Cyber Shadow is a gorgeous game, a modern homage to games like Ninja Gaiden and Strider. It's an incredibly difficult action platformer filled with ninjas, robots, and ultra-detailed 8-bit pixel art that was entirely conceived and drawn by designer and artist Aarne Hunziker, who adores the technical limitations of 8-bit art because it leaves "room for the imagination."
"When I got my first computer I’d use it to modify graphics of existing games," said Hunziker in a recent interview with VICE Games. "I didn’t know of the term 'pixel art' at the time. It was simply game graphics. That wondrous feeling of seeing your own ugly sprite chomping on fruit stayed with me and whenever I draw like this I’m transported back to magic land."
One sprite that's stayed with Hunziker all these years is Capcom's pixelated depiction of Scrooge McDuck in the NES classic DuckTales—the one where you could pogo across the screen. DuckTales's staff included a number of creatives who worked on the first Mega Man, a game that was released a few years prior, including artists Keiji Inafune and Naoya Tomita.
"It's filled with character despite its size," said Hunziker, drawn to the game because the cartoon was one of his favorite shows at the time. "To me it proved you don’t necessarily have to be a trained animator to convey stuff."
Hunziker had been slowly developing Cyber Shadow for years, before Shovel Knight developer Yacht Club Games discovered his work on Twitter and offered to help get the game across the finish line. Absent work like porting and translation, most of Cyber Shadow was made by one person. (One exception is the music, composed by Enrique Martin.)
All of the game's exquisite backgrounds, all those screen-filling sprites—that's Hunziker.
I asked him to pick a single sprite from Cyber Shadow that he was especially proud of, and Hunziker came back with Exo, a sentient motorcycle that also transforms into a big mech, and a part of Cyber Shadow that's built around Hunziker's influences and favorite stories.
"Exo started as a bike," said Huzniker. "I was thinking of all the cool red bikes I know, like the Akira one, Vinnie’s bike from Biker Mice from Mars and the Motoslave from Bubblegum Crisis. The proportions of the bike, size and placement of the tyres and seating position were all equally important. When transforming to robot suit mode, similar aspects are considered."
Building a sprite like this, according to Huzniker, can take anywhere from 30 minutes to several days, with the bulk of the time sink dedicated to the animations connecting them.
"Both the bike and the robot sprites came out effortlessly and had no revisions," he added. "A surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one. Maybe that’s why I’m so fond of it? I think it’s because a bike has many parts that have clearly defined functions. You start with the engine, build a frame with a seat and a gas tank. Add suspension and wheels and then some control interface. I think I mostly struggle with sprites that need voids filled with 'something.' Objects with purpose are easier."
While creating the sprites for Cyber Shadow over the course of several years, Huzniker would put Star Trek on in the background. At this point, he's worked through The Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space 9, and is currently catching up on the original series.
"If there’s a particularly good episode going on I’ll put the pen down," he said. "Watching shows while coding on the other hand is impossible. Then I’ll probably listen to ambient music without lyrics. When stars align, drawing is automatic. No conscious thought required at all and the sprites draw themselves. This is criminally uncommon though."
Getting through Cyber Shadow is no joke, but fortunately, if you're interested in seeing more of Huzniker's talented work, he's been sharing it on his Twitter feed for years now. If you scroll back a bit, you can see how Cyber Shadow has been evolving, one pixel at a time.