The Brussels Spout -- DYI Gamer posts

By the turn of 2010, EJR Tairne (also known as Aderack) had been interviewing me about PPP Team's games on Recreational Software Design Game-Maker. My brother and I were very proud to read his writing on, which sounded like the eventual recognition of the quality present in our teenagers works.

As of today, DIYgamer has turned into some advertising place, and Aderack's wiki is defaced by a PHP upgrade (afaik). So I went to the archive and salvaged his preciousss writings for future generations here too.

I had known for a while of Sylvain “Pypein” Martin’s blog. It muses in depth on Game-Maker’s file formats, and tracks a project to port one or more Game-Maker games to the Nintendo DS. My problem was that the site is mostly in French, and seems to presuppose some understanding of its topics. I bookmarked the site and filed it away, and turned to more immediate problems. It turns out that all this time I had been overlooking a cornucopia of Game-Maker games and utilities.

Martin, his brother Pierre, and associate Pierrick Hansen form the core of a mid-’90s Belgian demogroup called PPP Team. Later on they would release some tracker music and projects coded in assembler. It seems, though, that they got their start with RSD’s Game-Maker.

I’m not sure how many games they worked on; many are unfinished, and some appear lost to time and computer failure. Depending on how you count, maybe 17 or 18 games still survive in some form. The games touch several genres, but mostly focus on and toy with the side-scrolling platformer mold. They include a few long-running or frequently referenced series, several one-off games, and a fair number of tributes or pastiches.

Though the earliest games freely borrow sprites and backgrounds from existing sources, the group soon graduates to completely original elements. Even within a series the sprites are rarely duplicated from one game to the next. By the time they start to import graphics from Deluxe Paint, PPP Team seems to have total control over its resource pipeline.

At this point it’s the areas without that control — for instance the music — which glare the most. RSD’s chosen music format is famously lacking in available tools, and their software is famously lacking in support for more sensible formats. More than other authors, PPP Team’s choice of temp tracks always feels temporary; you can sense the eagerness to replace the music with original pieces that never materialized. It’s frustrations like these that seem to have been the last straw, eventually leading the team to move on from Game-Maker.

Even as the team outgrew Game-Maker, “Pypein” turned his growing skills back to RSD’s file formats, to dissect and study them in hopes of salvaging some material for future projects. Although those projects never quite materialized, the research continued sporadically. Recently Martin’s attention has turned to porting some of his Game-Maker material to the Nintendo DS, so since mid-2009 he has posted a handful of Perl scripts used to manipulate Game-Maker’s tile, map, sprite, and organizational files. At the moment the tools are more or less a curiosity, most useful for rendering precise diagrams of game levels, but they lay an intriguing groundwork.

Overall PPP Team is both one of the more productive and focused Game-Maker designers. With such a large catalog to draw from, for now we’ll focus on the highlights.


Biokid is maybe the most representative PPP game. It’s an action platformer inspired by Mega Man, sporting an understated yet typical example of PPP’s shareware/Commodore-influenced level design. Since most of the levels use the same fairly monochrome tile set and small collection of enemies (each with its own carefully mapped behaviors), it may be easier to abstract and predict the thought processes behind the design — where corridors lead, and why; where to find false walls and booby traps.

The controls are also representative. Most of PPP’s games are designed to be played more or less one-handed; the action keys are all oriented around the directionals in the numerical keypad. Slash shoots left; minus shoots right; asterisk shoots up. It takes a while to adjust to, especially the moving and shooting at once, but Biokid is probably the best game to train on before moving on to more complicated projects.

The Mega Man influence extends only to some vague elements of the character and enemy design — nothing that screams out. Well, that and the title. Generally Biokid stands on its own as a well-animated, well-designed, if rather short, action game.

Blork Carnage: The Adventure of Jack Booster

Another PPP action platformer, this one inspired by Apogee games such as Duke Nukem. Indeed, here more than in any of PPP’s other games, the shareware flavor shines through. The way the character moves and animates; the style of level design; the tone to the background graphics and overall presentation — it feels like something you might have downloaded from your local BBS in mid-1993.

