Who’s Jay Pavlina? This is a question you may not have to ask for much longer, as his latest (and first!) flash game, Super Mario Bros. Crossover has set the gaming web on fire. Not only has it made the rounds on the blogosphere, it’s also currently the top-ranked game on Newgrounds.com. The game’s concept is simple: What if you could play through Super Mario Bros. as one of several other heroes of the 8-bit era, such as Mega Man or Simon Belmont?
We sat down with Jay Pavlina to find out more about the development process, how he came up with the concept, what other characters were cut from the final game, and much more in this in-depth interview.GameXplain: I understand that this is your first time programming...well, anything! Were you inspired to start programming in order to create this game, or did the concept develop as your skills matured?
Jay: There’s a few different reasons I decided to make this game. The main reason is that I just wanted to know what it was like to make a game. Second, I really wanted to play a game like this, but it didn’t exist. Also, I wanted to take a break from making movies and try something different.
I already had many of the skills needed to make a game because of my filmmaking background. I was already comfortable with graphics, sound, and animation. The only new thing that I needed to learn was how to program. And that’s basically why this game exists.
The concept originated because I wanted to make a game, but I didn’t want to have to worry about anything besides the programming. That’s where I got the idea to remake an existing game. All of the pieces to the puzzle were already there, I just needed to figure out how to program in order to fit them together. But then I thought, if I’m going to rebuild an entire game, I might as well add stuff to it. Otherwise, I figured all of the work wouldn’t be worth the effort.
I chose Super Mario Bros because that’s the game that spawned everything else. I figured if I knew how to make the original, I could learn how to make anything else based on what I learned. I had always dreamed of characters from one game visiting the world of another game, and since I’d never really seen it done (besides games like Super Smash Bros.), I decided to do it myself. I’m very pleased with how it turned out.
How did your background in filmmaking help with the game’s creation?
Making movies is extremely challenging, stressful, and sometimes damn near impossible, so I wasn’t afraid of tackling a big game project. As I already mentioned, due to making tons of movies, I already knew how to do everything except programming, so that’s all I needed to learn. But I’d say that it helped me more because of the confidence and determination it gave me. I have already made some big movies, and I pushed through them even when they seemed impossible to finish. My experience with movies gave me the power I needed to push through the difficult times of making the game.
A year is a long time to dedicate to one project. How did you find time to create it? What kept you motivated? Were you ever tempted to give up?
I must be clear here. Only an insane person can complete a project of this magnitude alone. Seriously. When I say insane, I mean you have to be different than the average person. I am proud to be insane. Having passion is also extremely important.
I was only able to finish the project because I wanted more than anything for people to play it, including myself. I actually started the project in February 2009, but I quit in April because it was just too hard and I didn’t think I was smart enough to do it. I started making a smaller casual game to try and learn some more things. I worked on that game for about three months, then after a break and a few other small projects in between, I decided to tackle this beast again. I was much more confident with my skills and was eventually able to figure it out.
Making this game sort of felt like hacking away at a giant cement block with a chisel. I would push myself to work on it each day, even if I had no idea what I was doing, and I felt like I was just hacking away at this huge block. But eventually, I was able to get it into the shape I wanted more or less.
I went into crazy, obsessed work mode in October 2009 and didn’t come out of it until the game was done in April 2010. This means that I pretty much did nothing but work on the game all day, every day, including weekends. That’s what I mean when I say only an insane person can do a project like this. My work habits are a bit extreme, but it allows me to do great things. Don’t work like me unless you’re crazy too.
Fixing bugs was really annoying. Every time I’d play the game and hope I fixed all the bugs, then something would go wrong, and I would just feel absolutely horrible. Sometimes I just wanted to cry or throw a tantrum of some sort. Luckily I’m a pretty disciplined guy. But I certainly said to my girlfriend multiple times every day, “The game is never gonna be done.”
As far as finding the time to do it; I make time for things that are important to me. Don’t think that I was living in a fancy place in extreme comfort while making this game. Sometimes I was living in the worst conditions you could imagine, including sleeping next to railroad tracks because I didn’t have money for rent. Even right now I’m supposed to pay rent but have no money. I am what you would call a starving artist. I do what’s important to me and hope the money will come eventually. And I hope I can inspire other people to put safety and security second to doing what they’re passionate about.
Were there any unforeseen hurdles that cropped up during development?
Basically everything I did was an unforeseen hurdle. However, the biggest, most annoying piece of garbage that I had to deal with while making this game was fixing bugs. I HATE bugs. I hate them. Seriously. I wish I could just write code and it would work, but it doesn’t. Even now there are bugs in the game. I wish the game could be perfect and everyone could have a flawless experience playing it, but there are always still some little mother f’ers that I overlooked. Bugs are hands down the absolute worst thing about making games, and if I could change one thing in the world, it would be to not have bugs in code. Not really, but I hate them and hope they die. :)
One other annoying thing was programming Link’s boomerang. I still haven’t gotten it right. In fact, it’s the only thing in the game I’m unhappy with.
Mario, Mega Man, Simon, Samus, Bill, and Link--that’s a fantastic selection of characters, but were there any others you were considering adding? Were any cut for time or developmental reasons?
Yes, originally there were nine characters, and I’d really like to get these characters in at some point if possible. The other three characters were going to be Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden, Luigi, and the SOPHIA battle tank from Blaster Master. I also considered the guy from Bionic Commando. Most of the characters got cut due to time, but Luigi got cut due to a different decision. Originally, the game was going to have a story where Mario got captured, so Luigi recruited his friends from other videogame worlds to help get Mario back. But I decided not to worry about the story and just focus on making the gameplay awesome.
