Behind the Design: Chakan the Forever Man

Those Genesis gamers who have no fear of hard games remember Chakan: the Forever Man very well. It’s likely etched into their memories, ever-present whenever the topic of game difficulty comes up with friends. Years have passed, decades even, but the battles fought never fade. Many have tried to complete Chakan without the use of codes or cheat devices, but most seemed to have failed. They know that finishing the game seemed as challenging as trying to overcome death itself. Well… perhaps it wasn’t THAT hard, but it stands among the most difficult games on the console. Since its release in 1992, Chakan has garnered a reputation for its difficulty, one that in many ways has overshadowed the actual game itself.

This is unfortunate. By focusing on this one aspect, many gamers overlook a solid action platformer that was created by some of the most talented and prolific western developers in Sega’s history. Chakan’s 16-bit roots stem from another popular super hero game, as well as one featuring a classic cartoon character. Furthermore, the game’s place in the evolution of Sega of America’s game development history is ignored. Both set the stage for Chakan’s story, which itself would serve as groundwork for yet another legendary comic book franchise. It’s a story that has never been told…

… until now.

Dark Origins

Behind the Design-Chakan 2The character of Chakan the Forever Man arose from the mind of writer and artist Robert Kraus. He was looking for a different type of persona that was removed from the typically colorful comic book heroes on store shelves. In his sketchbook, he came up with what he called “a cowboy-looking character that looked like a cross between a zombie and Clint Eastwood.” The image appealed to him, and he decided to evolve the concept. Kraus filled Chakan’s world with imagery based on the violence he saw in his own neighborhood, an environment that fit the persona’s sinister appearance. His comic told the story a swordsman so arrogant as to boast that not even death could defeat him. The Grim Reaper took him up on the offer, and after days of battle, Chakan eventually won. Unfortunately, his reward was the curse of eternal life while supernatural evil exists. Chakan can never rest while such evil remains, and he must use his unmatched skills to cleanse the universe of it. The hero first appeared as a backup character in a comic series called Thundermace, which was created by Kraus and Rick Sellers in the early 1980s and published by Kraus’s own independent comic label RAK Graphics in Akron, Ohio. In it, Chakan was given a side-story, and its dark and somber tone of quickly became popular. Every time Kraus presented his works at comic conventions, people inquired more about the anti-hero Chakan than Thundermace. Excited by the interest, Kraus decided to give the Forever Man his own book in 1990, which spawned a series of graphic novels, all published under Kraus’s RAK Graphics label.

Sega Producer Ed Annunziata first became aware of Chakan while attending the Gen Con tabletop games convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the late ‘80s. While wandering the aisles, he found Kraus’s booth and started a conversation about the comic, Annunziata was quite taken with the look of the character and his burden, and he saw its potential as a video game. In a 1993 interview with Sega Visions magazine, he explained his motivation and what attracted him to Chakan. “I liked the fact that he was a reluctant super hero. He didn’t do things for the good of doing them; he did them because he had to.” Indeed, before even leaving the convention, Annunziata was already working out the anti-hero’s moves in his mind, figuring how they would look in sprite form. He maintained contact with Kraus for the next few months and soon worked out an agreement for using the Forever Man in a Genesis game.

From the onset, it was clear to Annunziata that Chakan was unlike any of the other licensed properties he had worked on. It was far darker in tone than super heroes or dolphins. Chakan himself was a horribly disfigured character, almost like something out of a heavy metal album cover. He was a cursed and tortured soul, not quite the kid-friendly game most licenses required but perfect for the older, more mature audience Sega was looking for with the Genesis.

Friends that Program Together…

Bringing unorthodox game concepts to fruition was something of talent for Annunziata, as was completing troubled projects. He was recognized by his superiors in Sega’s product development division, Clyde Grossman and Ken Balthaser, as someone who had a keen eye for innovative and creative ideas that made for great and unique gameplay experiences, and they were confident in his ability to handle tough assignments. He had demonstrated as much with Spider-Man, which had an extremely troubled development process, and with his earlier title, M1 Abrams Battle Tank, which many people within Sega had believed impossible on the 16-bit machine. These achievements earned Annunziata a degree of freedom in selecting the projects that interested him. Chakan, as a character and a game, definitely fit the label of “unorthodox.” As its development progressed, it would also see its share of trouble.

