Henk Nieborg (Thalion/Psygnosis) – Interview

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The Dutch pixel artist extraordinaire that is Henk Nieborg joins us for this quick Q&A today. Known for a string of gaming hits such as Contra 4, Batman Begins (love that game! – Ed), Lionheart, Spyro 5, it’s a pleasure having him here. He’s currently displaying his talents in the exciting Xeno Crisis and we hope there’s a lot more to come from him in the future…

 

Henk, great to have you here at Arcade Attack! We know of your great career but how did your first opportunity come about and what was the first game you ever worked on?

First, Thanks for having me! πŸ™‚

It really happened somewhere in 1989 when I was introduced to Erwin Kloibhofer (Programmer of Lionheart) who stayed at a friend in the Netherlands. It became clear that we had a ‘click’ when it came to creating a game. We started doing a game called ‘Ghostbattle’ based on an old C64 picture i pixelled somewhere in the eighties. This was in between my school days and conscription (which was still a thing back then). We created ‘Ghost Battle’ many miles apart. Me in The Netherlands and Erwin in Austria. We just trusted and motivated each other by sending back and forth new stuff by ordinary mail. In the end we finished Ghost Battle and managed to get it published by Thalion Software in Germany. My career really took off once I started working at Thalion to create Lionheart.

 

A lot of your earlier titles were made for the Amiga. What are your personal views on this computer and what was it like at showcasing your artistic skills?

I still remember when I saw the first demos and games appearing on the Amiga. (Bouncing Ball, Ray-Traced Juggler, Defender o/t Crown etc.) I was completely blown away by the leap of graphical quality and power compared to the C64. I had been drawing loads of titles creens, sprites and character tilesets for fun on the C64 but having twice the resolution and 4096 colours was quite frightening to me at first. πŸ™‚ I initially bought the Amiga 500 to play and enjoy all the goodness on it but eventually started playing around with Deluxe Paint. The first thing I tried drawing on my Amiga 500 in ‘DPaint’ was an upgrade of an old C64 image featuring zombies. Which became the title screen of ‘Ghost Battle’ later on. I have really fond memories owning an Amiga because of all the great demos and games that appeared on it and making my first steps as a professional future pixel artist.

At first I had no ambition of creating pixels on the Amiga at all but once I discovered DPaint I couldn’t stop using it. I really got triggered when I met Erwin back in 1989. Think I needed a good reason to pursue my pixel endeavours. πŸ™‚ Looking back at my career I didn’t really created a lot of stuff ‘just for fun’ apart from my own projects maybe? (Lionheart, Flink, Lomax etc.)

 

Thalion Software seemed to have a real emphasis on creating some of the best looking games at the time! What was it like working at this legendary company?

Yeah, Thalion had some really talented people running around. When I first visited them together with Erwin I didn’t really have a clue who all these people were exactly. I knew Thalion already had a great record being a German company. I just thought everyone was really nice as we shared interest in video games. πŸ™‚ I always was more focussed on the UK gaming scene (through magazines) to be honest not much knowing about the demo scene in general really. I was more into that on the C64. After visiting Thalion it was pretty much clear who I was dealing with here. πŸ™‚ From the start I really felt at home because of the people working there and the appreciation we had for each other.

 

 

Lionheart is one of the best looking Amiga games ever made! Can you remember how this opportunity first came about and how do you reflect back on this particular title?

Cheers man! πŸ™‚ For an artist it’s always funny to look back at your work. You see the imperfections and you want to change them but when thinking back to the time it was made and under what circumstances I’m still really happy with it πŸ™‚ After finishing Ghostbattle as freelancers Thalion offered us an in-house job. This was amazing of course! I think Eric Simon (producer/artist/designer) at Thalion somehow recognized our talent and had bigger plans with us. A thing we didn’t see in ourselves yet. πŸ™‚

Just before joining Thalion I drew a 16-colour tileset/background and designed the Hero of Lionheart on my Amiga 500 as preliminary work for our next project. These pixels were also used in Lionheart. Eric really pushed our talent in a positive way and the level of quality compared to our first game ‘Ghost Battle’ was almost unreal when you put them side by side. I also was very eager to learn and improve on my pixel quality by looking at other peoples work and gazing through many traditional artbooks which was very inspiring to me. I’m still proud on Lionheart and the achievement we did as a team. I also regard this as my ticket into video game development.

