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Midwest Gaming Classic celebrates the past, inspires the future

David Wise (second from left) and Kevin Bayliss (second from right), developers of legendary video game Battletoads, with Jordan Davis (far right) and Nathan Tolbert (center).
David Wise (second from left) and Kevin Bayliss (second from right), developers of legendary video game Battletoads, with Jordan Davis (far right) and Nathan Tolbert (center).

Gaming nerds, unite! Then, go play.

This weekend’s Midwest Gaming Classic promises the utmost in pure gaming nerdery (and joy), offering inspiration, fun, challenge and community. The MGC — held April 5-7 at the Baird Center in Milwaukee — is a veritable Swiss Army Knife of fun for game enthusiasts.

Technically, it’s “a trade show featuring 250,000+ square feet of retro and modern home video game consoles, pinball machines, arcade video games, tabletop RPGs, computers, tabletop board games, crane games, collectible card games, air hockey, and beyond.” In actuality, it’s a combination of game discovery and exploration and celebration, with over 10,000 games set on free play.

On top of that, more than 200 vendors are also stationed not only to discuss game culture, but to lead you to your next favorite game you’ve never heard of (and maybe sell you some sweet swag). For those ever-chasing thrill seekers, discovering a new, favorite game is the carrot at an event like this. The community vibe just cements the magic.

Vintage game fans find events like this extra sparkly because they combine that vintage NES-type game culture with fresh takes on the classic beloved “genre.” This enables the creation of “new classic” games that exemplify why people fall in love with the format in the first place while creating an element of novel surprise through stories, characters and graphics.

One of these “new-old” games, The Storied Sword, was born at a Midwest Gaming Classic event by two NES enthusiasts: one predominantly a composer, the other a programmer/designer. Jordan Davis and Nathan Tolbert met, conspired and melded their passions — as well as their creative brains — to build their own challenge for vintage NES lovers.

The pair’s gateway into notoriety was through respective projects like Halcyon and Space Raft: The Video Game, the latter being Davis’ first big venture. As a musician first, he started with the soundtrack before the game, creating chiptune versions of his band’s (Space Raft) songs.

From there, the project morphed into the whole kit and caboodle. “Milwaukee’s hungriest band” became the nucleus of a unique NES-style game offering up a lighthearted, rock-centric adventure filled with graphics of Milwaukee people, places and things (including mini-fridges, bowling alleys and sandwiches).

Fast-forward to today, and Davis and Tolbert’s initial MGC meeting has sprouted a co-produced game called The Storied Sword. Fans of Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden and Batman: The Video Game will be intrigued, starting with a plot that finds heroes Cedric and Orchid seeking to foil the evil sorcerer Vectre in his quest to find the titular (and legendary) weapon, The Storied Sword. Fantastical adventures ensue.

The real challenge — in real life anyway — is to come up with the funds to get the project from the drawing board to a screen near you by giving it some legs beyond its game framework.

I caught up with Davis as he launched the official Kickstarter campaign, just in time for this week’s Midwest Gaming Classic (tickets available right here). We talked NES, chiptune and beyond as he explained how this form of creativity is not only extremely satisfying, it also exercises his DIY punk ethos (and love for “dealing with the world in miniature”) — one game, one piece at a time.

Let's start out with an introduction. This is not the first NES-style game you've created, and the first one was Milwaukee-centric (to a degree). What was your first game about, and when was it introduced to Milwaukee audiences?

Yes! My first video game focused on my Milwaukee indie rock band Space Raft and featured different people and places from the Milwaukee music scene. The game was really a love letter to the city and included all sorts of local references. Ironically, the game found a much bigger audience outside the city. The NES development community is an international one, and Space Raft: The Video Game became a sort of window into our community for gamers and collectors around the world.

Give me a brief overview of how you got into creating NES-type games in the first place.

I bought a book called The Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino to use as inspiration while finishing the final Space Raft album, Positively Space Raft. I was always really curious about golden age video games, especially the lurid marquee arcade artwork, and through that book I discovered that I had a really deep desire to write music for old video game hardware.

I started creating chiptunes, which is music composed for an old audio chip to play and started transcribing Space Raft songs in order to get a laugh out of the guys in the band. Through that experience, I discovered that I really wanted to make a game, not just compose music for one.

So I found some software called NESmaker — The Storied Sword was not made with this engine — and made a brief demo of Space Raft that involved driving the band van around the streets of Milwaukee while dodging potholes. The demo was terrible! I still like to point to it to illustrate my humble beginnings. But it gave me a proof of concept as far as my ability to transcribe music within the context of a game.

Through the demo, I met a programmer in France called Dale Coop who helped me finish Space Raft into something the band and I would be proud to release into the world. Dale and I have collaborated on many projects since, and I have composed the music on most of the projects he has completed.

When — and from whom — did the idea for a new game called The Storied Sword come about? Whose creative brains came up with the actual characters and story the game is centered around?

The Midwest Gaming Classic in Milwaukee! I went to my first event in 2019 after hearing it mentioned on a podcast I had recently begun following called The NES Assembly Line, which is a show focused on interviewing new NES developers. I just found that community so fascinating, a subculture that represented, to me, a sort of 21st century technological folk-art.

So I was very interested in investigating who these people were. I was, then and now, really inspired by a pixel artist called FrankenGraphics, who produces some of the most lurid pixel art I’ve ever seen. I followed one of her projects called Halcyon through her blog, which I found immediately upon walking into the homebrew room at MGC 2019.

There, I introduced myself to Nathan [Tolbert], who turned out to be the programmer/designer of Halcyon. We kept in touch in case he ever had any need for a music composer. Eventually, he reached out after seeing that I had completed my game Space Raft to see if I would be interested in collaborating on a game as a pixel artist. He pitched the idea of a Western-style ninja game loosely based around Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga, a book series he read with his kids with a loose Princess Bride inspiration.