For the project, he chose a small team known as Recreational Brainware, which was founded in 1992. Several members of the company had previously worked with Annunziata on Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin, which was released to great sales and acclaim. They had also developed the hit Taz-Mania under Producer Scott Berfield (ToeJam & Earl, Sports Talk Football). The relationship between most of the creative minds at Recreational Brainware originated well before that game was started. Programmers Burt Sloane and the Miller brothers, Jonathan and Mark, had been friends since they were high school students in Boston. Another programmer, David Foley was introduced to Sloane by Randall Reiss while studying at Northeastern University (Reiss would go on to found Technopop and work with Sloane and Foley on Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin). Through Sloane, Foley met the Miller brothers, and the group quickly became very close, sharing visions of creating software and making their fortunes in Silicon Valley.

Behind the Design-Chakan 4After graduating from M.I.T. with a degree in computer science and electrical engineering, Sloane headed out west. There he became a senior engineer at Apple, working on aspects of the Macintosh operating system. He joined Reiss at Technopop to take over development of Spider-Man but was soon on his own, after Sega canceled the contract and he and Reiss ended their working relationship. Sloane then contacted Jonathan Miller, who was working at Sun Microsystems and was looking to move out west. Sloane offered a programming position on Spider-Man after he became responsible for the project. This greatly appealed to Miller. His younger brother Mark, who was housemates with Sloane, was already writing music for Spider-Man and helping with ToeJam & Earl. Jonathan was very happy to be working on such a high profile license, and the three men now worked feverishly to complete the super hero game on time. To help with the crunch, Sloane and Jonathan Miller brought in David Foley, who had moved out to San Francisco in 1990 and found work programming Genesis games. He was hired to help finish up Spider-Man.

Afterward, Sloane, Foley, and Jonathan Miller continued working together under the name Recreational Brainware, taking advantage of the momentum they received from Spider-Man. Around this time, the Millers and Sloane would also join with Programmer Chris Grigg to create the GEMS (Genesis Editor for Music & Sound effects) software tool for Sega of America. Soon thereafter, Mark Miller went and formed his own company, NuRomantic Productions, which was responsible for the music for a large number of Genesis titles, including Kid Chameleon.

The success of both Spider-Man and the GEMS tool earned Recreational Brainware the respect of Sega’s Product Development leadership, which offered the chance to develop the platformer Taz-Mania under Producer Scott Berfield (ToeJam & Earl, Sports Talk Football). David Foley was brought back to help with the project, and this would be the last game for Recreational Brainware in its current configuration. Events would soon unfold that would cause them to part ways, leaving Chakan with a new team of developers.

Developing against the Hourglass

Given that Chakan was already a comic character with his own back story, the team had plenty to work with for creating the game’s plot. The narratives for both the Genesis and Game Gear versions were based on the earlier Chakan tales that first appeared in Thundermace in the late 1980s. These stories were later collected into Chakan: The Compendium, which can be purchased from RAK’s site. Jonathan Miller and Burt Sloane had been directly approached by Annunziata to bring Chakan to the Genesis, but neither of them had ever heard of the character before. Upon seeing Kraus’s art and getting an understanding of the comic’s story, they were excited and felt that there was great potential for a video game. Sloane began to upgrade the proprietary tool set that he had originally created for Spider-Man and had further developed for Taz-Mania, while Miller focused on the player mechanics.

The programming tools used for Chakan were adapted from those first created by Sloane for Spider-Man. Working on Taz-Mania had given him the opportunity to further enhance his programming, particularly the proprietary environment and sprite tool set he had created for Spider-Man. The Looney Tunes title allowed Sloane to make several major modifications to them, which resulted in two major technical innovations (one for level layouts and one for animation) that would be used in several major Genesis games later one. First, the level tool allowed him to allocate tiles and artwork within the game in real time. Things could be flipped around, Meta information (which told the game engine where floors, walls, and ceilings were) could be input, and placeholders for enemies and objects could be inserted. This permitted programmers with little experience to layout entire game levels. “For Spider-Man,” Jonathan Miller explained, “the level editor represented collision info with blocks that lined up with background tiles. Each block was basically empty or solid. This worked well for industrial/urban backgrounds.” This was subsequently upgraded for Taz-Mania to account for that game’s cartoon terrain. This addition benefited Chakan’s diverse levels, making it easier for the developers to have the Forever Man to fight evil in a wide variety of environments.

