Featured Feature

Meet the Chef Behind One of 2024’s Best, Pepper Grinder

Patrick Klepek

I heard someone describe Pepper Grinder as the kind of game we’d have gotten if the SNES had analog sticks, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. Pepper Grinder, a 2D action platformer built around a drill, is an absolute dream to control. It also gestures at a wonderful alternate timeline where video games never progressed past the SNES and Genesis era, and instead kept reinventing themselves within and around the design and technological constraints of that period. 

“The spec I had in mind while making it,” said Pepper Grinder designer Riv Hester in a recent interview, “was that era of generational overlap where games that probably started as late SNES or Genesis games were coming out on PlayStation and flexing all they could do with an older graphical approach on newer hardware.”

According to Hester, Pepper Grinder started as a dream to mash up two games: Dig Dug and Ecco the Dolphin. Dig Dug was an early 80s arcade game by Namco where players carved paths through the dirt, collecting items and destroying enemies with, of all things, a deadly air pump. It was a classic and a commercial hit, and though Dig Dug itself largely stayed in the realm of arcade games, it was also foundation for another notable Namco series, Mr. Driller. Ecco the Dolphin, an adventure game about exploring the ocean, was somehow also about aliens, but notably, it felt incredible to control, capturing the sensation of effortlessly navigating the ocean.

“I wanted the clean lines of Ecco's movement in a 2D platformer,” said Hester. “So yeah, I looked to my favorite platformers growing up and pulled lots of ideas and sensibilities from the big boys of the 90's. All the Genesis Sonic games, Mario World, and particularly Donkey Kong Country 2. I put countless hours into all of them, playing them over and over again.”

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, really? Rare’s iconic SNES platformers were slower affairs that, on the surface, seem to share little in common with the zip of Pepper Grinder, but Riv credits the impact of Donkey Kong Country’s total package—design, visuals, and music. 

“The richness with which it defines its world visually and musically,” said Hester, “and how that expands on the very basic plot and makes it feel like a sweeping, dramatic story in conjunction with the tight, challenging platforming. Remove any of those elements and it would probably fall apart, but they're all there and the result is breathtaking.”

Once in elementary school art class, I brought my Donkey Kong Country soundtrack CD to listen to while we worked on a project. I thought it was cool. Very few other people did, and it quickly became awkward enough that I took the CD out and let someone else pick the music.

Younger Patrick in agreement with Riv, though; the series had tremendous soundtracks. 

We’re also in agreement over platformers being foundational to our introduction to video games. That was much of my youth. And while a lot of games involve characters jumping, there’s a reason you often hear about “platforming sequences,” instead of pure “platformers.” It’s not a dead genre, by any means, but games explicitly focused on player momentum aren’t in vogue.

“I'd call it [Pepper Grinder] a platformer, or at least it operates in the framework of one,” said Hester. “As to why they're so compelling I think it's something I struggle to put into words beyond ‘they just feel good.’ I struggle with words in general, so in a lot of ways Pepper Grinder itself is my expression of what I like about them. Very roughly though, it's the way some fairly simple and easy to understand interactions can result in a relatively vast possibility space with room for all sorts of expression through action. I just find that fascinating.”

Platformers, by design, are challenging to explain in words. It’s how phrases like “game feel” were invented, because it helps encapsulate a sensation you get while playing them. You know a bad platformer when you play one, but you might be able to explain why it’s not working for you. Years back, I asked a Halo developer about their approach to game balance, and they mentioned a scenario where players are upset about a pistol being underpowered, when in reality the shotgun is overpowered. What is the pistol and shotgun in a platformer? Physics? 

“The turn radius, for instance, feels pretty loose at first, until you realize you can actively finesse the analog stick against your current moving angle to make much tighter turns,” said Hester. “Or the boost, which is intentionally a short burst of speed from a single button press rather than holding a button to go faster all the time. That way you have to put a little thought into where, when, and why you choose to do it. All these little things add up to a much more engaging experience than it would be without, at least to me.”

Pepper Grinder also, importantly, has a grappling hook, gaming’s most underrated mechanic.

“Grab a thing from far away and swing on it or pull yourself up to it, what's not to love?!” said Hester. “I think in games in particular the promise of combining that with other momentum-based movement just has a multiplicative effect on fun stuff you can do and that gets me really excited. As to why more games don't have them I don't know. Maybe because they're hard to code?

Learn to code, developers! Seriously, though. We—me, Pepper Grinder designer Riv Hester, and at least several others—would really appreciate it if more games had grappling hooks.

In the meantime, though, we have Pepper Grinder. And it’s great.

For subscribers at Remap’s library tier, keep reading for three bonus questions that didn't make this piece about actual pepper, collectible design, and what it feels like to be making games in the current market, where so many games are having trouble getting funding and so many companies are laying off creatives.

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