 

Do you think Lionheart should have also been released on the 16-bit consoles at the time to help reach a larger audience?

It would have been awesome of course if LH would have been ported to the Sega Mega Drive and SNES too but I even didn’t dare dreaming about that back then. πŸ™‚ Console development seemed so far away and unreachable to me. LH on Amiga really shines because of it benefits from all the Amiga’s graphical and technical features. It’s really ‘tailor-made’ for that system. This would be completely lost on any 16 bit console conversion I think and probably would have been converted by somebody else and the quality might have suffered from it. LH remains an exclusive game for the Amiga this way which is cool.

 

I personally feel a rebooted Lionheart title would be awesome! Would this be a game you would ever like to see remastered, and if so, is there any chance this dream could become a reality?

No, Lionheart doesn’t need a remaster from my point of view. A sequel would have been more interesting looking at the retro gaming resurgence now but not for the Amiga I’m afraid but more likely for other retro systems preferably with ports to modern platforms (PS4, Switch, Xbox1 and Steam).

Think Lionheart would make a very good sequel and I also had many ideas myself but the opportunity must be right. At the moment there’s nothing planned, Sorry! πŸ™‚

 

 

Thank you for your honesty! Moving on from Thalion, how do you look back at your time at the iconic Psygnosis and is it fair to say that both your art styles seemed to complement each other really well?

I think it’s fair to say as my favorite artists back then were Roger Dean (designer of Psygnosis logo) and Rodney Matthews. Their style really struck me like nothing else and was a huge inspiration for Lionheart and some other titles after that as well. Psygnosis felt the right place to be when we started developing ‘Flink’ for the Sega Mega Drive for them as freelancers. Psygnosis really was a great and well known games developer/publisher which was pretty awesome to be part of back in the day. πŸ™‚

 

Is it true that you helped work on Iron Soldier for the Atari Jaguar, and if so, can you explain your experience with this game and console?

No, But I did some HUD pixels for the prototype which programmer Michael Bittner asked me to do.

 

You are well known for your amazing signature style artwork, how did you develop your great art style and which game do you feel shows off your finest work?

My current project really demonstrates I’ve really found and developed my own style throughout the years and will be the best I ever did. It’s the first time since Lomax for PSone that I’ve got a project of my own again which means putting in a lot of extra efford not possible when doing commissioned work bound to budget and time. I dropped some screenshots of this project on my Twitter page btw! (@pixelhenk)

I like to use a lot of detail in my artwork without becoming all too saturated. Throughout the years I found a nice balance between detail and use of colour and what will work in a pixel-art game. Think I’m still improving after all these years. also, After my own projects (Lionheart, Flink, Lomax) I started doing a lot of art for other games. This is a completely different mindset when working on somebody else’s vision. Sometimes it worked out like on some of the Wayforward game projects but later changing from console development to more indie development was a struggle sometimes. Mostly because of inexperienced and/or incapable people trying their luck in game development.

 

Why do you personally feel there is such a huge retro gaming resurgence and a real clamour for pixel art in current games?

Mainly I think it’s the charm of pixel art and the appreciation for the art-form in general. The love and dedication especially for those 90’s era games and its consoles is unsurpassed in quality and experience. The games still stand for the quality on their own and some of them ‘classics’ never get old. When done right you can create a timeless piece of artwork or game. Also, there’s a whole ‘Indie’ scene now picking up retro development the right way again which is starting to reach a certain degree of high quality now and the people also demand that nowadays. Think retro development is at its best now. It reminds me of the old days when developing for consoles and it’s quite special to be able to develop another game for those very same consoles all over again but then in a completely different world in terms of personal and professional view.

