One man, an alien kingdom, and a shotgun: Behind Blackthorne, 26 years later
Before the future-possible earth of Overwatch and the war-plagued fantasyscape of Azeroth, before the High Heavens and the Burning Hells and the colonization of the Koprulu Sector, there was Tuul. The birthplace of a crown prince and future badass, shotgun-toting savior of his people: Kyle.
While his name isn’t one that strikes immediate fear into the hearts of enemies upon hearing it uttered, Kyle “Blackthorne” Vlaros is, regardless, a memorable protagonist. He’s one of the characters whose story and world helped make Blizzard games what they are today. “Every other game we’ve made since was based on the lessons we learned from some wandering Swedes, muscle cars, rock and roll, and a shotgun,” says senior art director Sam Didier.
Blackthorne’s influence can be seen in many contemporary Blizzard games: the orcs of Warcraft, Diablo’s itemization system, the sci-fi frontier and apostrophe-filled names of StarCraft, and the futuristic world of Overwatch. It’s a game that has stuck with developers who are still at Blizzard nearly three decades later.
Senior art director Didier, principal composer Glenn Stafford, and members of the Blizzard community reminisce about orcs, shotguns, and what Kyle Blackthorne taught them.
Back in 1994, the handful of individuals that comprised the entirety of Blizzard Entertainment were responsible for the development of multiple games simultaneously. It was an undertaking that required quick back-and-forth between different intellectual properties, and there’s a clear through-line in all of the games they created during this era: bold colors, musclebound pixel characters, and powerful soundtracks. “We always worked on multiple games at the same time,” says Didier. “We had to be able to snap back and forth between the different looks. Luckily, they were all Blizzard games, so they all had similar vibes, like heroic characters and colorful environments. Our first orcs were done in Blackthorne.”
For Stafford, composing the score for Blackthorne and, subsequently, Warcraft: Orcs & Humans was a creative dream. “By the time we started early Warcraft development, Blackthorne was far enough along that I was able to dedicate some time to Warcraft music ideas. It was exciting because we were getting closer to finishing and releasing Blackthorne, and then had this other cool new fantasy RTS also beginning development.”
As one of Blizzard’s earliest forays into worldbuilding and narrative wrapped up in side-scrolling platformer gameplay, Blackthorne had roots in games like Flashback, Prince of Persia, and Out of this World. Kyle Blackthorne, in particular, was an attempt to push the protagonist status quo at the time of the game’s development. “We wanted to make a character that was even cooler and harder than those other games’ leads,” says Didier. “Ours would walk the line and be a little darker. We were making our own worlds and wanted them to stand out against all the others. Blackthorne was the beginning of the Blizzard art style.”
To accent the darkness of the hellscape Kyle Blackthorne was lost in the team needed to compose a fitting soundtrack. “Musically speaking, the hero character is trapped in a nightmare world,” says Stafford. “The original Super Nintendo version of the music is not quite horror, not quite adventure; it’s meant to support the nightmarish nature of the surroundings and the dark but resolute nature of Kyle Blackthorne and his strange predicament.”
Kyle Blackthorne’s “strange predicament” included being a distinctly modern-day hero in a world that had a mixed fantasy/sci-fi aesthetic, facing down gun-toting orcs and walking over hard-light bridges lit by sputtering torches on his quest to defeat Sarlac. For Didier, reconciling the two genres was no big deal. “We built worlds out of jam sessions back then and didn’t really think about it. I’m sure Blackthorne’s story would get chewed up and polished a hell of a lot more nowadays, but back then, we created quickly and went, ‘Hey, is this cool?’ Yes, it was.”
The Rule of Cool
For the Blizzard artists at the time, including Didier, Kyle Blackthorne’s sunglasses-muscle tank-long hair-blue jeans aesthetic in an overtly non-Earth world just felt right. “We operated under the rule of cool. If it is cool, it goes in. If it ain’t cool, make it cool or kill it,” says Didier. “In all honesty, there was no magic to it, no grand idea to bend genres or mediums. In the 80s and 90s, that outfit was what all us cool kids wore. Blackthorne got teleported back to his world with what he had on him at the time.”
Blackthorne’s simple design allowed the team to work within the constraints of the SNES, which only allotted the art team so much space on a single cartridge. The restrictions, according to Didier, led to innovation; artists figured out how to reuse animations and how to work with limited color palettes. “I don’t know how we did it but we basically took an old box of busted crayons and made awesome artistic creations.”
The game’s smooth animation style was reminiscent of earlier cinematic platformers that inspired developers, but departed from the typical techniques of the era. “We originally tried our version of a technique called rotoscoping, where you film the person running and climbing, and then draw over it,” says Didier. “It was such a messy and time-consuming process. We decided to just punt on that idea so we could save time and put more cool stuff in the game and ended up animating it with the same number of frames used in rotoscoping. Boom, instant smooth and realistic animations.”
