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“It’s a Genre About Spectacle”: WayForward Director Talks Spidersaurs and the Future of the Run-and-Gun

Tomm Hulett talks Spidersaurs and what it takes to keep the spectacle of the run-and-gun genre.




How do you revitalize the run-and-gun genre? By mixing spiders, dinosaurs, wannabe rockstars, aspiring cops, guitar-gun combinations, and a healthy serving of satire all in one colorful package—at least, that’s what WayForward is doing with Spidersaurs. First released on Apple Arcade in 2019, Spidersaurs is a run-and-gun that has reached a new audience with a recent re-release across PC and all major consoles. 

To learn more about WayForward’s latest venture, Goomba Stomp caught up with Spidersaurs director Tomm Hulett on a recent episode of the NXpress Nintendo Podcast for a wide-ranging discussion about the game’s origins and what the future holds for the run-and-gun genre.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and cohesiveness.

run-and-gun games
Image: WayForward

Goomba Stomp: Why spiders? Why dinosaurs? Why guitars? In other words – what is Spidersaurs all about, and where did the initial idea for the game come from?

Tomm Hulett: Our creative director at WayForward, Matt Bozon, had been talking with us internally, as well as with Apple for Apple Arcade, about wanting to return to the run-and-gun genre. We wanted do something fun, something that two players could play together—dads could play with sons, moms could play with daughters, whatever. He really thought a good way to bring back the 80s, gameplay-wise, was to dive into 80s cartoon shows—specifically, the kind that was engineered to sell action figures and cereal. Mutants were all the rage back then, you might say. And so he came up with this spider-dinosaur hybrid in Spidersaurs.

[In the world of Spidersaurs,] if it’s not obvious, dinos and spiders were spliced together to solve the world health crisis of the future. After all, drumsticks are the number one food group in games—and spiders have eight of them, so you can get eight drumsticks. But how do you make it bigger? Dinosaurs. And so, that’s where that idea came from.

And for guitars, what else are you gonna fight a spidersaur with? So, guitar guns [laughs].

GS: It’s a bit cliche, but Spidersaurs really does look like a playable Saturday morning cartoon. This is also a marked departure from other prominent run-and-guns, which often have a grittier aesthetic. Can you talk about the decision to settle on this graphical style?

Hulett: The Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic was always our goal. We’d actually been working on a lot of different art techniques at WayForward ever since the Shantae Kickstarter [in 2013].  Then, we had an in-house artist, Shaun Healey, whose art style—very anime and cartoony—fit WayForward really well, so we were excited to show that off in a new title, where we could build it from the ground up. It became a pairing of our goal to make the project like a Saturday morning cartoon, and to take advantage of all these different visual techniques.

For example, we used a program called Spine that lets you rig a 2D image if it were a 3D model—the image moves like a puppet, but not in a derogatory way [laughs]. We had gotten people who were really good at it. We could use hand-drawn, traditional animation frames, like you’re dating back to games like Aladdin and Earthworm Jim but in high resolution, and then use Spine where appropriate. Spine worked really well for the bosses, because if you think about the old 16-bit classics like Gunstar Heroes or Contra, those bosses were using sprites stuck together in a puppet-y way. In this way, our bosses could use detailed, high-res pieces that are also strung together so they feel like the old shooter bosses. It was a great joining of technique and idea, and it allowed Spidersaurs to be a super colorful shooter–which lets it stand out.  You can have Cuphead doing the classic 20s American cartoon, then you have Spidersaurs doing the late 80s, early 90s look—it’s fun to bring colors to shooters [laughs]!

Spidersaurs run-and-gun WayForward game
Image: WayForward

GS: From a narrative perspective, Spidersaurs is a bit more involved than one might expect for a game of its genre. It has a surprising amount of satire, as it’s a lighthearted story about a corporation producing monsters that are actively destroying the world. Why take this approach to storytelling?

Hulett: Before WayForward and Konami, I worked at Atlus doing localization, so I care a great deal about stories and getting the right vibe. But at WayForward, I’d always been working on licensed games, so my writing has to be tuned to sound like Adventure Time, or R. L. Stein and the Goosebumps books, or things like that. So with Spidersaurs, it was exciting to finally work on an original WayForward IP and get to decide the feel of it. But writing it really took me back to my Atlus days—it came back really fast, and before long I realized Spidersaurs sounded like my Atlus writing.

I tried to consider the key components: this is the near future, there’s a global food crisis, and there’s this corporation. How would people act, and what would they be like? I felt like they did be a little detached. They’d be a little bit self-absorbed but in a likable way. For example, Victoria, one of the main characters, is trying to become a musician and cares a lot about money so she can buy expensive musical gear—but not in a bratty way that makes you dislike her. You understand her—we all have hobbies that we need to pay for. As for the oblivious corporation, though—they feel like they’re well-meaning, but they’re clearly just awful.

GS: Spidersaurs originally launched on Apple Arcade way back in 2019. What was it like to revisit the game for its console and PC re-release after all this time? How much would you say the game has been changed for this new release?

Hulett: Making a game is always an interesting process. You have all these ideas, but there are factors like schedules, budgets, bugs, curveballs, and brilliant ideas that happen when you don’t have the resources you thought you had—and then the game comes out. Usually, you can’t go back and fix the game once it comes out, and you just have to hope for a sequel…But with Spidersaurs, we knew that there would be a console version eventually, so we had to consider: what would that be like, and what could we change?

