The Making of Solstice II (Equinox on the SNES)

Solstice II is a gorgeous, devilish masterpiece of a game on the SFC/SNES, but it had a life almost as tortuous as the oft-delayed Nosferatu. A Japanese strategy book for Solstice II had interviews with the key developers of the game, and so I've scanned it in and translated it to English! -(Chris Covell)

The cover of said strategy book (right). As Ste Pickford points out on his page, the publisher hired somebody to play through this game and document the solution for every room, totally unconnected to Software Creations.

The inside flap of the guidebook (far right) also has a mail-in campaign for a cross-eye-viewed 3-D telephone card, limited to a draw of 40 people only (which actually works out to a pretty good 1-in-750 chance of winning even if every single Japanese owner of Solstice II had entered... ;-] )

I never saw the appeal of collectible telephone cards anyway.


Below is a stirring -- if not exactly aesthetically appealing -- artist's rendition for the Japanese box cover.

And here is a simply awful clunky 3-D rendering that was in vogue in those days, also for the Japanese box cover.

"What!??" you ask. Two separate boxes? Regional differences, or something? (No. You will see the answer later.)

Look upon this abomination, ye mighty, and despair. Who is that with the axe? What is that bat / demon thing? What is that red thing in the back? What are Tunisian slums doing in the composition? Someone tell me!

Sandwiched between the strategy guide and enemy/item list pages are a history and interview with the staff of Solstice 2. Pretty cool, but the writer does go on a bit too often about the lateness of the game development, as if he was trying to imply something about UK/foreign developers' work ethic...

Oh, Mike Webb was the programmer of the original Solstice, too. Another funny thing is that the interview always refers to John and Ste Pickford as the Picksford Bros.

Anyway, enjoy!

Here is the Japanese text of the interview.

The Making of Solstice 2

Isometric 3-D, three-dimensional traps, and action. What sort of process did this unique game, Solstice 2, go through before its completion? Here is the unauthorized making-of-Sol 2 as told by members of the development staff!

First came the Famicom game Solstice. It had an isometric 3-D viewpoint, which was already well-established at this time. It was more puzzle-like in nature than Solstice 2, which had been planned by its developers to be more action-oriented. Work on Sol 2 began in the spring of 1990.

1) System Development
This game was developed by a British software house. Work began on analyzing the hardware of the Super Famicom, even though the system had not been released yet. They developed original tools (software which simulated the functions of the Super Famicom) on IBM computers, and the game engine was created from there. They had already gone into 1991 by this point.

2) Programming the Game Engine*
The basic engine was completed and programming continued. Design of the dungeon maps was begun at the same time. However, by the time the dungeons first became viewable on the screen, it was already the end of 1991. Naturally, programming of this sort takes time. If the engine is not perfect, there won't be a solid foundation for a game.

3) Character Design
Animation of the main character (Glendaal) begins. They ran into many difficulties at this point. In an action game, the reaction to controller input and the motion of characters are important. In addition, movement in this game is not only forward, backward, and to the sides, but also up and down. Compared to this, one could say enemy design was quite easy. The bosses, for example, were designed in about one week.

4) Graphics
This portion of the work, in fact, took the largest amount of time. Designs could be displayed on-screen in the engine and positioned precisely, but this was not done very easily. The main source of problems was the fact that all blocks were composed of sprites, which resulted in glitches such as sprites blanking out. This stage took more than one year to complete. After this, game difficulty was adjusted, and Solstice 2 was at last completed in the summer of 1993...

Solstice on the Famicom. Released: July, 1990.

* Engine (AKA System).... The game's main selling point was its 3-D viewpoint. Allowing the player to play the game naturally in this on-screen environment took a lot of planning.

The design for various blocks. Can you tell which blocks appear on which stage?

The design for Pincha, the guardian of Atlena. Although there are no horizontal or diagonal graphics for this monster, the claw movement had to be considered.