The Hills are Alive (With the Sounds of Shotguns)
The fast-paced music that accompanied Kyle Blackthorne’s perilous journey across Tuul was composed by Stafford, who went on to write pieces for Warcraft, StarCraft, and World of Warcraft. Back in ‘94, Stafford had to work within strict boundaries to keep the compositions he arranged beneath the memory limitation of the SNES platform. “We had a limit of eight voices or notes at once, including sound effects. We really had to prioritize and find creative ways to maximize memory while creating as full a soundscape as possible.”
But, Stafford notes, the limitations imposed also offered a kind of freedom–knowing only eight notes could be played at once, any other options were removed and composing moved ahead more quickly than it might today. The linear progression of the game also allowed Stafford to compose for specific zones and levels, unlike the RTS and MMORPG games he would go on to create soundtracks for. “Those incorporate some linear progression, but have huge focuses on custom map building, non-linear gameplay, and online multiplayer aspects.”
To this day, the compositional process for one specific zone is memorable to him. “Most of the Blackthorne music was fairly ambient and not particularly thematic, but I loved the vibe of the jungle zone. I was able to embed some rainwater sounds in the track.”
Memories of an Era
For some young developers dreaming of careers in the gaming industry, Blackthorne was an early inspiration that made Blizzard a destination they aspired to reach. To Marshall Garcia, a specialist game master, the pixelated landscape and uptempo tunes of Tuul evoke memories of a childhood spent immersing himself in fantastic worlds on the SNES. “I think the game was unique compared to other Blizzard games of the era—a side-scrolling Prince of Persia-esque game with guns and orcish high fantasy made it interesting in a way I don't think other games captured,” he says.“The game struck me as being super memorable in the DOS (disk operating system) era.”
He recalls the box and strategy guide art popping out to him on store shelves. “As a young boy, it looked just as cool as the covers of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom beside it.” After procuring a copy for himself, he set out as Kyle Blackthorne, shotgun in-hand, to reclaim his throne. “I fondly remember learning how to play this game and overcome its challenges while sitting in my grandmother's lap, having her help me along as needed when it got too tough.”
Similarly, Cristiano Alburitel, global director of consumer marketing, fondly recalls the time he’s spent in Tuul, past and present. “I still play Blackthorne,” says Alburitel. “I’m a retro nerd and the pandemic only made my hunger stronger. I didn’t have a computer growing up, so my first exposure to Blackthone was through the SNES. Today I have versions for the SNES, GBA, and my pride and joy, the SEGA 32X version.”
To understand the cultural resonance of Blackthorne, explains Alburitel, one first needs to understand the context of the time and his mindset as a teenager. In 1994, he counted Metallica and Army of Darkness among his favorite media, and Prince of Persia reigned as his most-beloved game. “Then, Blizzard released a game with what looked like Ash Williams and Kirk Hammett’s baby on the cover holding a shotgun. Suddenly, Prince of Persia was no longer my favorite game.”
He considers the game a catalyst for the rich stories, worlds, and characters that Blizzard would come to be known for. It’s a unique jigsaw of aesthetics and worldbuilding that would go on to serve as foundations for future games. “Look at Blackthorne this way,” Alburitel says. “You’re magically summoned to another planet, while you were hitch-hiking on the side of a road with a shotgun on what looks like Route 66. You are secretly alien royalty. You have magic stones. Your pops was this King Vlaros in a Middle Earth-looking planet named Tuul. They’ve got evil orcs running around this planet. This Sarlac dude looks suspiciously like Diablo. And for whatever reason, with all this backstory, your name is just Kyle.”
His first time playing as Kyle, Alburitel recalls, is undeniably the most memorable and authentically Blackthorne experience anyone could have. “You’re pressing the buttons, trying to figure things out. You get distracted by the beautiful flowing hair animation during your sprint. You figure out how to speak to the prisoners, who say you’re the chosen one. Suddenly, you press the shotgun button. Kyle, without even looking, just shoots that poor prisoner, who also had beautiful long hair.”
Photo taken by Cristiano Alburitel
For Alburitel, Blackthorne was crazy, fun, and one of the games that made working at Blizzard a dream job for him. “I was still young, but I wanted to be part of whatever club this game came from,” he says. “Unlike a lot of Blizzard employees who grew up with PCs, I didn’t have one until I was much older. Even my first Diablo experience was on a PlayStation. So, my first memories of Blizzard were console titles like Blackthorne. It was a long journey for me to get to Blizzard using the lightstone from planet Tuul. I’m not going anywhere.”
The lessons that Blackthorne taught Blizzard developers have stuck with them to this day. For Didier, it’s the knowledge that something doesn’t need to be perfect for it to be awesome. “If you make something cool, people will enjoy it,” he says. “If you make something fun, people will play it. Don’t make things that are forgettable and fall down the memory hole. We’ve been creating games for 30 years, and it’s nice to know that even though we have these huge winged titans of franchises, people still talk about and fondly remember Blackthorne.”
“If one gets stuck in a nightmare dungeon, be sure to bring a shotgun.”
For more information on Blizzard Arcade Collection, including more retrospective articles, interviews, and purchase links, check out our event blog.