These days have been busier than usual, but I still managed to get some stuff done in backstage. Today I bring you a new interview, this time with a game developer: Ben Hickling!

See, Ben Hickling is the developer of a game called Ex-Zodiac, which was in the works since some few years ago, but started releasing demos recently. More importantly, this game was brought to Kickstarter in July 23, 2020, and in under 24 hours, it was a complete success, hitting the proyected 25.000$ goal in a single day. So you might have already have heard of this game, but if you haven’t…

There are many games in recent times that are clear homages or throwback to older classics, and sometimes, to mostly unseen genres nowadays. For example, if BallisticNG is a new game inspired from the Wipeout series, and The Takeover is a new game inspired from the Streets of Rage, then Ex-Zodiac is the game inspired from the Star Fox series (With the gameplay resembling Star Fox 64, but the visual style taking cues from the original Star Fox on the SNES).

Rail shooters are a rarity nowadays (outside of the recent Panzer Dragoon remake), and many have waited for a new Star Fox title. Like the previously mentioned examples, Ex-Zodiac looks made to deliver for those people, but of course is complemented with completely new levels and design, a killer soundtrack by +TEK, framerate options (from a SNES-throwback 15FPS, to a smooth 60FPS), and of course it will be purchaseable on Steam. The demo is already downloadable too, from either the game website or the Steam page.

Of course, the game is still in development and the demo is only two levels, but it is quite promising at this point, and I’m planning in doing a more general coverage about this specific game soon enough. Butin this case, I was able to interview its developer, on the note of following this game development, the interest behind knowing more about how it started, and what could be brought up later on. Note that while Ben is the sole developer, he’s also cooperating with +TEK as the soundtrack composer, and Pixeljam Games as the game publisher.

This interview was conducted on 04 July, 2020. Note that the Bold text is from the interviewer.

Alright, so first of all I’m very thankful for this chance! I always found game developers very inspiring not only because of being responsible my favorite stuff, but also because of the dedication they pour on their works. And I have loved everything so far about Ex-Zodiac!

Hey, no problem, and thank you!

So could you give me a brief introduction of yourself?

Well, I’m a software tester by day (under regular circumstances at least, I’ve had more free time lately due to the pandemic) and I’ve been developing games on-and-off for the last 20 years or so. Mostly unreleased stuff, I make a lot of prototypes that never go anywhere 🙂

What could you say about how you got involved into game development?

I think I had a few run-ins with game development as a kid, copying some BASIC code from a book into a friend’s ZX Spectrum, messing around with some software called the Shoot’em Up Construction Kit on my old Amiga 500, but I didn’t really know I what I was doing at the time. Later I borrowed a copy of Klik & Play off a friend, and that was when I really started getting into it, even if the ‘games’ were mostly just silly in-jokes my friend and I would make to entertain each other.

Indie Retro News: Shoot-em-up Construction Kit - 30th Anniversary ...

Then newer versions of the software came out, first The Games Factory, and later Multimedia Fusion (also known as MMF). MMF was the one I got into the most, and I spent many years using that, even though my games were still pretty crude. After that I think I used Blitz Basic/Blitz 3D/Blitz Max, until I discovered Game Maker 6. I used that for a few years, and then around 2008 I kinda fell out of interest with game development.

Between then and 2014, I spent a lot of time learning how to paint digitally, it was just something that became really interesting to me for some reason. In 2014 I started getting back into game dev by playing around with Unity, and then around 2015 Godot was made open source and I jumped on that, and I’m still using that today, hence Ex-Zodiac 🙂

Godot Engine - Godot aims for mainstream

Is there any story behind the conception of Ex-Zodiac?

I’d had the idea of doing my own Star Fox game a few times when I was younger, after all, Star Fox 64 left quite an impression on me as a teenager. Having said that, Ex-Zodiac didn’t start out with the intention of being an on-rails shooter. The prototype I started was actually trying to replicate more of a regular flight feel, I wanted to do a kind of arcade-ish dog fighting game or something, but I quickly realised if I restricted the movement to a path, I had something that felt a lot like Star Fox. So I went from there 🙂

I had seen an early prototype of the game in Twitter a while ago; quite interesting! Around what time did it start development?

I recall it starting development around May 2017.

What can you comment about the concept art made for the game? (Main character Kyuu and her spaceship)

Hmm, well the concept art for Kyuu and the spaceship technically came after I’d already figured out what they look like, so really those images are more promotional art than concept, although I guess I did figure out/refine a few of the details when I drew it.

What can you comment about Godot itself for development?

I really enjoy working with it for the most part. It has it’s annoyances here and there, but what engine doesn’t? I like the overall way it works, and things like the animation and UI system have made developing Ex-Zodiac a much nicer experience than when I’ve attempted a 3D game in other engines. I also like the fact I can crack open the source code and fix/add things whenever I find myself limited by anything.

