Developer Interview: Retro Sumus' Carlos Oliveros

Spanish indie developer Retro Sumus came to the fore in late 2014 when new Dreamcast-bound visual novel AMEBA was announced. Since then, work has been progressing steadily behind the scenes and we decided it was about time that we uncovered just what Retro Sumus is all about. In this exclusive interview with lead writer Carlos Oliveros, we find out a little more about the team, AMEBA and discover that there's another extremely promising (and previously unannounced) Dreamcast game on the horizon...

DCJY: Could you tell us a little bit about Retro Sumus? Who makes up the team and what are your roles?

Carlos Oliveros: Retro Sumus is both our name and our tag line, so to speak. It's Latin for "we are back," or "we are retro" which in my humble opinion makes for a nice Twitter hashtag, don't you think?


Right now, the team is made up of four fine gentlemen: Daniel aka Chui, Abel, Juanjo and yours truly. Chui is like Cypher from the X-men and understands any computer language you throw at him, or like Cypher from the Matrix now that I think of it, as he seems to see the world in code. Abel is our 3D designer and the owner of the brain behind Project Q (we'll get to that). Juanjo is in charge of the sound department, and I'm the main writer/translator and the communication guy.

For our first announced project AMEBA, we're recruiting a 2D artist and two more screenwriters to help us put everything together, as it's quite a big story for such a small team.
The original AMEBA teaser artwork
But you have known and/or worked with each other for a while now, haven't you?

In short, yes. I was one of the translators for Watermelon's Pier Solar and, after the Mega Drive release and the fans asking for a PC and a Dreamcast conversion, I introduced Chui to Tulio from Watermelon, as they were looking for a capable programmer to port the original Mega Drive code to more modern platforms. Being the awesome fella that he is, and the creator (or co-creator) of so many emulators and tools for the Dreamcast and other machines, he jumped at the chance and has become Tulio's right hand since, as far as I know. I only knew Chui for his emulators and had talked to him a few times before that, but we began working closer and chatting every other day from then on, as he worked on porting the game and I translated all the new content.

I think Chui brought Abel with him to Pier Solar. There was a Mode7 level in the original game which had to be remade from scratch for the conversion, so he did the 3D for that stage. That initial work was in fact the germ for Project Q.

Juanjo had never worked on any videogame related project. He's a piano teacher and producer, and the current keyboardist for spanish bands Efecto Mariposa and Los Aslándticos. When I told him about my ideas for AMEBA, he didn't even let me finish and said he wanted in. I was honoured, as he knew I couldn't possibly pay him (for now anyway) and didn't care at all. He immediately improvised a beautiful piano tune that will become one of the main themes for the game.

You are currently working on two Dreamcast games. What can you tell us about your projects?

We are, yes. AMEBA is the most ambitious, story-wise, as it's a brand new adventure game in the form of a western-made visual novel. A detective game set in Madrid, Spain, featuring no gratuitous nudes, no blue-haired, impossibly busty waiters and, if we are doing a good job - no fanservice. So basically, a visual novel that differentiates itself from more traditionally Japanese ones and incorporates puzzles to solve and some other mechanics.

Project Q is the working title of our more arcade game. It is not a shmup either and as you may have guessed, it's also not in 2D. We actually have a somewhat playable pre-pre-pre alpha demo that already shows what are main influences are. The game will feature a minimum of 12 worlds, 5 of which already have their music created. We recently posted a fragment of one of them, you can listen to it on our blog or our new Soundcloud page.
Exclusive images of AMEBA in action, running on Dreamcast hardware
The original artwork was created by Joan Albert Mendoza
Is the Dreamcast an easy machine to work with?

The only code I know is HTML and CSS so I may not be the right man to answer this question. 205 Mhz and 16 MB RAM is very limited for today's standards, but there's plenty of tools and docs and demos and little homebrew games available, and the machine never had such complex architecture as the Saturn had to begin with. That being said, Chui has recently started tampering with an old Saturn I sold him a couple years ago and told us it's not really that hard to program for it and that he may come up with something one of these days, so what do I know!

On the subject of Project Q not being a 2D game - firstly, this sounds amazing. Dreamcast gamers are crying out for a new 'non 2D' indie title. Are you able to reveal anything at all about what form the game will take?

Meh, you know what? We are now ready to reveal some more details. The game's title is Xenocider, and it's a 3D tribute to Space Harrier, with a little Galaxy Force and Sin & Punishment here and there. Worlds will be filled with enemies and obstacles, platforms to jump on and/or blow up, and of course huge stage bosses. The main character is a female cyborg from a distant planet who feels an overwhelming rage and thirst for killing and...

Anyway, it's a completely old-school-arcade inspired game, so it won't be text-heavy at all. Some friends from and already saw our concept demo in motion at a recent retro event here in Spain.

Another indie game, Tahi, promised a full 3D engine but that project has been dormant for years now. What would you say to people who may read this and dismiss Project Q as a pipe dream?

