If you’re going to cherry pick points of inspiration before setting out to make your video game, you might as well take from the best. Are there more beautiful anime films than those made by the venerable Japanese anime house, Studio Ghibli? Or better adventures to be had in gaming than those found in Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda series?
Probably not. So cramming the two together sounds like a sure-fire recipe for success, right?
That’s what Italian development studio Naps Team is hoping will come from Baldo: The Guardian Owls, an alchemical mix of anime-visuals and classic Zelda mechanics, headed to the Apple Arcade mobile gaming subscription platform on August 27, as well as PlayStation, Xbox, PC and Nintendo Switch.
From GBA to Apple Arcade
The idea for the game has knocked around in some form or other across multiple platforms – and multiple decades. Naps Team had been working on a Game Boy Advance title called Dark Knight, including the now-titular character Baldo. But hardware and publishing limitations meant it never saw the light of day.
“It was a kind of an attempt to do a Zelda-like game in 2D, and it was really quite good,” Domenico Barba, programmer and studio co-founder told TechRadar.
“We had a really good product, but at that time, there was no opportunity for publishing so we had to give up.
“The game and original development on GBA 15 years ago was interrupted. Five years back we returned to the project and adapted it to the new technology and so on. So it’s not exactly 15 years development, but the idea was in the air in the studio.”
The spirit of Dark Knight lives on in Baldo, though.
“Basically the mechanics remain the same. The technology is totally different, because [Dark Knight] was a 2D game. The mechanics are basically the same, so dungeons exploration, trade, dialog. We just expanded a lot of the story, the world and puzzles to meet the actual expectations for a title of this day.”
Like the games that inspired Baldo, it’s set to be a huge title. “There is about 50 to 100 hours of gameplay depending on if you’re a skilled player, or want to do every side quest, so it’s quite huge,” says Barba. Developed for multiple platforms and input types simultaneously (a feat only possible thanks to the quality of the Unity engine and its tools, says Barber), it’s even more impressive given that Naps Team is made up of a core of just two people.
“The artistic part is Fabio Capone, and the technical part and programming is all on me,” confesses Barba. “I work on all platforms, that’s thanks to the Unity engine!” Over the five years of core development, it wasn’t unusual for the pair to work 12 hour days as standard.
“We have had a lot of experience with some other games released on Apple devices as well as Android devices. I would say it was quite easy, because of our experience, but not without problems.
“After all, there is joypad compatibility with Apple now: you can play mobile with touch, or you can attach a joypad which is the easiest and probably the best way to play. It loses nothing on touch controls, using a virtual joystick.”
Ghibli meets Gannon
The art style “was there from the beginning” says Barba, adding that “the advances since GBA in technology, techniques, 3D tech and cell-shading, and, of course the talents of Fabio, [were] really inspiring.”
Naps Team wears its influence on its sleeve then, happily referencing anime powerhouses and Nintendo titles during our conversation. But they’re not the only fonts of inspiration for Baldo: The Guardian Owls.
“There’s a lot of Monkey Island influence in there,” reveals Barba. “It’s more about the humor, some puzzles stuck out in our memory. And also there are some cameos. There are some places in chapter two where it’s a direct homage to the Monday Island series. But the main inspiration is Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki – it’s our homage to those masters.”
When it comes to gameplay though, Naps Team actively sought to make a game worthy of the Zelda comparisons, while recognizing Zelda as the top dog in adventure gaming.
“When they say, only one is a legend, it’s true,” laughs Barba.
“Everyone’s inspired, but we are the only ones actually going that near, close to the real Zelda mechanics, because every other title is missing something. Some are missing interaction with people, some are missing intricate side quests, some are missing dungeons, some are missing depth to the world. There are so many elements which must come together.
“Of course, even our game is quite far from a Zelda chapter because Zelda is really massive. It is silly to even think to be competitive with such a title. So as Zelda players and as developers, we honestly think it’s the closest thing people will have ever seen to a Zelda-like game.”
While Naps Team remains tight lipped about Baldo’s story, the high-fantasy flavor is easily spotted from the trailers revealed so far. Rolling green fields, fortified castles, creature-filled forests and haunted graveyards, complete with a zany cast wild enough to make Miyamoto blush, from banjo-playing frogs to potion-brewing cat people. Early footage also reveals that Baldo is more keenly following the pre-Breath of the Wild Zelda mould, focusing on tight dungeons.
“You have a lot of ways to play and a lot of paths to complete the game. Think of a world like a Breath of the Wild, but with much more attention to the classic Zelda elements like the dungeons,” confirmed Barber.
“But don’t expect any linear progression in Baldo. It’s about discovery, it’s about talking with people, and a continuous process of exploration and navigating the world, discovering new places, discovering new places, people. Bringing that altogether to solve a quest. You can have multiple quests open, reach different dungeons at different times. It’s very freeing.”
Taking on foes in Baldo: The Guardian Owls will be open to many approaches, Barber explains, and won’t be necessarily tied to the sort of item-gated progression that older Zelda games adhere to.
“Combat will vary depending upon player experience and progression in the game – if you want the easy combat approach, you can go on quests to get better equipment that you will probably need. But as in any other RPG or open world game you can go with your sword, with nothing else, and be a ninja and try for two hundred attempts and fight the boss. Otherwise you take another path and choose your equipment and your stuff to go and face the boss easily. The point is, how much time it takes to get, to progress, to leverage your equipment. It’s a balance for the player to decide. So, the combat can expand a lot, but actually, you can also go with the basic equipment.”
And while player’s shouldn’t expect a Diablo-like wealth of loot, collecting different weapons and equipment will be a key part of Baldo’s appeal.
“Equipment isn’t earned strictly upon completing dungeons,” says Barber.
“You never know what the dungeon will give you. Some weapons can be earned in the sidequests, there are some other collections or items that require trade, and some others can be discovered, exploring the world. There’s a lot of variety, it’s not all about levelling up your combat. There are a lot of paths to increase your defence, to increase your attack. There’s a lot of shields, extra weapons, potions and food and whatever you need – lots of alternatives in terms of attack and defence.”
The mobile gaming revolution comes of age
To simply look at Baldo: The Guardian Owls in motion is to see just how far mobile gaming has come in a short space of time. It’s not only a vastly more ambitious game than the Naps Team’s GBA efforts were 15 years earlier, but the sort of game that would have been impossible to comprehend even five years ago. The fact that it can be played alongside hundreds of other games for a low-cost monthly fee on Apple Arcade is evidence of a shifting tide in favor of mobile gaming in recent years – one that no longer is focused purely on the casual gamer, but harnessing hardware that can produce games of genuine console quality. Baldo exists just as easily in your hand as it does on your TV fed by a souped-up console.
“A few years back there was a totally different culture in mobile games, but actually, this is changing and it’s changing very fast,” says Barber.
“With cloud gaming services, with services like Apple Arcade, with also the Steam Deck, something’s telling you everything is going mobile because it’s become easier. Probably even Sony would come back to mobile one day. So I see it really possible that even big games will get mobile adaptations. The market is going in two different directions, which is the huge titles for next generation and then the mobile titles for a generation like Nintendo Switch or mobile devices, which actually run really well and have good input features now.”
Whether on the back of a bus, or in front of a bigscreen TV, Baldo: The Guardian Owls looks set to be quite the adventure, and one that may yet prove an equal to its lofty inspiration.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.