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René Boutin Discusses Cool Spot, Sunsoft, Licensed Games, and The 16-Bit Era

by Emily Rogers - February 21, 2020, 9:56 am PST
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To start, Boutin shares stories of game budgets in the '90s and working with David Perry on Cool Spot.

Note: This is a re-publishing of an old 2012 interview conducted by Emily Rogers for the defunct website known as “Not Enough Shaders”.

We would like to thank former producer/director René Boutin for giving us his time to interview him about his experiences working at Virgin Games and Sunsoft during the 1990s. He also sheds some light on what it was like working with licensors such as Disney and Warner Bros during the 16-bit console generation.

René Boutin worked on the following games during his time at Virgin Games and Sunsoft:

  • Looney Tunes B-Ball (SNES) – Producer
  • Speedy Gonzales: Los Gatos Bandidos (SNES) – Director, level designer, misc art
  • M.C. Kids (NES) – Sprite animator and Background Artist
  • Cool Spot (SNES) – Animation, Backgrounds, and GUI
  • Cool Spot (Genesis) – Animation, Backgrounds, Prototyping
  • Bugs Bunny Rabbit Rampage (SNES) – Associate Producer
  • Aero the Acro-Bat 2 (SNES) – Character designer, Play Tester
  • Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: Belle’s Quest (Genesis) – Producer
  • Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: Roar of the Beast (Genesis) – Producer
  • ACME Animation Factory (SNES) – Co-Producer
  • RoboCop VS The Terminator (Genesis) – Sprite animator
  • Daffy Duck (Game Boy) – Debugging Team

Nintendo World Report (NWR): In the '90s, you worked on both the Sega Genesis and SNES. What were the strengths and weaknesses of each of these consoles? Which console did you prefer developing for?

René Boutin (RB): As a video game artist and animator at that time, I couldn’t help but be more enthusiastic for the SNES. It definitely had the graphics advantage. Just off the top of my head, I remember it had a greater color palette, more colors for sprites, as many as three independently scrollable background layers, sprite transparency and of course the famous “Mode 7” rotatable/scalable background mode.

However you needed really talented programmers to push these features because the main CPU was rather underpowered and the system architecture really complex. We used to call it “fake 16-bit” because it was really a custom version of an 8-bit CPU hybridized with some 16-bit functionality. The Sega Genesis on the other hand had a true 16-bit processor, the Motorola 68000, despite being a couple years older than the SNES.

The SNES’s wavetable sound chip also gave it a big advantage with audio, and I still feel the controller was way more ergonomic than the Genesis one. So my clear favorite if it isn’t obvious already was the SNES! Let’s not forget that this era also saw the Turbo Grafix 16, and the rich kids’ favorite mega-console, the Neo Geo AES.

NWR: What were the typical budgets for most SNES/Genesis games that you produced and directed?

RB: I only had peripheral knowledge of the budgets, since that, schedules and negotiations with outside development studios were handled by the Director of Development and the General Manager. From what I recall though, Sunsoft was able to outsource development for around $125,000 to $250,000 USD range (but I may be off). That was considered a bit on the low side even then, but studios would sacrifice profits for the chance to add a big name license to their portfolio. In hindsight this seems rather unfair, but that’s the way business works I guess.

NWR: You were an animator and background artist for the game “Cool Spot” for SNES and Sega Genesis. 19 years later, and it’s still the best game based on a beverage. Do you have any interesting stories to share about your time working with David Perry on that game?

RB: My impression of [David Perry] was that he was a fairly down to earth, serious but amicable guy who worked hard and was a really talented programmer and game director. He’s also great at PR.

Before David ever started on “Cool Spot”, I was doing a lot of early design and prototype work. I had been drawing and animating sprites for the NES game “M.C. Kids” when I was paired off with a programmer to experiment and prototype on the Super Nintendo. This programmer had no game coding experience at all and meanwhile I had all these ambitious ideas and thought I could do it all (graphics, animation, level design …)

Based on the popular 7Up Spot “surfing” commercial, I came up with this whole narrative to explain where Spot was going in the game: First he surfs in on his bottle, he gets separated from it and ends up looking for it on the beach, into the walls of a nearby toy store, in a doll house, on a toy train, on the docks, etc. And I desperately wanted to use the SNES’ mode 7 to have a level where Spot would run along a truck wheel, trying to keep from falling off.

I created background art and sprite animations and meanwhile the programmer could barely get a character moving around, so I was left as a bit of a rogue, doing whatever I felt like with little opportunity to really test my graphics or get any real gameplay going on the system.

My memory is fuzzy regarding how many months continued like this, but eventually David Perry, David Bishop and Bill Anderson came to Virgin, as well as the talented team of Mark Kelly and Steven Crow. Their first game was “Mick & Mack Global Gladiators” and the quality of Perry’s engine and the character animation possible with it provided the catalyst for Virgin to start really ramping up the art department and pumping up the team to use the same technology on “Cool Spot”.

The Sega Genesis version took priority with Perry in the lead, while Mark Kelly programmed the SNES version. Some of my stuff made it into the game, some didn’t fit in with the new look and was scrapped.

With David (Perry) in the lead, the game really took shape rather quickly. David was pretty good about delegating parts of the game without dictating too much creatively. When he tasked me to create the score panel and fonts for the Sega Genesis version, he explained how he needed a way to indicate different levels of player health and he wanted something fairly original (as opposed to a typical life meter). So I came up with the “peeling Spot” that gets limp and peels off the score panel the more hurt you are, and falls right off when dead. Usually a programmer would balk at having to write special code to do something nonstandard like that, but I guess he liked it.

NWR: Is there anything else that you tell us about Cool Spot’s development?

RB: This is the commercial that inspired “Cool Spot” theme.

I’d like to mention that mucho credit goes to Virgin for providing the authorization and support for people like David Perry, Mike Dietz, and Tommy Talarico to innovate rather than rush out yet another platformer with a strict budget.

David Perry managed to program a method of swapping in sprite animation data in real-time (something no other games did before, and were thought to be a hardware limitation). And of course he programmed and directed the development of the whole game. A programmer was assigned to develop a sample-based music system, which enabled Tommy Talarico to compose tunes with more than just chip-wave sounds. A system of aligning and digitizing hand-drawn animation frames was created, enabling artists trained in classical animation to create fluid, disney quality animations which where then colored and touched up on computer. Greg Tavares and the other guys at Echidna developed an amazingly easy to use level editor that made creating levels as easy as using a paint program.

These people and many others on the team really made Cool Spot what it was.

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