The story of Action 52 has been told many a time but never ceases to be fascinating. Adrian secured a true coup for this humble blog by interviewing the one and only Mario Gonzalez. So many questions, so little time. Enjoy.
***And after you’ve read this, why not check out our Action 52 Podcast***
Mario, great to have you here at Arcade Attack! Please can you share with our readers the story of how you met Vince Perri and how the opportunity first arrived to work on Action 52.
I had been working a part-time job while attending college as a sound engineer for a small recording studio in Miami, Florida. It turned out that Vince knew the owner and would use the office space to hold meetings about his own business. On one occasion I overheard Vince explaining how his son had purchased a Nintendo cartridge at a flea market that brought 52 games, and that the neighborhood had gone crazy with excitement. Vince knew that the games were pirated and that he could not legally launch any type of business venture with pirated games, but he had a better idea. Vince wanted to use the hardware and/or tech used to make the cartridge and create 52 original games. This is what got my attention. I told Vince that a few of my friends and me were into making games, and that it sounded like a great opportunity for me. This sparked Vince’s interest, but he said he wanted proof. I contacted my friends and we made Vince a Tetris clone called Megatris on our Amiga computer. Vince was impressed with the graphics and sound of the Amiga and agreed to hire us for the project.
Is it true you worked alongside only three other developers to create Action 52 and how were the roles delegated?
The initial team was Albert, Javier and me. The fourth member came on board well into the project. I was basically the core game designer. I came up with all the characters and story elements as well as composing all the music. Albert was our programmer. He had programmed several strategy games for himself as a hobby. Javier and I both contributed to the pixel art at the beginning of the project, and we were later helped by the fourth member with the graphics and level design as well.
Action 52 seems like such an ambitious project set within a highly pressured environment. How was it possible to create 52 games under such circumstances?
When initially agreeing to do the project with Vince, he never indicated that we were on a tight schedule or any timeline for that matter. It was only when we were given contracts to sign that all this was laid out. In our excitement to actually get the opportunity to work on games for the Nintendo console, we said, “What the Heck! Let’s do it!” and we were on board. Vince flew us to Salt Lake City, Utah where we received one week’s training (what! – Ed) on the Nintendo Dev Kit from a company that was working on a Star Wars game. I knew the task at hand was very daunting, given the time constraints, so I came up with the idea of only creating a hand full of engines and a template for the graphics to facilitate a smoother development cycle. We still spent countless hours at the music studio now converted to a game design studio, and got very little sleep while surviving on coffee and donuts. The music portion was the most difficult. I had to compose each song on external equipment, dump the music into data, and then manually input the data into the programming. Overall, the guys and I got along great and made a great team.
Action 52 was obviously rushed before proper game testing could be undertaken. Do you think the infamous cart would be viewed differently today if it was given more time and could have been a real success?
I believe the only way Action 52 could have been a success, was to have designed 52 rogue-likes. There was no possible way, given the time limitations, that we could have designed 52 games without limiting the levels down to two or three per game. In that sense, I don’t believe any game with only two or three levels could have become a success. That was the part where I was most short-sighted. As for the testing, I was unfortunately out of the project in its last weeks, and did not get the opportunity to review the games before release. In an odd way, all of the un-polish, errors, and everything wrong with the cartridge led to more of its cult status than if we would have released 52 completed, yet (with) mediocre games. Anything less awful than what is was, may have just quietly faded away into time.
What was your personal favourite and also least favourite Action 52 game and why?
My personal favorite will always be Bubblegum Rosy. This was one of the games completed entirely by me and based on my girlfriend at the time Rosy, who was always chewing bubblegum. It also has some of my favorite music from the cartridge. My least favorite was Fire Breathers. I initially was inspired by all the fun I had growing up with the Atari and playing combat against my friends and family, but a two player game just did not fit in this cartridge. To make things worse, Fire Breathers is the first game on the menu and gives no indication that it is a “Two Player Only” game.
The Cheetahmen was heralded as the main selling point of the game. Was this the plan from day one or did this idea to rival Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles come about at a later date?
My idea for game 52 was called The Action Gamemaster. This was supposed to be a final challenge where the player had to defeat all of the bosses from the 51 other games (we like it! – Ed). Well into the project, Vince came to me and advised he wanted a team similar to the Ninja Turtles. Since there was no arguing with Vince, we went with the Cheetahmen. Vince became enamored with the characters and the story and quickly began shifting the focus of the cartridge to having the Cheetahmen as the main selling point. Vince began to talk about a stand-alone game, toys, a cartoon, and maybe even a movie.
Did you help work on Cheetahmen 2 and can you explain why the game was never fully completed?
