Creating a Turrican-Fangame for the SNES

The game

Dottie Flowers is a SFC/SNES game created in 2023.
First announced in summer 2023 with a tentative release date of late 2023 and developed in solitude by myself,
the physical-only game was released on 2023-12-31 via a mail-in contest and the last of the 100 copies produced were sent out to winners by 2024-02-07.

The premise

"I love Turrican!"
That's how just about any other fangame-project starts out like, but I still feel this one is a bit special, so allow me to take you on my personal journey for this game:

Born in the eighties in Cologne, Germany, I grew up as a Nintendo kid, playing Game Boy, then Super Nintendo games and needless to say, they completely blew me away! In fact, playing Super Nintendo games as a kid left such a profound and lasting impression on me that I've been chasing that high ever since. But more on that later.

The transitioning period to the Nintendo 64 was tough: schoolyard ridicule notwithstanding, I fully bought into the hype Nintendo of Germany started ramping up around 1995 and even naively and prematurely sold my beloved Super Nintendo to fund the purchase of what surely could not have been anything less than the Second Coming of Christ, the N64!

Unfortunately, the troubled system was getting delayed time and time again, launching as late as 1997 in my country.
And I was stuck with nothing to play! Bummer!

Luckily, a friend passed on a hand-me-down Commodore Amiga 500 and I dug in right away, only to be left with a sour taste:
While many games looked and/or sounded fine, the gameplay was mostly lacking:
I couldn't put it in words back then, but looking back it's easy to see that coming from top-tier all-time classics like Mario World, Zelda 3 and Yoshis Island that still lead best-of-lists to this very day, it'd be hard to not feel disappointment when confronted with many of the clunky and quirky games that make up the majority of the Amigas library.

With one stellar exception: Turrican, especially Turrican 2:
Having fantastic, responsive gameplay, great leveldesign and an exceptional soundtrack, this one was more like it!
Playing this game, you can literally feel the fun and excitement the team at Factor 5 must have had creating it.
I was hooked!
And I rushed to my local second-hand store to get boxed original copies of all three games, which could be had for a couple of bucks each back then.
Later on, I learned about series creator Manfred Trenz and his crowning achievement on the SNES called Targa/Rendering Ranger created in the same spirit and learned to love it, aswell.

Fast forward a couple of decades, I already had various homebrew SNES games under my belt released under different pseudonyms when I met Factor 5 staff member Lutz Osterkorn at a local retro-gaming convention:
The always-friendly Cologne-based Factor 5 staff makes it a point to keep the Turrican fanbase engaged and they also rekindled my love for the series.
And wouldn't you believe it, some of those beloved games were literally created a couple hundred meters away from my former home in Cologne, Germany!

Armed with that experience, I knew my next project had to be a Turrican fangame, both to fully indulge in the nostalgia trip and also to show my appreciation.
And needless to say, it had to take place in Cologne!

The planning phase

Even though the end result of my efforts is a SNES game cartridge, just like retail games from back in the day, the goals and context are quite different:

Back then, a primary goal was to shift as many units in order to make the project as profitable as possible in a mass market with relatively few competitors. Apart from marketing and related efforts, this was achieved by creating an engaging game that also had enough meat on the bone to justify the quite significant prices cartridge games went for. Often, this was achieved by raising the difficulty to increase the play time and as a young player with limited funds, you tended to nevertheless stick to it no matter the difficulty because you just didn't have anything else to play.

Nowadays, physical retro games are a tiny niche market competing for the players limited available time in a vast sea of video games that increase in number by the hundreds every day and players tend to dismiss your game upon the slightest inconvenience and jump to the next.

I feel that creating a commercially viable retro game in this day and age isn't really feasible, and I opted to free myself from any monetary constraints for this project and instead create a short and easy game that is free, a blast to play, values the players limited time and last but not least is fun to develop.

To be in a position where I can afford to dedicate both time and money to such a project is not to be taken for granted and I'm grateful to be given the opportunity.

Starting with a solid platformer code-base from previous SNES projects, I operated under a single leitmotiv: Gameplay first!

