1992 Ocean Software
Brian Flanagan has been in the games industry for over 30 years, working on well over 40 shipped titles. He once worked at Ocean Software for around 10 years, working (uncredited) on Operation Wolf and then infamously on the first version of Operation Thunderbolt on the Commodore 64, which saying was a bit of a mess is a slight understatement.
We chat with Brian (with some added input from Dawn Hollywood) regarding an intriguing SNES platformer called Cold Steel. Not really covered in any depth or detail as far as we know, apart from the odd mention online and in the press. Developed back in 1992, and which could have been one of Ocean’s early SNES releases following the likes of The Addams Family, had it been completed.
GTW- Thanks Brian for taking time to speak to us about the Cold Steel project. So when was the game being worked on roughly and for what platforms?
Brian – It was an ongoing project from about 1991-2 and was SNES only.
GTW – Can you tell us a little more about what the game was to consist of and how it was going to play?
Brian – It was pretty much “Castlevania” meets “Strider” meets “Ghosts and Goblins”. The main character was an armoured warrior type character that did wall jumps by ramming his sword into a wall or pillar mid-jump to jump further.
Part of the inspiration for Brian’s Cold Steel game design. Super Castlevania (SNES).
GTW – Ah, so was it to be all multi-directional platform action?
Brian – Yes, it was mostly left to right, but a lot of vertical action too, where you could stab your sword into the wall and do wall jumps.
Gary Bracey also suggested the idea of having the character start as a child and get older as the game went by, which wasn’t a bad idea, but considering that cartridge size was always a major issue, multiple characters would add to that and increase cost.
GTW – Interesting concept from Gary. Was this just jettisoned then because of potential cartridge size issues then?
Brian – To be honest, getting a 16 Megabit cart would have been a struggle, and doing maybe 3 different characters didn’t grab me anyway. I dunno if starting a game as
a kid has a good initial grab as a cool and dynamic character from the get go.
GTW – So did you come up with the idea and pitch for Cold Steel yourself then?
Brian – Yeah it was all my idea.
GTW – Were you creating and following a design document or was it a case of making everything up as you went along?
There was a very flimsy design document. Most of it was just gradually iterated, sprite character, animation etc. No concept art to speak of. I was doing a lot of the graphics at home. It was a bit of an obsession for me at the time.
GTW – Sounds like though that the main character was quite large compared to most games of the time as well?
Brian – I’d say the main character wasn’t any bigger than say, Super Castlevania or Strider’s.
GTW – So, Dawn Hollywood (née Drake) was working on it with you doing some enemy sprites (who i’ll bring into the conversation in a moment). Who else was working on the game with you?
James Higgins did some programming before he left Ocean, then another guy also took over the programming for a while. He didn’t stay at Ocean very long and I honestly can’t remember his name. He had a habit of punching himself in the head when he got things wrong.
GTW – I guess whatever works for you!
GTW – Dawn, although it sounds like your involvement was very brief – I thought i’d try and include any recollections you have as well. What do you remember about the project?
Dawn – I vaguely remember working on it. I just did some sprite work. Probably worked on it for a few months, then that was it, cut dead. Which I thought was a great waste of our time and effort. I enjoyed working with Brian though, he was very focused about what he wanted, which helps when it’s an ‘original’.
GTW – Any plans for multiplayer?
Brian – No, none. Adding another large character sprite would have eaten up VRAM and bogged the game down, and again cart size = money.
GTW – What were your inspirations overall whilst creating the game? You seem to love Japanese culture, and have even lived there now for some years – so perhaps Japanese games gave some kind of influence at the time?
Brian – To be honest, once I got a PC engine and a MegaDrive console I kinda lost interest in EU / US developed games. All the major arcade game makers were making their own arcade ports and the difference in quality was miles ahead in terms of graphics, and most importantly accuracy to the originals.
GTW – Can you recall any of the level themes or environments planned for the game as a whole? (City, Alien world, Underground etc)
Brian – Yeah, we had a forest that had pillars bursting up from the ground, an airship, a castle, that’s all we got graphics wise. I think the castle and forest was all we had in the game though.