Blork Carnage is a fairly tough game, with one-hit kills and a few nigh-impossible jumps (jumping being an occasional sticking point in PPP’s games). This is one of PPP’s earliest games, and as such it’s fairly simple and straightforward, rather like Biokid. It also is the origin of several background elements and a sort of mascot character that will pop up again and again.

4 to Save Toon Land

One of PPP’s half-completed experiments, 4 to Save Toon Land is one of the more ambitious Game-Maker games I’ve seen. There are at least two elements that strike me: its approach to storytelling, and its multifaceted approach to level design.

On the former count, the game starts off with a cursor that the player can scroll across a lushly illustrated backdrop. As the player scrolls, the images and some accompanying captions gradually paint the scenario. Houses begin to burn, malevolent figures loom, and plight is established.

Eventually the player is supplied a choice of four characters, each with unique abilities and dimensions. From what I gather, the main reason they abandoned the game was the headache of accounting for four separate perspectives when designing the levels. What they did finish, however, they composed very well. You find passages that tall characters simply can’t fit through, blocks that only some characters can break, and various other tricks to ensure that each character can wind its own path and find its own secrets.

If you can imagine a sequel to Clash at Demonhead produced for the Sega Genesis, maybe around the same time as Kid Chameleon and Alisia Dragoon, that’s sort of the game’s tone. If it were finished, 4 to Save Toon Land might have been the best thing ever done with Game-Maker. As it stands, it’s a neat demonstration of how much potential still lays untapped even in such a limited framework.

Cosmo War

I’ve mentioned the many and tortured attempts at a scrolling shooter within Game-Maker’s engine. No one ever really succeeded; the closest anyone got was by taking out the shooting and focusing on fast-paced dodging.

Although Cosmo War is no exception, it is notable for its particular techniques. Namely, large enemy ships are designed as background elements. As background elements, they can fire projectiles at the player’s ship. Of course, as background elements they are immune to the player’s atacks. Oh well. Might as well try everything.

Apparently the game is inspired by Epic Megagames’ Zone 66, and it has some connection to Blork Carnage. It’s worth a look, certainly. Compared to other GM space shooters, which try to ape Japanese designs, Cosmo War feels more like an homage to the Bitmap Brothers. As with most of PPP’s work, its tone is distinctly, if ineffably, European.

In the second half of this article we’ll look at PPP’s two big franchises (as it were), and how all of this stuff ties together.

The Martins and their burgeoning demo group known as PPP Team seized Recreational Software Designs’ Game-Maker with a ferocity and a measured European flavor of design. Over two or three years they assembled upwards of 24 games, each more ambitious than the last. Since they were developing with an unlicensed copy of Game-Maker, most of those games were strictly for their own entertainment — which may to some extent explain the energy that went into them.

There are three branches of PPP Team software. In our previous article we discussed their one-off, often experimental titles. These games tend to be both character driven and strongly inspired by Commodore and shareware design sensibilities. One of those games, Blork Carnage, introduces a character named Jack Booster. This game and this character serve as the roots for the second of PPP Team’s branches — their defining franchises.

If the one-off games housed a wealth of interesting whims, it’s PPP Team’s series that received the bulk of their effort and originality. Of those, both the most significant and the most varied series are spun off from the Duke Nukem styled Blork Carnage. A third, early series also showed itself during the team’s Game-Maker era, to further build off one of those spin-offs. We’ll start with the series that more or less equates with PPP Team, in terms both of iconography and of their design sensibility.


Our eponymous hero is basically a chubby, inept satire of DC’s Batman — or at least that’s how he started off. Badman’s first role was as an incidental enemy in Blork Carnage. Yet after doodling the character for a while, he captured the Martins’ imaginations and rather like Fonzie on Happy Days, he soon became the center of PPP Team’s attentions. Other ties to Jack Booster include the overall art design and the antagonist Seb Valenti (who served a more nebulous role in Blork Carnage).