Chakan also benefited from the modifications Sloane had made to his animation tool. Unlike Spider-Man, which used a single image containing all the character’s frames of animation, identified them, and then split them into sprites, Taz-Mania was able to construct animation frames by combining and positioning parts of pixels, using a new sprite-based tool which Sloane called the “compositor.” With it, he could create a graphical effect similar to cell-styled animation that Warner Bros. used and give the character a large number of facial expressions. “Using as much art as can normally be used,” Sloane told Sega-16, “it enabled Taz to have something like 160 different frames. We could basically mix and match the tiles that had the face with different surfaces of the body, so I could make a whole bunch of sequences, like when he gets electrocuted or squashed, and so on. It was really a lot of animation.” For Chakan, Sloane added the ability to flip each part within the composited frame either horizontally and/or vertically. The modifications made to Sloane’s tools by this time made it one of the more robust sets available to developers on the Genesis.

Sadly, Sloane and Miller would not continue the game together. Shortly after work had begun on Chakan, they decided to go their separate ways. Miller and Foley formed Extended Play and hired a new team, while Sloane formed a new outfit called Monkey Business (which still operates today). There was some additional friction because Miller continued to use Sloane’s tools to finish Chakan (he was legally entitled to do so). Understandably, Sloane was not keen on the tools being used and modified by another party and without his involvement, and though Miller had the rights to use them, this caused a further rift between the two men.

Extended Play forged on, its ranks filled with many who were new to the gaming industry. Mark Miller was also brought on board to help with the design and audio. Mark was not initially approached to work on Chakan, as he was not an avid video game player and had no experience in their design. He kept to his music during his time in the industry, but there was something about the character itself that just attracted him to the project. He had never heard of Chakan before, so he took home the comics that Annunziata had delivered and immersed himself in them. Mark was intrigued by the concept of a rigged immortality, one that delivered ever-lasting life but at a price, and he wanted to convey this feeling through the design. “Perhaps, the good and the bad thing about my contribution,” he explained to Sega-16, “was that I wanted the player to feel the pain and the futility of Chakan’s circular existence… While you could choose your path through the game fairly freely (in terms of which level your played in which order), each time you died, you had to go back and do it again, as many times as needed, just like Chakan.” Mark does recognize that the trial-and-error gameplay may have frustrated gamers.

Behind the Design-Chakan 5His process for creating Chakan’s design was nothing scientific. “Mostly,” he detailed, “the process’ involved riding my bike over twin peaks to the ocean, smoking a joint, riding back over the mountain, dropping my shit off at my studio in the Lower Haight, and heading to Noc Noc.” At the San Francisco bar, he would drink and sketch designs on graph paper. The ambiance of location – dark, loud, and sociable – gave him a great environment in which to get feedback and ideas from people about his designs.

Since he was not a gamer by nature, Mark says he isn’t sure how much of what he did can actually be considered solid and satisfying gameplay. He is, however, clear about what he was trying to convey in his designs, and he recognizes that this may have caused some controversy during the development process. “There were, in fact, a few heated debates with Jonathan and Ed about what constituted game design – was it concepts and ideas, or where and how many enemies should be at what point in a level. I think both are needed, but you can have a great game with only the latter and not the other way around.”

The same process for cultivating ideas also served him for composing Chakan’s music. The uncomfortable, artsy chairs of Noc Noc and its house DJ inspired Mark to be experimental with the game’s soundtrack. He went for a score that was charged with sound as opposed to traditional musical themes. The ability of the Genesis’ FM sound chip to create complex sounds by multiplying (or modulating) one wave form by others wasn’t apt for creating realistic sounds, but it was perfect for making creepy effects in the vein of late 1970s horror movies. The audio was done in GEMS, and Mark made extensive use of the software-based pitch and amplitude modulators in the driver.

For Chakan’s art design, Steven Ross joined the development as Art Director. Ross was an industry art veteran, having worked on games for the Amiga and PC, as well as several console games on the TurboGrafx-16 and Genesis. He entered the video game business as an illustrator at a small computer company. His first Sega work came with Interactive Designs (later Sega Interactive Design Division), where he took part in Genesis games like Tailspin and Greendog: The Beached Surfer Dude. Ross was still the Art Director for Interactive Design, which took up much of his time, when Jonathan Miller offered a larger salary for him and his wife if they would make the move to San Francisco and join in on Chakan.  Ross accepted the offer, leaving Los Angeles and Sega Interactive behind. Miller explained to Sega-16 how Chakan fit the Genesis graphically, as well as the style of Extended Play’s artists. “There was no doubt that Chakan was perfect for a platform game – especially walking around with a sword in each hand (to say nothing of a FLAMING sword in each hand). It was also a great showcase for the sort of artwork that Steve and Mira Ross would rock at – dark, moody, Giger-esque.”

