A game by Tribute Games for PC, Mac, Linux, PS3, Vita, Xbox 360, Ouya, iOS, and Switch, originally released in 2011.
Brick breaking became its own genre with the 1976 arcade release of Breakout, created in the earliest days of what would eventually become known as the video game industry. As with all great successes of the day, the game went on to be cloned and copied and iterated upon many times over. Years later, a game based upon this formula – called Arkanoid – surpassed the original by adding new types of bricks, variable brick formations, and powerup capsules.

Brick breaking gameplay has persisted throughout the generations with numerous variations on the formula. What’s interesting about these games from a design perspective is that they each require direct and nearly constant input from the player, yet the player is not in direct control of the primary gameplay object (the ball) for most of the game. Direct interaction occurs less than 10% of the time and the outcomes of these interactions are impossible to precisely predict.

In this way, the descendants of Breakout are more akin to a form of video pinball, where the player spends most of his time strategizing and attempting to line up a productive shot, while spending the remainder preparing to react to the game’s machinations.

Wizorb is a game that is built upon these same fundamentals, but which offers the player a bit of extra control over his fate.

The game stars a wizard named Cyrus who practices the magical art of Wizorb, allowing him to transform into a wand that can knock around a blue orb. Cyrus is the only hope for the Kingdom of Gorudo, which has been attacked by the Devil King and nearly destroyed.

In a very atypical fashion for the genre, the game starts out in a village with numerous NPC’s standing aside their destroyed homes and shops. The wizard is free to speak with each of the distraught people, and quickly discovers that they each need money in order to rebuild. So, the player must not only take on the evil forces that are responsible for the mess, but he must also earn money to restore the besieged village. While it may seem odd to begin a game of this sort with RPG trappings, this difference is core to the game’s overall design.

Stages are selected from an overworld map, with each one opening as the previous set of levels is completed. Each level is presented as a single-screen dungeon room or section of town, with an overhead view like The Legend of Zelda, and has enemies walking around, obstacles to overcome, and of course, bricks to be broken. Breaking bricks doesn’t reveal powerups, but rather coins, gems, potions, and keys… just as you might find in your typical RPG. The items fall slowly down the screen, creating a risk-reward factor as the player moves the wand to hit the orb while balancing the collection of falling items.

Coins and gems can be stockpiled and used back in town to help the poor villagers restore their property, and the money can also be used to make purchases in shops… but first you have to get to them. Certain levels have locked doors, which require keys to open them. Keys can be collected by breaking open chests in the environment, after which you’ll need to hit the door with your ball to open it. You can also stockpile keys to open doors in future levels. Shops offer various enhancements to your basic abilities, such as making your wand longer and allowing you to hold the ball before launching it again. You can also buy orbs with various functions, such as a slower starting speed, multi-orbs that send out 3 orbs at once, and stronger orbs that cause more damage when hitting enemies and bricks. But you must shop wisely, because these abilities will be lost if the ball falls off the bottom of the screen. Other useful items include potions to replenish your magic meter, and extra lives.

Keeping your magic meter well stocked allows the wizard to cast a number of spells, including fireballs that can break bricks and harm enemies, wind that can blow the ball left or right, the ability to teleport your ball to any position in the room upon death, temporary direct control over the orb, and the ability to charge the orb with fire to send it crashing through rows of bricks and enemies for a limited time.

This gives the player some direct control over the proceedings, rather than simply waiting for the ball to approach the bottom of the screen, but keeping the magic alive means collecting potions. Each potion restores 20% of the total meter. Smaller spells, like the fireball, drain it by 10%, while larger spells can drain it by 30 or 40%.

As with many games of this type, things can get a bit tough when there are only a couple of bricks left to break in the room. This issue is remedied somewhat by the design, which allows a 10% magic restoration each time the orb hits the wand 8 times without hitting any bricks or enemies. This may give the player the opportunity to make use of one of his magic spells to clear the remaining bricks and move on.

Given the structure of the game, however, the most important thing you need in your arsenal is a well-stocked reserve of extra lives. Lives can be gained by breaking open chests or by purchasing them in shops (sacrificing gold that could be spent to assist the villagers). There are also some bonus rooms that can be opened with a switch or a key, allowing you to grab some extra coins, potions, and lives.