The first Badman game is a rough assembly of materials — some borrowed, some original — into a fairly genial Tim Sweeney flavored action platformer (complete with music lifted from Jill of the Jungle). Maybe with a whiff of Mighty Bomb Jack. Notably, Badman avoids feeling like a typical Game-Maker game. The character’s movements are perfectly married to the level design, and both the character and backdrop strive less to show off than to achieve a certain consistency of style and tone. Each level has its own fairly original theme. Instead of ice and fire worlds, we have blue skies and desert caves, a rooftop stage, a Japan world (where Badman trades his gun for a samurai sword), a Lego dungeon, a haunted castle, a prison camp, and — well, a Peach the Lobster zone. Very little in this game was just slapped together; you get the sense that every tile, every monster placement was agonized over.

With Badman II: He’s Back Again!, the series really finds its identity. All of the visuals are original, and indeed both clean and distinctive. All of the sprites, including the character, have received an upgrade. Then after the presentation ropes you in, you start to appreciate the scale of the thing. The game includes sophisticated boss battles, involving moving and shooting villains and complex solutions. There are all manner of hidden secrets, including a warp zone. And finally we find the most clever credit sequence we’ve seen in years, calling to mind the Zelda inventory roll and all those NES instruction booklets that named and illustrated all of the game’s monsters and their personalities. For all of Game-Maker’s limitations, Badman II is about as good a demonstration as you’ll find of its latent potential.

If Badman II was sort of the Sonic 2 to Badman’s Sonic the Hedgehog — new sidekick and all — the unfinished Badman III: Badboys Are Back! is PPP Team’s Sonic 3 & Knuckles. This game is ridiculously huge — so much so that its 42 level nodes account for only the first world and a half or so. Even in its unfinished state the game is so vast and complicated that it’s difficult to take in. Again the visuals have received a total upgrade, this time with the benefit of Deluxe Paint gradients (lending the game that Sonic 3 flavor of 3D shading). Now the game gives a choice of two characters, each of whom can interact with and navigate the levels very differently. Badman himself controls much more smoothly, and has more abilities. PPP Team included some in-game cutscenes, and even managed to compose a bit of original music. Overall Badman III gives an imposing sense of command and professionalism. Had they ever finished the game, PPP Team would have created a monster the likes of which rarely even saw a commercial release. This is proto-Cave Story material here.


If Badman progresses like Sonic, Panzer develops more like Ikari Warriors. Accordingly the Panzer series is maybe less iconic than Badman. What it shares with that series is a refusal to be bound by the normal Game-Maker tropes and limitations. Panzer goes further, though, in refusing to be bound even by its own format.

In a broad sense Panzer 1945 feels like your typical overhead view tank game. What makes it unusual from a Game-Maker perspective is its Robotron-style controls. One wonders, given the key binding limitations, why more games didn’t hit on this control scheme. Granted in this case they’re all cramped over by the numerical keypad, making fast reactions rather difficult. Yet once you get used to them it’s impressive how much nonsense four-way firing can resolve.

Finally we see a fast-paced action game with nuanced player responses. Furthermore the exploration-based design melds a sense of danger with one of ownership. When you clear an area, it stays clear — yet there’s no telling what the next screen will bring, and whether you will find all your progress undone. Though on paper it may sound dubious, in practice you get some of that unfolding physical mystery of the Zelda overworld crossed with the action of an arcade title. Granted there’s only the one level, and the graphics and sound feel very tentative, as if the designer was unsure whether to fully commit to the game. Still, what’s here is pretty enlightening.

Panzer 2019 takes the series in a different direction entirely. It may not be obvious, but ostensibly the tanks in these games are all piloted by our friend Jack Booster. Following his trip back to 1945, Jack slips back to the future and swaps his ride for a futuristic single-trigger cannon. The new tank zips smoothly along the neon and chrome style backdrops, blasting monsters and aliens with a tap of the space bar. As refreshing as the first game feels from a Game-Maker perspective, 2019 is a relief from the aimless plodding of its predecessor. You’ve got a corridor, you zoom down it. You’ve got a crossroads, you make a decision. You’ve got a threat, you hit fire. It’s all very simple now. And as far as Game-Maker based shooters go, they don’t get much better.

