NES Artist pinwizz Discusses Zooming Secretary

Zooming Secretary is a breath of fresh air, or perhaps a gulp of fresh coffee. This platformer-meets-office sim, released in December 2011, is an entirely new game created for an entirely retro system: the 1980s-era Nintendo Entertainment System. Indeed, it's hard to think of a video game with more old-yet-new charm. It is minimalist yet pixel perfect, a Donkey Kong world furnished in mid-century Steelcase. The creators of Zooming Secretary are veteran NES programmer Shiru and artist pinwizz, both of whom live in Moscow. The duo finished the game in about six months—an impressive feat given the technical knowledge needed to create a game for the decades-old console. They've made the game available for free as an NES ROM that can be played in an emulator or, with enough patience and solder, put on an NES cartridge. (Shiru and pinwizz have even supplied die-hard DIYers with a printable cartridge label and game manual to accompany the game.) I had a chance to chat with pinwizz about his work on Zooming Secretary. He shares insights about the creative process, sources of inspiration, and the world of pirated video games.

In Zooming Secretary, you must swiftly answer phones while navigating piles of paperwork and chatty coworkers. (Sound familiar?)

FEMICOM How did you get involved with Zooming Secretary?

pinwizz Secretary grew from a bigger project. Shiru proposed making a game together because he already made several NES games on his own and wanted to divide the work on the next one. I shared some ideas for a game I'd like to make and started to draw mockup screenshots. It progressed slowly because basically each new screen had new gameplay. In one of my mockups, there was a secretary sitting in front of the typewriter with a telephone by her left hand. Shiru said, "Let's make something smaller in scale. About that secretary, for example, and how she answers phone calls." I thought that it was a great idea. She was an enemy originally! I proposed the office setting because I had just watched the 1957 movie Desk Set starring Katharine Hepburn which featured an information bureau. So we started the work in that direction.

FEMICOM How did you and Shiru collaborate? What was your workflow like?

pinwizz There is a saying attributed to Otto von Bismarck that Russians harness the horse slowly but drive fast. Without a set deadline, development went in short waves of intense creativity. We started Secretary in the summer, threw around ideas by email, and by late July it was playable. Then, I visited Shiru in late August to discuss how many levels there would be, which characters we should add, how they would differ, to decide on the name, how the opening screen should look—everything! So it felt like a major accomplishment and gave us a reason not to do anything for some time. Then in December, I e-mailed him saying "Kick me!" We recalled what we came up with and finished the game.

These development sketches show some of pinwizz's early level and character designs as well as ideas for the history pictogram that appears throughout the game.

FEMICOM The art style reminds me a lot of early Nintendo arcade and black box games like Popeye and Ice Climber. What were some of your artistic inspirations?

pinwizz In recent times, I've found myself really liking the style of mid-'80s games like Door-Door and Mappy. I like how clear they are. And on black, everything stands out. In the spring of 2011, I attended the exhibition of Leonid Schwarzman, the man who was lead artist on the stop-motion animated films Varezhka and Cheburashka. They're amazing, and I hope they have influenced some of the feel of the game. There was also an influence from Hanna-Barbera, but not from Jane Jetson as some have suggested. Secretary and Jane look not unlike each other, but I haven't seen The Jetsons in ages. The look of Natalya Seleznyova from the 1973 movie Ivan Vasilievich Changes His Profession was the much more direct inspiration. But some emulators make the color of her dress appear the same tone as Jane Jetson's.

Movie poster for Ivan Vasilievich Changes His Profession

pinwizz In good platforming games, characters usually walk, although as any pixel artist can attest, I'd wish for them to simply stand still in heroic poses. I decided to resort to the style of Hanna-Barbera and UPA Limited animation—just walking legs and the rest bobbing up and down. It fits the awkward office atmosphere where people usually don't wave their hands or bang their heads to crust punk, but luckily some characters turned out more lively.

FEMICOM Did you play NES games as a kid?

pinwizz My childhood was in the '90s, and that's the time when videogames arrived in Russia. I had, like everyone else, the Dendy famiclone, which was introduced in 1992. Before that, Game & Watch-like units were the most popular electronic games. Home computers were rare, and video game consoles were almost unknown. Our choice of games was a bit bizarre because we only had pirate carts and popularity was dictated by availability and word of mouth. So Contra and Castlevania were at the top like everywhere else, but we never saw Zelda or Metroid cartridges. Everybody marveled at Duck Tales and the pirate port of Aladdin instead. Among my favorites were Friday the 13th, Jurassic Park, and Tokkyu Shirei Solbrain, although we called it "Super Rescue," as those were the only English words on the title. (Ed. note: Tokkyu Shieri Solbrain was based on an early-'90s Japanese superhero TV show of the same name. A version of the game with modified graphics was released in the US and Europe as Shatterhand.)

FEMICOM Russia's pirate game market sounds pretty amazing. Could you purchase these pirate games in a regular video game shop?

pinwizz Yes, in the case of Famicom games even major Dendy shops housed pirate carts! Dendy was a big trademark then, with a magazine and a program on TV. Dendy shops sold original Mega Drive and SNES cartridges. Pirate carts for 16-bit systems were sold at their smaller locations in regular stores and radio markets. The Dendy used 60-pin Famicom cartridges. And mostly the consoles looked like the Famicom, just using a different color scheme. A lot of games were in Japanese. Still, the assortment of games was wide, and there was a lot to explore.

FEMICOM One thing I really love about this game is that the playable character is female. In the NES's heyday, there weren't too many female playable characters. Any thoughts on creating a female character?

pinwizz It always puzzled me why there weren't many female characters. Boys make and play videogames, and boys like girls, no? Who was there? The Little Mermaid, the girl-starship from Guardian Legend, Samus Aran? I guess the habit of drawing girls helps. After you draw an army of warrior princesses and get a bit bored with the concept, you start to find your heroes elsewhere.

FEMICOM Now that Zooming Secretary is complete, what will you work on next?

pinwizz My personal projects are mainly focused on my music (electronic disco and minimal synth) and adapting it to the stage, because I feel that I should do it RIGHT NOW. I'll do some pixel art for flyers of live gigs, too. I haven't spoken with Shiru about any future projects yet, but Zooming Secretary set me into a mode in which I'm thinking about how the game should play, not only about how it should look. And I come up with ideas for games from time to time.

If you haven't yet tried Zooming Secretary for yourself, you can download the game from Shiru's homepage. And if you've enjoyed the game as much as I have, consider donating a few bucks to Shiru's charity of choice to say thanks.

First published on March 24, 2012.