RetroWare Sit-Downs: UNBEATABLE Is A Gorgeous Anime-Inspired Rhythm Action Game

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By Chris Penwell on June 26th, 2021

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UNBEATABLE was a standout at E3 2021 for its stunning anime art style, fun music, and engaging action-based music-rhythm gameplay. There’s a lot to love in the demo and the footage we’ve seen so far, and you can download the prologue for free. We talked more with the developer of the game D-Cell Games to find out more about this promising project.

Image via D-Cell Games

RetroWare: Hello D-Cell Games! Thanks for joining us on this interview. Can you each tell us who you are, your pronouns, and what your development background is?

Andrew: I’m Andrew Tsai (he/him), and I am the original creator of UNBEATABLE, as well as one of its two directors. I’m also the lead artist/animator, I do gameplay design, story planning, and a little programming (whatever Mireille doesn’t have time to do). A little bit of everything, basically – lots of hats.

RJ: RJ Lake (he/him). I’m the co-director alongside Andrew; I handle more of the narrative design and music direction side of things. Before UNBEATABLE most of my time in the scene was doing music for a variety of indie games and web media stuff and yelling a lot on TIGSource.

Jeffrey: My name is Jeffrey, my pronouns are they/them, and I’m the game’s producer and beatmap designer. And also PR/community management. And a coloring artist. And business stuff. I’m doing a lot of things for this game!

Rachel: Rachel Lake (she/her), co-production, PR, community management, and main vocalist/voice of Beat!

Vas: My name is Vas, pronouns are he/him, role is SFX artist, mixing engineer, and composer.

Mireille: My name is Mireille Arseneault (They/She), and I’m the main programmer on UNBEATABLE. Before working with D-CELL GAMES, I worked as a web developer for a local business and also worked on some personal projects. I joined the team after everyone else in the core team since I was brought on to alleviate Andrew’s workload by taking on the bulk of programming tasks.

RW: Can you please give us an elevator pitch for the game?

Jeffrey: UNBEATABLE is a rhythm-adventure game where music is illegal, and you do crimes.

Rachel: Music is crimes and you do illegal

RJ: It’s like if Blade Runner 97 didn’t have guns, or the Blade Runner license, or a film noir effect and had real-time backgrounds and was anime instead of nothing like an anime and a rhythm game instead of absolutely not that at all and didn’t have multiple endings and wasn’t a detective story and didn’t have giant rats or a sewer level or a guy named Clovis.

Image via D-Cell Games

RW: Is there an in-depth story with the rhythm gameplay? Can you give us a summary of what’s happening in the world of UNBEATABLE?

Andrew: In this world, music causes monsters to come out of the woodwork. So, music is, for obvious reasons, banned. Illegal. Outlawed. Thankfully, these teenage gutter punks don’t care much for silly things like laws and rules, so they do the whole music thing anyway.

RJ: You show up at the start of the game thrust into something that the dust settled on a while ago; this is a world that’s actually more or less accepted this as the new status quo, and you’re basically the first domino ready to topple all of that over.

RW: What inspired you to make UNBEATABLE? Is there a particular era of anime you’re reflecting in the game?

Andrew: All our favorite anime from the 90s and early 2000s, with its slightly yellowed cel-animation, bleached-white backgrounds, and that unrelenting tour-de-force of energy and emotion: Lain, FLCL, Gurren Lagann, Haibane Renmei, Digimon, Diebuster, and every other show that you watched off of bootleg unmarked VHS tapes you dug up from the back corner of your public library. Oh, and Liz and the Blue Bird, which is a movie I love. Actually, you know what? Forget the other anime, just watch Liz. And then go watch all of Naoko Yamada’s other stuff.

RJ: 1999 and 2000 are flooded with stuff that has an incredibly specific tone and reflects cultural anxieties at a point right before they got short-circuited by very different cultural anxieties. It’s the apex of what things were building to in the 90s.

Vas: Imagine a distilled version of the nostalgia we felt while watching Toonami or Adult Swim or illegal YouTube rips of anime.

Jeffrey: I’d really like this game to capture the feeling of walking into your childhood bedroom and seeing the old CRT you watched the same two episodes of Hamtaro on…and seeing just how worned out and damaged everything around you is.

RW: What rhythm games have inspired you during the development process?

Andrew: I never really looked all that hard at other rhythm games! Practically everyone on the project is a rhythm-game fan of some kind, so we all have something of an internalized idea of “what makes a good rhythm game” – in essence, what makes Taiko no Tatsujin (also known as Taiko Drum Master) fun, and why is Beatmania so addictive? But I never drew from rhythm games themselves because our biggest desire wasn’t to just make another rhythm game, but to try to break down the artificial sterility that exists around the genre. Sound Voltex, Chunithm, hell, even Hatsune Miku: Project Diva – they all have this cleanliness, this… abstraction around itself. We wanted something that would get your blood pumping, that would get you invested and excited. [Then we’ll] couch the rhythm game inside compelling characters and exciting stories. So we took our idea of a baseline rhythm experience and built atop that: a dash of Oxenfree here, a sprinkle of One Finger Death Punch there, some of that Platinum Games (Bayonetta) bombast, and a heaping pile of anime.