 

 

Out of all the games you have ever worked on, was there ever a particular title you had the most difficulty with completing?

Might be strange to hear but I think the development of Lomax didn’t go that smooth and we had planned. We had trouble during development because we thought making fun is more important than completing a milestone of work. πŸ˜€ We were around 24 years old and also had other interests than just sitting at home and slaving away on your game. Stupid but very understandable. Eventually we ran into time problems with this and didn’t meet our milestones and finally got a warning from Sony/Psygnosis to get our act together and finish the game at their headquarters. We did and completed the remaining 75 percent of Lomax within two months working at least 14 hours a day (ouch!! – Ed). I still look back very fondly to this time because in these two months magic started to happen again which was sorely missing the year before. We were kids! πŸ˜€ Unfortunately Lomax was my last game for Sony Psygnosis and Erwin altogether. After this I stopped pixeling and working as a game developer for approximately two/three years. I think this break was necessary to rediscover my love for pixels and gamedev again. Also, during this era not many pixel games were being made as anyone wanted polygon driven games. In the end the pixels came back very strong! πŸ™‚

 

If you could travel back in time, and work on any past video game, which title would you choose and why?

Think I’ll pick ‘The Misadventures of Flink’ because the development of this game had absolutely no nicks and went very smoothly. We needed only 9 months to complete Flink from start to finish with only one programmer and one artist/designer. The only think I would change if I could is the main character ‘Flink’ to ‘Mickey Mouse’. We would have sold some more copies than we did probably. Unfortunately Flink also was released when the Mega Drive market went down and was only produced in low numbers. Some other close to ‘finished’ games were even being cancelled by Sony/Psygnosis. Really glad it still came out and showcased some of my early work on the Sega Mega Drive. I would have loved to do more for this console but had to wait several years for this to happen. πŸ™‚

Anyway, After Flink everything was quickly forgotten when we heard we had the opportunity to develop a game for a new and upcoming Sony console. πŸ˜€ In retrospective, We were so proud to actually create a game for the Sega Mega Drive and we never really cared about the financial side anyway. The recognition we received can still be heard as of today which is just awesome! πŸ™‚

 

Out of all the games you have worked on, which game are you most proud of and why?

I would pick the project I’m working on right now if I could but that’s not the question. Always awkward looking back. I had the most interesting and demanding experience when creating ‘Adventures of Lomax’ which I already mentioned before for the very first PlayStation console (PSone). You can say I’m really proud of this one looking at the ups and downs present in this development ride alone. Again, The quality of my pixel artwork went up another nudge and I’m also really happy with the overall level design as this was my second game design gig.

You’ve noticed probably I’ve picked one of my own games where I did the design, level editing and all the pixel artwork. I’ve been doing loads of commission work in the past years but most of the time, budget and scheduling (time) gets in the way of really making a shiny product. Lomax was quite the 2D pixel showcase on the PlayStation that was quite rare in those days and very underappreciated by the press at that time unfortunately.

 

Do you have any funny or interesting anecdotes while working either at Thalion or Psygnosis?

When starting at Thalion me and Erwin each got a small cubicle to work in next to each other with no windows in it. There was a door present btw. πŸ˜€ It didn’t really stop us from doing our job really as we didn’t need much. I moved to Germany of course just like Erwin and had to sleep the first half year in the office on a mattress and occasionally taking a shower at Eric Simon’s house. (producer of Thalion Software back then) We spend countless hours playing new PC-Engine, Mega Drive and Super Famicom import released and visiting the arcade hall to check out new games. This was around 1991. Golden age of video games IMO.

While at Thalion ‘Manfred Trenz’ from Turrican fame visited Eric Simon occasionally and I also had the opportunity to hang around with him. I remember him showing off his demo from the SNES game ‘Rendering Ranger’ he was working on. The working title was ‘Targa’ which had nice hand-drawn pixelart but was replaced with ugly pre-rendered pixels in the end because every game had to look like ‘Donkey Kong Country’ all of a sudden.