Since there are 12 levels per stage, and you have a limited number of lives and continues, you’re going to need to be very good at keeping the ball alive, or you’ll need to spend a lot of money on extra lives. There is no way to play through a partial stage and return to town, nor is there a way to save your game during a stage. You need to get through all 12 levels in one shot, or start back over from the beginning of the stage again. This removes the pick-up-and-play nature that is typical of the genre, and there’s far more than just bad timing to make you lose a ball.

For one, when an orb comes in contact with an enemy, it can bounce away at an unpredictable angle. If that enemy is close to the bottom of the screen and you hit it from below, your orb could be sent quickly to the gutter. There are also a number of curses that are unleashed from broken blocks. These are purple spirits that fall straight down and must be avoided lest you activate the curse. For instance, you may find your wand slowed down or shrunk in size, your gold or magic reduced, or your ball may speed up or cease to do damage temporarily.

Once you make it through the 12 levels, you’ll face off against a boss. These are open arenas with a couple of low-powered enemies patrolling the area, and are somewhat reminiscent of the boss battles in the surprisingly good Metroid Prime Pinball. You can damage the boss by hitting it with the orb or by using the fireball spell to hit it directly. There are no potions in these areas, however, so it’s best to come into the encounter fully stocked. You’ll also need to watch for each boss’ special attack, as it will destroy your wand, leaving the orb to drain helplessly off the bottom of the screen.

As part of our 10 Questions interview series, we spend some internet time with Jonathan Lavigne, the head of indie developer Tribute Games. Prepare yourself for insights into the developer’s 2D gaming influences, development process, and other sundry facts.

What are some of your favorite 2D games, and what do you enjoy about them the most?
I'd say that my favorite 2D games are Mega Man 2, River City Ransom and Street Fighter 2 because I played them a lot and I still play them today. Another great game would be Ogre Battle 64 because it was the first game that I played over a hundred hours and I enjoyed every minute of it. There some other games that are kinda awkward to play but which I find awesome regardless of their quirks. For example, in Superman on NES, exploring a huge pixelated version of Metropolis was pretty impressive back in the day. I also like its mood and its charming look a lot.

In what way has your work been inspired by other game developers or artists?
When I work on a game, I want to try to recapture what made the games of my childhood so captivating. I don't necessarily want to redo the exact same thing but they're certainly a huge influence. I don't think that creating something entirely new in terms of gameplay is an absolute necessity. I prefer working from the things I love and then try to iterate from them. For that reason, developers from the 8-bit era are probably my biggest inspiration. Ninja Senki is an example of that and Wizorb is a game that's also deeply rooted in classic gaming but that still manages to include some modern elements.

What do you believe are the essential ingredients for creating a good game?
Simplicity is vital and yet the hardest thing to achieve. It's easy to go wild and make things overly complicated, but keeping things simple, elegant and easy to read is the real challenge. Then, you need a core game mechanic that is fun and from which you can expand to create a variety of gameplay situations. When you play a game, you constantly repeat the same actions. By nature, all games are repetitive but that's the evolution of gameplay situations and level design that keep things fresh. And obviously, you need good graphics, sounds and music because they communicate the game and help make it memorable and satisfying to play.

What do you believe sets Wizorb apart from other games on the market?
Wizorb was the last game that we released at Tribute Games. Its retro aesthetics are definitely what sets it apart from most commercial games. Also, even if Wizorb is a Breakout clone, I believe that the way the player can use magics in the game keeps the experience unique. Its RPG inspired thematic probably also makes it more charming than the usual block breaking game.

What is your educational background and how has that helped you with your game development work?
I studied graphic design in college, and I have a diploma in 3D animation (which I never really did professionally). My background in graphic design helped me understand the duality between the visual and the functional aspects of a game. A good looking game can be really bad if it isn't functional. I also started my career as a pixel artist at Gameloft, so having a background in graphic design and animation definitely helped me get where I am today.

Describe your development process and workflow. How did you split up your art, programming, and level design duties?
On Wizorb I did the game design, I established the visual style for the game and did most of the backgrounds. I also designed half of the levels, the other half was handled by Justin. Justin did a bunch of animations (besides the characters which were animated by Paul) and he also did most of the sound effects. Jean-François took care of all the code for the game, for the engine and for our tools to build levels and export the animations. Jean did all the music.