Image via D-Cell Games

Jeffrey: Yeah, in terms of our core rhythm design, it’s always been about what could we add to the genre – we knew from the start that we wanted this game to have a strong narrative component, and the rhythm gameplay was always conceived in mind of conveying the visual spectacle of beat-em-ups like Platinum games. When it came to beatmap design, most of my homework was with Groove Coaster, which taught me a lot about the emphasis of patterns conveying the strong visual spectacle of the game.

Mireille: I didn’t play rhythm games before working on UNBEATABLE, but working on it definitely inspired me to check out some other ones, like Rhythm Doctor for instance!

Vas: Taiko, Osu!, and Sayonara Wild Hearts are the three that come up in conversations pretty often.

RJ: Rhythm Heaven and Thumper are both extremely influential on me, specifically.

RW: How does the combat system work with UNBEATABLE? How did you make it fit with the anime aesthetic? Did you go full anime with this game?

Andrew: The combat is simple: it’s just got two buttons. We needed the controls to be simple and intuitive – you don’t want to be fiddling with 6 keys and a spacebar in the midst of the song because that provides a barrier to hitting that ideal flow-state every rhythm really thrives in. We originally had four keys, split up and down, left and right. Even that was too much, so we just continued crunching it down, simplifying it as much as possible.

The anime was the easy part – I live and breathe the stuff. We cut the animations down to just a few frames and incredibly bold poses. Too many frames and the game felt less responsive – there was a time lag between button press and the attack coming out, which is a death knell in a rhythm game, so we took the Studio Trigger (the animators behind Gurren Lagann and Kill La Kill) approach and went for readable shapes, ridiculous poses, and exaggerated frame timings.

RW: UNBEATABLE’s UI is striking and vibrant. How do you make sure your font is expressive but easy to read?

Andrew: I make something ridiculous and unreadable and stupid and awesome, and then pare it back until people can see things again. Lots and lots of iteration.

Jeffrey: There are two prominent fonts we use in the game – one of which is Londrina Solid, which is a great font that I’m starting to notice everyone using, and then we’re recently using some other font that I’m sure Andrew knows about. Oh, and good ol’ WOODSTAMP too.

RJ: Londrina forever

RW: What styles of music can we expect? Rock? EDM? Pop? Will it be wholly original or will it have licensed tracks?

Vas: Pop punk and j-rock, but there’s some fusion of prog rock, EDM, and plunderphonics thrown in there too. The core game’s soundtrack is entirely original (minus a cover from Rhythm Doctor) with the arcade having some bonus titles.

RJ: Some stuff is going to end up way more Weezerish, some is very much echoing The Pillows. You’ll see some other surprises in there, too! But the majority of it is very alt-rock.

Andrew: any other licensed tracks and other genres remain to be seen 😉

RW:: As game designers and story creators, how do you collaborate with musicians for the right tone and lyrics? Are you musicians yourselves and do you know the band Peak Divide personally?

Andrew: TJ and Vasily, aka Peak Divide, are close friends and core members of the team!

Vas: Typically demo tracks are made first and the lyrics afterwards are developed to synergize with the game’s narrative.

Jeffrey: The music and narrative goes very hand-and-hand – there’s a lot of instances where Andrew and RJ were influenced by the direction of the music, and instances where TJ / Vas were influenced by the direction of the game’s style and narrative.

RW: The art style is absolutely gorgeous, and the environments look very striking as your character is moving around the town. How did you blend 2D and 3D elements together for this anime-inspired look?

Vas: Andrew is a fucking genius

RJ: This is Andrew’s job. It is illegal for me to speak about it.

Andrew: Brute force and lots of hard work… I made concept art, and then I had to imitate that concept art exactly, but in 3d. The first environment I made, I remember RJ talking to me about some subtle tweaks to colors and shadows, not realizing for a good 15 minutes that he was looking at an in-game screenshot and not the level concept, so I guess it worked.

RW: What tools are you including in your assist mode? Do you think you’ll have colorblind settings, for example?

Jeffrey: Our game’s ASSIST MODE currently is just an autoplay, but we want to expand it in the final game with the ability to tweak several game modifiers, such as health regen, to your liking. For other options such as colorblind settings, dialogue visibility, and effects, we will be having those presented as their options to freely configure.