And what's fun about a platformer and a run n gun like Turrican specifically?
As far as I'm concerned, it's jumping, breezing through and blowing stuff up, of course!

To be able to breeze through Turrican-alikes and "get in the flow" so to speak requires you to be and remain fully powered-up, have memorized stage layouts including secrets and know where to use which weapon, in other words: you need to be an expert player.

Being a novice player means dying a lot (powering down your weapons in the process), slowing the pacing to a crawl, potentially to the point of frustration.

Because I wanted to provide a fun, non-frustrating experience for all players, I opted for a different path: Unlimited lifes, never down-grade and enable all weapons all at the same time, in turn making the player massively overpowered.
That's silly, I hear you say?
But it's a lot of fun!

An important distinction and deviation from the source material is that skills are not given to the player right from the start, but introduced one by one over the course of the game, having the player start out with nothing but a measly jump and becoming a laser-spitting, flying powerhouse by the end of the game.
Again, this decision was taken to ease the player into the game without being overwhelmed or confused and also to convey a sense of progression.

Additional gameplay features are a jetpack (thematically linked to the Turrican franchise and technically modeled after Yoshis Islands flutter jump) to give players more range and control when jumping and falling and a drill that gameplay-wise fulfills the same role as the morph ball in Turrican (defensive and offensive use) but again, is easier to control for novices due to its predictable way of movement.

Plus, there's still a few advanced techniques like melee attacks and skill jumps that reward risk-taking and allow expert players to further step up the pacing.

Needless to say, all the amenities that the 16Bit Nintendo platformers first introduced and are nowadays rightfully expected by players even of hobbyist titles are here as well such as Coyote Timing, Jump Buffering and the like.

Levels were planned out to be short, varied and not feature any repetition with small cutscenes thrown in here in there to heighten player immersion.

Optionally, collecting secrets and not getting hit gives the player higher scores, which in turn yield special gold coins.
Having amassed enough gold coins enables players to see the best ending, providing a bit of replay value in an otherwise short game.

The setting

The story for this game is paper-thin and a weak excuse to fill the game to the brim with tongue-in-cheek references to Turrican and my hometown Cologne:
A fan-fiction precursor to the official Turrican games, it sees the hordes of "The Machine" invade the city of Cologne and the forming of a ragtag paramilitary organization known as the "Freedom Forces" in response;
Ardon C. Striker, who would later on command the spaceship Avalon 1 in Turrican 2 tries out the Assault suit prototype for the first time.
Bren McGuire, the stellar hero from that same game is still a toddler here.

Nonchalantly breaking the fourth wall, the Freedom Forces are supported by Factor 5 in the iconic 69 Buick Electra:

and Manfred Trenz complete in Targa/Rendering Ranger-attire:

The backdrop for this of course is the city of Cologne in all of its mundanity:

I initially planned to  make A.C. Striker the main protagonist and have him wear the assault suit at all times,
but opted to replace him with Dottie from a previous game of mine and remove all textual references to Turrican and its makers (except in this very text), both to make the game a bit more distinct and to hopefully not cause the official right holders any trouble.

The implementation

I'm a solo dev by choice and for better or worse, this game is 100% me, with all its flaws and weaknesses:
From level design to assembly programming, from pixel art to packaging artwork, from music to PCB-design and cartridge assembly, I did everything myself.
I'm quite proud of that, but I also readily accept the view that various aspects of the game such as length, graphics or music could have been  better if they had been handled by individual experts in a team rather than a jack-of-all-trades amateur like myself.
By any means, the quality of this game is several tiers below the games it is inspired by and it could use another healthy round of polishing to improve the performance and mitigate graphical issues.

A grave mistake I made was naively giving a tentative release date of "late 2023" in the summer of that year having implemented all stages in beta versions and thinking I had all the time in the world and then some.
Little did I know I would be scrambling to meet that deadline and not break the word I'd given:
I just barely made it, releasing the game on 2023-12-31 at 10pm after many sleepless nights.
Indeed, the soundtrack was composed just days prior on 2023-12-28 and it definitely would have benefit from having some more songs with a bit more variety. I can't help but still love it, though!
Dottie Flowers Soundtrack on YouTube

All in all, I invested around ~600 hours of my spare time over the course of one year into this game, mostly evening hours after my daily real-life chores were done.

