Flinthook, retro-inspired game by Montreal indie team, swings into action

If Flinthook looks, at first, like a video game from 20 years ago, don’t be too shocked — that’s the point.

Tribute Games studio founded by former Ubisoft developers with a love of old-school 2D games

Taking cues from the classic game Bionic Commando, Captain Flinthook can fling himself around his environment with a grappling hook. (Tribute Games)

If Flinthook looks, at first, like a video game from 20 years ago, don't be too shocked — that's the point.

You play Captain Flinthook, a diminutive space pirate looking to plunder as much gold as possible by raiding the ships of other, nastier pirates.

With its blocky, two-dimensional art and simple yet catchy chip-tune music, this new release (out now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One) deliberately evokes the 8-bit and 16-bit era of games from the 1990s.

There are dozens, if not hundreds of retro-type games available today, but few do it better than the appropriately named Tribute Games.

It's a small team based in Montreal that was born out of the idea that in an era of sprawling games with hundred-million-dollar budgets, sometimes the old ways are the best.

"There are gamers who feel like they've been left out of video games because they don't want to necessarily tackle a 20-hour game that is massively bloated and more modern, or whatever," says Tribute co-founder Jean-Francois Major.

"They would like a smaller experience that kind of scratches that old-school nostalgia itch."

Going old-school

Tribute Games was formed in 2011 by Justin Cyr, Jonathan Lavigne and Major, who all met while working at Ubisoft.

Today, Ubisoft is a multinational studio and publisher with thousands of employees working on some of the biggest games in the industry — in terms of both budget and scope — like Assassin's Creed or Tom Clancy's The Division.

But in the 2000s, Cyr, Lavigne and Major worked on smaller 2D games, such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles beat-'em-up for the Game Boy Advance and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, based on the 2010 movie of the same name.

The tightly controlled platforming action evokes classics like Metroid, but also newer games like Spelunky and Rogue Legacy. (Tribute Games)

As gaming consoles became more powerful, the emphasis on  3D games became more pronounced.

"We really felt like we didn't fit in any more," says Major. "They were pushing us to go on these big, triple-A titles like Assassin's Creed and Far Cry and all that stuff. But our strength was in 2D games, and our passion was in more retro-looking games."

Cyr, Lavigne and Major saw that they wouldn't be able to continue making the kinds of games they liked — and excelled at developing — and so left Ubisoft to form their own studio.

Success with Mercenary Kings

Tribute Games' first release, Wizorb, was a block-breaking game inspired by arcade classics like Breakout and Arkanoid, but mixed with elements from role-playing games like Final Fantasy.

Their breakout hit was Mercenary Kings, a 2D shooting game reminiscent of classics like Contra or Metal Slug. It launched in 2014, the same week as Sony's PlayStation 4, and became an early favourite on the new console.

Mercenary Kings' impressive sales — buoyed by a deal with Sony, which made it free for subscribers to the PlayStation Plus service — provided a welcome cash boost for Tribute.

Tribute Games' breakout hit was Mercenary Kings, released in 2014. (Tribute Games)

Unlike many other independent games studios in Quebec, which are partially funded by the Canadian Multimedia Fund (CMF), Tribute has managed to stay financially independent. Since Mercenary Kings launched, the team has grown from three to 10.

"We've had the luxury of not having to rely on [government funding]," Major says of the CMF. "It's kind of one of our prides that we're self-sufficient. We have a business model that works and is able to finance all our projects."

Retro, but still fresh

Tribute Games hopes to continue its success with Flinthook, and the reviews that have come in since it launched earlier this week suggest they have reason to be optimistic.

Flinthook can fire away at enemies with his pea-shooter of a gun, but his main weapon is his grappling hook, which he can use to fling himself around the environment like a tiny, web-slinging Spider-Man.

You can jump, fly and swing around the levels with astonishing precision by aiming his hook shot with a controller's analogue stick. Every time you latch onto a hook, a loud bell-ringing sound effect provides satisfying feedback.

Older players will remember the hook shot's gameplay from the classic Capcom game Bionic Commando. The labyrinthine levels are reminiscent of Nintendo's classic Metroid series.

But Tribute wasn't content to simply mine the past for its design, drawing from modern "rogue-like" games such as Spelunky and Rogue Legacy.

Levels are randomly generated out of a collection of obstacles and enemy layouts, meaning no single playthrough will be exactly the same. And you'll be able to use more powerful equipment once you collect enough gold to buy them from a black market run by cackling squid-alien-pirate-merchant.

Retro renaissance

Tribute Games may have grown out of a lack of interest in classic-style games with 2D pixel art, but six years later, the format is experiencing something of a renaissance.

Recent games like Axiom Verge (a moody shooter inspired by Metroid and Contra)  and Shovel Knight (an action game that takes cues from Mega Man and Castlevania) have led the charge for expertly crafted retro games that do more than simply rehash what came before.

Major is confident he made the right choice to co-found Tribute Games back when interest in making new 2D games was considered a major gamble.

Does he feel that focusing solely on retro-style games limits his team's creativity?

"Definitely not. I wish we had more time to do all of the ideas that we have," he says with a chuckle.