RW: There’s a demo out right now for it called White Label. How extensive is it and how will you be releasing content? Is it going to be an Early Access title at some point?

Andrew: UNBEATABLE [white label] is more than just a preview of UNBEATABLE proper, it’s a fully-fledged side-story with a narrative that acts as a companion piece to the final game. We’re releasing it episodically, because…

…again, full anime.

Jeffrey: [white label] is like its own standalone release – right now, there’s 12 songs, but we plan on adding an additional 4 episodes to the game that add more story content and songs to eventually wrap it as a complete, free package. This’ll be everyone’s way of trying out the game and providing feedback while we’re working on the final game!

Andrew: UNBEATABLE will not be Early Access, unless I decide to change my mind later, in which case sure maybe.

RW: Do you have an idea on which modes will be available on day one of its release. You’ve mentioned an arcade mode, but is there any sort of multiplayer integration?

Jeffrey: The main story and arcade modes will be in the game, the latter will include online leaderboards and snazzy custom profiles too! Multiplayer was just met as a stretch goal for our slacker backer, but since online play is a very special kind of beast, we’re looking into bringing that post-release.

RJ: There’s someone we’re already working with about the online feature set integration and we’re excited to do more testing on that going forward.

Image by D-Cell Games

RW: What systems are you aiming for with UNBEATABLE?

Andrew: We’d love to launch on more, but at the moment it’s just PC, Mac, and Linux.

RW: Would you have any advice for any budding indie developers?

Vas: Don’t.

Kidding, serious answer — It’s important to discuss issues you have with the project and don’t let people talk over you. Everyone in the team is important and if they aren’t being listened to, they aren’t going to enjoy working on the project. There’s also a lot more to game dev than making games, too; there’s a ton of stuff regarding taxes, copyright, marketing, team management, and stuff like conventions.

Jeffrey: Understand your game’s voice! I think what really worked out for us was understanding how to confidently convey what our game is about. Knowing what your “invisible” and “visible” strengths are with the project and team you have and taking advantage of it is my key to success. That sounds vague, but I think it’ll make a lot of sense when you get into the weeds of it. Sorry I can’t be more specific! You got this.

Rachel: Know your worth, work with people you like, and carefully consider feedback you get from players. Also, your game will take longer to make than you think it will!

RJ: Games are one of the hardest things to make. Do not make it harder on yourself than it needs to be. Use shortcuts where it doesn’t matter if you used a shortcut so that you can actually put the effort in where it matters. And please, for the love of god, do not drop everything and bet your life on making a game work out. We got very lucky, and we’re very grateful, but you could make a game better than ours and it’s possible nobody will ever see it. That isn’t me telling you not to go for it, but make sure that when you do, you know what you’re doing!

Andrew: I have nothing to say. I lucked out! I found a great team completely by accident, had some great support, fumbled my way into something vaguely resembling a career, and broke pretty much every single game-dev “best practice” in the process because I had no idea what the hell I was doing. Well, I still don’t know what I’m doing, but I didn’t know back then, either…

That said, don’t be unlucky is terrible advice, so.

It’s not much help, but honestly, in a parallel universe RJ and Peak Divide would never have reached out, or I wouldn’t have had the ability to take so much time to work on UNBEATABLE, or any number of other things could have happened. UNBEATABLE would have died in November of 2017 when I made the first prototype, and I’d be working at a Wells Fargo or something, who knows.

RW: What was it like to showcase your game on Double Fine’s Day of the Devs stream?

Andrew: Panic.

Vas: Wiki how article: how to handle fame. I wanted to die I was so fucking nervous! Being on the same show that followed Elden Ring’s announcement was a lot to handle.

Mireille: Stressful but extremely rewarding to see ourselves on such a big event!

Rachel: We were super nervous, but we’re so thankful and honored to have been featured in such an incredible lineup of games by many talented developers!

RJ: Terrifying, and wonderful, and incredible. We love those guys, we love iam8bit, we’re extremely flattered to have been a part of that showcase. We were really down to the wire getting material to them because we were coming right off of the Kickstarter and basically needed to just roll right into that without taking a break, but it was extremely worth it in the end.

Jeffrey: My mind is still fried from the fact we got to be on there alongside so many other incredible games! And I mean literally. I do not think I’ve recovered from this E3 season yet.

RW: Is there anything you think we missed?

RJ: Download white label! Please! Tell your friends! Leave a good review! Also, play Dog Airport Game. this is not a D-Cell sanctioned comment, this is just me saying this.

The British “Canadian” Chris Penwell has been a video game journalist since 2013 and now has a Bachelor’s degree in Communications from MacEwan University. He loves to play JRPGs and games with a narrative. You can check out his podcasts Active Quest every Tuesday and Go Beyond: A My Hero Academia Podcast on Wednesdays.

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