Well, actually Chui worked with Corbin and the Hypertension team a few years ago. He ported or helped create a 3D engine for them, so it's not an impossible task. I don't think they're using that engine anymore, but what I mean is, 3D engines are feasible, just way too time-consuming to create I guess. Nevertheless, both AMEBA and Xenocider are entirely low-level code, which is both something we are (somewhat) proud of and the reason why work is going slow: there are no available engines, or at least none that really suits our needs at the moment.

Ah, what the hell. Here are a few screenshots now. Just for fun ;)

This is not a video or a PC build or anything like that. This is running on real hardware, as you can obviously see!

Wow! Talk about putting your money where your mouth is - this is huge! The game certainly looks like an homage to Space Harrier, and this is very appropriate considering the format. Thank you for sharing this news with us!

Thank you for the chance to talk about it. We couldn’t wait to let people know, but we didn’t want to get too carried away before the time was right… or before we had anything remotely solid to show!

Space Harrier is our top influence here, definitely. But there will be a lot of running and jumping a la Sin & Punishment, and some Galaxy Force inspired levels here and there as you can see in the third pic. We are really excited about what we’re doing for the game.
Xenocider's 'work in progress' logo
How are you funding these projects? Will Kickstarter be an option? You were tight lipped about this on AMEBA's initial reveal, but with something as ambitious as Xenocider could potentially be, will budgets be a major factor?

Ah, good question. Kickstarter is definitely an option, and an interesting challenge I'm more than willing to face, personally. With a realistic goal and rewards, and being honest with potential buyers from the start, we're confident about the potential of both projects. We are not sure if we will go that route yet though.

Whatever the case, budget is always a major factor, of course. We'll see. But we see AMEBA as the more ambitious project, as it will be much longer and need a huge script and tons of original art. That, and the fact that we are not going to settle for (just) a Dreamcast version...

Remember I just said Chui had been tampering with and old Saturn? Another reason work is going slow: we are planning to release AMEBA on the Sega Saturn as well.

No, we're not kidding. Yes, we know it sounds crazy. But Chui's been doing his research and there may be a way. We are serious about this. If things go well, Ameba will be released for PC, Android, Dreamcast AND Saturn.

Dreamcast, PC and Saturn?! Retro Sumus really is pulling all the stops out with these plans… could you consider a Mega CD version too?!

We know it’s ambitious but we’re confident about it. I would absolutely love a new Saturn game, after so many years of the console being the 'tough girl.' Also, the Dreamcast is Chui’s speciality and he is interested in the Saturn as something new and exciting to tackle. We haven’t considered a Mega CD port due to color limitations and such. Other (current gen) platforms are technically possible, as Chui has experience porting Pier Solar to PS4 and XB1 already, but we cannot promise those for now.

Also, you know what? We thought this interview would be the right place to show how the game may end up looking on real hardware. So there you go!

Daniel and Tomás, our new screenwriters, are helping us put together our first demo right now. Our plan is to release a demo for both Ameba and Xenocider for anyone to download in a couple months. If we finally use Kickstarter, we want potential buyers to know we have nothing to hide. It’s really not that hard, don’t you think?

Indeed. It’s great that you’re also focusing on other systems, but why did you choose to put new titles out on the Dreamcast in the first instance?

Because we love it of course. No, really. Chui has developed tons of emulators for the console and, after working on Pier Solar for quite a while, felt like creating a game of his own. I had been writing for Spanish multi-platform mag Games Tribune for years, about retro and indie releases more prominently, and Abel and Juanjo were craving for a chance to put their talents to work on the videogame industry. Juanjo was amazed to see NGdevTeam's Gunlord when it was released and I showed it to him, as he didn't really know the console had a strong indie scene, but the rest of us have been attending most retro events in Spain for years and are Dreamcast enthusiasts.
Carlos is a former writer for Spanish games mag Games Tribune
Do you intend for your projects to come out as full retail games? If so, do you have a publisher, or is it too soon to reveal details like those?

It is too soon, sorry. We have been in talks with a publisher and I guess you could say we are in good terms with them. Both projects can work as digital releases for PC, but for retro consoles they have to be physical. A regular edition and a special edition featuring an OST disc (not unlike NGdevTeam's releases) is the least DC fans have come to expect, don't you think? I know would be happy with that.

What are your thoughts on the Dreamcast indie scene as a whole? Are you surprised that the console has such a vibrant community?

I think we all agree that, being Sega's last console and also the last 'arcade' console, we all dream about what could have been and love it. Personally I'm a big fan of NGdevTeam's work as you may have guessed. Not only they were pioneers, they have been consistently keeping not one but two cult consoles alive for the last few years. I absolutely love Duranik's Sturmwind and can't wait for Watermelon to finally release Pier Solar for the Dreamcast. I'm also intrigued about Elysian Shadows and pledged on their Kickstarter campaign, even if I usually don't have the patience for RPG's!

I'm not surprised, no. I mean, the whole retro gaming thing runs on our nostalgia, and the DC holds the best kind of nostalgia: a myth who died young, like a Jimi Hendrix of sorts. On the other hand, what kid hasn't dreamed of creating their own games? Dreamcast allows us to do so with not such big effort or investment. And in a world of Assassin's Creeds, Halos and whatnot, the chance to travel back in time and create something you would have liked and still like playing is not something you let pass.
Several members of Retro Sumus worked on Pier Solar
What’s your history with the Dreamcast, and are you a fan of retro gaming in general?

