Narita Boy is part video game project, part idle day dream. Even its creator isn’t entirely sure what it will become. But the art and energy behind it is undeniable. Like a long forgotten NES cart buried in your grandparents’ basement, Narita Boy insinuates itself in the imagination like a memory of something that never happened.
The game follows a dimension hopping warrior sporting a techno sword who’s tasked with saving the digital kingdom from certain doom. Currently four people working on the game, including Eduardo Fornieles, its creator, and the founder of Studio Koba. Previously of Friends and Foe where he worked as a visual and conceptional developer on Vane, Fornieles left to try and bring his own vision to life. “I started to feverishly create the Narita Boy universe as it appears in the 200 drawings I hooked on the wall,” he said, referencing a wall in his office filled with illustrations located in a Spanish village. The desk in his office is filled with post-its and memos that attempt to contain the game’s sprawl as it unravels in his mind.
The project is something of a collage of childhood influences at this point, ranging from action figures and cartoons to classic video games and 80s cinema. “He-man action figures were my favorite toys and Double Dragon was my first game on an arcade machine,” said Fornieles. “I became obsessed with Metroid and Castlevania on the NES. The delicious and strange universe of “Another world” also inspired me.” And then there’s the grainy, warbly aesthetic of VHS and movies displayed on hulking tubular CRT televisions.
“The strange magic transmitted by the analogic films of the 80s with their astonishing visuals, synth music and stories full of innocence and imagination are a key part of Narita Boy,” he said. In isolation these scraps of disparate media might form a familiar pastiche, but Fornieles hopes to bring a new alchemy to bear in the hopes of relaying an experience with an identify of its own,
“Narita Boy was born from the need to transmit the strange universe and the nostalgic feeling that I had in my childhood. The idea was to create something metaphysical and poetic, to combine the subtlety and beauty of Japan with postmodernism and western culture. It is once again the story of the path of the warrior and at the same time an effort to transcend the plot towards something more referential. Parody is a key factor as well as the rich and complex plot that gives the game the right to be itself and not only a nostalgic journey to the 80s.”
Japan, where Fornieles worked for several years and also met his wife, looms large in the background of the game’s influences. He calls Tokyo the “the Digital Kingdom, a huge capital with monoliths and lights everywhere.” He was surrounded by high rises and from his terrace at night Fornieles felt like he was living inside scene from one of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira cityscapes. “Massive rectangles of concrete shining like fireflies in a silent lake,” he said. Juxtapose this with the village in Castle and Leon, Spain where Fornieles now lives and is working on the game, and the inspiration for Narita Boy’s larger expanses and desolate geography feels acute.
“We are from Barcelona but after returning from Tokyo my wife and I settled in the village of my family, in Castile and Leon, where all my ancestors come from,” he said. “The energy in the village is wonderful and is boosting our creativity.” He believes the tranquility and calmness village life affords is key to building out his vision of the game’s world of cyberpunk nostalgia. The contrast it cuts throws also appears in the way the game shifts between these two types of spaces. On the one hand, there’s Blade Runner’s dense hot Los Angeles, and on the other, Fornieles said, “The country side is the void, the meditation, the exploration parts of Narita Boy when he cross a big and almost empty land.”
So what does cyberpunk mean to him? The term gets thrown around a lot, especially in video games, as short hand for a certain look or sound, and in a way that’s all that’s really left of it. The future imagined in most cyberpunk stories has already been replaced by the recent past. Hacking, digital surveillance, and the growth of corporate influence are all common tropes at this point bordering on banal.
To escape those cliches, Fornieles tries to stay abstract. “For me, cyberpunk is the first paragraph from Neuromancer, Tetsuo about to explode, hundreds of “air con” between old buildings in Tokyo where wires remember human hair in the morning, the skyline of Odaiwa from my terrace in Tokyo at night and Ghost in the Shell...” He’s similarly vague when it comes to how old media and outdated technology are realized in the game’s particular style. “Retro is the taste for the nostalgia. The past rebooted by the new trends. The retro to me brings the impression of distant and obsolete futures,” he said.
In terms of the game itself as people will play it, this means a hack and slash action with exploration in the vein of a Metroidvania-style side-scroller. At least for now. The project is in its infancy and still full of unknowns. “In Narita Boy everything is about an experience,” said Fornieles. “An ironic and artistic experience where image, code and music dances together.”
For all of his metaphors, Fornieles’s concrete memory of the Double Dragon machine he used to play at an arcade near his grandparents in a summer town along the Catalan coast seemed to capture his aspirations for Narita Boy the best. When I asked if the arcade cabinet was still there and he played it since, Fornieles turned wistful. “The cabinet is not there anymore,” he said. “It would be awesome, right? I remember stealing 25 cents from my aunt to play the game. And I still remember the smell of frankfurts, tobacco and the insert coin message flickering on the screen.”
Those same flickers are half of Narita Boy’s appeal. The game’s trailers depict a game filtered through old technology, like scratchy MP3s trying to imitate vinyl on a turntable. The field of view is even curved, as if the game itself is something being re-discovered rather than newly created. It’s also reminiscent of the first line of Neuromancer cited by Fornieles.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Narita Boy’s ambition seems to be making that dead channel playable again. The game is currently planned for release in December of 2018.