The Making Of: Tunnel B1
For the videogame industry, 1996 was a good time. With the PlayStation hardware two years old in Japan, and hitting its stride in the west with a wealth of thirdparty support, Sony pixels were on televisions worldwide. By June, there would be a price cut for the console that would plant it atop the hardware charts, but the deal was sealed by games. And for games, 1996 was a very good year.
It was the year that genres were being reborn and redefined in the living room. The third dimension was a revolution of form rather than a seismic shift in content. We were playing the same types of game: racing (Ridge Racer, Wipeout), platformers (Tomb Raider, Crash Bandicoot) and beat ’em ups (Tekken, Battle Arena Toshinden), but with a new palette and perspective. And on a canvas of titles dedicated to single pillars of design, Tunnel B1 is an oddity.
With its rat’s-eye view, weapon-free HUD and top-mounted guns, German developer Neon concocted a videogame blend that many critics spat out in disgust. Gameplay consists of drifting and shooting your way through barriers and drones as you race against the clock. Those levels are cut-and-paste morgues of brown and grey, distinct only in their yellow/black caution arrows and fluorescent lights that signify a wafer-thin apocalyptic narrative (supported only by a textless opening cutscene).
You’ll find Tunnel B1 listed as a firstperson shooter, a ‘vehicle shooter’ and any number of expletives if you cast your eye over the internet. It’s not surprising to find such mixed reception and memories for a title so polarised in its content. Good (framerate), bad (difficulty spike) and ugly (enemies with the visual threat of a wheelie bin): Tunnel B1 still effervesces with love and hate in the murky waters of nostalgia.
But this isn’t really about what Tunnel B1 was – the interesting question is what such a mishmash was ever meant to be. The truth is that the Tunnel B1 that was released was a shadow of the original pitch, as programmer and designer Jan Joeckel remembers: “The game was planned completely differently. We planned an action movie-style game with realtime sequences. For demo purposes we made two sections: one where you used a helicopter, and one with the hovercraft. [Ocean] really liked them so they amended the contract and we were going to make ‘Game B1’ and ‘Game B2’.” In light of this, Tunnel B1’s relentless, time-based demands on the user are more understandable. The countdown wracked nerves like few games before or since, and when viewed as an interlude, a time-attack slice of an all-encompassing gameplay pie, its short loops of satisfaction and pain, risk and reward make more sense.
Tunnel B1 programmer and designer Jan Joeckel.
Experimentation was in Neon’s blood, its entry in the Mr Nutz series – Hoppin’ Mad, released as an Amiga title in 1994 – a more freeform spin on platforming than might be expected from a cute-styled game starring a squirrel. Progress in Hoppin’ Mad played out more like a roleplaying game in 2D and was the progenitor of Neon’s unconventional approach to genre that would resurface in the Tunnel B1 design pitch.
Anthony Christoulakis, another programmer and designer on the project, also recalls the original, epic vision for B1: “When we started we had a movie scriptwriter help us flesh out the story. We had an 80-page script.
It was a dark future setting, an escape from a city and a prison complex. When Ocean wanted two games we decided to focus on the action. We had two games made out of one. Rather than say [Tunnel B1] was planned in terms of design, I’d say it was mutating as we went along.”
An example of hybridisation was Tunnel B1’s control scheme, summed up in Edge 37 as “Descent-meets-Wipeout”. The mapping of a crucial strafe function to the D-pad, rather than the shoulder buttons, made manoeuvring your craft rather less than convenient. Joeckel blames this on the fact that few people actually got to test the title before release: “The concept of target-group testing was not so much known at the time. You really have to learn the game and the controls before you can have fun.”
Christoulakis humbly puts the problem down to complacency: “We were just getting too used to our own controls and not realising people would have real trouble picking it up. Nobody realised it was far too complex. If we did another game we would certainly make it much more accessible. We realised after release people were having real trouble with it. At that point there were no analogue sticks so there was a problem making a high-speed FPS.”
Hardware issues were another obstacle. A particularly sobering moment came with the arrival of actual PlayStation devkits. “When we first got our devkits for PS1 we had very high projections for the processing power,” says Joeckel. “Then we found out we could only display very few polygons and 3D objects.” The solution was less than conventional, and partly a happy accident as Christoulakis experimented with the new architecture: “Sony was releasing libraries back then for PS1, so we didn’t have access to the GPU.
We weren’t very happy with the overall performance – somehow we found out how to access some functions in the libraries that weren’t in the documentation. Maybe they were just available in Japan or for technical testing, but they ran much faster, they had a big impact on the memory footprint. We decided just to use them and not care about Sony’s standards at the time.”
Having sidestepped hardware woes, the finished Tunnel B1 turned out to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing early PlayStation productions. Cries of style over substance were heard above the cacophony of the PR drive, and Christoulakis doesn’t shirk them: “Most of the gameplay came together far, far too late and was too shallow. The development was basically too chaotic. There wasn’t a clear game design present after the design changed and even before that, it was more of a story, a component design.” Those production values really were something, though – particularly the dramatic, orchestral score. It was provided by Chris Hulsbeck, a composer known for his work on the Turrican series, and helped to elevate Neon’s efforts. On the back of Wipeout’s licensed dance music tracks, Tunnel B1 demonstrated that this new generation of hardware would be a practical, effective home for traditional game musicians, too.
The fragile development of Tunnel B1, and its transformation from story-driven gameplay mix to dedicated vehicle actioner, somehow led to a successful release for publisher and licensee, Ocean. It was a worldwide hit, too, the Japanese version – evocatively titled 3D Mission Shooting Finalist – re-engineered with higher-contrast lighting at the request of publishing execs. “They made a good deal with GaGa Interactive and made all their money back from the Japanese version. They wanted to do another Tunnel game,” says Joeckel. So enthusiastic was the publisher that a UK office was opened by Neon under Ocean’s encouragement, as Christoulakis explains: “When Ocean cleared the sequel we opened up a new office in Manchester. We were also working on the prototype for a Nintendo 64 action game.”
It wasn’t to be for Neon, however, due to complications regarding Ocean’s finance and some miscommunication with an increasingly anxious Neon regarding royalties. “The problem arose when Ocean had some financial troubles at the end,” Christoulakis says. “Things got quite chaotic because they just didn’t call us back. It put a lot of pressure on us. We had an exclusive contract with Ocean at the time so we couldn’t work with anybody else – even though there were other companies interested in working with us, like Sega, for example.” Tunnel B1’s sequel eventually made it out of the dark as PlayStation game Viper, with production initiated by Neon and completed by an internal team at Ocean.
Neon’s journey from Game B1 and B2 to Tunnel B1 never quite reached the heights – or contrasts – of the leap from Mr Nutz’s world of spritely colour and platform hopping to an underground prison complex. The Neon brand eventually eroded and was reborn under the banner of Keen Games with a number of the original Tunnel B1 team, and the label has continued with an unconventional approach to genre, having dabbled in Game Boy Advance and Wii development of everything from BMX to strategy games. What was glowstick-brandishing excitement in Edge all those years ago now stands as a forlorn obituary. “Who needs hallucinogenic love drugs when you’ve got Tunnel B1?” asked the preview article. In hindsight, the answer is probably everyone.