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An early concept for BeamDog’s MythForce, when it was known internally as Project Battle-Axe. “This is the image that launched the MythForce project,” Beamdog art director Eric Booker said. “This piece was created as the key art for what the project could be: a playable first-person Saturday morning cartoon.”
Image: Aimee Correia and Diego Velasquez/Beamdog/Aspyr Media

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MythForce: Video games’ love letter to 1980s cartoons says the sweetest things

‘Every time we leaned more into the cartoon, it just felt better.’

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

The lesson of MythForce, if Beamdog’s zany roguelite has one, is that parody is easy; homage is hard. It’s simple enough to snicker at the 12-frames-per-second animation of the 1980s, and the cynical narratives that the decade’s syndicated cartoons spun to sell Jem and the Holograms dolls or Centurions playsets to kids coming home from school. But making that look and feel come home to someone playing a video game, as if it were a cartoon come to life, would take a lot of work. They’d have to work against the engine they’d be using to build the game, even.

It was worth it, Eric Booker and Luke Rideout said. Their boss, Trent Oster, wasn’t sure.

“You’re telling me,” Oster said, summarizing a conversation with Booker and Rideout, “that you want to take Unreal — which is really good at doing photo-real stuff, and lighting, and all this awesome stuff — and you want to turn all that lighting off, and put a bunch of effort into making it look how it’s not supposed to look?”

The look, of course, is what makes MythForce, which launched April 20 in early access on the Epic Games Store for Windows PC. In gameplay, yes, it’s a lively, first-person hack-and-slash adventure where players level up a team of characters with loot and XP from procedurally generated dungeons. In look and sound, MythForce players are plundering a world of pure 1980s syndicated UHF cartoon nostalgia. All it’s missing is a blue-screen 1-800 ad for Freedom Rock or Time Life Books.

“My favorite thing to watch has been when [players] first boot it up, that theme song comes on, and, like, the four or five seconds of confusion,” said Beamdog artist Mica Pettibone. “And then people just, literally, jamming to it.”

Pettibone, by the way, wasn’t even around for the awesome How-to-Buy-Action-Figure-Man cartoons of Reagan’s deregulated decade. She’s 29. But Pettibone, an environment artist for the game, was also a quick student for nailing the 1980s look. It may be a distinctive style, but it’s also built on fundamentals and design processes that professional illustrators understand today.

“When we started with this project, we had a nice document that details, ‘Here are some of the main rules of how they approach these scenes,’” Pettibone said. “You can see that this was an animation where they had less money to put into backgrounds. So these were some of the choices that defined those styles, basically. It was like, ‘Hey, we’ve got five bucks for the shot, so you’re gonna do a solid color, right?’”

It’s ironic that such a rich and evocative artistic style could, in fact, be described as cost-conscious. But in a way, that mentality helped Eric Booker, the art director, get the project to a point where Oster wasn’t just comfortable with the pitch, he was all-in for the aesthetic, and all of the extra ways it could be expressed in the game.

“I wasn’t a big believer in the cartoon visuals off the start,” Oster said. “I used to joke about it when I worked at BioWare, it’s like, ‘Hey, talking heads, humans that look at you and move their mouths?’ Yeah, that’s a $10 million feature. Now, what’s our feature? Everything looks like an ’80s cartoon. That’s what we’re spending money on, that we could put elsewhere.

Oster told Rideout, the creative director, and Booker, the art director, they had three months to make the concept work. “And after three months, we were like, ‘OK, this is working,’” Oster said. “‘And this is working really well. And it’s blending really well with the gameplay. Let’s do this.’”

By this point, Booker, working with Pettibone and character artists Diego Velasquez and Aimee Correia, had a solid conceptual foundation for MythForce’s dashing heroes, smug villains, and the forbidding Castle of Evil where both sides would meet. Still, Booker needed a creative backstop to be sure that everything was going in the proper direction — that MythForce, wizards, warriors, and all — really did look like a 1980s cartoon, and Booker and his colleagues hadn’t just convinced themselves it did. For that, Booker turned to a mentor, Mark Cappello, an artist with more than 25 years of experience in both traditional animation and video game development.

“He actually worked on some of these projects,” Booker said, meaning the kind of cartoons that MythForce sought to emulate. He explained what they were doing to Cappello and then said, “Tell me where I’m wrong.”