Interview with the creators of Solstice 2

Solstice 2 was actually developed by a software house in Britain. The creators speak candidly about the previously unknown development process for this three-dimensional action-puzzle game. (Staff Writer)

What are the improvements over the Family Computer version?


Rumours had circulated even before the release of the Super Famicom that a sequel to Solstice was being planned. I was still a writer for a certain game magazine then.
Ryoji Akagawa

Don't remind me! Indeed, the project was begun in March 1990, so that makes it already 3 1/2 years ago. It was a long road from there to where we are now.

Okay, we'll get into that later. What is the biggest difference that Sol 2 has over Solstice?

John Pickford

First, the Super Famicom is a machine which has at least twice the power of the Family Computer. So, I also wanted to make a game that's twice as good, no matter what you consider: game design, graphics, play control, anything. The biggest decisions we made were:
1) Introduction of action-style gameplay through multiple weapons, magic, and huge bosses; and 2) The size of all graphics was doubled and thus created rooms which needed to be scrolled around. As a result of the latter, the development time we spent on this game grew considerably.

Ste Pickford The main difference is obviously the overworld map selection. We implemented this in order to make the most of the capabilities of the Super Famicom. The player is made to travel over continents and oceans, which lends a sense of discovery and exploration not found in the previous game.
Akagawa I made two requests when development began on Sol 2:
1) I want you to add battery backup.
2) I want you to provide weapons in the game.
The previous game had only magic to use. Therefore, the game had an incredibly strong puzzle element to it. The first game also had only a single map which required focus for the player to get through [in a single sitting!], so the addition of multiple maps [in the new game] made the game more RPG-like, as I had wanted.
Ste I tried to bring in much more action to Solstice 2. I wanted the player to have fun solving puzzles as well as enjoy lots of action.
I remember how excited I was when a large sprite appeared taking up the whole screen!
John Solstice was a different type of game, such that objects (AKA sprites: blocks, monsters, etc. overlaid on the background) are all programmed to be movable by the player. [The action element of Sol 2] meant that the puzzles of the previous game could not be used in the same way in our new game engine on the Super Famicom. So we of course had to come up with new and different ideas. It was probably, then, a good idea that we shared the design of each map among four people, guaranteeing fresh ideas each time.
Akagawa I mostly left the engine up to them since they had established a good track record in Solstice 1.

Many headaches over sprites


Speaking of sprites, I hear it took you quite a long time to eliminate intermittent on-screen sprite-related bugs before the game was finished.


This will get a bit technical, so bear with me. As you said, sprites became a huge problem. In order to get the game moving at a good speed, I used sprites to enable objects to overlap on-screen, appearing behind a part of the background, or in-between two different objects. This created too many sprites for the PPU* of the Super Famicom to process on the same scanline. Even worse, a bug in the PPU logic caused sprites with the highest priority (closest to the front of the screen) to disappear.


To answer your first question, yes, there were problems like these. But... if they had been Japanese programmers, they would have stayed up all night trying to devise a solution. Instead, these guys went home at 5:00pm anyway, even as their boss, Ian Stewart, was glaring at them. Even my going to Britain on monthly visits didn't faze them. I got an understanding of the differences between Japanese and English culture in such a way, and it drove me to tears.

So, finally, what type of solution did you come up with?

First, we made our engine draw only the most essential sprites (ones that cannot be blanked out, such as a sprite that a token is resting on.) Second, in order to minimize flicker, we had to redesign many rooms. The downside to doing this was that so many wonderful rooms had to be eliminated too. Still, I consider ourselves truly lucky that we were able to make such a game engine in the first place.


He's modest until the end, but it's not true. It is precisely because his basic engine is so solidly-built that making the game became possible.

What games influenced Solstice 2?


While making Solstice 2, are there any games that influenced you?

My favourite game will always be Zelda III on the Super Famicom. What I like about it is how much effort was spent on it to make a perfect game. It's essentially perfect; the attention to detail is just wonderful. Of course Solstice 2 was influenced by it. But strictly speaking, it's the Family Computer version, The Legend of Zelda, which had the stronger influence on me. There's the Mario series, too, especially SMB3. I mean, Nintendo have simply the best designers in the world, haven't they?