Panzer III takes another sharp turn to the left, and switches to an apparently Metal Slug inspired side-scrolling format. As with the third Badman, the game is perhaps overambitious and left unfinished. Whereas with Badman the problem was more of hardware failure and required effort, with Panzer III it’s an unfortunate (and for PPP Team rare) clash of concept against the engine’s limitations. Basically Panzer III depends on diagonal surfaces that RSD’s engine cannot supply, and no amount of tweaking or fudging can blur those edges. What the game does bring us is our first glimpse of Jack Booster in the driver’s seat, and an appealing flat-shaded cartoon style. Maybe a tank isn’t an ideal character for this design, but it’s a very nice setting. Which brings us to our final entry for the day.


I’m not as clear on this as I might be, but I gather that the first Calimero game, Calimero against the Black Empire, was the Martins’ first ever attempt at a platformer, developed in BASIC some four or five years before they discovered Game-Maker. The game involved a black-feathered bird wearing half an egg as a helmet.

Later, at the height of their Game-Maker career, they chose to take advantage of a design cul-de-sac and insert the character into the skeleton of Panzer III. The result, Calimero II, comes off as sort of a cross between Wonder Boy and Sonic the Hedgehog, with maybe a bit of a Codemasters flavor. Although again they chose not to pursue the game to completion, the game does exhibit several advanced — or at least fascinating — techniques. To facilitate a Sonic-style vertical spring, they employed a complex lock-and-key system that momentarily flipped the gravity on all the background blocks. The character can throw apples along a wave pattern, and can do it quickly enough to establish a sort of an unbroken wave beam.

Jumping is an occasional issue in PPP Team’s older games; the levels demand a precision that the character animations barely supply, forcing the player to repeat certain jumps over and over. Calimero takes this frustration to a new level; often it’s unclear whether certain jumps are possible, and the answer only supplies itself when one realizes there there are no other routes. With a bit of adjustment, and some improved jumping behavior, this game could have really gone somewhere. You can feel that this game was never a priority, though — not in the same way as the above series.


Although we’re done with PPP Team for the moment, you will notice a dangling end. I said that these series form the second out of three branches, which leaves one more branch to go. We’ll get to that, presently. When we do, you’ll understand why it sets apart from the others.

In the meanwhile you can download the above games here. Try them out in DOSBox. If you’re running Windows 7 or Vista, you may have a few sound issues. If so, I’m afraid I don’t know how to resolve those. There’s probably a workaround. There usually is. Go ask one of your IRC cronies.
Describe your new note here.

We’ve covered PPP Team’s major franchises, and their often experimental one-off games. To polish up, and possibly to set the stage for another whole realm of discussion, we’ll look at their third branch of development: the tribute games.

The PPP Team members wear their influences like long johns; sometimes they’re under the surface of their normal clothes, and when they’re certain that no one is looking, that’s all they’ve got on. We have discussed some of the apparent shareware and Commodore references in their original games. Amongst the five surviving tribute games we find a broad and instructive spread of creative input, from classic arcade games to 1990s shareware to 16-bit Japanese platformers to Japanese anime and manga to the techniques of existing Game-Maker games.

Perhaps noteworthy is how fully the team embodies the games that it chooses to pastiche. Some creative whims aside, they replicate the originals as closely as possible within the limitations of RSD’s game engine. Where they meet technical or conceptual barriers, rather than force the design they simply go in a new direction that follows from the original both in logic in spirit. One gets the sense that these tributes are where PPP Team really found their footing as designers; whenever they were uncertain what to do next, there was always another influential game to dissect and put back together.

F1 Eater Mania

The Game-Maker vault is littered with Pac-Man tributes of various aptitude and originality. PPP Team sidestepped the issue by, deliberately or not, making a clone of Namco’s Rally-X (1980) – which, granted, is basically Pac-Man with cars. There are a few differences, though, and in F1 Eater Mania those differences are compounded with alternating forced-scroll stages that call to mind Sega’s Monaco GP (1979). Or, one supposes, Matthew Groves’ Jet Driver.

The game is bare-bones and comes off like a weekend experiment. As in other dot-hunt games, collecting a full board of blue blips opens the gate and lets you out. This being Game-Maker, counters never reset; die with three dots left to go, and all you need is three more. Curiously, the green “power pellets” increase the player’s HP – meaning that for every pellet you can crash into one opponent without totaling your own car. That’s one way to do it.