I was out of the Action 52 project by its final weeks and never participated in any of the further projects of Active Enterprise. There is still a lot of my work reflected in Cheetahmen 2 because of many of the resources and ideas I contributed into the first game. I believe Vince’s financial troubles were the ultimate undoing of Cheetahmen 2.
The Mega Drive version of Action 52 seems to be a little more polished than the NES counterpart. What are your views on this version?
My understanding is Vince shelled out for a real studio and programmers to assist with the Mega Drive version. I have looked at this version and the one thing that really sticks out, is that the games are so bland and generic (true! – Ed). It is definitely missing my personality when it comes to character and story creation. You really don’t have the uniqueness of Bubblegum Rosy, Micro Mike, Fuzz Power, etc. (also true! – Ed).
Do you personally own any of the Action 52 carts and Cheetahmen games or memorabilia?
I was never given a cartridge (that is an outrage! – Ed). I do have all of my notes and drawings from the time I spent designing the games. Maybe one day they will end up in a museum somewhere. The most interesting thing I did have, that it appears others did not have or lost, was the copy of the Action 52 television commercial that I believe never aired. It was a real surprise to some people when I uploaded it to YouTube back in 2006. I am still getting many comments and views. For those interested here it is:
Readers – you have to check out the video! Thank you for uploading it Mario! If you had the opportunity to turn back the clock, what would you have liked to have done differently with Action 52?
Knowing what I know now, I would have had Albert focus on random level generation, and polished the platformer controls to be more in line with the Super Mario genre of games. Besides that, I really don’t think I would have done anything else much different.
Vince Perri comes across quite mysterious and little seems to be known of him. What are your personal recollections of the man and what was he like working for?
Many give Vince a bad rap and accuse the whole Action 52 situation as some kind of a scam. This is entirely wrong. Vince was a good business man, and he really believed in the concept of Action 52. The project’s failure was only due to Vince’s ignorance of the gaming industry and of video games altogether. He did not understand the vast array of variables that are required to make a successful video game. Quite honestly, at my young age, with the same lack of understanding, I was as much a dreamer as Vince was. The only difference was that he dreamed in dollar signs, and I, of being a game designer. He was a good boss, and it wasn’t until the final weeks of the project that I began spending less time at the studio, distracted by my new love interest, Bubblegum Rosy, that brought us friction and ultimately, my separation from Active. I did go on to marry Bubblegum Rosy and have 2 kids (hooray! We love a happy ending – Ed). We’re still together, so I think I made the right decision.
The story of the Action 52 cart is now one of the most infamous video game tales of all time. How do you reflect looking back at this time and being part of such an interesting chapter of gaming?
Over the years, many have asked me the same question. It is an honor and life dream that, no matter in what role or to what perception; I have a place in video gaming history. This is why it is hard to think about having done anything different. Maybe changing just one thing could have just made Action 52 disappear into obscurity. Ever since my parents bought me the Atari 400 computer along with the Basic programming language cart, I have been endlessly dreaming of making video games. The opportunity that was presented to me by Vince was a once in a lifetime chance for me to chase my dream.
The mysterious and uncredited fourth developer of Action 52 has released a really insightful blog about Action 52. Have you ever been tempted to tell your own side of the story through a book or even film?
A few years ago, I helped a gentleman by the name of Greg Pabich with a Kickstarter to fix and release Cheetahmen 2: The Lost Levels. He also arranged a reunion of Albert, Javier, the fourth developer and myself. At this reunion, he videotaped interviews of each one of us and told us he was putting together a documentary. I have spoken with him a few times since then, but there has been no further mention of the video. I would be glad to collaborate with anyone interested in putting together a book and/or a movie script that could one day lead to a Hollywood blockbuster (count us in! Ed).
What projects are you currently working on?
I have 2 games in the Android store: Cyanide Sector was a quick one-week project, and Hyper Dark which I put a lot of effort into and took a year to develop. I am also working with CNG Studios on a game called The Helix Enforcers. Here is the website: http://www.cngstudios.com/web/ My contribution with them is more music, sound effects, and some game design consulting. I have a SoundCloud page where I regularly post music I compose with FL Studio. Here is the link to my music page: https://soundcloud.com/mario-n-gonzalez I love to be constantly creating. The only part of game development that I can’t do myself is art, so I end up buying a lot of freeware art for games.
I’m sure our readers would be pleased that you’re still going strong! Finally before you go then, if you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
I think it would have to be Link. Zelda for the NES was the first game I completed and I think me and Link share the same love of adventures and questing! Plus, isn’t there a joke that starts like that, “Mario and Link walk into a bar…”
***And after you’ve read this, why not check out our Action 52 Podcast***