From Zelda Fangames To The Real Deal, We Talk To The Ocean’s Heart Developer

 

The list of games clearly inspired by Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda franchise is long, but it’s nonetheless impressive what some of the smallest development teams, in particular, can achieve. Ocean heart is a recent example in the Switch eShop, a game that has openly acknowledged its sources of inspiration.

We gave Ocean’s Heart a recommendation in our review due to the eye-catching pixel art and the many discoveries in this world. However, what is most impressive is that it is mostly the work of a single developer, Max Mraz. The main game was the work of one person, although its path to the Switch was also interesting, as it is a trailblazer for Solarus an engine that has been used for a significant number of Zelda fan games. Ocean’s Heart is the first time this engine has been used on Nintendo hardware; it was also the first game to use the engine to be released on Steam.

It’s a game with an interesting story, so we caught up with Max Gaunt to find out more about his creation, the journey to Switch, and what’s next.

Nintendo Life: First of all, could you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your gaming and development experience?

I’m Max, I’m supposedly a game developer. Development is just a hobby that I do on the side, but as it turns out, I do many about it, since I can sleep when I’m dead. I started making video games when I was 11, and a high school student told me about RPG Maker when a pirated version of Don Miguel’s RPG Maker 2000 was floating around the Internet. Then from time to time I tried to make Zelda fan games during my high school days, which never worked in RPG Maker because that’s just not what it’s for.

Could you go back to the beginning of Ocean’s Heart development? When did the project start and how big was the team?

Back in 2017 I was building a Raspberry Pi to play old games and came across the Solarus engine and a couple of Zelda fan games. The concept of the game that I made myself on my own TV was wild and exciting and I figured I was in my early 20s anyway it was time to learn how to code so I started learning on my own. I thought I’d make a very small game, just a couple of small islands and a couple of tiny dungeons, and it would be just for me. The team then is the same as it is now, only me. This meant there was no one to stop me as I accidentally made the game bigger and bigger.

You’ve already described it as “a love letter to The Legend of Zelda”; When you started, was there any particular Zelda game or set of game concepts from the series that inspired you the most?

Visually, I’ve always considered Zelda: Minish Cap to be the pinnacle of pixel art. The Game Boy Advance had one of the best pixel art because after that console, unfortunately, most major companies switched to 3D models, whether they looked good or not. So that was my visual inspiration.

As far as gameplay goes, what really draws me to Zelda is exploration, especially how you parse the world between dungeons. I love talking to people to find new quests that will take you to new places and I love how the outside world teases me with glimpses of places I can’t get to until I have some weird trick that flips trees upside down or whatever the new subject would be.

I love talking to people to find new quests that will take you to new places, and I love how the outside world teases me with glimpses of places I can’t get to unless I have some weird trick.

What aspects of Ocean’s Heart differentiate it from that source of inspiration, what do you consider to be the most important part of its identity?

Compared to Zelda, Ocean’s Heart is much more focused on side quests and extra content. If you only follow the main story, you will miss most of the world. There are secret dungeons, hidden quests, and outlying cities to visit. It’s all at the player’s discretion, if you want to explore you’ll find interesting stuff, but I’m not your mom and I won’t force you. Another point of divergence is Tilia, the main character. Instead of a taciturn, sincere protagonist, Tilia has character and expresses her attitude. As long as she I will take your time to help people (because she often needs money to fund her quest), she won’t hesitate to call out anyone who is in trouble or acting like a fool.

The game appeared on Steam in early 2021; What are your takeaways from the players’ reactions on Steam, and has any feedback influenced the updates and a possible Switch port?

Steam players definitely managed to find some obscure bugs, which was very helpful, but most of the reviews were immediately downvoted by someone else – for example, the music is reportedly repetitive and annoying, but also a punchline, and where can I buy the soundtrack? Although the mathematically positive opinions outweigh the negative ones. What PC players can agree on is that keyboard control remapping mandatory, as are Steam Achievements. Obviously none of them carry over to the Switch, but I’ve found a lot of small tweaks and improvements; things like some quests that are a bit obscure, or small areas that are too easy to miss, and the like. The Switch port has definitely benefited from checking out thousands of players on Steam.

It’s hard to remember that I made this game when I see it on my Switch screen next to Hollow Knight and Breath of the Wild.

What was the experience for you from a technical point of view bringing this game to Switch?

Before that, I didn’t know anything about porting since Ocean’s Heart is my first big game. However, this is also the first commercial release of a game built on the excellent Solarus engine, so the developers of the engine were also happy to port it to the Switch and were actively involved. I was just a lucky trainee whose game, in a way, worked out. So the technical work was messaging with the Solarus engine development team, like: “Max, can you try running this?”, “Of course, but literally I can’t find the Go button, where can that help? ? One of the biggest parts, however, is that the work we’ve done should allow future Solarus games to be ported seamlessly. I hope this encourages more people to make games.

Emotionally, was the release of Ocean’s Heart on the Nintendo platform a special moment?

Of course, it’s hard to remember that I made this game when I see it on my Switch screen next to Hollow Knight and Breath of the Wild. But then I start playing and I say, “No, this is definitely my game, because I fought this stupid bat enemy 50 thousand times during testing.” While I was expecting the Switch release to be exciting and special, and indeed it is, what was unexpected was how much time passed between the completion of the game for me and the release. Between QA, the certification process, marketing and everything else, I mostly worked on other projects for most of the year. So, of course, there is excitement, but there is also some willingness to move on to something else.

Does Ocean’s Heart have any future plans regarding the content of this game or new games/sequels?

I definitely have plans for new games, but I haven’t decided on a big one yet. Right now I’m working on a small game meant to be used as free resources for other developers using the Solarus engine. Graphics, code, sound effects and the like. The idea is that you can extract whatever you want from it, and it will speed up development with off-the-shelf modular systems, and development on those is going pretty well.

There’s a lot more I’d like to explore in the space of a pixel-art, top-down role-playing game. Ocean’s Heart didn’t actually invent any wheels or beaks that was intended, I literally learned how to code while making it. But now that I have some experience, I want to try and learn new mechanics and make something more unique.

Do you have any final messages to share with our readers?

I’m never sure what messages readers should hear, so I’ll add a few tips. Be careful not to accidentally start making games, it’s hard to quit and it’s so much work. Also, if you like to explore in games, there are probably a few parks in your city and they don’t tell you, but you don’t have to stay on the trails. You can literally just wander through the woods and you’re almost guaranteed to find a cool rock or something. Hope this is helpful!

We would like to thank Max Mraz for his time.

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