What has been the hardest part with developing Ex-Zodiac so far?

Originally it was staying motivated and focused. Early on in the development I kept jumping on to other ideas and prototypes, which is why it took so long to reach its current state from 2017, but once I held myself accountable (and got others to by showing it publicly) it became easy to stay focused. Now the biggest difficulty I face is probably level designs/layouts and coming up with interesting and varied enemies. I guess coming up with a decent story is tricky for me too, but I have a friend helping out in that area.

On the flipside, what was the easiest thing to nail so far?

Probably the graphical side of things, and the bosses have been fun to create so far without too many issues

What other games outside of Star Fox have inspires you during Ex-Zodiac development?

Space Harrier, Panzer Dragoon, side scrolling shoot’em ups like G-Darius, R-Type Delta, Einhander. Some influences are more obvious than others, but there’s lots of ideas I get from all over the place

How did you get to meet Miles (from PixelJam) and +TEK for this project?

I found TEK’s music completely by accident! I was on Youtube and one of the suggested videos was for an indie game I’d never heard of before. I decided to click it out of boredom and when I heard the music playing I was like – wow, this music is good.

It wasn’t the kind of music I was used to hearing in indie games, it felt more like the kind of music you’d hear from Japanese composers (which is no surprise when you find out TEK’s biggest influence is Yousuke Yasui). I knew at that point I had to contact him regarding music for Ex-Zodiac. Thankfully he said yes 🙂

As for Miles, he contacted me on Twitter after some of my tweets started to go more viral, I think he was starting to see potential in the project. Funny thing is, his team (PixelJam) made games like Dino Run and Gamma Bros, the latter which I remember playing a lot in college!

That’s nice to know! What can you say about the Kickstarter campaign and success?

I’m surprised at how quickly we met our goal, I mean I was cautiously optimistic; we had all these people on twitter saying they wanted to throw money at us, but that doesn’t always translate to people actually throwing money at you. Luckily for us they really meant it! A lot of Kickstarter campaigns these days feel really bloated and often over promise on things.

We decided we wanted to keep it simple, avoiding things like huge stretch goals we might end up not being able to meet, or physical products we’d have to stress over getting shipped out etc. I think it worked in our favour, I’ve had several people make a point of the simplicity of the campaign and how they felt it was more realistic in its expectations compared to other Kickstarters they’d seen.

Glad to hear that! About the game itself, what could you say about its current state?

It’s hard to say how complete it is at this stage, but there’s a lot left to do. If I had to estimate it’s current completeness, I’d say it was around 10% done. A lot of that was figuring out core systems though, so hopefully the remaining work will be done quicker now that it’s mainly just working on levels.

Any extra planned modes or features in the future outside of the main game?

Nothing planned so far, just focusing on the core experience for now 😉

Just by curiosity, is this your first big/public game project?


Quite nice to see it develop this nicely! On a side note, what are you favorite games (and genres)?

I love games with a lot of energy and character, anything with huge bosses and stylish gameplay. Lots of Sega arcade games from the 90s, side scrolling shmups like G-Darius or Einhander, run ‘n gun games like Gunstar Heros, Metal Slug, Alien Soldier, platformers like Rocket knight, Dynamite Headdy… the list goes on. Oh, and pretty much anything made by Platinum, I cannot get enough of anything made by them.

Do you have any hobby/dedication outside of development of Ex-Zodiac?

If I’m not working on games, then I’m usually doing artwork or trying to improve at music 🙂

That’s nice! What did you think when I reached out for this interview?

I was happy that someone wanted to know more about the project!

How do you feel about the oncoming future and feedback of the project?

It feels a little overwhelming at times, but the feedback has been great so far, I’m certain it will continue to help improve the game and shape it into something I can be proud of.

Any special thanks for anybody?

Hmm, pretty much anyone who’s given feedback and tested the game so far! Oh, and obviously anyone who decided to back the Kickstarter!

I really will be looking forward to the progress in this game; it definitely hits a great chord for me (between my love for flat-colored polygons and playing Star Fox 64) and I’m very grateful to have got this chance. I will definitely will try covering the game and its current demo as well!

Thank you so much for this interview and Ex-Zodiac!

No problem, and thank you!

The best way to follow on Ex-Zodiac’s progress is through Ben Hickling’s Twitter account, as small updates are posted there often. There is also a Discord server avaliable in the Kickstarter page.

I’d personally recommend you to keep an eye on this game, with the way it is looking so far, and being quite fun in the current demo (even if you aren’t familiar with the Star Fox series; but if you are, you will enjoy it even more). As I mentioned at the first paragraphs, I will try soon enough to do an article covering Ex-Zodiac, from the conditions that surround it (like rail-shooters being almost extinct) to the current demo features and levels, as well as some general foresight into what more could be expected in the future.