Say what you will about Nintendo’s brand new console and its bizarre gamepad, there’s no denying it’s had the best launch line up of any games machine in 15 years.
A new Mario game, Mass Effect 3, Assassin’s Creed 3, Call of Duty Black Ops 2: you won’t be left wanting in the run up to Christmas. Surprisingly though, one of the best games in that line up isn’t the dudebro shoot'em up blockbuster you might expect. It’s a Little Inferno, a game centred entirely around a fireplace. And it was made by just three people - three people who haven’t even been in the same room together for more than two years.
Little Inferno may lack the epic open world of Assassin’s Creed or the multiplayer carnage of Call of Duty, but it’s the most groundbreaking Wii U launch game by far. Set in front of a fireplace, it’s up to you to take everyday items (and some not so ordinary ones) and burn them.
Different pairings of the scores of items you can buy make different combos, unlocking more: burn some dry ice and coffee, and you’ve got “iced coffee”. Burn a laser gun and a pirate and - well, we’ll leave you to try that one. Along the way, letters from a neighbour piece together a story that’s as charming as it is ridiculous - and the whole thing came together in time for the Wii U’s big launch, over Skype.
Kyle Gabler, Allan Blomquist and Kyle Gray, founders of Tomorrow Corporation, live and work in California, North Carolina and Florida respectively - so three different US states in two different time zones.
“We typically see one another about once or twice a year, though the last time we were all in the same place at the same time was November 2010,” Gray tells Red Bull UK.
“Fortunately, thanks to the magic of the internet we talk pretty much every day. Things work well for the most part - we do calls through Skype, and handle design documents via Google Docs. The hardest part is describing things: in person you can gesture and draw.”
Yet they still managed to create the Wii U’s most beautiful launch game: the 140 different items you can toss in the fire have all been hand drawn, and have their own ridiculous animations.
“Little Inferno as you see it now is really close to our original design,” says Gray. “What you won’t see is the mountain of cut features and ideas that just didn’t work out. As development progressed Little Inferno’s features grew and grew like an unmanageable beard. Once it got too big we started to groom, style, and cut anything that didn’t fit until we had a solid nugget of gameplay.”
And that gameplay stands out, even on a console which has a screen and a pen in the controller. That’s probably down to the inspiration for Little Inferno: the team picked the most mundane thing possible.
“We sought to make a game that could not possibly be compared to our previous games,” says Gabler. “We thought we'd try to build an entirely new kind of game that no one had ever played before.”
“You may have heard of the Yule Log TV programme - the burning log you find on TV around the winter months or in hotel rooms. It was started in 1967 by a TV station in New York, originally as a 17 second loop of flaming log. And we thought ‘Man, that's a super boring game that some awful company will make for the Wii or smartphones.’ And then ‘Wait, WE could be that awful company! I wonder if we can start with an exceptionally underwhelming premise, but then actually make the game surprisingly good?’ Little Inferno is the result.”
Such a stupid idea was in safe hands though: the team have some serious pedigree. Gabler was the brains behind hit puzzler World Of Goo (Blomquist also worked on the game), while Gray designed Nintendo DS game Henry Hatsworth In The Puzzling Adventure.
Yet Little Inferno’s still such a surprise as a launch game not just because of its small scale, but because it’s a download-only game. You can’t buy it on a disc, just through the Wii U’s eShop.
Nintendo’s famously lagged behind here - whereas Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network have made the names and fortunes of many indier game creators, the Wii was never known as a launchpad for original downloads. And just last month it launched a new version of the Wii that doesn’t even have an internet connection at all.
Kyle Gabler's World Of Goo was a hit on PC, Wii and mobile
The Japanese gaming giant’s got with the times, says Gray. “Nintendo has always been extremely supportive of us,” he says. “Thanks to their help we managed to get Little Inferno out as a launch title.”
And they’re not alone. Nintendo has around a dozen indie games available to download already or on the way in the next few weeks, from pinball (Marvel Pinball) to dream-like 2D flying games (Chasing Aurora).
It’s a renaissance for indie gaming on Nintendo, and the Tomorrow Corporation aren’t stopping now that the first (glowing) reviews are in. At least for the PC version, the team are looking at making it more open to gamers, so they can create their own items and plots.
“We're considering how we can make Little Inferno more ‘moddable’ by the community, so players can create their own additions and storylines,” says Gabler. “Beyond that, we're not sure what's next, but we hear there’s a clear horizon out there, and we're excited to explore.”
If they can make a game out of staring at a fireplace, who knows what they’ll be able to do with the world outside.