Making video games can be incredibly difficult but also deeply rewarding. Developer Digital Continue and its cofounder, Joseph M. Tringali, considered how to share that experience with others. “How could I express (in a fun and interesting way) to people that probably will never make games … what it’s like?” Tringali wondered. The answer to that question turned out to be their new game, SuperMash.
SuperMash invites players to combine two disparate video game genres in order to spontaneously generate a whole new game experience, called a “Mash,” which you can trade with friends. Action Adventure, Platformer, Stealth, Shmup, Metroidvania (called “Metrovania” in game), and JRPG are the genres available right now, and three more genres are currently in the works for planned release next year. One of them is intended to release before or alongside the Nintendo Switch version of the game in May 2020.
Players can select the desired general difficulty and length of their Mash, and they can use Dev Cards to ensure certain elements — like a particular dangerous enemy or useful weapon — appear in the level. After that, SuperMash instantly spits out a brand new game for the player, complete with title and a cinematic to introduce its story, and even random “glitches” that make gameplay easier or harder.
As a result, procedural generation is a major aspect of the game, but the countless individual pieces that compose each Mash were all meticulously built by Digital Continue. Unsurprisingly, it was a massive challenge to see this ambitious and innovative concept through to completion.
“SuperMash in a lot of ways goes against the rules on how you do everything in making games, because typically you have a very cohesive aesthetic,” said Tringali. “(SuperMash) is so many different styles; it’s a lot of clashing. And then with game design, typically game designers want to … handcraft these really amazing, intricate, fun experiences. But when you do something like SuperMash, and anything emergent, you can’t do that. The system requires you to sacrifice the crafting element of game design. This definitely was a hard project, to just fight against your instinct as, like, a game designer and a developer and an artist, to bring this vision to life.”
Getting individual gameplay elements to jell across different genres was the greatest hurdle to overcome. JRPG was the most difficult genre to implement because of how much it differed from the others, with its menus, turn-based combat, and fixed perspective. Even applying a “glitch” became trickier in a JRPG versus the other genres. However, Shmups were a challenging genre to implement too because movement, screen scrolling, and enemy spawning all function differently than in other genres. In all cases though, NES, SNES, and early PlayStation were influences on the game’s visuals.
Due to the very nature of SuperMash’s unique premise, Tringali estimates that for 80% of the game’s development, the team was building pieces for the game without having a clear picture of how the final product would look. SuperMash was in full development for about a year and a half up to its release on Epic Games Store this month, with prototyping having begun in spring of 2017. Along the way, the Digital Continue team was essentially trusting its own skills and intuition to get itself to the finish line.
However, that’s not to say they think every Mash in SuperMash is brilliant. In fact, in order to stay true to the game’s vision of genre-mashing without boundaries and portraying the ups and downs of game design, Tringali acknowledged that some of the Mashes inevitably just have to be bad.
“There’s the range of emotion when mashing goes from like, ‘Oh, wow, this is amazing!’ to like, ‘Oh man, this is terrible. Nobody would have ever made this experience,’” he said with a laugh. “It’s something we’re aware of, that it just isn’t always going to create a magical game. You know? … We chose to sacrifice the fact that … we could have hand-scripted 50 different Mashes that were amazing or great or whatever, but that wouldn’t have been the game. That would have sort of been a betrayal of the vision.”
Tringali went on to reflect fondly on a Metrovania/Stealth Mash he encountered during development that was incredibly tough because it was filled with cruel design elements that no normal game designer would ever build. Rather than just quit on it to play a more conventional Mash, he spent 45 minutes learning the level, manipulating the AI, and ultimately beating it. Such is an example of both the serendipity and the nightmare that SuperMash offers.
The SuperMash trailer at the December Nintendo Indie World showcase that announced the game to the world displayed a full range of Mashes. The game (and Tringali himself) became a part of the showcase after Tringali showed a demo to Kirk Scott, manager of third-party relations at Nintendo, at E3 likely in 2018. “I kind of had a real quick super rough prototype thing,” said Tringali with cheerful self-loathing, “but I showed it to (Scott), and he loved it.”
SuperMash was actually the first idea for a game that Digital Continue had when the studio began in 2016, but resources were too limited to pursue it at the time. Along those same lines, “There’s a ton of possibility” for a potential sequel according to Tringali, but it will ultimately come down to audience demand and financial reception. Where there are profits, there are possibilities — and vice versa.
However, this isn’t Tringali’s first rodeo. Prior to cofounding Digital Continue, he had cofounded developer 5th Cell and been the executive producer on Drawn to Life and Scribblenauts. When things began to wind down in 2016 with 5th Cell, he was eager to start something new, and he decided his hometown of New York City was the right place to do it. Digital Continue is 19 people strong now, with most of them having worked on SuperMash. Audio director David J. Franco composed the soundtrack, much as he did for Scribblenauts, and contracted workers have contributed additional resources like art.
Digital Continue has an affinity for “Nintendo-esque” projects, with their focus being “unique concepts, innovation, emergence,” and the players “being able to express themselves,” according to Tringali. Indeed, the creative spirit that links Drawn to Life, Scribblenauts, SuperMash, and everything in-between is no accident.
“(People) tend to make things that interest them, and whether that’s a shooter or an RTS, you definitely see the DNA of the dev team — the vision in the studio and the products that come out,” said Tringali. “And for sure, I think (making games that enable players to create) is our ambition. It’s a hard process because you’re basically setting up these wild promises, and then you know (you need to) meet the player expectation. So, like, even going so far back as Scribblenauts and Drawn to Life and everything, it’s a great thing to see the players sort of be able to express themselves through the games.”