First thing, to be clear, this game is not actually for the NES, but made to look like it.
Part of my desire for Valor Seed was to really grant a sense of wonderful nostalgia for older players, and to make newer players see that a game only needs up to a particular degree of graphical detail to still be fun to play.
Making the graphics has been an interesting experience. When you only have four colors to make each walkabout sprite or enemy graphic, and the same for each map-tile, you learn to get creative. Furthermore, the background layer has a maximum of 12 colors, and the sprite layer 13. Also unlike subsequent system, such as the Super Nintendo and its 256 colors, the NES palette had 52 specific colors available. You could not assemble your choice of 52 colors to feature on the palette—it was like it or leave it.
Personally, any game I work on in the future is going to be done with some manner of laws like these. They force you to be creative, and what you end up making has excellent aesthetic appeal.
This is a screen capture of one of my towns. Practically everything in an RPG is an abstraction of something else. My least goal when making a map is to just get the idea across about what it is supposed to represent. There are three degrees of map-scaling commonly used by the RPG: the world map (1 tile = 1 mile), the town map (1 tile = 10-15 feet), and the interior map (1 tile = 3-5 feet). Based on this scale, I determined which trappings the town map should incorporate, and which would just clutter up the map or just look hilariously over-sized if used. Once I accomplished making a town that looked like a town, I had to then decide how far to take the graphics.
My limitation was that I could not make the maps look better than an NES RPG. There are some pretty damned snazzy NES RPGs, like Just Breed (1992) or Final Fantasy III (1990). These games, however, were created in the Super NES era, when the NES was all but mastered. I wanted Valor Seed to really be more 1988, than 1990. Each year between 1985 and 1990 was like a microcosm of game evolution. Newer and greater standards for the RPG were developed. Some games, like Dragon Quest III (1988), were just so incredibly far ahead of their peers that its style and scope still have not ceased to be applied to RPG's today.
The screen shot on the left is from Final Fantasy II, the right, Final Fantasy IV. As if you did not know that. You will notice that the FF2 did not use variations of tiles to indicate edges. A single tile is used for building face, wall face, wall top, grass, tall grass, earthen face, and stone path. None of them have been slightly altered to show that they have an edge. This basically means it takes six uses of one tile to make a 2 x 3 tile building face, instead of two uses of three tiles. Making simple maptiles that look good is actually pretty dang tough. Coordinating colors that look good is also pretty tough. Black serves as both an outline and a measure of shadow when you are working with so few colors. My tiles are very heavily inspired by those of Final Fantasy II. I did not copy them verbatim, but when you are working with 16x16 maptiles, there are really only a couple of ways to make a stone wall. The problem I most encountered when I started working with the tiles was that they very easily became noisy. After studying a lot of town maps for a lot of games, I concluded that tiles that represent vertical surfaces—outward facing ones, have the most detail. This is because they are those at the eye level of the sprites, and thus make the sprites stand out against them. This also makes it necessary to keep the floor tiles simple. Most of my walls are two colors with black. My floor tiles are almost all one color with black. I wanted there to be no question of which was floor and which was wall. This is particularly important in interior maps.
I made my interior maps styled light to dark from up to down. As I explained above, I made the floor tiles the simplest so that they contrasted with the walls and ceiling. You will also notice that the top and wall are variations of the same tile. This was a standard of the time. In many RPGs, particularly on the gameboy, a dungeon's motif would feature the same tile for top, wall, and floor only toned separately. It is hard to resist temptation to add more trappings to maps like the one above. I resisted because my goal was to make the map clearly appear as what it was meant to (a castle). Once I felt this was convincing enough, I moved on.
This is an interior screen shot from Final Fantasy II. Like me, once they succeeded in making the map look like what it was supposed to be, they only furnished it with such trappings that label an area in as simple a way possible.
In this chamber I made for Valor Seed, you can see that I convey two things: it is a bedroom, and that the occupant likes to read.
This room is very clearly used for storage. By arranging the trappings symmetrically, I show that the owner of the room is very tidy and organized. This can easily reinforce belief that this map is part of a military base or business.
This storeroom tells a different story. The contents of this room are in disarray to the point where they are not all equally accessible. This could be the loot repository for a bandit gang. This room also serves an example of how to make dungeons by destroying a building.
When it comes to designing dungeons, there are a lot of things to consider. The first and most important thing, is that dungeons are the locations in an RPG that serve to challenge players the most. Solving dungeons is the goal of an RPG. The whole point of training levels, buying healing items, and arming up with new gear is all for surviving the game's dungeons. The challenge of a dungeon should be the player estimating the amount of resources that will be needed to complete it. Failure means that the player's party runs out of hit points and healing and gets wiped out. What matters next is what kind of dungeons to use. All dungeons, in order to challenge players, must be labyrinthine. But does that mean they have to be a labyrinth? Also, all dungeons must either be natural, or man-made.
My above dungeon represents one that is clearly man-made, and is some kind of keep or castle. In the game you are playing human characters, native to buildings, so making a labyrinth out of a building (unless its an actual labyrinth) should be a function of something that is wrong with the building, or by there being a psychological need to not go first where one should logically go. It was my choice to make some of my dungeons look like they once had a purpose that was not being a dungeon. Such places, if large enough, can become a maze of choices rather than walls. Buildings are basically stacks of rooms, rooms are made for serving a purpose. If it has been evident that the goal of the dungeon is to go upstairs, yet there is clearly a another staircase going down, what can the benefit of going down be? If there is a point in doing anything in an RPG, there is also a point in doing everything. The main path through a dungeon may be only a short portion of the dungeon itself. The rest of the dungeon is not necessary to further the story, but will surely be crammed full of loot if explored. I make it a point to reward wanderlust in Valor Seed. The above map was designed by my brother, James Simpson. Jay has been playing D&D for nearly thirty years, 90% of the time as the DM. He's got a sixth sense for side-tracking adventurers through a dungeon.
This is a dungeon from my game that is natural. The design differences are clear from the dungeon shown above. The passages are not sized to accommodate space. The walls are not truly walls, but places where the earth has not been tunneled out. Figuring out where to go is the challenge of natural dungeons. And when that is accomplished, the player may still wish to go back and look down tunnels previously ignored . There is still more to natural dungeons than just their lack of prescription.
This is one way I make gameplay in natural dungeons interesting. Light is a providence of the sun or fire, the former having no say below the ground. Dragon Warrior taught us to fear this mechanic, and rightly so—its was sadistic. I am not going have exhaustible sources of light. This is your light radius at all times, unless you choose to make it more...or less.
Dragon Warrior was fully equipped with a charming little spell called Radiant. Valor Seed has a similar spell. As part of my effort to make spells less battle exclusive, when used from the menu, and when in a dark area, this spell expands the visible light radius. When used in battle, this spell blinds enemies. Many spells have similar duel function.
Another spell causes this to happen. This may not look very fun, but I assure you it is. Though this spell greatly reduces your radius of light, it also turns off random encounters. Furthermore, you can use this spell in any lit map, other than the world map (where the sun is just too badass to avoid).
While we're on the subject of spells—who needs an airship when you can freakin' fly?
The best thing I can say about what I am trying to do with Valor Seed, is that it is going to have all the same old crap you have seen a million times, but I am going to use it in ways that are more plausible.