Interview: Cyber Shadow is designed to push ‘two-button gameplay’ to its limit

Cyber Shadow interview Aarne Hunziker MekaSkull Yacht Club Games ninja platformer

Gamers take it for granted now that a new game with 8-bit influences can not only be deeply entertaining, but also bring new ideas to the table. However, just a few years ago, that wasn’t so clear. “Seeing (Yacht Club Games) make a modern 8-bit-inspired game proved it can be done,” said solo Finnish developer Aarne “MekaSkull” Hunziker. “Shovel Knight and other games like Odallus by Joymasher gave me confidence to start my own project.” That project would turn out to be Cyber Shadow, an 8-bit ninja platforming action game being published by none other than Yacht Club Games itself.

The choice of publisher is not coincidental. Yacht Club had been the only publisher Hunziker would even consider. “Initially I set out to publish the game by myself, but what made me come around was the passion and talent present at Yacht Club Games,” he said. “It didn’t feel like the usual developer / publisher situation, but rather like working together to make something nice.” Yacht Club is especially lending valuable expertise with Cyber Shadow’s level design, and “the additional eyes only give it more ways to resolve into a complete project.”

Cyber Shadow draws from a wide range of influences. Yacht Club has discussed how the game draws from famous NES titles like Mario, Ninja Gaiden, Contra, and Batman. But it also draws prominently from more obscure NES titles like Shadow of the Ninja and Shatterhand.

Shadow of the Ninja and Shatterhand both have a pleasant pace to the gameplay where you might take a moment to think about the pattern of moving and stationary hazards combined,” explained Hunziker. “On top of this, Shatterhand is a very late NES game and really shows how far you can go with the limited palettes to achieve really intricate and detailed levels.” Beyond NES, Cyber Shadow takes some additional inspiration from arcade titles like ESP Ra.De. and R-Type because “they have hidden complexity beyond the obvious in terms of gameplay and story.”

Cyber Shadow interview Aarne Hunziker MekaSkull Yacht Club Games ninja platformer

Still, a passion for the NES shines through in Cyber Shadow because that was the console that got Hunziker started with video games, albeit belatedly. “My friends and neighbors had cool consoles like the Amiga 500, (Commodore 64), and NES,” he said. “I didn’t get my own console until the SNES era as a freebie from someone who upgraded.”

In turn, the NESticle NES emulator, which offered an integrated graphics editor for modifying pixel graphics, would ignite Hunziker’s passion for creating pixel art. “With NESticle I was able to live the dream of having my own graphics in a NES game, so that became a favorite pastime,” he reflected.

Finland has a growing game development scene, including the likes of Control developer Remedy Entertainment and Trine developer Frozenbyte. The latter actually helped to give Hunziker his start in the industry.

“I was lucky to be part of the first game dev school in Finland (thanks, mom!), and they arranged a period of work practice at local games studios,” said Hunziker. “I did minor tasks on (Frozenbyte’s) game Shadowgrounds like extending the game font to include some special letters, as well as conceptual artwork for secret things. Despite my complete noobness I was allowed to work on important things. That meant a lot.”

Cyber Shadow interview Aarne Hunziker MekaSkull Yacht Club Games ninja platformer

Between his years of experience and the support of Yacht Club, Cyber Shadow is poised to blindside players in precisely the way one would expect of a game about a cyborg ninja. Using playtesters as a measure, the game will last 4-10 hours for one playthrough, not including accomplishing all feats and achievements. Additionally, a bit like in a Mega Man game, players can revisit previous areas with new skills to uncover hidden paths and bonuses — plus some secret bosses.

Like other modern takes on retro gaming, Cyber Shadow will bring a palpable challenge, but it won’t be sadistic like some of the old games could be. For instance, dying incurs no penalties beyond sending the player back to the previous checkpoint. Nonetheless, completing the game with zero deaths will offer a special screen “reserved for real ninjas.”

For those players who could still use more help, “essence” is accumulated through gameplay that can be spent at checkpoint-specific item dispensers. However, any special items obtained from dispensers have either time limits or limited ammo, so they shouldn’t be used carelessly. Cyber Shadow is designed to enable “a rushing play style as well as a more calculated one. Taking your time will allow you to purchase items that make the game easier.” The game has one set difficulty, so players will be honing their skills against a finely tuned experience.

Cyber Shadow interview Aarne Hunziker MekaSkull Yacht Club Games ninja platformer

A pulsating soundtrack by Enrique Martin, also known as “Pentadrangle,” will keep the action going. “Enrique was super eager to work on a soundtrack, so he gave it a go and instantly delivered something that expanded on what I had envisioned,” said Hunziker. “It was a great match. His music has inspired many levels and gameplay scenarios.”

The ninja protagonist of the game, Shadow, is “part machine, part man, not completely either,” and the story will reveal how he got to be that way. He is on a mission to rescue and protect his clan from the synthetic life forms that took over the world, as well as learn what caused the world’s descent into ruin. Much like his Yacht Club Games cousin, Shovel Knight, Shadow could potentially make a cameo in other video games.

“There’s a game close in spirit to Cyber Shadow, and there’s some work already done to cross characters between games,” said Hunziker. “I really hope this comes to fruition. If it does, please look forward to it!”

Oddly enough, there is a renaissance of indie ninja platformers right now, including The Messenger, Bushiden, and Moonrider. However, when asked what ultimately defines the core of Cyber Shadow and its gameplay, Hunziker gave an ambitious answer.

“The idea is to see how far you can go with two-button gameplay,” he explained. “You start with something simple and familiar and slowly build up to a skill set that allows you to play the game many times faster than initially possible. Another aspect at the very core is ‘pixel perfect,’ which translates to how you have the ability to accurately place your character where you want it. This way, when you fail it’s due to a mistake rather than the game being unfair. Input latency is also kept to a minimum to get as close as possible to the lightning-fast response of NES games played on a CRT.”

As for what lies ahead after the game is complete, it remains to be seen, even to Hunziker. “Cyber Shadow is planned to continue, but nobody knows in what form,” he said. “It’s been an organic process from the beginning, and the future will be allowed to shape it further.”

Cyber Shadow will release for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, and you can follow the game’s development on MekaSkull Twitter and at the Yacht Club Games website. As for a release date, Hunziker only offered, “A ninja strikes when you least expect it.”

John Friscia
Head Copy Editor for Enthusiast Gaming, Managing Editor at The Escapist. I'm a writer who loves Super Nintendo and Japanese role-playing games to an impractical degree. I really miss living in South Korea. And I'm developing the game Boss Saga!