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  The Challenge

We're Makin'... a Movie!

My brother Steve and some of his friends formed a film group a few years ago. Their first project was "How to Water Ski", an old-timey instructional video spoof with plenty of pratfalls and slapstick humor. After doing a few more shorts, they were ready for their next big film.

The script sprang from actual events. Steve's friend Dan bet him that he couldn't beat the second level of Ghosts 'n Goblins for the Nintendo. Anyone who has played it knows how brutally difficult the game is to complete.

"The Challenge" introduces a new game that is so unfair, so impossible to beat, that the programmers didn't even bother creating a second level. The attempt to win a bet and beat Level 1 consumes the protagonist. The challenge ends up costing him his job, his sanity, and ultimately, his life.

The story was all set, but there was just one thing missing: the game. That's where I joined the project. My job was to build an original Nintendo game from scratch. I got to work making levels, characters, and enemies. I'd need to make enough for about 25 animations sprinkled throughout the movie of the hero dying in the most ridiculous ways imaginable.


I wanted the fake Nintendo game to look as much like a real one as possible. The first order of business was to establish a color palette. Although I knew that the NES uses a palette of 52 colors, to my surprise there seems to be no consensus on exactly what those colors are. I eventually settled on one theory. These would be the only colors I would use for the entire "game".


Next, I created a bunch of side-scrolling backgrounds. They were sized to fit the NES screen dimensions of 256x224 pixels.

The various environments include fields, deserts, dungeons, graveyards, water, snow, clouds, and factories.

It took a lot of work to make the graphics look this cheap. Although, to be fair, talented designers were doing some pretty impressive work with the limited graphics capabilities of the NES in its early days. I'm looking at you, Sunsoft.


Now it was time to create the main character. He's a deli owner who attacks with a never-ending supply of hoagies. I made an assortment of sprites, or poses, of him in action. Sprites at that time were limited to four colors each, so he only contains white, green, brown, and peach.

You can already start to see some of the ways the player loses lives. I ended up with over 50 character sprites, which is a few more than Mario has in the original Super Mario Bros.


I probably had the most fun coming up with wacky foes that would foil the hero in bizarre ways. Some were invented for the movie, others were revived from clay animations that my brother and I had made years ago (they're for a future article), and the rest were tributes to classic games.

Old-school fans will probably recognize characters from Bubble Bobble, Duck Hunt, Mega Man, Kid Icarus, and Zelda II. The familiar "? Block" from the Mario series was replaced with a pi symbol.

The strange-looking ghost in the middle was the director's idea: The Ghost of Kurt Russell. I don't get it either.


Once the sets and cast had been assembled, it was time to set things into motion. Everything was animated in Macromedia Flash, then exported as a Quicktime Movie.

This is a compilation of game scenes from "The Challenge". The catchy soundtrack, created by my brother Steve, sounds like it could come from a real NES.

Sprite Sheets

I thought I lost most of the sprites to a hard drive crash. Fortunately, the editor of the movie still had a file containing most of the animations in lossless quality even after fifteen years had passed. After ripping them, and recreating a few missing assets, I assembled these sprite sheets for your enjoyment.

Preview windows provided by The Spriter's Resource.

On Camera Role

I did physically appear in one scene in the movie. I'm part of a group that stages an intervention to help the challengee. But we arrive too late, as he is found dead in front of the TV, still clutching his controller. I ask, "What happened to him?" The game has a replay option that shows how he came withing one pixel of completing Level 1, a defeat so crushing it presumably killed him.

I'd post of clip of it here, but I wouldn't want my acting tour de force to overshadow my animation work.......