If you hop on over to the Nintendo eShop for Digital Continue's latest game, you might pause at its listed "category" or genre. According to the page, it's an "Arcade, Platformer, Role-Playing, Simulation, Indie" game.
And that doesn't even begin to cover it.
A better description might be to call SuperMash a video game genre mashing sim framed by a visual novel. It involves a group of young adults who stumble upon a strange game console with two cartridge slots instead of one. Using it and the six distinct game cartridges that come with it (conveniently labeled by genre) they can create procedurally generated genre mash-ups. Ever wondered what happens when you mash a JRPG and a shoot 'em up? SuperMash will show you a different possibility each time.
Making a game that can spit out procedural genre mash-ups on request was not a simple feat. As game director Joseph Tringali tells GamesIndustry.biz, SuperMash was one of the first ideas Digital Continue had when it started in New York City in 2016. But at the time, it was too complicated for the small team to handle.
"I think the general trend of games is moving towards player expression. They've been that way for a while"
Digital Continue was founded by just three people, the remnants of a group of employees from 5th Cell who were left without a studio after "some stuff happened with publishers and we ended up having to let everyone go," as Tringali puts it.
Since then, the studio has grown to around 20 developers, mostly full-time, with a handful of contractors. And while SuperMash had to be put on the back burner for a few years while Digital Continue staffed up, it shares a common theme with its two predecessors, JumpStream and Next Up Hero -- emergent gameplay.
"Our purpose is to build original games," Tringali says. "We tend to focus on games that have an emerging component, or games of player choice, innovative ideas, like a design-driven studio. So we tend to pursue interesting design directions over cutting edge technology or crazy art styles and stuff."
That goal and philosophy should make sense coming from one of the founders of 5th Cell, the studio best-known for developing Scribblenauts. And even though he's been making games along those lines for nearly two decades, Tringali sees emergent gameplay as part of gaming's future, not its past:
"I think the general trend of games is moving towards player expression," he says. "They've been that way for a while. It's something that games offer that other forms of media don't. And it's always interesting to create tools and see what people do with them.
"Even going back to Scribblenauts -- you'll make something and you'll put it out there, and then you'll find things that people are doing that you never thought of or you didn't even know were possible in the game that you made. It's just an interesting space to be in."
But therein lay the challenge of trying to make something as complex as Supermash, and why the studio had to sit on the idea for a few years before finally beginning prototyping in 2017. Tringali says that Supermash is the most difficult game he's ever worked on, and because of the way its systems work together, it didn't really begin to look like itself until very close to the end of development.
"It's a lot easier with publishers if you are able to show a vertical slice [that] is really good at showing what your game does"
"It's essentially six different games, because every genre we had to build from scratch," he explains. "And then there are the systems that we had to design and build to make those genres connect with each other. And then there's the sim -- I wouldn't classify that as a full game, but it's another pretty chunky system. So we just needed people, and the game took a while to plan. Nobody's ever really done anything like it... We had to go back to the drawing board, so to speak, a couple times during pre-production."
And the challenges involved with making SuperMash didn't just affect how the studio approached it. Tringali says that while self-publishing was an ideal for Digital Continue anyway, the fact that a playable version of SuperMash came together so late in development made it challenging to present to would-be supporters.
"I think most people thought the concept and the idea was really cool, but there wasn't really too much to show of what it was doing," he says. "There was a lot of behind the scenes work that needed to be done. The genres themselves had to be built out and fleshed out before certain things from the genres could be in the other genres. It's just one of those games that for a very long time, it didn't look like it was making a lot of progress. It's a lot easier with publishers if you are able to show them like a really cool prototype or a vertical slice or something that might not have a lot of content, but is really good at effectively showing you know what your game does."
Now that it's out, what SuperMash "does" in practice can often seem nonsensical. Players can choose to mash two of any six genres -- platformer, action-adventure, shoot-em-up, metrovania (the game's play on Metroidvania), stealth, and JRPG -- or just play the basic form of any of those. It will then generate a short game using key elements from both, with each genre having its own set of characters, art, enemies, backgrounds, quests, goals, and more. That means you could end up playing something that looks a lot like a JRPG but with a main character who looks like he belongs in a Mario title, or shooting enemies to instigate random encounters.
"Building systemic games, if you truly embrace the systemic nature, you're going to get some garbage"
And yet, one thing SuperMash throws into focus is that all six of these very distinct genres also have key commonalities. Though they seem obvious to state outright, every game and mash has characters with health and speed stats, as well as abilities affecting how they do damage to enemies. Movement, also, is similar across genres -- always in a two-dimensional plane, though physics may work differently depending on the camera view.
"I think we tried to discover the commonalities first," Tringali says. "If something is common in all genres, that's helpful. You can focus on that, and when you build it, you can build it one time and apply it across the different genres you want to build, instead of building six different systems. Those were pretty basic, like movement, physics, weapons.
"Beyond that, it's looking at the genres and figuring out what the feeling of a genre is, what type of games were made in that genre, there are very specific things that we want to pay homage to. Some genres have very distinct inspirations from two or three games, other ones are more inspired by just the general feeling of the game."
One other component of SuperMash that can throw its bizarre mashes for a loop is the "glitch" system, which generates one random beneficial effect and one random negative effect in every game. This can naturally result in some weird situations, such as being penalized for moving to the right or by opening treasure chests. Tringali says that the challenge and randomness of glitches combined with the mashes has resulted in player pushback, but he's adamant that the design is intentional.
"SuperMash came from a place of wanting to share what it's like to make games"
"Building systemic games, if you truly embrace the systemic nature, you're going to get some garbage," he says. "Which is a decision we made. And you know I feel like it's the right decision for the game. There's definitely been pushback with people expecting the games to produce like Super Mario World or a procedural Legend of Zelda. The game was never designed to do that, nor was that ever possible.
"You would never have a platforming game where the challenge of the game is not to collect coins, or the challenge is not to jump, or the challenge is every enemy that you kill makes all the other enemies stronger, so you want to avoid killing enemies. There's a lot of subtle procedural gameplay that has never existed and would probably never exist, because a whole game with coins that you never could collect, that would be a bad game.
"And so you're discovering those interesting experiences that you've never played in games before, but the problem is it went both ways. Because there were a lot of mashes that were really hard -- there are a lot that people give up on that they feel are impossible."
Regardless, Tringali isn't discouraged. With SuperMash successfully out on the Epic Games Store, Digital Continue is hard at work on its upcoming console launch, which will also introduce a seventh, unannounced genre. That naturally means even more randomness, chaos and challenge in an already unpredictable game -- but that, Tringali says, has been the goal all along.
"SuperMash came from a place of wanting to share what it's like to make games," he says. "And the premise behind it is, practically speaking, nothing like what it is to make games. But the feeling of craziness, of not knowing what to expect, of starting off with an expectation and realizing very quickly that the title kind of takes a life of its own is sort of an homage to game culture. It's a lot of stuff from the era I grew up in, the '90s and '80s, where retail was still a thing, carts were still a thing, 2D was a big thing. We just wanted to make a game that captured that: the magic and the chaos at the same time."