While visiting at Psygnosis it was really cool to see the very first game prototypes on the PlayStation system. I still remember playing a very early demo on the PlayStation of ‘Wipeout’ while visiting not knowing this would become Psygnosis’s flagship title. Met some awesome people there too. πŸ™‚

I remember we had a project meeting to discuss and show early artwork our next game after Lomax in Austria/Vienna with our producers from Psygnosis. We started with a few drinks that evening in a cocktail bar and that was the end of it. πŸ˜€ I was that drunk that I apparently wanted to exit the car at a 100 miles per hour because I had to unload something. (thought I’d lost everything already during our night tour around Vienna) Anyway, We survived it and the next day we were all just sitting in the foyer of the hotel staring at the ceiling and head back to our countries. Excellent project meeting! πŸ˜€

 

 

We recently featured the amazing Xeno Crisis. What was your exact role on this amazing new Mega Drive game and how does it feel to now work on the classic consoles?

It felt like at home again. πŸ™‚ Really glad the guys from ‘Bitmap Bureau’ (Matt Cope and Mike Tucker) asked me if I was interested in joining. It all felt right and I started on the prototype. Now after a year the project has been completed it was one of the very best projects I had worked on since Lomax.

I did all the in-game pixelart and animations for the backgrounds/tileset, Players, Enemies, Bosses and HUD stuff. So 95 percent of the pixel visuals are done by me. It was a blast working for this system again with its known limitations, Loved it!

 

If you could step inside any of the games you have worked on and live there for a day, which game would you choose and why?

That would be ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ without a doubt. Imagine roaming around in that world! πŸ˜€ I worked shortly on a Pirates of the Caribbean game which would be a close second.

 

Did you ever start work on any games that were never released and if you could release any of these game today, which would you choose and why?

Worked on quite a few prototypes as a freelance artist but they were mostly canned for good reasons. Think the PS2 game ‘Sega Time Crystals’ party game collection would have been interesting to complete.

I drew quite a bit of traditional concept art for that. I just started modeling and texturing for a few weeks and the project was off already. πŸ™‚

 

What are your top three favourite video games of all time and why?

Not an easy question ever as there are so many excellent titles around. Especially the games you played earlier in life. If I had to pick three now then this springs to mind:

– Super Mario World (Super Famicom / SNES)
– Metal Slug (Neo Geo)
– Ketsui: Kizuna Jigoku Tachi (JAMMA Arcade PCB)

Ketsui by Cave is bullet-hell shooter perfection. πŸ™‚

Super Mario World, I was just blown away by this platform game because of design and ideas. Had a lot of fun playing and also learned a lot from this game in terms of design.

Metal Slug, This game is and will remain at the top in this genre forever. So much fun playing it or just looking at the visuals with all those little details. This is a work of art just like the sequels (2,3, and X)

 

What exciting new games or projects are you currently involved in?

Actually, It’s just one game I’m working on right now and that’s my own game project. No commission work anymore since I completed ‘Xeno Crisis’ for Mega Drive/Genesis several months ago. I’m in the fortunate position right now to work on my own project again after almost 24 years of working on other projects. Lomax for PSone released in 1996 was my last one.

Good, It’s actually a project that I’ve had in mind for a while now, and is inspired by classic arcade slash ’em-up games such as Gauntlet, Golden Axe, Shadow over Mystara and Knights Of The Round. Up to two players can play together locally as they take the fight to the enemy, but we will be looking to revitalise the genre with new gameplay elements, improved controls, some of the best pixel art around (by me!), and a superb soundtrack by an industry legend.

Unfortunately at his time I can’t reveal the name yet but we’ve been working on a prototype for some months now. The game is being developed with retro gaming in mind for release on Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC and maybe some other platforms ;P Please checkout updates of my project on my Twitter page ‘@pixelhenk‘.

 

If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?

Think I’ll pick Chun-Li from Street Fighter 2 as she’s all two-dee and pixely. πŸ™‚ All I can handle I think. πŸ˜‰

 

Adrian

 

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