Booker said that Cappello came into the process and explained what the team was looking at, so they would know what to recreate in Unreal Engine 4 and what to leave out. The advice was very technical, but it worked.

“Then we had Mark, who [said] ‘OK, line count specifically references this.’ Or ‘This is cel damage, as opposed to, like, a paint imperfection.’ So, that really helped us cherry-pick the elements from a vast array of shows, and then actually get that animation-appropriate terminology that we kept throughout the project.”

MythForce’s visual appeal, of course, isn’t a single idealized frame or linear animation, like the assets Filmation’s artists were famous for reusing (and reusing, and reusing) in shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Fat Albert, or Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. It has to execute and present a cartoon action sequence in real time. Even if defeated enemies disappear in a puff of smoke and magic dust (with attendant sound effects) it’s still a lot of extra work to do right, Oster said.

“There’s another side to this, which is, you can’t use any of the existing tools that are out there,” Oster said. “Like you want to make something that looks great, and before, you’d go out, 3D scan a bunch of people, you throw them in the game, boom, it sucks them in, and they’re there, but, ‘Oh, I want it to look like outdoor lighting.’ Bang, bang, we use the automatic lighting generation. Well, none of that stuff works.”

Even if it’s impersonating the kind of low-frame-rate, assembly-line animation for which Rankin/Bass (Thundercats, Silverhawks) or Sunbow Entertainment (G.I. Joe, The Transformers) was well known, MythForce’s processing workload is “deceptively demanding,” said Rideout, the creative director.

“To accomplish the look that we are ultimately put into MythForce, it requires a surprisingly large amount of post-process work, which is very expensive, graphically speaking. There’s the overhead of creating the death animations that you mentioned, but that’s still a relatively high VFX cost. We have to create bespoke VFX for all of those, as opposed to what a lot of games would do, which is just to ragdoll something and have blood spatter everywhere. So we definitely have picked a handful of pretty large fights with this.”

That’s to say nothing of the biggest, most optional fight Beamdog picked — the title song.

“Every time we leaned more into the cartoon,” said Oster, the guy signing all the checks, “it just felt better. So at one point, we were like, ‘Hey, we want to do an animated trailer, and a song, and everything.’ And everybody was like, ‘Yeah! Let’s do it! What’s it gonna cost?’ I don’t know! Let’s figure it out! It was like, ‘We’re committed. We’re making it happen.’”

MythForce’s original soundtrack was composed and performed by Ross Lara of Archipelago Entertainment, in collaboration with the singer-songwriter Jeff Garrison. “We showed him references to the cartoon intros to Thundercats, and M.A.S.K., and Silverhawks, basically had him listen to those,” Rideout said. “And the two of them, together, slammed out that song in a couple of weeks, and sent it back to us with a sort of Simlish mumbling, because we didn’t have the lyrics yet.”

Oster admits he got a little nervous at this point, as he was “pot-committed” to a big, hairy song without much assurance it’d resonate with the audience.

“That Simlish version, where they came in without lyrics like, ‘Ba-baaa, ba-da-baaaa. Ba-namanamnanaaa,” I was like ‘I don’t know about this! But trust the process!’” he laughed. “It’s a little synthy for me, it’s a little boppy, I want a little more sawtooth edge to my synth in there.’ You gotta remember, easy listening of 2020 was heavy metal in 1990. It’s gotta be what you remember, but then, your memory’s a little skewed. […] It was a lot of fun. The first time I heard it with the lyrics, I had the headphones on, I cranked it up. I’m like ‘That’s awesome.’”

Awesome, the word that gained currency with the valley girl slang of the 1980s, is the aspirational ideal for everything in MythForce. It’s an early access game, which means the developers are closely watching community reaction, particularly the streamers. Pettibone, Rideout, Oster, and Booker all seemed personally touched by the reactions their game has garnered so far. “It was one of our pillars of design: Never, never become a parody,” Rideout said. “This is homage, not parody.”

“We really wanted it to be a love letter to the ’80s,” Oster said. “And to do that animation, and to not be a mocking, cynical thing. And I really feel we’ve hit that, especially watching the streams and watching people, being in that happy, 13-year-old head space. I just love that.”