When the Ross’s arrived, they started working out of Miller’s house. Steven Ross was unfamiliar with the Chakan comic (he was first introduced to the character when he started at Extended Play). Even so, his lack of familiarity wasn’t an issue, as he and the other team members were given significant liberty with the aesthetic of the game’s world. The Miller brothers had created a document that was primarily story-driven. Many of the enemies and environments were created specifically for the game, which permitted the team to explore what could be done with the different features of the Genesis. The animation tool Jonathan Miller had brought with him from his time at Recreational Brainware gave Ross and the other artists the ability to create really fluid sword-swinging animation for the main character.

Creating the dark tones for Chakan was sometimes problematic, since the limited color palette of the Genesis has large jumps between black, the darkest blue, and then the next darkest color, which was a combination of blue and green. Games with lighter colors often have “bleeding,” which gives the impression of fused or uniform colors across pixels on NTSC televisions. In contrast, darker colors can often look more pixilated. Ross attributes the pixilated look of Chakan to the inexperience he and his wife had with doing video game art at the time. “We were all fairly new to graphics,” he detailed to Sega-16, “so we weren’t that aware of it. I mean, we knew it was a problem, but we figured that this was the boat we were in, so you just do the best you can.” Despite the adjustments to working with pixels, Ross and his wife thoroughly enjoyed the freedom they were given to create Chakan’s environments and enemies. It gave them an opportunity to explore what they could do with the Genesis, such as parallax scrolling.

For most of the project, programming was handled by Jonathan Miller and Foley, along with Dean Sitton and Beth Carter. Foley worked on character intelligence (AI) and level layouts, and Sitton did structural and level design. Near the end of Chakan’s development, Jonathan Miller was forced to return to the East Coast to be with his brother David, who was suffering from cancer. Virtually all of the main character mechanics were completed, but there was still much to be done. Unable to continue with the game’s programming, he explained the situation to Annunziata, who subsequently (and likely reluctantly) asked Sloane to return and finish the game. Sloane agreed to return as a consulting programmer to work on the bosses for the game’s second half. After three weeks at home, Jonathan returned to work but was encouraged by Mark to leave Chakan and take some personal time. He did, and Sloane stayed on as lead programmer until the game was completed. The credits humorously list Sloane as the “stunt programmer” for his work on Chakan, in reference to his arrival so close to the end of the project.

The Anti-Hero Unleashed

Chakan is widely remembered today for its brutal difficulty. Annunziata was famous for creating games that were hard to beat quickly, often citing his fear of kids renting and completing them in a single weekend. He wanted his games to demand lots of time and on this front, Chakan delivered quite well. Surprisingly, Extended Play did not intend for it to have been as hard as it finally was. Development constraints left areas of the gameplay unrefined, making the game unintentionally difficult.

Behind the Design-Chakan 5Chakan’s true ending also left many with bittersweet feelings, given how hard it was to reach. After the true final boss battle (which occurs after the ending text and credits), players are taken to the hourglass screen, where the screen sits idly for 90 seconds until the message “not the end” appears. According to Annunziata, this was done deliberately. “After that, yes there is another boss as a post-ending bonus,” he revealed in our 2012 interview, “and if you manage to beat him…The hour glass appears. How long does Chakan have to wait before the end comes to him? It was not an easy decision, we could have just ended the game with the story and credits, but something was nagging at me – it’s NOT the end for Chakan. Imagine after so much pain and suffering, thinking the end is near, only to find out it has hardly just begun. Artistically, we were obligated to share his pain, for Chakan. The hour glass where YOU wait forever was for Chakan.”

Chakan was unleashed upon Genesis owners on December 8, 1992, after an 18-month development cycle. Despite its rocky development, the main fear Extended Play had about its product was the relatively obscure nature of the source material. Unlike Spider-Man or Taz, few people knew of Chakan, as the comic series was independently created and published, with Kraus mostly selling it at comic conventions and directly through distributors. The game’s sales would depend largely on the efforts of Sega’s marketing. Chakan did seem primed for success, given the comic book industry boom of the early ‘90s, as well as Sega’s own rise with the Genesis.

