The Cards of Circus Phlavio (2008)

Written on November 13, 2011, 3:35 PM - Add a comment

Category: Art Category: --- Category: Games Category: --- Category: ---

Let's talk about something I developed for the Game Design course at university, in 2008. It is probably my most ambitious game project to date that was actually finished!

Read on if you're into colourful platformers with mime robots and exploding balloon dogs.

The Story

This started out as an assignment in which we had to write an original story that follows the Hero's Journey pattern, as seen in many successful movies, books and games. Instead of a typical medieval adventure, I went for something less obvious-- a lovable circus crew that is being trapped in playing cards by evil mimes. A young girl named Pip remains untouched. She is left to save her circus... assisted by Magissimo, the local Italian magician who was conveniently transformed into card box.

Of course, even though Magissimo starts out as his arrogant self, a friendship emerges as the two must face the world together, while retrieving the cards trapping the spirits of their colleagues. With each spirit, Pip obtains a new circus-related ability, such as throwing juggling balls or walking on tightropes. Eventually, the team must battle the mimes's evil magician to break the curse and save their circus once and for all.

Promo image for The Cards of Circus Phlavio (2008)

A slightly creepy promo image (2008) showing Pip, Magissimo and a few supporting characters. My style has improved, but the main designs have remained the same.

I called the story The Cards of Circus Phlavio, and I would have to turn into a game soon thereafter. The final assignment of our Game Design course was to develop a video game in Game Maker, preferably based on the story we had written. We were allowed to use existing "illegal" resources, but I couldn't resist turning The Cards of Circus Phlavio into a colourful game with home-made graphics.

The Game

In essence, The Cards of Circus Phlavio was a sidescrolling platformer, because those were my favourite types of games at the time. However, to show that we understood game design elements such as balance and learning curve, all students had to include RPG elements into their game. Hence, I ended up with a Paper Mario-esque combination of platforming and turn-based fighting.

The Cards of Circus Phlavio loading bar (2008)

Rule number one: The fun should start at the loading screen.

Circus Phlavio screenshot (2008)

Hand-drawn illustrations introduce the game's story.

Pip ran and jumped through a colourful world in search of the hidden playing cards, while battling (or avoiding) vile enemies, such as mime robots and mime bats. Of course, Pip needed to fight regularly to become strong enough for the final battle.

Circus Phlavio screenshot (2008)

Magissimo starts by teaching you the basic controls of the game.

Circus Phlavio screenshot (2008)

During battles, the world is covered in darkness.

Upon acquiring certain numbers of cards, one of the Phlavio crew's spirits would appear to teach you a new ability. My personal favourite: explosive balloon dogs that mimicked Pip's jumps and that could be remotely detonated.

Spirits in The Cards of Circus Phlavio (2008)

The four unlockable spirits in the game. Juglio gives deadly juggling balls, Frankster has balloon dog bombs, Betty knows all about tightropes, and Phlavio (as a final "extra") boosts your item-carrying capacities.

You can probably think of a few other interesting abilities that I couldn't include, based on popular circus performances. How about the human cannonball?

I tried to incorporate some typical RPG-ish features. There was an underground shop where you could buy gear and health items (cake gives energy!). The game could be completed in a single trajectory, but a map system (with save points resembling Mr Phlavio himself) allowed Pip to warp between sub-areas. With the help of this system, backtracking was necessary to obtain all the cards in the game-- for example, only a balloon dog could reach a hidden card in one of the first areas. There was actually stuff to do!

Circus Phlavio screenshot (2008)

A leap of faith into mysterious caverns.

Note: at the time, Game Maker did not support partial transparency within images, so I had to pixelize all character sprites. If only I could've used images with an alpha channel, straight from CorelDraw! Apparently, this is supported in newer versions of the software. Of course, time constraints also forced me to accept the graphics at some point. For example, note how I went from "mimes" to "unicycle mime robots" because they were easier to animate.

Admittedly, the game was not very well balanced: battles were almost too hard at first, and became very easy once you had levelled up often enough. But for an RPG with 30-60 minutes of gameplay, I guess you can't expect a realistic sense of growth. :) If I ever get the chance to do it all over again, then I will dump the sluggish turn-based battles and focus on tight platforming, combined with the twist of Pip learning new abilities.

Development of this game led to some of the most stressful months of my life (until then, that is). In the end, though, it was all worth it: The Cards of Circus Phlavio was awarded a 10 out of 10 grade, and my version of the monomyth ended up serving as example material for students in 2009 and 2010.

The Inspiration

Even after the game's development, Circus Phlavio lived on in my mind. I updated the designs for Pip and Magissimo, I speculated about other gameplay elements I could have added, and I tried out different art styles. Creepy as it may sound, the characters are still very much alive to me. Some impressions:

Magissimo poster (2009)

A fictional poster (2009) featuring Magissimo in his human form.

Circus Phlavio promotional image (2010)

A more recent promotional image for the game (2010), in a scrapbook-like style. My favourite drawing of the team so far, even though Pip looks a bit too old.

Clay reproduction (2011) of Circus Phlavio's main character Pip

There's even a clay 3D Pip (2011) in my house, about 9.5cm (3.5in) tall.

The Future

It's been more than 3.5 years since I last officially touched the Phlavio project, but I still love the universe to this very day. Pip and Magissimo have evolved from empty mascots into full-fledged characters, and I still believe that the colourful world in which they live has plenty of potential.

If you were to ask me, "What is your ultimate desire?" or "What would you do if you had all available resources?", then I wouldn't have to think twice about my answer. I would do my best to convert Circus Phlavio into a professional game for everyone to play. Sure, without turn-based battles against static robots... but with Pip, Magissimo and lots of exploding balloon animals.

A guy can dream. Now hand over your money!

Written on November 13, 2011, 3:35 PM - Add a comment

Category: Art Category: --- Category: Games Category: --- Category: ---

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