the impact can certainly be quite wide. When I was reading about skill-based battles, I thought of Mario and Luigi or Paper Mario being enhanced in the gameplay you showed me. It’s a real mixture of influences.
It’s always about the simplicity of what you do, right? Sure, there’s a point when we’re introducing a boss fight or something like that, but overall, we’re introducing a toy that we expect you to play with.
Absolutely, 100%. Funny, as a big fan of RPGs, and when RPGs were announced, I thought, “Is this going to be the one with encounters with Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG gameplay?” This blend has never existed – at least to my knowledge – I always thought it would be amazing because the two elements are so good. And I guess now we can do it, and that’s where it came from.
As with The Messenger, in the genre, we want to represent our “final edition.” If there are enough areas to be improved, then there is enough subject matter to represent something, although this applies to other things that are already known. We hope our perspective is fresh enough – either by rethinking things or by keeping others that have aged well – and providing a distilled modern version of what was good about those ideas, as well as bringing in what is interesting today. I mean, let’s see how it goes! But this is our best guess.
Thinking about things like how we fished or our overall approach, Paper Mario is a good place to think about. It’s always about the simplicity of what you do, right? Sure, there’s a point when we’re introducing a boss fight or something like that, but overall, we’re introducing a toy that we expect you to play with. So when you flip a stone, there must be something under it.
In terms of development experience, was it different this time around when you’re self-publishing? Does it somehow change the approach?
As for the creative process, no. Because Devolver is very good when it comes to this, you keep it 100%. Sure, they test what you do to see if they like it, but nothing more. So in terms of creative freedom, we are in the same place where there should be 100% freedom.
But yes, in terms of self-publishing, it really makes a difference in terms of things like funding, which we had to deal with on our own. But now, with his own name after “Messenger” and the means to grow the team, my partner Phil is working full-time as an executive producer, marketing and publishing. It takes a lot more effort, but we also have a big team and people dedicated to it all the time. So it doesn’t affect production and, for that matter, we own all the milestones and decisions. This is very good for us. However, I must say that getting a publisher at least once is a great idea. It put us on the map in such a way that we can now play and have a fan base, which helped a lot with something like Kickstarter.
Finally, how significant was it for you that the game was headlined by the Nintendo Indie World in December? Also, how important is the Switch audience to a game like this, with its style and connection to retro genres?
Of course, it was an unrealistic reception that we got, and the number of views, and all that. The place where this game came from, even from a purely emotional point of view, must exist on the Nintendo platform. We’ve never shied away from the fact that we want this game to be thought of that way.
So much inspiration comes from Nintendo and the 90s era. And yes, from the very beginning, we had people asking, “Can you announce it for the Switch? Just announce it for the Switch!” It was great to confirm this; it’s been a great week for us.
We’d like to thank Thierry Boulanger for his time and Sabotage/Tinsley PR for hosting the preview session.