My brother and I got the Dreamcast when it was released back in its day. Then Sega announced they were giving up on the console market, and I gave up on consoles altogether. For years, I only played some fighting games on my brother's PS2 from time to time. Then the DC scene caught my interest, I began to write for Games Tribune and bought a Xbox 360 when Sonic Generations and KOF XIII were released, and a bit later a PS3 just for the Yakuza games, which I became a huge fan of. I've also played and loved every single iteration of the Virtua Fighter series, so VF5 Final Showdown became my favourite game of the now ending generation. Also the weapon of choice for Juanjo and me to settle our differences.

But I digress. I have a Mega Drive, Saturn and Dreamcast, all of them NTSC-J, and about 6-8 games for each. I really don't consider myself a collector. If I haven't played a game for some time I'll sell it or give it away. I don't buy sealed games for the sake of collecting. I just like going back to and old school platform game, to a side-scrolling beat 'em up, and have a good time without having to learn complicated controls. I know Chui, Abel and Juanjo pretty much feel the same way.

If you could go back in time and speak directly to ‘the powers that be’ at Sega during the Dreamcast era, what advice would you give them? how would you do things differently to make sure the Dreamcast was the success it deserved to be?

The same advice I would give to just any CEO, manager, company owner or entrepreneur: let people work. And to achieve that, first of all, kill your ego. Now seriously, think about it. How many times do you come up with a great concept, an ambitious project or a wise decision, just to face the frustration of a boss saying no? Don't get me wrong, I'm not judging bosses in general. I'm judging those who, just because they happen to enjoy a little authority, feel the need to remind you they're above you. That's ego. Sega America and Sega Japan fighting over who's right during the 90's, that's ego. Sega Japan's top managers ignoring every single piece of advice, marketing-wise, just because "we have the best software," that's ego. If you have good creators, good designers, and also good lawyers and agents and executives, for God's sake let them work. That's what you pay them for.

It feels like Sega has give birth to thousands of cool, promising characters, only to be remembered for a couple of them, and not for the best games recently (yes Sonic I'm looking at you). Everyone knows Miyamoto, Mario and Zelda. But I really believe Yu Suzuki should be worshipped, like, everywhere, for all the absolute milestones he's been responsible for. I mean Out Run, Space Harrier, After Burner, Virtua Racing, Virtua Cop, Virtua Fighter? Shenmue, anyone? Great minds, great creations, great machines, awful marketing. For three decades now.

Which brings me to the 'let accountants work too' part. Should Suzuki have been able to finish Shenmue? Sure. But it was also Shenmue which brought Sega to the edge of bankruptcy. Let creators work, but let the guys who control the budget work too. Let the marketing experts work. That's the part Nintendo always got right.

Wise words indeed. To that end, what advice would you give to anybody else thinking of starting their own indie development on Dreamcast?

I think I don't dare give advice out just yet. I will properly answer this question when either AMEBA or Project Q/Xenocider are released. Deal?

What I do know so far is you need to face the challenge realistically, to know your skills, to know what you and/or your team can do, and what means you need to achieve that challenge. Easier said than done, but it is key. That's why there are AAA projects that still get cancelled nowadays. Also, once you've decided to go some specific route, stick to it and don't get distracted, or you will never finish it.
Sturmwind always gets a thumbs up!
Which are your favourite Dreamcast games?

This list may change if you ask me again next month, but I think Capcom vs SNK 2, Garou Mark of the Wolves, Sturmwind and definitely Under Defeat are the games I could bring with me to a desert island.

Who would win in an arm wrestle? Shenmue’s Ryo Hazuki or Jack Wade from Headhunter?

Dural. I mean Akira Yuki. Sorry, I mean Ryo Hazuki. Once he had learned from participating in the Virtua Fighter and the underground Yakuza tournaments. Because come on, that's where he was heading sooner or later, right?

Speaking of Shenmue…man, E3 was crazy. And we all owe it to that little guy. All hail master Suzuki.

We couldn't agree more. Carlos and Retro Sumus - thank you.
Chui (left) and Carlos (right) taking questions at RetroBarcelona
So there you have it. There's another indie game you can add to the list of upcoming titles for Sega's undead box of tricks...and remember where you heard it first folks! For more information on Retro Sumus and to follow the development of both AMEBA and Xenocider, feel free to check out the official website, Facebook page or Twitter accounts.

Previous Developer Interviews: 
Falco Girgis of Elysian Shadows Team


hombreimaginario said...

Once again, thank you for this interview, Tom!

Tom Charnock said...

The pleasure is all ours!

Aaron said...

Excellent interview! And a new DC announcement to boot!

nocarpayment said...

Interest thanks of the interview. As a huge DC nut i salute Chui as he has been the driving force behind the Dc scene. With out him there wouldnt be much of a scene.

Robert Jones said...

Super interview Tom. EXCLUSIVE!!!