How did you settle on the art style for the game?
I love how NES games look with its limited palette of bright colors and small iconic sprites. So, we decided to go for something in that spirit. Also, when I made Ninja Senki, I created a color palette with the NES limitations in mind but I doubled the number of colors to give it a bit more flexibility. I've always worked with it since then and we decided to stick with it when we made Wizorb .

What programming aspect made you pull your hair out during development for your game?
Pretty much everything went smoothly with Wizorb , except when we discovered that the online Rankings on Xbox 360 were making the game crash right after the game was released on the XBLIG marketplace. We fixed it temporarily by preventing the game from fetching online score data. We'd like to re-enable online Rankings on XBLIG, so a title update should eventually bring this feature back.

What's the craziest thing you had to deal with on the road to getting your game finished and released?
The all-nighter we pulled just before submitting Wizorb to the Dream Build Play competition was pretty crazy. Having a beer at 7 AM to celebrate was probably not the best idea but it was still worth it.

What are you working on now, and what can you tell us about it?
We're testing and fine tuning the Mac and Linux ports of Wizorb . Then, we'll move on to another project but it's still a bit too early to give any detail about it. You can expect a game with a bit more action though.

Tribute Games is a Canadian studio, based in Montreal, Quebec. The studio is headed by designer Jonathan Lavigne and was founded along with Justin Cyr (pixel artist, animator, and sound designer) and Jean-François Major (programmer). The studio was named to pay tribute to all of the classic games from their childhoods. The gameplay in Wizorb was inspired by the likes of Arkanoid and Devil’s Crush.

Jonathan Lavigne worked professionally in the industry on a number of noteworthy 2D games. He worked for several years at Ubisoft, along with both Justin and Jean-Francois. Jonathan worked as a game designer on Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game, and as an artistic director for the GBA versions of TMNT, Open Season, Kong, and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.

Tribute Games followed the successful release of Wizorb with Mercenary Kings, a game that mixes the traditional run ‘n’ gun with RPG stats and crafting elements. The game has the look of a Metal Slug title, thanks to the art of Jonathan “Persona” Kim and Stéphane Boutin, with animation by Paul Robertson, all of whom worked previously on the visuals for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game. The game features some of the sexiest sprites in the business, with lots of nice flourishes like transforming bosses, muzzle flashes, and over-the-top bloody death animations.

Despite its appearance, this is not a linear action game, but rather one that focuses on exploration and the gathering of materials. As you shoot your way through enemy forces and open chests, you will find materials that you can take back to your base and use for crafting purposes. You can craft more powerful guns, knives, body armor, and passive buffs that allow you to take on deadlier foes for even better materials.

The crafting system is quite robust, particularly when it comes to the creation of firearms. Weapons fall into a number of categories, including handguns, assault rifles, shotguns, submachine guns, sniper rifles, etc. You can mix and match any compatible component, including gun barrels, magazines, sights, and stocks, each of which having stats that impact the final assembled weapon. You can craft various types of ammunition as well, ranging from bullets that spread out to cover a wide area, bouncing projectiles, oversized projectiles, and even homing missiles. You can also add elemental enhancements such as fire, electricity, or acid to cause extra damage and penetrate enemy shields.

The game can be played alone or with up to 4 players in local co-op. The game is played out in splitscreen, allowing the mercs to team up or spread out to complete multiple objectives simultaneously.

As the market for publisher-backed pixel art projects declined with the death of the GBA, Jonathan set out on his own. At the end of 2010, he released a self-published title called Ninja Senki as a freeware PC downloadable. The game was created using Game Maker 8 along with Patrice Bourgeault (soundtrack composer) and Jean Chan (sound effects).

The game stars a pixelated ninja who is on a quest to avenge the death of his clan’s princess. Like many of the classic ninja games that inspired it, Ninja Senki has the player collecting coins, jumping over spikes, riding on moving platforms, dodging falling objects and flame spouts, and contending with more than his fair share of enemies.

The ninja must fight his way through 16 varied stages, relying on his skills in the ancient arts of shuriken tossing and double jumping. He faces off against other ninjas, samurai, monkeys, turtles, and even ghosts, through a number of colorful environments bookended by huge bosses. Depending on how well you fare in your fight against the baddies, you will see one of the game’s multiple endings.