Cartridge production

What's your typical experience buying new physical games for retro consoles nowadays?
Here's mine: A new SNES game is announced, I order it as soon as possible (because I'm both curious and like to support my fellow SNES developers), then I wait.
The publisher posts updates here and there oh and by the way, the game will be delayed. Production problems, supply chain issues, shipping container got lost, you name it.
I wait some more and eventually, the updates stop...
After two or three years, having long forgotten I even ordered the game, a parcel arrives on my doorstep and I open it up with bewilderment and slight disappointment.
Sounds familiar?

Yeah, I wanted to avoid that, so I made it a point to design and test the PCB and stock up on parts well in advance as well as pre-order custom-made packaging to be able to start physical production the moment the game went gold.

My standards regarding the build quality of the finished product are comparatively high, so I had researched available aftermarket cartridge shells, PCB manufacturers and packaging well in advance.

Fun fact: My cartridges are so close to the originals (punched stamps on the back sticker and all) that I've been accused of salvaging original donor carts to produce my games multiple times.
I consider that a compliment. ;)

PCBs were designed with obsolete (and thus harder to source/expensive) 5V-parts, both for maximum compatibility and to closely match the look of official ones from back in the day:

All in all, I spent about €2200 to hand-produce a total of 100 physical copies of the game.
This might sound ludicrous to you, but the end result was worth every penny to me:

The release

Let's end this section with the most controversial part: The release!

Broadly speaking, the following options presented themselves:

  • Digital release (ROM file)
  • Physical release (boxed cartridge)
  • Monetization (selling physical version, selling ROM file, accepting donations etc.)

Given that the game contains various references to copyrighted IP, I consider myself lucky to not having received a C&D or worse so far.
Needless to say, I don't feel like pushing my luck, so monetization in any way or form is completely out of the question for me.

A digital release of a ROM file suitable for use with emulators or flash carts appears to be a natural choice.
After all, that's the way I released most of my past projects.

However and without fail, this resulted in bootleg cartridges originating from China, Brazil and other countries to be sold without my approval or consent.
Ethical questions aside, this wasn't that big of a problem for me in the past: I wasn't selling the games, so I wasn't loosing money either and in a way, the bootlegs even helped enlarge the player base.

In this case however, I feel like again, bootleg cartridges being sold freely on the market might cause a problem for the rights holder of the referenced works.
That's why I refrained from releasing a ROM file of the full game this time and I ask for your understanding.

So what does this leave us with?
Giving the physical game away, of course!
I love to give away stuff and to make people happy, but my resources are limited.
Considering the high cost of producing a single physical unit, I ended up producing only 100 copies total and giving all but one away for free.

But how to determine who should get a copy? Who would get the most out of it?
And in keeping with the theme, what would be the most nineties, Super Famicom way to do so?

Well, a mail-in contest, of course!

But given the limited quantity of available copies, what way would yield the highest rate of winners that were actually likely to play and enjoy the game?

Easy, provide a stripped-down demo ROM and present the mail-in address to the player only after successfully beating its three stages, just like many Satellaview score contests did:

Not only would I receive real mail from players from all over the world,
I'd even get to setup my own P.O. box to do it, how awesome is that?

Plus, players wouldn't even have to write to grumpy old me directly, they'd write to the fictional Dottie Flowers, who'd then gift the lucky ones with her own game!

And boy, did we receive mail!
From the bottom of my heart, I thank everybody who went through the trouble of sending in a postcard!
So many warm words, so much love put into little drawings of Dottie, handcrafted origami etc.
So many cards from all over the world,
from Australia to USA, from Japan to Russia and Uruguay to Switzerland, it really put a smile on my face every time I opened the post box!
Again, thank you so much to everybody who participated and my sincere apologies to those who didn't win a copy.

The last batch of games were sent out on 2024-02-07 and I hope they reach their destinations safe and sound within the next couple of weeks.

Thanks again everybody, it was a blast!

P.S.: In case you're wondering how this game got its name, look no further than the first cracktro tune I ever heard as a child and still love to this day. ;)