How the Madden Makers Produced the Magical Puzzle Platformer ‘Henry Hatsworth’
In 2009, a curious, genre-clashing game came out for the DS that looked like an innovative indie experiment—and yet, it bore the brand of EA.
All ‘Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure’ screenshots and artwork courtesy of EA.
Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure sounds, from its title, like one of those almost always awful budget games that stank up the bottom of the considerable Nintendo DS catalogue. You know, not to pick on anyone in particular, but games where the title would have its "s" replaced by "z"s, all those terrible television tie-ins, crossword and casino compendiums, most things starting with "Imagine," and Sprung. But when a system's got over 1,800 games available for it (all of which can be played on 3DS, of course), there's always going to be substantial deadweight and detritus.
It's a bad name for a game, not that I could immediately suggest a better one—and the art doesn't do much to aid its cause, either. Here's an old dude with a monocle and a bowler hat, sloshing a bone china cup of tea (barely a splash of milk in there, too) in his left hand and brandishing the kind of blade that Ancestral Brits Abroad would have used to cut through foreign undergrowth on their march of colonization.
Or: Maybe I'm thinking about this a little too deeply. Because get past the way Henry Hatsworth looks, before you play it, and what you end up with is one of the most fascinating DS games ever produced.
At first glance it's a platformer, in which the titular explorer-cum-gentleman-cum-sword-swinging-and-gut-toting-murderer sets out to find a magical golden suit, in a race against one of his fellow (presumably) private members club regulars, a cackling, top-hatted cad by the name of Weasleby. This persistent pain in Hatsworth's posterior comes up against him in boss encounters, sends other nefarious sorts after him, and eventually kidnaps our hero's assistant (and shopkeeper), Cole—who, himself, isn't quite what he appears to be, if you get that far.
Which you might not, as Hatsworth is one tough cookie of a cutesy platformer, its supremely testing difficulty spikes appearing like torrential rain and gale-force winds when you'd just been enjoying a nothing-but-blue-skies picnic.
So far, so standard: a mostly left-to-right action-platformer with a little verticality thrown into the mix, and an assortment of power-ups along the way. But here comes the twist, which sounds positively bananas on paper but works brilliantly in practice. The bottom screen of the DS is filled with tiles, which can be switched in a match-three-style puzzle game, and this is how you, how Henry, actually makes real progress in the game.
At the press of a button, the gameplay switches from hopping and hacking to frantically matching colored blocks—and by doing so you ultimately destroy enemies who have been booted down from the top screen, activate the discovered collectibles, and unlock a massive mech-suit for Henry to pilot once a certain power bar's maxed out. This is called "tea time." Because of course it is.
It's absolutely one of these rare games that you simply have to play to properly understand. No amount of words here will quite do justice to just how superbly these two completely different approaches to game design complement each other—or how flicking between the two becomes a breathless ballet of cartoon carnage in the game's more pulse-raising moments.
Above: Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure trailer
Henry Hatsworth is a game that perfectly understands and respects its platform—it's been specifically built for a dual-screen experience that maximizes the potential of each window onto its parallel worlds. It has the feel of an imaginative independently made title, something significantly outside of triple-A development—it's just that original, that eccentric, that compelling, that surely it can't have been birthed by one of the industry's biggest corporate machines.
But yep, that is the EA badge on the front cover, beneath Henry's feet. Unlikely though it was then and remains today, eight years since its March 2009 release (in North America and Europe only—sorry, the rest of the world), Henry Hatsworth really was developed internally at EA Tiburon, a subsidiary operation best known for its Madden NFL, NBA Live and PGA Tour sports simulation series.
The Florida-based studio had some pre-Hatsworth history when it comes to games outside of the sports field, although they still carried weighty, well-known licenses—but neither 2006's Superman Returns nor the DS version of GoldenEye: Rogue Agent of two years earlier were warmly welcomed by critics. You could forgive Tiburon, then, for sticking to what they knew worked, and only ever pursuing projects with balls and clubs at the forefront.
"Should you opt to work for a big publisher you'll quickly discover how much of the decisions are made by people who aren't involved in development." — Kyle Gray to Gamasutra, 2009
But Kyle Gray had other ideas. An employee at EA with no real interest in competitive sports, or video games based on them, he began playing around with Flash ideas in a solo capacity, before taking the genre-mashing prototype for what'd become Henry Hatsworth to Tiburon. A key individual in the Experimental Gameplay Project at the time, which had enabled him to hone his innovative design skills and get as far as a prototype, Gray was surprised that EA green-lit what was a very unusual project for a studio predominantly pumping out annual iterations on well-worn franchises.
"Surprisingly, it wasn't too bad," is how Gray recalls getting approval to press on with his strange little game, in a 2009 interview with Nintendo Life. "I think it helped that the game and pitch was pretty weird." A core team of seven people was assembled for Hatsworth, to bring a character Gray describes as "a melting pot of British archetypes all wrapped into one suave and sophisticated package" to life—a small crew, working closely together, much more akin to your average indie team than a more typically triple-A-proportioned one charged with producing the next version of something like Madden.
Gray puts his Experimental Gameplay Project background down as the primary encouragement for EA to take a chance on his proposal. Speaking to Resolution Magazine in 2009, the designer said: "EGP was pretty much the only reason I was able to make Hatsworth in the first place. As someone starting off at the grunt level in a giant company, it's pretty hard to get noticed… In that regard, EGP and participating in things like GDC (the Game Developers Conference) and Gamasutra helped me."
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And it was through Gamasutra, in the summer of 2009—mere months after Hatsworth's release, but also in the wake of him actually leaving EA to pursue other, independent projects (he left on his wedding day)—that Gray revealed that not everything had been totally smooth in the production of the game.
"Should you opt to work for a big publisher you'll quickly discover how much of the decisions are made by people who aren't involved in development. But that, of course, is why I left."
Nevertheless, Henry Hatsworth is a distinctly singular video game, the creation of a small team but undeniably driven by one person's vision. "Good thing I was naturally louder than everyone else on the team, especially after a couple of cups of coffee," Gray joked to Resolution. In the same interview, Gray describes his departure from EA as "satisfying—"I was a little sad to leave since I had worked there for four-plus years, but satisfied to have accomplished the goals I set for myself at EA." Which, presumably, included realizing and releasing one of the most wonderfully different games the DS ever played host to.
Today, Gray is part of Tomorrow Corporation, the makers of Little Inferno and Human Resource Machine. He also has a travel blog, though it hasn't been updated for several months. EA Tiburon, meanwhile, hasn't ventured beyond sports games since Hatsworth's release—while the game reviewed very well and picked up a handful of award nominations in 2009, sales weren't high enough to see the studio explore sequel prospects, yet.
But maybe, just maybe (but obviously absolutely not), if we all make enough noise, Gray'll one day get a call asking him to, in his words, "once again don my bowler hat" for a second game. "I'd love to broaden out," he told Nintendo Life in 2009, "into French stereotypes, for example." The 3DS isn't going anywhere anytime soon, we're told—and Nintendo has an all-new 2DS imminent, too. So, allez, EA, non?