Nathan has a really terrific reputation in the NES development community. He has released games for the Game Boy Advance, Atari 2600, as well as Android. When I was working on Space Raft, it really hit me that all the classic NES games were created by teams of people. This game was a real collaboration, which is something that I feel makes it better than the sum of our combined talents.

We decided to create our own story featuring a sort of Zorro-style Western ninja that could serve as the basis for the game, which we began calling “Project Sword.” Nathan’s games are usually pretty light on narrative, so I took the reins on the narrative and started to craft a story that would support our themes.

Nathan had wanted to create a twitchy and challenging platformer like Ninja Gaiden, which featured an extensive and ham-handed story, so I followed suit in creating one for our coastal fantasy setting. Nathan pitched the name The Storied Sword, and I went about writing a backstory for an immortal sorcerer that had lost his memory and was searching for a magical sword that holds all the world’s stories, hoping it will return the memory of his long lost love.

I wanted something that seemed equally tragic to Dracula, which provided such a great premise for seminal works like Castlevania.

You also worked with an "auxiliary team" — illustrator Steven Deau and layout artist / colorist Arella Warren. How was it working with them to develop your story and flesh it out into a visual game?

I reached out to Steve early, knowing I’d need the help of an illustrator to be able to create the sort of high-quality cutscene images you’d expect to find in an action platformer like Ninja Gaiden. Working with Steve was an additionally exciting collaboration. He and I share a love of comic books and many points of reference.

He was able to create drawings of the character sprites I had created, along with hand-drawing our pixelated logo that really brought the game world to life. He would send me line-art drawings that I would convert into pixel art and color for in-game cutscenes. His contributions really helped us expand the scope of our game world.

Steve only draws in black-and-white ink, so we brought in digital artist Arella Warren to finish off Steve’s drawings with color, and create the layout for the cover and packaging assets. Arella is the daughter of my longtime partner and is by far the most talented artist in the household.

A screen shot from The Storied Sword demo.
A screen shot from The Storied Sword demo.

You are the main Songwriter for The Storied Sword. I'm sure this is not something easily summed up, but can you briefly share how you got into creating the music behind NES games?

Heh. When I met legendary game composer David Wise at MGC in 2022, he described the sound chip of the NES being “a glorified alarm clock” before going on to tell me how much he hated working with it. The idea of being an alarm-clock composer just filled me with absolute glee!

The audio from the NES is incredibly limited, but we got the most out of it. It really boils down to sound design, and I’ve picked up enough about sound design from being around T. Jay [Christenson’s] analog synthesizers in Space Raft to know how to deal with an ADSR envelope — the differences in wave shapes, etc.

I just simply wrote music that sounds good for the platform, the pacing of the game, and the resources I had available as far as memory usage. I use a free program called Famitracker to input all the notes via my typing keyboard. It takes a little more planning, but the principles are the same: find a rhythm, write a bass line or melody and add to it until it’s finished.

In this project, we committed to using the NES’ very primitive audio sampling channel to create kick, snare and tambourine percussion sounds, which freed us up to add more crucial sword sound effects.

The Storied Sword: "Sorcerous Heights"

What are the main differences of being a "regular" songwriter — writing and recording a song with guitar, bass, drums, etc. — compared to writing an NES version of a song that's got that classic 8-bit, chiptune framework?

In the past four years, I’ve written music for over 30 NES projects big and small. Usually, my first order of business is to plan out the requirements of the sound effects. Those vary wildly from game to game.

Whenever a sound effect plays, you momentarily lose an entire channel of music, which can really destroy a piece of music if arranged poorly. So I like to think of it as a magic act. I’ll be waving my right hand in your face so you don’t notice what my left hand is doing. That essentially means composing one dominant melody voice and one harmony voice that is there to support the main voice, while secretly designed to be less important so when it disappears you don’t even notice.

The NES also has a triangle wave that many composers use for bass since it has no volume control, making it annoyingly loud in some cases. It’s an exceedingly small sandbox to play in as a composer. But, like I said before, there’s something wildly exciting to me about being an alarm clock composer. It’s trash media to most, and I love it for that.

You are in the midst of fundraising to bring The Storied Sword to life. What are your biggest goals with this effort?

Realistically, the biggest goal is to bring people joy. These old games occupy so much real estate in people’s imaginations. If we could somehow add to that and extend the lifespan for this beloved console, we’d be thrilled. I have a lot of pipeline projects in mind for this game, including a sequel or a possible dime-store-style novelization. If we reach our funding, we’ll start to unveil some of those ideas to serve as stretch goals.

Tell me about your connection to The Midwest Gaming Classic, coming up this weekend. What's your history with the event (and what will this year's event hold for you)?

The Midwest Gaming Classic has quickly become the Mecca of NES Homebrew since I started attending in 2019. I can’t take any credit for that, but I have occupied a front-row seat while cheerleading that progress. I recognize how important community building is from my formative years contributing to the Green Bay DIY punk-rock scene.

As retro game developers, there aren’t many opportunities to meet face to face. MGC gives us a rendezvous on the calendar and a chance to talk with other developers and players about what their interests are. All of us have an active interest in encouraging each other to make cool stuff, so we also like to encourage anybody who might have interest in working with the NES as a creative platform to come and ask us questions and get involved.

It’s a fulfilling creative platform for my self-expression. I liken it to the model-railroad boom of the 1950s — something about dealing with the world in miniature really makes my heart happy.

88Nine Music Director / On-Air Talent | Radio Milwaukee