We had the great honor to interview Jeff Vavasour of Code Mystics, the company responsible for bringing you the Classic Killer Instinct games available with the Ultra Editions of the new KI. Read on to learn how the projects came to be, Code Mystics’ involvement with Rare Replay, some info on the history of the company and much more!
Killer Instinct Central: So tell us a bit about yourself and Code Mystics. What do you do at the company and what type of projects has CM worked on in the past?
Jeff Vavasour: Well, the team behind Code Mystics has been in the industry a long time. We were the core tech team that pioneered arcade video game emulation… no lie. Our team was originally doing things like TRS-80 and Atari 2600 emulation when we were retained by Digital Eclipse to use our tech to build the first commercially available arcade emulations for the PC in the form of Williams Arcade Classics, back in 1994. WAC inspired Dave Spicer to create his Namco-based Sparcade emulator a few months after its release, and that, in turn, is the inspiration that lead to MAME.
Our team joined Digital Eclipse officially in 1997 and formed a studio in Vancouver, BC, Canada where we continued to serve the retrogaming needs of the company, doing titles for just about every classic gaming owner out there from Konami to Activision to Namco, etc. We were also responsible for a number of the company’s lauded handheld titles like the Spyro the Dragon series on GBA, and the original Age of Empires on Nintendo DS. After a series of mergers, Digital Eclipse folded into Backbone Entertainment and it, in turn, folded into Foundation 9.
I left Foundation 9 around 2006, as I enjoyed being hands-on with smaller-scale indie-feel projects, and those kind of projects just didn’t make sense for a big company like Foundation 9. I did some solo work for a few years, like helping out Nerd Corps gets its interactive division started, consulting with government agencies looking to grow the video game business in their region, etc.
In 2009, Foundation 9 decided to shut down the old Vancouver studio, and so a lot of my old team were looking for work. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to “get the band back together” and do what we loved.
For the past six years since then we’ve used that expertise and overhauled our technology to suit the needs of modern, digital platforms. We’ve got an engine that can — and has — targeted anything from a Nintendo DS and iOS to Xbox One and PS4 as well as dedicated Plug n’ Play TV Games. We love a technical challenge, and there’s no platform we won’t try. We’re known for things like Killer Instinct Classic, the King of Fighters ’98 and 2002 re-releases, Atari’s Greatest Hits, etc., but we’ve done some obscure stuff too. You can check out the Graveyard section on our website to see the kind of stuff we like to tinker with.
As for me personally, I straddle two worlds: in my day job, I run the studio, oversee the projects and design, and then in the evenings I’m coding the core emulation systems and improving our engine.
KIC: You had the opportunity to work on and port the arcade versions of Killer Instinct and Killer Instinct 2 as special bonus’s for fans who purchased the Ultimate Editions of Season 1 and 2 of the new Xbox One KI game. Why is it that you think Code Mystics was selected to develop the games and when did development on the titles start?
Jeff: We got the opportunity to work on Killer Instinct thanks to Chris Charla, who heads up ID@Xbox and who knew me from when we worked at Backbone Entertainment together. (Actually, Chris and I first met when we both worked on Williams Arcade Classics, well before joining the company officially. I was doing the game, while he was doing the bonus documentary material that went on the CD. He was still with Next Gen magazine at the time, I believe.) The KI team had the idea to include the classics, but time was running extremely short for the Xbox One launch. They needed someone who could pick up new hardware fast and knew emulation as well. Porting wasn’t an option since the original code was lost, as is often the case. It was a project that seemed tailor-made for our techie group, so Chris told them he knew just the guys. The deal was struck over breakfast at E3 in mid-June, we got our kits within a few weeks after that, and we had a finished KI1 about three-and-half months later.
KIC: What were some of the challenges you faced in porting over both the games from their original arcade versions to the Xbox One hardware?
Jeff: The Xbox One is well-suited to modern gaming needs… you can do a lot at once with 10 cores, but classic games are designed in a different mind set. In the case of KI, it’s basically one CPU doing all the work, so there’s virtually no opportunity to take advantage of the multicore setup of the Xbox One. Now, you might rightly say that even one core of the Xbox One can outperform a 20-year-old CPU. The thing is, though, emulation is not a port. Emulation simulates the original hardware of the old system and then that simulation runs the original code. We have to do this because the source code was long gone and the original binary code is literally a foreign language to the new CPU. That simulation can easily demand 10x or 20x the CPU power to get the same performance as the original game.
The analogy I’m fond of is translating a foreign film. You could get somebody to translate the script and reshoot it with new English-speaking actors, but that’s not going to be the same film. Imagine wanting to experience the film as it was intended, but not being able to speak the language. You could get a dictionary and translate the movie yourself. But unless you were really fast, that would take a long time and you’d have to pause the film repeatedly. If you were the Flash, maybe you could do it. That’s the challenge emulation faces: translating the meaning of every command in the original code as it happens, but without slowing down the game.
So, in the scale of things, the traditional emulation techniques were only getting us about a quarter the frame rate on the Xbox One’s single core. We needed to do pull a lot of clever tricks with our redesign emulation tech to get the game running full speed.
KIC: Both games include some additional content that wasn’t in their original arcade incarnations. Character animations to view, selectable “cut-scenes”, online play, etc. What extra content present were you most excited about adding and was there anything planned that didn’t quite make the cut?