As often occurs during the game development process, events transpiring during the creation of Chakan impacted its overall quality, a fact that Jonathan Miller laments today. In addition to tweaking the difficulty, he feels the gameplay could have been further polished, a sentiment shared by his brother Mark. Both men are still proud of the game that was published, giving Genesis players a decidedly different type of hero to play at a time when most action platformers starred furry mascots and were much lighter in tone.

After completing Chakan, Mark Miller decided he had done enough game development and left the industry. His brother John also decided to step back from game design for a period of time. He was stressed and still coping with the loss of their brother. He would eventually return to the Genesis with X-Men 2: Clone Wars, joining Steve and Mira Ross in a new venture called HeadGames. Ross and his wife would contribute artwork to the first Genesis X-Men game, and he later worked at Crystal Dynamics and then Activision, where he was involved with the Guitar Hero franchise. David Foley started his own company, Foley Hi-Tech Systems, which worked on B.O.B. and Urban Strike. Burt Sloane continued on with his company Monkey Business, which was behind the Sega CD version of Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin. Though Sloane was no longer regularly working with his former colleagues, there was still a great sense of respect among them. Sloane himself is proud of the work he did on Chakan, and still considers his efforts on the boss battles to be some of the best side-scrolling work he’s ever done.

The Game Gear version of Chakan was released alongside the Genesis game. Though its credits list Mark Miller for its programming and audio, he actually had nothing to do with this version. Both Steve and Mira Ross are also credited, though they were not involved. Virtually all aspects of the development were instead handled by Programmer Paul Hutchinson, who was hired as an independent contractor and worked out of his home in Timonium, Maryland and later Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Early on in development, Sega provided Hutchinson with sound files and artwork to use as a reference, a common practice when porting games to other platforms. Rather than simply water down the Genesis game, Hutchinson opted to redesign the levels and certain aspects of gameplay for the hardware, creating a version that is faithful to its 16-bit sibling but that stands on its own on the Game Gear.

Truly the Forever Man

Behind the Design-Chakan 1Annunziata’s studio AndNow spearheaded an effort to revive the Chakan series on the Dreamcast in 2001 but was unsuccessful. Half of the planned twelve levels had already been designed, and many of the character’s basic moves (sans swords) were shown in the short demo clip that was released, but development didn’t progress much further than that. Fans became hopeful once again in 2012, when Annunziata showed off a prototype of a Chakan game on the iPad. Unfortunately, as with the Dreamcast version and for reasons unknown, it was never released. There have been no further known attempts to revive the franchise since then.

Interestingly, fans have found many similarities between Chakan and the fourth game in the Legacy of Kain series, Blood Omen 2, a trait likely owed to the fact that Steve Ross was the artist on both games. Ross addressed the issue back in 2003 in response to a fan email. “Yeah, some of the themes are the same simply because they came from the same artist (me). As for the symbol, I had completely forgotten about it being on one of the Chakan sketches. I did about 20-30 full color concepts in two weeks and it was all kind of a blur.”

Chakan still lingers in the shadows awaiting his chance to return. Annunziata has always expressed interest in continuing the series, but much like his other acclaimed franchise, Ecco the Dolphin, it has been a difficult battle to get a publisher onboard. It is unlikely that Sega would have anything to do with a revival, but the gaming industry has changed enough since 1992 that Annunziata now has more options for bringing Chakan back than ever before. Hopefully, we will someday see a new Chakan game on console, handheld, or mobile platforms. It’s only a matter of time, and time is something Chakan has plenty of. He is, after all, the Forever Man…

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  • Behind the scenes: Chakan the Forever Man. (June, 1993). Sega Visions.
  • (2008). Interview: Paul Hutchinson. GDRI.
  • Interview with David Foley. (2007). GDRI.
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  • Giffels, D. (1998). Forever Man: Interview with Robert Kraus. Akron Beacon Journal.
  • Hutchinson, P. (2016). Personal communication with Ken Horowitz.
  • Miller, J. (2016). Personal Communication with Ken Horowitz.
  • —. (2015). Personal Communication with Ken Horowitz.
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  • —. (2015). Personal Communication with Ken Horowitz.
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  • Sloane, B. (2015). Personal Communication with Ken Horowitz.

1 Comment

  1. Cobra says:

    Really loved everything about this game. It took so much dedication back then to complete games like this, but the great story, character and atmosphere saw me push on until I could see its conclusion. Being able to complete games like this really gave you a sense of fulfilment that can’t seem to be replicated in games now, not with the luxury of saves and the like… to complete a game like Chakan, you had to become a master of it before you could conquer it.

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