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A Real Deal Retro Hack N’ Slash: Interview With The Creators Of Battle Axe

Henk Nieborg has spent the better part of the last two years creating all of the art for his new game, Battle Axe, all by himself. “It’s a little bit insane for one person to be honest,” Nieborg said during a Zoom call earlier this week. His programming partner on Battle Axe, Mike Tucker, agreed. “I don’t think I’ll put Hank through that again,” Tucker said. “It was an insane amount of pixels that he had to draw, but if anyone could do it, Hank could.”

Nieborg’s career as a video game artist goes all the way back to a game called Ghostbattle on the Commodore Amiga in 1990. He has worked on plenty of 3D games over the years, including titles like Spyro – A Hero’s Tail, Batman Begins, and Medal of Honor, but his passion has always been for pixel art. Nierborg has worked as a pixel artist on the Shantae series, Contra 4, and Wizard of Legend, just to name a few, and in 2017, Nieborg started putting together a pixel art game that would be entirely his own. “I did a lot of freelance work where I just did a small part of the game,” Nieborg said. “But this was kind of my baby. I knew I could do it well.”

Nieborg posted his first artwork for Battle Axe, then called Battle Bash, on his Twitter account in 2017. Tucker, who is the design director at a UK based indie studio called Bitmap Bureau, saw the work and hired Nieborg to create art for a sci-fi twin-stick shooter called Xeno Crisis. Xeno Crisis was funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign, the game launched in October 2019 on every modern console, and eventually even made its way to Dreamcast, Evercade, Neo Geo, and Game Pass.

After the success of Xeno Crisis, Bitmap Bureau agreed to make Battle Axe its next game. “I worked really well with Hank,” Tucker said. “I think we’re from that same era of gaming, we just bounce off each other all the time. Nieborg agreed. “It happens a lot,” he said. “We have the same ideas. It’s kind of magical. It may sound corny, but working together with this guy is just wonderful.”

Nieborg and Tucker created the Battle Axe prototype together in 2019. Originally, the resolution was double what it is now, but once they dropped down to Megadrive (or Sega Genesis as it’s known in the states) resolution, “Everything just clicked into place,” Tucker said. “It just felt right.”

Battle Axe is a top-down arcade adventure game heavily inspired by the original Gauntlet. The game features three distinct class types to choose from. It can be played either solo or in local co-op by two players. Battle Axe is a true retro game through and through. From Nieborg’s hand-crafted pixel art to the Megadrive resolution to the arcade-level difficulty, Battle Axe isn’t an old-school throwback, it’s the real deal. “The difference with Battle Axe,” Nieborg explained, “is that it’s a real proper pixel art without any filters or anything. Every effect is done with just animation and pixels, not just coloring effects. It’s the real thing.”

A lot of pixel games use modern effects like shaders, lighting and pre-rendered data to create a distinct look that’s retro-inspired, but Nieborg wanted Battle Axe to be a true retro game. “Nothing against them,” Nieborg said, “but I really wanted it to look like a Capcom/Konami game from the 90s with just a little bit more power from today.”

This approach wasn’t exactly the easiest. As Tucker explained: “I think with shaders and lighting you can gloss over weaker pixel art in places. With our approach, there’s no hiding. The pixel art is there plain to see.” Nieborg’s art needed to be flawless, which, as the only artist working on the game, took a significant amount of time. The Battle Axe kickstarter launched on January 28, 2020 and ended February 27th, 2020 at nearly double its original goal. Battle Axe went gold on February 7th, 2021, and is scheduled for release this April.

When players get their hands on Battle Axe next month, Nieborg suspects they’ll be in for a significant challenge. “I think the learning curve will be about 20 hours,” he said. “If you’re a hardcore gamer though, maybe it will be just a couple of hours.” The game features four main worlds that branch off into a few interiors. Each level ends with a score based on how quickly and efficiently you can make your way through it. That is, if you can finish every level. Tucker suspects that a skilled speedrunner can potentially finish the game in 20-25 minutes. “But you’re not going to complete it on your first go,” he said. “You’re going to have to put many hours into mastering the controls and learning how the enemies attack.” In classic arcade fashion, the game doesn’t feature any save points. “You die and then you’re back at the start,” Tucker explained. “It encourages you to keep playing and improving your skills.”

“I think it’s quite hard for a regular player,” said Nieborg. “But you can learn it if you want to, because it’s a fair game.”

Nieborg and Tucker aren’t planning on going their separate ways anytime soon. “Me and Bitmap Bureau have pretty much become a core team,” Nieborg explained. “We are planning a lot of games for the future.” Nieborg is already prototyping a new Megadrive game that he describes as “a horizontal shooter, but with a twist.” The team is looking into the potential of working with some popular licenses for future games, and they’d also like to create some additional content for Battle Axe, including new character classes and environments. “We might consider DLC at some point if things go well.” Tucker said, “It would be nice to do a big update to expand on the game.” The creators are also interested in getting Battle Axe onto one of Numskull’s Quarter Arcade mini-cabinets if there’s enough demand for it.

Numskull Games is publishing Battle Axe on Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Steam. If you didn’t back the Kickstarter, you can preorder the game now through several major online retailers. To learn more about Battle Axe, check out the game’s official website.

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Eric Switzer is the Livestream News Editor for TheGamer as well as the lead for VR and Tech. He has written about comics and film for Bloody Disgusting and VFXwire. He is a graduate of University of Missouri – Columbia and Vancouver Film School. Eric loves board games, fan conventions, new technology, and his sweet sweet kitties Bruce and Babs. Favorite games include Destiny 2, Kingdom Hearts, Super Metroid, and Prey…but mostly Prey. His favorite Pokémon is Umbreon.

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