Jeff: It’s hard to choose a favourite part. There’s such rich content in the game, it was great just to be able to showcase it all. Certainly, you don’t really get to appreciate just how much animation is in the game until you’re able to browse the catalogue casually, without fear of being beaten to death while you admire it. So, the sprites and the cutscenes both go together in that respect. As we were constrained by the Xbox One’s launch date, the original KI1 release didn’t have the music player, but that’s something we felt was an absolute must in KI2. So when KI2 launched, we took the opportunity to retrofit that feature into a KI1 update, too. And of course the same thing happened with online multiplayer.
The good news is that digital downloads mean the door is never closed on improvements. There were a few other things we fine-tuned in updates post-launch. For example, KI2 had multiple endings. We ran out of time, so included only all the various pieces in the bonus material, but not how they were put together. The last update fixes that so it’s presented as we intended: you can select the win conditions for each character and then see the narrative that would follow.
Only one or two things didn’t make it. We had hoped for some more behind-the-scenes material — things like original production sketches and the like, but unfortunately there wasn’t a lot left in Rare’s archives it seems. Also, we would’ve liked to include a more elaborate training mode which would talk you through the different combos, but that was a bit beyond our time and budget.
One last thing I’d say we’re particularly proud of — and this may be an odd choice — is all the achievement art. Our lead artist, Tony Rodriguez, put a lot of work into capturing the style and the humour of the original game while creating something original. There was a thread on the old KI Forums where people were complimenting it, so that was pretty satisfying.
KIC: Did you all ever consider doing full HD remakes of the games? Or were they always meant to be ports to capture their original incarnations?
Jeff: We’ve toyed with the idea of doing something more modern, but we kept going back to the same thought: the full HD remake was Double Helix/Iron Galaxy’s territory. The point of KI Classic was to celebrate the classics. We’d pitched a few ideas for Season 3 bonus content, though, but it was more along the lines of newer characters (like putting Battletoads in the classic 2D engine), tournament play, and/or crossing over the KI1 and KI2 roster in an enhanced version of KI Gold. Fortunately we were able to bring KI Gold to Xbox One via Rare Replay.
KIC: You recently assisted Rare with getting the NES version of Battletoads ported to the Xbox One for the just released Rare Replay. What was working with Rare on Rare Replay like? Were you handed your project and let lose or was there lots of back and forth communication throughout the project?
Jeff: We actually did a number of titles in Rare Replay, across the NES, N64 and arcade. Rare was very supportive throughout our involvement, just genuinely enthusiastic about the whole thing and I think it shows. For the NES and arcade we were basically handling it ourselves, but we were deeply collaborating on the N64 side of things. There was a lot of ground to cover. The eight-hour time difference notwithstanding, it went quite smoothly and I think both they and we were pleased with the way it all turned out.
KIC: When did the issue of fixing the famous 11th stage game breaking bug in Battletoads come about? How difficult was it to find the source of the bug and fix it without altering anything else in the game?
Jeff: The Battletoads bug was a bit of an elephant in the room I think. Everyone knew about it, and I think everyone wondered what should be done, but there was that whole overriding directive: stay true to the originals. That said, this wasn’t exactly a bug that became a feature or an exploit. It’s not something anyone boasted about using to their advantage.
So, it was in the back of our minds until one day James (the producer) and I pretty well brought it up at the same time. What should we do? There was obviously concern: would changing the code unwittingly change something else? I volunteered we could investigate without committing to fixing it, and so we did. That was a marathon coding/debugging session that ended at 5:00am. It wasn’t enough to fix it, we had to figure out why it was happening, what it would affect, etc. We’d follow the thread of the defect back and back, deeper into the code, until we were satisfied we understood it and it would not disturb anything.
So what was the bug? The cycle will not launch until the Toad has reached it and has held on for a second. Except, the second Toad has further to walk than the first one, so he takes longer to get ready. This presumably was to compensate for the head start he has, starting in front of the first guy. But because it takes him that much longer, the level start timer kicks in before his cycle is “released” and he gets run over. So, we did a surgical hack to have his cycle release slightly earlier, so he’d be ready on time. So, truth be told, the front player now has a slight advantage just being in front, but that’s better than the alternative of no co-op at all. (We didn’t want to give both players the earlier release as that would’ve altered the difficulty of solo game play.)
KIC: Did your experience with the arcade versions of Killer Instinct help with your work on Battletoads?
Jeff: It didn’t help us with Battletoads, but what we learned doing Killer Instinct was very much relevant to the Nintendo 64 and I think a key reason we got the job. KI and the Nintendo 64 share some very similar hardware, as fans no doubt know, and so emulating N64 games would face very similar difficulties.
KIC: In regards to the future of Code Mystics, is there anything in particular being developed that you think fans are going to be really excited about?
Jeff: I wish I could talk about what we’re doing right now, but I do have to say I’m excited about it! And fans of KI might want to check out King of Fighters ’98 UMFE and King of Fighters 2002 UM on Steam, PC versions that merge the best of the Xbox 360 releases with the improvements of the later NESiCA updates.
Huge thanks to Jeff for the opportunity to conduct the interview!