An hour after being laid off from his job in September 2013, Jed Henry had an idea: He was going to make a game about a ninja monkey.
“I’d talk to people about it and they’d be like, ‘Really, Jed? You want to make a game about a ninja monkey?’” Henry laughed. “There are actually a lot of ninja monkey games – it’s not a unique concept. But everyone else was ruining the concept, and we wanted to do it with story, with heart and create a world that’s a little more compelling.”
Fast forward to August 2013, and Rich Siegel, founder of Narberth-based Cleaversoft Studios, stumbled upon a Kickstarter that the Utah-based Henry launched to fund what would become “Edo Superstar.” Siegel was, at the time, striving to create a game that embraced an imaginative 2-D art style. Henry’s Japanese brushwork, Siegel said, fit the bill.
“They were going through similar processes in making their first serious video game — and, also, with making that had high-quality 2-D art,” Siegel explained. “We wanted to help them cross the finish line. And we did.”
Siegel quickly jumped on board to publish “Edo Superstar” under the Cleaversoft brand, offering programming support to realize Henry’s vision for the game, with much of development taking place in Philadelphia. Three years after starting development, the game launched on the App Store on Feb. 1. It costs $1.99.
My first indie game, Edo Superstar, will launch Feb 1 for iPhone. The Android version launches a few weeks after that. pic.twitter.com/y54UpncW86
— Jed Henry (@theJedHenry) January 18, 2017
The gist of the game: Masaru, a fame-obsessed monkey, takes up martial arts and heads to the city to explore the scene, where he ultimately takes up a grander journey to fight off Japan’s most prominent bad guys. As Henry explains it, Masaru is not the typical “noble” character, but instead a “self-interested and realistic” one who’s in it more for fame than world-saving.
Mechanically, the game is a brawler with light RPG elements — think: “Double Dragon” meets “Kingdom Hearts.” And, very much counter to how most fighting games operate, “Edo Superstar” completely does away with buttons, on-screen or otherwise.
"You really have a lot of control — even more than if it were physical buttons."
“The three-and-a-half-year development of this can be based on the fact we had to reinvent the wheel for that,” Henry said. “Fighting and brawling games are very button-dependent, actually. And few games successfully transfer the genre onto mobile and touch screens, so it took us about the first year to really figure out how the system was going to work.”
(Back in 2012, Kotaku writer Kirk Hamilton wrote: “There’s this thing about fighting games—you really have to play them. They’re like a musical instrument, like a drum set; there’s this whole physical level of interaction you have with them that goes beyond the input required in the average video game.”)
They settled on gesture-based combat, in which gamers make intuitive swipes to move around and carefully timed taps to punch.
“None of us have played a game quite like it,” Siegel said. “It makes it initially hard to understand, but once you get the nuances and you’re purposely making all your attacks, slides and jumps, you really have a lot of control — even more than if it were physical buttons.”
“It leaves an initial impression of head-scratching, but once you dig in, that curve up to mastery is really fun,” he said.
Henry, Siegel and a small team of two others crafted 52 levels, totaling about 15 to 20 hours of gameplay. Henry handled the art with what’s become his signature style: Ukiyo-e, a quirky brushwork style popularized in 17th-century Japan. (Henry’s own take on this style went viral in 2012, earning more than $300,000 in Kickstarter pledges to fund a separate but similar art project.) In the game, edges of levels appear as woodblock prints, and all worlds exist on scrolls.
It all adds up to a more thoughtful, gamer-centric mobile experience than is typical, Henry said.
“So many people disparage mobile as a non-serious game platform,” Henry explained. “And I’m not a futurist or tech head where I have any personal motivation to push mobile, but I think that we … I’m proud of what we pulled off. And I think it shows mobile game can be more than just NES classics and puzzle, quick-repeat games.”
Cleaversoft plans to release an Android version next month. The studio is also developing a title for PlayStation 4, EarthNight, which has yet to receive a release date.
“Edo Superstar” will also be on display when the PAX East gaming showcase kicks off in Boston on March 10.