It’s genial and it plays well, with a minimum of avoidable glitches or design problems. Aside from the counter issue, the only thing that stands out is Game-Maker’s lack of a context-sensitive idle state. Not much to do about that except ignore it.

Commander Xeen

Xeen also is stripped-down in the manner of Biokid or Blork Carnage, which may on reflection be a bit of a PPP calling card, with for most of the game a single regular enemy type, a minimum of counter work (even extending to HP bonuses), and fairly straightforward level elements. What makes it amongst PPP Team’s better games is the way that those elements are combined into an environment, and the accurate-feeling look, tone, and flow that they create.

Both the decor and the architecture of the levels subconsciously lead the player forward like stripes in a Half-Life corridor. In the early levels, light and shadow created by block patterns draw attention to and propel the player along the intended path. Platforms placed just outside the player’s jump height, multiple key colors, hidden passages, and Keenesque useless-yet-tantalizing trinkets also attract, divert, and frustrate the player’s attentions at appropriate moments, creating a psychology not unlike Tom Hall’s original designs.

Speaking of jumps, there are a few quirks of design. In Commander Xeen, vertical jumps are higher than diagonal ones. Not the most intuitive decision, but as far as RSD’s engine goes, the jump physics are about as clean as variable jumps get.

The other main mechanic is weirder. To shoot, the player needs to collect gun icons. The game is generous and enemies are few, so running out is rarely a problem. Yet when the armory does empty, Game-Maker’s quirks get in the way again. Due to limits on button-mapping, the character uses different buttons and animation sequences to shoot left and right. Each of these animations is married to a different counter. Although the gun icons refill both counters, the act of firing only diminishes one counter at a time. Thus if the player fires to the right more often to the left, soon there will only be left shots, er, left.

These hang-ups are minor. The high vertical jumping does have parallels in games like Super Mario Bros. 2, and the level design does seem to take the different heights into consideration as an advanced technique. If you remember that you can rocket straight up, several tasks will be easier than the layout at first suggests.

The game is short, satisfying in its rewards, and gentle in its punishment. You only have a single hit point, so avoidance and caution become big elements of navigation, adding a bit of strategy and mild puzzle solving to some areas. When you do die, the game plays a few awkward notes and the character looks a bit sad; then you start the level over. Although as with every Game-Maker game you can save and load at will, here the design compels the player to tough it out and just try again.

Pengo Adventure

PPP Team’s first game arose as many first projects do, as a collage. Pengo Adventure is a tribute to Donkey Kong, assembled with a mix of borrowed parts and original elements. The character is RSD’s own Penguin Pete, lifted from a design tutorial largely intact. The backgrounds are both minimalist and fiddly but mostly original, save the odd decoration. Sounds are a mix of borrowed material and original samples.

Although the game has its charms — in particular the premise of penguin romance and the atmosphere in some of the later levels — and you can see the budding style that would later declare itself in games like Badman 2, Pengo is just awkward to play. As Sylvain Martin has observed, RSD’s engine does not handle ladders as well as it might. There are ways to make it work, but it’s annoying – and when you’re paying tribute to Donkey Kong, you want the ladders to be perfect. So that’s a pretty inherent problem. A more manageable issue is player control.

As adorable as he might be, Pete’s control mapping has always been a problem even in his own game. Taken out of context, with few to no changes, Pete has trouble just leaping from platform to platform. What PPP Team really needed to do was either design a new character from scratch or to ditch Pete’s character file and rebuild it with a mind to their planned game concept.

Still, for a first game, Pengo Adventure explores just about every aspect of Game-Maker’s design options. It exhibits intertitles and introduction screens, full sound and music support, and just about every basic block feature. Even here there’s an understanding of contextual background properties, and the way to get around certain collision issues by swapping static monsters for background tiles. By many users’ standards, this would be a fairly advanced game. So, not a bad way to start.

Twinnbee Land

In Japan, Konami’s Twinbee series has long been the bouncy, juvenile counterpart to Konami’s flagship shooter Gradius. Outside of Japan, the series is fairly obscure. There’s Stinger for the NES, and then in some territories there’s a curious spin-off game for the Super NES, Pop ’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures. Unlike the rest of the Twinbee series, Rainbow Bell Adventures is a side-scrolling platformer in that refined and codified 16-bit mold. To hear him tell it, this game is also one of Sylvain Martin’s biggest influences.