Eventually, we settled on a new final boss and a new final stage—those were my must-have content because we had so many cool ideas and animations. Beyond that, we worked to refresh the game balance by making the gameplay smoother and adjusting the difficulty for parts that players got stuck on. We also added a new difficulty mode and switched some bosses around, leading to some balance tweaks overall. You can think of it as a director’s cut—the best version of Spidersaurs.

Image: WayForward

GS: Spidersaurs can be a deeply challenging game, but it is rarely frustrating. In true arcade fashion, the game can sometimes feel impossible but is easily overcome once you know what to do. How do you create that difficulty curve and mirror an old-school arcade style in the game?

Hulett: We focus on the level design first—if it’s not fun to run through a level without enemies, then it won’t be fun once they’re added in. When that’s solidified, we put in the enemies, powerups, and all the different little variables—and that’s where the tweaking comes in. In a game like this, you really don’t want the screen to feel empty too often. We have to have very frequent enemies coming in, but then it can’t feel so overwhelming that no one can handle it.

It’s a constant cycle of checking and rechecking and tweaking. It was great to come back after several years being off, because now we didn’t have muscle memory for the stages we developed anymore. So we had to ask—“Is it too hard after all?” And sometimes, “If I made this level, why can’t I beat it?”

We refreshed all the balance and added the three new difficulty levels, so hopefully this is a good fit. But when the game was released, I was watching my friend stream it, and she’s beaten Contra 4 on hard without dying 100 times—and she got stuck on a boss in Spidersaurs. I didn’t have any trouble with it at first, but after watching her stream, I can’t beat it either! I had it in my muscle memory, but I lost it. It’s fun to dissect your game, but it’s tricky to get it right, even if you think you got it right.

Image: WayForward

GS: You’ve had quite a career pre-Spidersaurs, such as having worked on entries in established series like Contra 4. Coming from previously developing an official Contra title to making an all-new original run-and-gun, how does it feel to put your own spin on an established genre? 

Hulett: I’ve worked on a lot of licensed games, so usually a part of my process involves asking, what did previous games in the series do? Such as, with Adventure Time, what does the cartoon do that would transfer over as a game? But here, starting over and establishing an IP in a genre like this, is a super different process.

When we did Contra 4, the Wii and the Virtual Console had just come out when we started developing it, and thankfully, they opened the Virtual Console with Contra 3 and Gunstar Heroes. These games were at my fingertips, so me and Simon Lai, who was my co-producer at Konami, played through them and asked: how do these things fit Contra? What feels like Contra, and what doesn’t? And so when we started making Spidersaurs, I already knew what fits Contra, I replayed Gunstar Heroes, played Cuphead (which was new at the time), and looked at some games I hadn’t dived into yet, like Metal Slug. So, we learned what fits the genre–but what fits Spidersaurs, a game that doesn’t exist yet?

It was just fun first establishing what Spidersaurs was and then playing with it a little bit…We wanted to provide something really cool for fans of the run-and-gun genre, or for people who are new to the genre, to provide a good introduction. 

There’s definitely some Contra elements in Spidersaurs from my DNA, but we also brought in some more Megaman X-inspired elements: we added special abilities and a dash mechanic for example…And with the different bosses, you can really see the influence of the defining games of the genre—Gunstar Heroes, Metal Slug, Cuphead, and so on. I hope Spidersaurs is a good ambassador for the genre—if you’ve never played a run-and-gun, here’s what they’re like. 

Image: WayForward

GS: Spidersaurs is very much a traditional run-and-gun—meanwhile, we see companies like Konami, which have a history of pioneering the run-and-gun genre with the Contra franchise, have attempted to push the legacy series in a very different direction with titles like Contra Rogue Corps a few years back. Against this backdrop, where do you see the future of the run-and-gun going?

Hulett: There’s lots of room for the genre to expand without changing what it is, where you can keep the retro fundamentals of running and gunning. 

It’s a genre about spectacle. It’s that push and pull between retro gameplay, but then modern spectacle, that would impress people. That’s where some run-and-gun developers get tripped up as they’re like, “Well, it’s all spectacle, so we have to abandon this gameplay, we’ve got to do something new.” And then they lose the spark that made us play Contra or Metal Slug back in the day. It’s definitely something I was aware of in Spidersaurs. 

Going forward, that’s where the genre has room to expand. Keep it simple to control and shoot, and players can instantly pick up the gameplay. But then, how do we get in something impressive that they haven’t seen before and not lose that spectacle aspect? Because when Contra 3 came out, you loaded up your Super Nintendo, you ran over, there was a car, you shot it, and the car exploded–and you were like, “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.” Now, Bayonetta does that all the time.

But when 3D games do something crazy, you’re often losing some method of control–[your character] might be flipping around and doing crazy stuff, but you might just be watching….whereas in a run-and-gun, crazy things happen and you’re in control the whole time. You are never not playing this game–and look at the insane things you’re doing! That would be a good place for the genre to go. 

Were there any spidersaurs you designed that didn’t make the cut in the final game?

Well, there’s one that didn’t quite make it into the game. I’ll just say this: dino long legs.

That sounds horrifying and beautiful at the same time. Care to elaborate?

I’m not going to. I want dino long legs to be a surprise. People have to buy the game, so we can get a chance to see what he’s about.

Many thanks to Tomm Hulett for his time, and to Chris from WayForward for helping coordinate the interview. This is only part of the conversation—for the full interview, tune in to Episode 299 of the NXpress Nintendo Podcast!

Spidersaurs is available now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox, PC, and Apple Arcade.

Campbell divides his time between editing Goomba Stomp’s indie games coverage and obsessing over dusty old English literature. Drawn to storytelling from a young age, there are few things he loves as much as interviewing indie developers and sharing their stories.