"Basically Zelda with an elephant"
Yono and the Celestial Elephants is a charming puzzle adventure game heavily inspired by The Legend of Zelda, and it could come to Wii U.
Let’s first highlight the most important details: Yono and the Celestial Elephants is every bit of Zelda you may be familiar with, but perhaps a bit more charming and adorable. You can push boxes, headbutt enemies, carry items (including chickens), and much more — as a baby blue and innocent elephant named Yono in a fantastical kingdom inhabited by “imperialistic Humans, the undead Bonewights and the robotic Mekani.”
But this only scratches the surface of Yono and the Celestial Elephants. Nintendo News recently talked to Niklas Hallin, the man behind a Sweden-based development studio called Neckbolt Games.
With the exception of Yono’s soundtrack, Hallin handles everything else — from the game’s programming, to its graphics and design, to its smooth and vibrant animation. “There’s a guy named Karl Rosqvist working hard on [the music], and he’s doing a great job if I do say so myself.”
Nintendo’s most ambitious adventure franchise, The Legend of Zelda, played a huge part in shaping Yono’s story, Hallin explained:
“It all starts with The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap. I have played through it several times, and what I like about the Minish Cap specifically is that the game design is there just right below the surface, if that makes any sense. The temples are systematically laid out, everything fits perfectly into the pixel grid, and you never get confused by a third-person free camera looking the wrong way and so on. And I’ve always wanted to make a game like that, with dungeons and items and maps and towns and secret treasure rooms. I didn’t want to make it in pixel art, but I did actually start out with 2D sprites.
“However, I eventually moved over to 3D models, but I try to hang on to as much of the 2D design ethos as possible — in how the camera and controls work, what the world looks like, and so on. I’ve been working on this game for a little over a year now. In the beginning it was only part-time while I was working as a freelance game artist during most days, but I eventually managed to transition into working on this full-time. This is my second big game project, and the first one in 3D where I handle the programming myself.”
Making a game is one thing, but coming up with a fitting name is another story. Based on Hallin’s experience, there are two ways of naming a game. “Either the name is the first thing you think of, and you build the rest of the game from there,” he explained, “or you begin from somewhere else, and coming up with a good name becomes a long and arduous process. I have worked my way through various puns, wordplays, and portmanteaus on the word ‘elephant.’ At this point, I have settled on simply naming the game after the main character, Yono, and have added a secondary title that evokes the heavenly, divine aspect of the elephants.”
Yono’s Nintendo inspiration goes all the way back to nearly 30 years ago. “Even if I’m working with full HD and full color 3D graphics, I like to pretend that I’m making this game for a Game Boy,” Hallin said. “That contrast lends itself to some pretty interesting design choices. At first I was intent on sticking only to the D-pad and two buttons of the Game Boy, but that turned out to be unnecessarily bare so I upgraded to the four buttons of a SNES controller!”
Hallin said he admires the fact that Nintendo games “are not so insecure as to needing to add a lot of violence and grit and grimness to appear cool; they can de-emphasize technological upgrades and graphical prowess, and simpler graphics means they have to rely on excellence in design.”
Art wise, Hallin drew a lot inspiration from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and 3D Mario games for Yono. “I’m specifically cruising around in the GameCube era since the Wii already has a little too much shader complexity for my taste, and the N64 had astonishingly low resolution textures by today’s standards.”
Over the summer, Hallin spent two months developing Yono from a small cabin located in Sweden’s remote wilderness. He told us about his experience while there:
“‘Stugan’ is an initiative from a couple of Swedish game industry people, and it is absolutely glorious. Every summer they rent a cabin in the forests of Sweden and gather up about 20 game developers from all over the world to live there for free during the summer and work on their games. The reason it’s so great is that it’s a non-profit organization, so nobody involved cares at all about money or sales. This means they can bring developers together without having to consider market potential, so the mix of people is all over the place!
“The biggest thing I took away from the Stugan 2016 experience was the big sense of optimism and confidence about finishing and releasing games that emerged from so many skilled and enthusiastic people just hanging out together.”
Yono and the Celestial Elephants is made using the Unity development software. And while a PC version of the game is pretty much a given, Hallin wants to bring his creation to other platforms. “I am also actively looking into releasing this game on consoles,” he said. “The Wii U would probably be a nice fit, as long as you get to play it with a regular controller. I’m in the middle of figuring this out myself at the moment.”
Finishes a game is just one piece of the process. Publishing the game is another piece that needs sorted, and one that Hallin admits makes him quite nervous.
“So, I am currently talking with a handful of different publishers to see if we can partner up for the release of Yono, and the idea is that they would help me in getting this game published on a lot of various consoles. If the bottom falls through on that, I’ll have to self-publish, in which case I’ll have to figure out for myself how to get in contact with Nintendo and their development central.
(I told Hallin about Dan Adelman and Nintendo’s Damon Baker, two people in the industry that could assist him with the publishing and licensing process.)
“The idea is to finish this project up over the course of this fall, so a pretty realistic release date is early 2017.”
Hallin’s favorite game, “in almost any category,” is The Wind Waker. “I recently got really engaged with Super Metroid, which surprised me a bit since I had pinned it down as a game about shooting aliens, but it turns out it’s really a game about systematically mapping out a derelict space station.”
But the Zelda and Metroid series aside, Hallin has spent the most time playing games from Mario Kart.
Hallin’s Yono and the Celestial Elephants devblog chronicles many other details about his game, starting with the first post on August 30, 2015. You can peruse the blog’s overflow of adorable elephant info right here.