Thus, with a few logistical tweaks, we have Twinnbee Land. Whereas in the SNES game the sprites are kind of enormous, here they are tiny. The SNES game has rolling terrain with plenty of diagonal surfaces, allowing characters to bowl along; here we have a maze-like level design with huge jumps across open spaces. The game takes more liberties as it goes on, with odd character transformations – first the ship grows in size, then turns into a huge Mazinger-style mech. Combine this absurdity with the deliberately cutesy voice samples, and perhaps you can take Twinnbee Land as an affectionate satire.

The game is actually rather long, and is dotted with fairly complex boss fights in the vein of the Badman games. Naturally enough, many background elements are borrowed from PPP’s earlier efforts. Sometimes they fit well; sometimes not. The character floats about half a tile above certain platforms, for no discernable reason.

Of particular note is the jetpack, which – rather like Xeen’s vertical jump – allows the player to rocket upward much farther than a normal leap will allow. It’s a little awkward to use, and one forgets about it, which is as well for such a powerful feature. As with Xeen, this command often lends the level design another layer.

Unlike Xeen, the design itself is often confusing. The geography tends to lead the player away from goals rather than toward them, and the properties or behaviors of background elements are not always clear, occasionally leading the player into inadvertent traps. Combine this frustration with slightly awkward control mapping, and at times it feels like the game is deliberately undermining the player’s efforts, as in games such as I Wanna Be The Guy.

The question of tone is central to Twinnbee Land. It seems like a straight tribute, until it starts to get bizarre. It seems inviting until it starts to pull the rug out from under the player. It’s unclear exactly what the game wants to do. Whatever it presents, it seems to immediately subvert in some way, whether deliberately or not. There’s even an animation where the character holds up a nudie picture for the player to see. Why? Well, presumably to subvert expectations. Which seems to sum the game up.

Dragon Ball Z 2: The Death of Vegeta

Of all of the surviving PPP Team games, this is probably the strangest. Pascal, a friend of the founding members, was a huge anime nerd and also a beginning user of RSD’s tools. With his dubious illustration skills he roughed out a couple of games based on Akira Toriyama’s famous manga and TV series. When he showed the Team his second game, they took the game into their fold and adapted it to their developing house style.

As Pypein has it, they were at the time unseasoned to anime in general, never mind Akira Toriyama’s particular illustration style, so they ran the game through a Badman filter. The result looks and feels very much like a stock PPP Team game – and very much unlike Dragon Ball. Thus, Pascal thanked them and took the game back. He undid most of their work and decided to remix his original sprites with new backgrounds scanned in and colored from the manga. This was an arduous process, to which Game-Maker was less than ideally suited, and so Pascal soon abandoned the project.

Thus there are two versions of the game; a cartoony European-flavored one, and a much rougher-looking remix that ends after one or two levels.

As for the game itself, apparently it’s an adaptation of a specific story arc from the manga. The sprites are appealing enough, and the backgrounds are atmospheric. The controls are a little strange, with a stilted repeating jumping animation, a dash move that’s about the same speed as walking, and special attacks that don’t always work as they are meant to. The game is largely silent, aside from the rare anime voice sample or occasional borrowed music file.

DBZ2 is far from PPP Team’s best work, but it has some interesting properties. One assumes the game was a learning experience for everyone involved.

There are still at least eight missing games, and apparently a large chunk of Badman III, probably lost to time. For now, though, that’s PPP Team’s catalog. Pypein, aka Sylvain Martin, would go on to develop his own code, and is currently working with the Nintendo DS hardware. His brother Piet would go on to sequence his own music, much of which is now available under the artist name Cyborg Jeff. It is thanks to some of Pypein’s later efforts that we have some of the images used in the course of this column. Thanks also to Sylvain for his time in recounting his long-dormant memories.

You can download this final batch of PPP Team games at this link. Remember to run the games in DOSBox, and to turn up the clock cycles as far as they’ll comfortably go.

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