For much of his life, Nathanael Weiss has been a fan of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series. Starting with the NES original, he became engrossed with the realm of Hyrule, and the freedom it offered to explore in different ways. As time went on, though, that started to change. The Zelda formula became more rigid over the years. Weiss’ interest in the series waned. As a self-taught game developer, he eventually decided to solve the problem the only way he knew how: he made the game he wanted to play. “I wanted a procedurally generated Zelda,” he says, “something that would surprise me every time.”
The result is Songbringer, which is out now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. Much like the original Zelda, Weiss’ new game drops players into an unfamiliar world, and provides little instruction on what to do from there. As you explore the pixelated landscape, you’ll uncover weapons and gear — including a top hat that doubles as a boomerang — as well as secrets about the mysterious world you’ve landed on.
Songbringer has a vibe that feels sort of like a Heavy Metal cover rendered in 16-bit pixels, and there are plenty of moments you’d never find in a Zelda game, like a cactus-fueled vision quest. Perhaps the biggest change from the formula is that Songbringer offers a multitude of different worlds to explore. When you first start playing, you’re asked to enter a string of letters, which, in turn, will generate a world. Each letter combination produces something slightly different, shifting the layout so that you can experience the game multiple times and still see new things.
The game was developed in its entirety by Weiss, who handled design, programming, music, and even art. (He learned how to make pixel art specifically for Songbringer.) It’s his first big solo project, though far from his first game. When Weiss was 14, he read stacks of books on programming with the sole goal of being able to make his own games. His first release was a puzzle game called Adventures With Chickens, where players had to save purple chickens from asphyxiating. “It was horrible,” Weiss says. He estimates he sold around two copies. He was stuck with a box of unsold 3.5-inch floppy disks.
But that experience helped plant a seed, and Weiss continued to make games. Most recently, he partnered with a friend on a competitive multiplayer game called Hero Bash for iPhone. Though it was a more robust and complex experience compared to his first game, and took the pair two and a half years to complete, the result was much the same: Hero Bash completely flopped. As disappointing as that was, though, the experience also provided the impetus for Weiss to finally make his dream game. “I wasn’t even sure if I would make another video game because I felt like that much of a failure,” he explains. “But I asked myself this question when I started Songbringer: ‘What would I create if it was the last thing I’d ever create?’”
That thing was the Zelda game he’d been thinking about since he was a kid. Eventually, he launched a Kickstarter to crowdfund Songbringer, raising a modest $15,000 to keep himself afloat financially. He then dedicated much his life to the creation of the game. That included regularly live-streaming the development process — at one point he was streaming five days a week — and building up a following of players similarly interested in his trippy, sci-fi take on Zelda. Sometimes artists would stop by his streams and offer tips and encouragement. Other times viewers would give suggestions that ultimately made their way into Songbringer, like the time someone said it would be cool to craft items. The game naturally evolved over time.
The result is an experience that is clearly inspired by Zelda, but also feels distinct — and often strange. There are the vision quests, your flying robot partner named Jib, and a deep sense of mystery and alienness that calls to mind a Moebius painting. (Think lots of ancient monuments and creepy alien monsters.) And for Weiss, it’s the fulfillment of a long sought-after dream. “If Songbringer didn’t do well at all, I would still be completely satisfied and rewarded,” he says. “It’s more than the game I wanted to create.”