Atari’s Recharged series has done an admirable job of bringing back beloved arcade classics and delivering them to modern audiences with not just fresh coats of paint, but also significant content additions and gameplay improvements, and the next game in line to receive that treatment is Caverns of Mars. From a new co-op mode to content additions to a visual upgrade and more, there’s a lot to unpack with this expanded re-release, and to learn more about it, we recently reached out to its developers with some of our questions. You can read the full interview below.
NOTE: This interview was conducted prior to the game’s launch.
"The original game had a great gameplay foundation where the player falls down a cavern, dodging and weaving between the terrain and enemy shots. We wanted to improve on that – we pulled back the camera so that the player could see more of their path, increased the fall speed, and gave the player the ability not only to shoot the enemies but to shoot through the terrain as well."
What prompted the decision to go back to Caverns of Mars for a modern release?
Tadas Migauskas (Game Designer and Producer): We were exploring the Atari games catalog for some time. Our team that’s working on the Recharged series are much younger and don’t have that first hand experience with most of the Atari Classics so all of them were looking quite enticing. When we saw Caverns of Mars it brought us back to the games we used to play when we were younger (eg.: the old flash game Motherload or the more recent Downwell). We were immediately drawn to Caverns of Mars because it gave off a sense of exploration of the deep unknown caverns and (spoiler alert) finding an underground city at the end. It also had a great gameplay foundation where we knew with some improvement we could have a great game.
Given the fact that the original game is over four decades old, how did you decide how much of the gameplay needed fixes and improvements and how much of it could be brought over without any major reworks?
Migauskas: As I mentioned before the original game had a great gameplay foundation where the player falls down a cavern, dodging and weaving between the terrain and enemy shots. We wanted to improve on that – we pulled back the camera so that the player could see more of their path, increased the fall speed, and gave the player the ability not only to shoot the enemies but to shoot through the terrain as well. This allowed us to create more enclosed environments forcing the player to blast their way through. We also added a feature where the player drastically slows down when shooting, helping them navigate. What we brought back from the original was the fuel that the player needs to manage, some sections of the cavern were modeled from the original game, we also tried to respect the ending where the player reaches the city inside of the cavern and tried to make it more impactful.
From a visuals perspective, Caverns of Mars: Recharged sports quite a different look from the original. How did you land on the game’s new look?
Migauskas: In the pre-production stage, we were exploring ideas about how much content we will have. We wanted to have 3 distinct stages in the game that introduce new challenges in each of them. This is when we decided on creating a unique environment for each stage. We were very happy with how Gravitar: Recharged turned out with a light background and a dark foreground for the enemies and terrain so we used the same style. This helps the player and the enemies/terrain/collectibles stand out more in the game’s past pace gameplay.
How extensive are Caverns of Mars: Recharged’s new content additions?
Migauskas: Compared to the original – quite extensive. Lots more maps and navigation challenges, new unique enemies, a multitude of powerups at the player’s disposal, a brand new co-op mode with unique mechanics that we haven’t tried in previous Recharged games, a new upgrades system, and many more.
"We wanted for the co-op players to cooperate more so we tried to have distinct roles for each of them and I think it turned out great."
Did you have to make any tweaks to the game in order to make co-op fit in?
Migauskas: We had to tweak the co-op mode itself quite a bit compared to the previous Recharged games. In Caverns of Mars: Recharged co-op mode the two players have their separate roles – player one is the navigator who steers the ship, avoids the terrain, and slows down when needed. Player two is the aggressive drone that can shoot and clear a path. We tried to have both players have the same abilities, but we quickly found that the game becomes too easy in the beginning, and later it becomes a fight between resources among players. We wanted for the co-op players to cooperate more so we tried to have distinct roles for each of them and I think it turned out great.
What can you tell us about the game’s new soundtrack?
Megan McDuffee (Composer): As the game’s composer and music producer, I went in a very drum n’ bass direction with the soundtrack. Utilizing lots of retro samples, breakbeats, high energy rhythms, heavy synths, and quick melodic lines, I crafted a frantic yet fun sonic adventure for the player. Check it out on Bandcamp!
Since the reveal of the PS5 and Xbox Series’ specs, a lot of comparisons have been made between the GPU speeds of the two consoles, with the PS5 at 10.28 TFLOPS and the Xbox Series X at 12 TFLOPS. How much of an impact on development do you think that difference will have?
Migauskas: There are a lot of things to unpack here. You can see a general trend in games for consoles of previous generations – it takes a few years and a launched title or two for developers to realize and utilize the hardware capabilities. At the moment, the impact on development is still quite low. A ~15% increase is significant, but both GPUs are so powerful, most developers probably won’t bat an eye. You can do a bit more on one of them. And since most of the games launch on both of the consoles, you have to work with the lowest common denominator. In a year or two, when newer rendering approaches are developed, more rendering work will be expected to be pushed through the GPU pipelines. Then, it’s likely developers with more resources, mainly AAA companies using custom engines, will try to adhere to platform differences increasingly more.
The PS5 features an incredibly fast SSD with 5.5GB/s raw bandwidth. How can developers take advantage of this, and how does this compare to the Xbox Series X’s 2.4GB/s raw bandwidth?
Migauskas: The main thing will probably be less and less games with loading screens. With these disk speeds the amount of assets you can stream in is very high. Thus, games with proper asset streaming implementations should eventually become the norm, especially since the effective bandwidth is at least 2x higher. XSX bandwidth, while significantly lower, is still several times the speeds of previous generation consoles.
Both the PS5 and Xbox Series X boast Zen 2 CPUs, but there is a difference in the processors of both consoles. The Xbox Series X features 8x Zen 2 Cores at 3.8GHz, whereas the PS5 features 8x Zen 2 Cores at 3.5GHz. Your thoughts on this difference?
Migauskas: CPU work frequency differences are unlikely to have much impact. It would be hard to find a game that isn’t primarily bottlenecked by CPU memory access patterns. Cache utilization and proper data structure selections are still main concerns when thinking about performance, and higher clock rates don’t really help with that.
"As the game’s composer and music producer, I went in a very drum n’ bass direction with the soundtrack. Utilizing lots of retro samples, breakbeats, high energy rhythms, heavy synths, and quick melodic lines, I crafted a frantic yet fun sonic adventure for the player."
The Xbox Series S features lesser hardware compared to Xbox Series and Microsoft is pushing it as a 1440p/60 FPS console. Do you think it will be able to hold up for the more graphically intensive games as this generation progresses?
Migauskas: Short answer – no. If we take the (flawed) metric of FLOPS and compare XSX to XSS, you get a 3x difference in GPU computation power. Most of the current games use deferred pipelines, so rendered pixel count can translate to computation complexity pretty directly. Now, if we take the expected resolution targets for both consoles, we get a difference of 2.25x. Add that to lower available memory size, and it gets pretty hard to keep up.
Super Resolution is coming to PS5 and Xbox Series X/S. How do you think this will help game developers?
Migauskas: Yes, a lot. Just like with other supersampling solutions, tech like this takes a lot of rendering work off of graphics pipelines. This either allows to reach performance targets much more easily almost without sacrificing quality, or frees up the hardware so that it can be utilized for even more impressive visuals.
What frame rate and resolution will the game target on the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S?
Migauskas: 4K and 60 FPS.
What frame rate and resolution will the game target on the Switch in docked and undocked modes?
Migauskas: 1080p at 60fps docked, 720p and 60fps undocked.
What are your thoughts on the Steam Deck? Do you have plans for any specific optimizations for the device?
Migauskas: It’s a very capable piece of kit so no additional optimizations were needed.
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