Who is your favorite character to play as and why? Do you feel the game plays better as certain characters versus others?
Well, I like every character except Mario just because he’s old and the others are new. I really like Simon because of his challenging jump controls, although most people complain about that. I like that each character plays very differently so that it’s almost like playing a different game. I worked very hard to make all of the characters my favorite because it means they are balanced. But if I had to pick, I’d pick Simon for his shitty jump controls.
I love the small touches you added for each of the characters, such as Mega Man donning his famous helmet after grabbing a mushroom, or even the ‘low heart’ sound-effect indicator when time begins to run out as Link. How did you come up with those?
I worked very hard on designing the game so that everything would seem very natural and be nostalgic at the same time. I looked for every possible opportunity to bring in the character’s individual abilities and characteristics and make them fit into Mario’s world. When I couldn’t find a perfect fit, I had to be clever. Each character needed a second’s left sound, and I was also trying to get by without adding any more music because I didn’t want to increase the file size. So yeah, I just kept trying stuff and using the character’s low-life sounds worked best. I think I like Mega Man’s seconds left sound the best. That is a catchy tune.
I’m glad you appreciate the nuances with the graphics. I didn’t want to add any additional overlays to the screen than the original game had because I didn’t want to change the experience, so I needed to represent each character’s power state with their physical appearance. Most of the time I just changed the colors, but in some cases their costumes change, like Mega Man and Samus.
Speaking of the characters, was there any particular reason you decided to use the Link sprite from the Legend of Zelda as opposed to the one from the 2D-based sequel, Adventures of Link?
Originally, I had both the Zelda 1 and Zelda 2 sprites in the game. Link would start out small, just like he does now, but when you got a mushroom, he’d grow into the Zelda 2 version. However, I just found that Link so much more fun to control when he was little. In the bigger version, you have to crouch to hit Goombas and throwing the boomerang in all eight directions is more awkward. When I was playing as Link, I would actually avoid getting the mushroom because I wanted to stay small, so I just decided to take big Link out of the game. Also, I think Link’s sprites in Zelda 2 were a bit on the ugly side, and they didn’t fit so well with the Mushroom Kingdom.
Was it difficult to balance the game for each of the characters? I noticed the addition of a moving platform just before the flagpole for some of the characters--did you have to add or change anything else?
I had to add platforms to any jumps that the new characters couldn’t make. The platform in front of the flag pole is there because you wouldn’t be able to reach the top of the flag pole without it. The biggest change I had to do was managing the water levels. I didn’t have swimming animations for anyone except Mario, so I decided to make the characters have less gravity while under water. I really like that feature and it adds to the variety of the game. It makes me wish there were more water levels.
Perhaps the biggest different between this and the original Super Mario Bros. (besides the new characters) is the ability to backtrack through a level. Was there any particular reason for this design choice?
The only reason I did that is because I think it’s annoying in games when you can’t go backwards. I know it’s not like the original game, but I like it better this way. That is just a personal preference.
Did you expect this much attention when you first started the project? Are you happy with how the game’s been received?
Holy shit! I was just making this game as my own personal project and thought maybe a few people would check it out or something. I had no idea it would be like this, but I’m very pleased because it means I can get exposure for my other work, which I have been trying to do for a long, long time. I couldn’t be happier.
Clearly you’re a huge fan of the 8-bit classics! Do you still have time to play games these days?
I think it is more fun to work on creative projects than to play games, but I use playing games as a vacation. So anytime I want to take a vacation, I’ll have a list of games I’ll play, and I’ll play games straight for about a week, doing nothing else. Now that I’m starting to incorporate video games into my movies and other work, I play games for research as well. If there’s a cool game I wanna play though, I’ll always make time for it.
So with Super Mario Bros. Crossover complete, what’s next for you? Any plans for a sequel, perhaps in the 16-bit era?
Actually, what I released is an unfinished version of the game, or sort of like a demo version. If everyone knew what I was really planning, I think they’d freak out even more. But I just released this version because I was going a bit insane from working on it for so long without anyone playing it, so it was sort of a necessity for me to let people play it and get some feedback. As long as I don’t get sued, you can expect more stuff like this from me. If I do get sued, you can still expect awesome stuff from me, but it will include my own original characters instead of already established characters.
And if you like this, you will love the project I’m working on this summer. It’s a video game parody feature film, but I will not reveal which game it is of until later. My movies are almost exclusively comedy, and I think people that like the game should consider checking them out. I’ll be posting both my new and old movies to my website, exploding-rabbit.com, very soon. I have always wanted people to share my work with because the stuff I do is a lot of fun and very unique. I hope people consider subscribing to my blog or Twitter account to see some hilarious movies and other fun games very soon. I promise I will work extremely hard to make everything I do the same or better quality than “Super Mario Bros Crossover.”
And I could leave on that note, but I just want to say one more thing. To anyone that has a dream of something that you want: go for it. It doesn’t matter how many times you fail. It doesn’t matter how many people tell you you’re crazy. It doesn’t matter how many obstacles are in your way. All that matters is that you follow your heart and do what you truly love. If everyone did that, the world would be a very different place.
Well said Jay, I couldn’t agree more. For more information about Super Mario Bros. Crossover, be sure to visit Jay Pavlina’s site, Exploding-Rabbit.com.
UPDATE: Want to know what Jay's been up to since this interview? Find out in Part 2.
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