GTW – So a few levels implemented at least?
Brian – Nothing finished. We never got the pillars bursting up out of the ground, and a lot of enemies were never implemented properly. It only really got just as far as character game play and some parallax backgrounds. Oh and a Mode 7 background scene that had half submerged wooden frameworks with platforms.
GTW – Very nice! Although clearly not getting too far, were there any plans for other genres of game to mix things up between stages? Maybe making further use of Mode 7 for a 3D section for example?
Brian – Not really. We just had Mode 7 doing rotating platform structures, where the platforms were attached to the structures like pedals on a bike – so they remained level while the platform structures rotated.
GTW – Were there any particular challenges that you can recall during development apart from the storage space?
Brian – None really. I was really into reading up on the SNES technical docs and had pretty much figured out how everything could be achieved. Being the sole artist/designer on the game was probably the hardest thing, but I managed to produce a few backgrounds and sprites.
GTW – Ah, so you was also helping out on programming side, as well as doing the art and design work?
Brian – I wasn’t programming – only designing and doing the GFX! There were just the 2 programmers that had a stab at doing work on it overall.
GTW – Cold Steel seems to be the one project that you’re most disappointed to have seen cancelled. It sounds like the game was coming on pretty well – so why was it cancelled in the end?
Brian – Probably because it wasn’t a license, or another license came along that was deemed more lucrative. Actually I wasn’t holding out too much hope as the general enthusiasm was a bit low and I was mostly doing everything myself. I knew it would never get where I wanted it to be at Ocean.
GTW – Must have been too early then for music/sound effects?
Brian – Yeah, no audio was ever done.
GTW – And what happened after the cancellation?
Brian – I think at that point I moved onto the ill fated “Shadow” movie license, and after moved on to the further ill fated “Tribe” projects,
GTW – Looking back now, is there a game that eventually got released that you thought to yourself – “That just how I imagined Cold Steel would have been!”?
Brian – Like I said it was just kind of a mix of Castlevania meets Strider.
GTW – The big question – has anything survived of the development that could be shown today?
Brian – Sadly, if there is anything remaining of evidence the prototype existed, it will be on a video tape at my parents house, buried in the attic somewhere, and I’m a bit far away from there to go digging. I recorded all the in game footage we had, but I really don’t know if I still have the tape.
Dawn – Unfortunately I don’t think I have anything to show for it either. I can always go through my old disks as see if there is any remnants, but doubt it.
GTW – Although Dawn has long left the games industry, Brian – you are still very much still a part of it all today. What are your feelings on producing a game today, compared to your Ocean Software days?
Brian – Tools and knowledge bases make things so much easier, but the amount of team members on a modern game can make things very slow going and strip you of most of your autonomy and input depending on the team hierarchy and corporate structure.
As a UI designer, my biggest worry is fragmentation, as game resolutions are become so big that pixels are losing their meaning. Huge, detailed 4k UI could become near illegible on a switch handheld, or even worse now that the future of gaming may be streaming. How will a TV size UI be legible when you stream to a phone? We`ll probably have to do entire UI`s 3 or 4 times over.
GTW – Seems to lack a lot of the fun and simplicity of the old days (in my own opinion), which may perhaps explain your current retro themed project as we conclude our discussion.
So recently you’ve been working again on classic Nintendo platforms and have a brand new game on the cards?
Brian – Yes, I’ve been busy working on a NES and Famicom game called Saru★Kani Panic! for 8 bit NES and Japanese Famicom. We’ll be going to Kickstarter to get the game manufactured when it’s finished! Some new WIP footage can be found on YouTube (GTW – see above!). If you’re on Twitter, you can get updates from @work3studio
GTW – That looks seriously cool Brian – i’ll keep an eye out for it, and i’m sure others will too.
Thanks to both Brian and Dawn for taking the time to share your recollections and hopefully some video footage or sprite work will some day surface for us to update this page and show.