I also think Mario 3 is the best. Speaking of influences, there are several British-made games that did, on the old Spectrum computer.


The Legend of Zelda is also the best for me. Oh, you weren't asking? Sorry... (laughs)

With the game completed, what are you proud of? What do you regret?


Although there were many complications along the way, the game has finally been finished. What are you most proud of?
John The graphics. Ste did, all by himself, some truly fantastic work.
Ste I am happy with the job we did. However, I can't help but think that there were not enough enemy types. Anyway, the music in Atlena, of all computer game music up to this point, is my absolute favourite.
What do you think of the difficulty curve?

I think that the dungeon in Quagmire is slightly too difficult. Overall, I think the game needed another character that talked to you. We did actually design this character, but unfortunately there was no time to add him to the game.


In fact, we went past the deadline and missed the scheduled release by many days... but that was just one of the rather numerous things that I had to put up with.

Indeed, a wise sage to give you hints was needed in the game. Okay, any final things you want to say to the players out there?


Relating to the development of Solstice 2, we spent a majority of the time creating a new 3-D engine, but we never forgot that the game needed to be exciting and a good challenge to the player. Only you, the player, can judge whether we succeeded in this.
Your voyages through this adventure will not be easy, but please don't give up. Patience and careful thinking will always be rewarded. If you pay attention while playing, you will surely find hints and solutions.
Do not be afraid to experiment. I want you to try to explore every room. Make effective use of the save feature, as this reduces the risks of any mistakes. Finally, the highest score is 5500. Use this score as a reference for gauging your success.


In an age full of limp games, such a demanding test of your reflexes and your mind must be a good thing, right?

Thank you very much.
* This interview was conducted by telephone through Japanese-English interpreters, and by fax. The director, Mr. Akagawa, responds with his own comments to this interview.

John Pickford
Programmer & designer. Born: April 23, 1967. 95% of the group's game programming is handled by him. Likes: movies, laser discs, beer, and of course, Solstice 3!

Ste Pickford
Art director. Born: December 25, 1969. John's younger brother. He has written and published underground comic 'zines. He also plays bass in a band. He likes playing the music from Zelda.
Mike Webb
Technical director. Born: September 27, 1958. He made development tools for Solstice 2. Although he did not contribute to this interview, he is another important member of the game staff.
Ryoji Akagawa
Director. Birthdate is a secret. He works in Sony Music Entertainment's projects division. Since he can switch back and forth between Japanese and English, he has no stories of miscommunication to share.
* PPU ....A processor for speeding up the movement of sprites built in to the Family Computer and Super Famicom. PPU logic is the formula that the PPU uses to process sprites within the computer.
A brainstorming session at Software Creations, one of the top software houses. They've already begun design on Solstice 3.

Work-in-Progress Shots



Here's an early version of Solstice II. It's good to see some actual dungeons in there, although our character looks a little weird, to be sure.

The dungeon scenes say "Hurry, SHAPIRO, Hurry!", which is quite a strange name for a main character...

About that box art...

Unlike many games from our misspent youths, Solstice II has box art that is quite acceptable in the US version. Feast your eyes on the beautifully evocative painting on the US SNES box, then Gasp!... at the decidedly worse-looking generic Fabio they drew up for the European SNES version. Then finally Barf out a chicken bone!... at the two-headed abortion they used for the Japanese box. They actually couldn't decide which of the ugly artist's renderings to use... so they shoved both in there, to deleterious effect. (I suspect willful sabotage...)

Unfortunately, they went the same route with Plok!, would you believe it? The US/UK cover art uses the character-filled designs from Ste Pickford, but someone in Japan thought that wasn't good enough, so they added a mouth to Plok and morphed him into obviously a copy of Plucky Duck mixed with Casper the Friendly Ghost... Oh, dear, I feel it coming........ 8===8 <--- a chicken bone