Dev Talks Designing Pirate Protagonist

Various protagonists have graced the 2D or 3D platforming stage over the years, from retro icons like Super Mario and Donkey Kong to the more recent mysterious and mute Knight in Hollow Knight. Sometimes, a unique accessory, power, or counterpart gives such protagonists their signature look. Where Mario has his hat and power-ups, or Donkey Kong a knack for barrel-throwing, indie platformerPepper Grinder gives its blue-haired pirate protagonist a massive drill mechanism to dig fluidly through the landscape. Developed by solo developer Riv at Ahr Ech, Pepper Grinder is an action 2D platformer starring the titular Pepper, described as a sea-faring soul with a passion for prospecting. A super-powered drill certainly seems like a more efficient way of digging up buried treasure, particularly when players can also add various types of drill-bit attachments to alter its functionality, from controlling machines like Mechs to pulverizing enemies across land and water in the blink of an eye.

Game Rant recently sat down with developer Riv Hester to discuss the inspirations behind Pepper Grinder‘s female protagonist Pepper and her overall character design, some of which might be unexpected. Hester also spoke about where the idea for the drill mechanism came from and much more. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.


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Pepper Grinder Classic Platformer Inspirations

Q: Could you tell us about your history with Dig Dug and Ecco the Dolphin – what stood out to you about these games when coming up with the idea for Pepper Grinder?

Hester: So, for Dig Dug, I haven’t actually played it since I was maybe 5, and it was already old then. So the inspiration there is more about how I remember it making me feel when I realized you could dig in any direction you wanted and what direction you approached things from seemed to be really important. Ecco I’ve replayed a few times over the years, specifically the Sega CD version of Tides of Time. But how it relates to Pepper Grinder is still more about feel in the same way.

pepper grinder key art

Q: What specifically about Dig Dug inspired Pepper Grinder? The Digging elements seem a pretty obvious inspiration, but is there anything you borrowed that’s less direct?

Hester: Yeah the digging for sure, but at least in the way I remember it there’s also a neat balance of things making a sort of natural sense in the way they interact even if it’s very simple, versus just being really neatly weird in presentation. It gets the imagination working in a way I appreciate, and that’s something I like to strive for with my own work.

Q: The dolphin movements of Pepper Grinder seem like they were a big inspiration for the drill mechanism. Was there anything else about Ecco the Dolphin that inspired Pepper Grinder?

Hester: Ecco has always been really fascinating to me in the way it presents itself at the beginning as kind of a chill ocean exploration and puzzle-solving game and slowly changes into almost an eldritch horror thing by the end. Pepper Grinder doesn’t really do that exactly, but there is a pretty big tonal shift as the game progresses to keep things interesting and help hint at what’s going on in the wider scope, even if Pepper’s part in everything is very focused on her own goal, and she doesn’t concern herself with the rest.


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Q: Were there any other classic games that inspired Pepper Grinder? For instance, the end-level pirate flag and world map seen in the demo feel quite Super Mario World?

Hester: A little Super Mario World for sure, but Donkey Kong Country 2 is an all-time favorite of mine and I think it informed quite a lot of what I wanted to do with a 2D platformer in terms of both world structure and how mechanics are iterated on in different ways throughout the game. And cannons. I lifted the barrel cannons wholesale apart from making them drill-powered. I just like them and wish more platformers used the idea, but maybe in shorter bursts than Donkey Kong Country games do, so they don’t get tedious.

pepper grinder drilling up

Modernizing Retro Game Mechanics In Pepper Grinder

Q: Dig Dug and Ecco the Dolphin are both pretty old. How do you think they hold up today?

Hester: I think Dig Dug is probably hard to go back to just because a lot of games from that era are, but I don’t know! I should probably find out for myself.

And Ecco is as hard as it ever was. I think my age now, as opposed to when I first played it, and just being better at understanding what games are asking of me is balancing out the game’s age in a way that makes it feel the same as ever to me. It’s as strange and esoteric and mysterious and challenging as I remember!

Q: What was the process like looking at these older games and modernizing their mechanics?

Hester: I think the mechanics themselves are still pretty classic at heart, but modern tech makes it a lot easier to smooth out the bumps. A lot of Pepper Grinder is about finding a good flow through a level by leveraging movement mechanics that would have been very hard to achieve on old hardware without it feeling stiff or stuttery. 2D platformers just haven’t had to do much modernizing compared to other genres apart from small quality-of-life features like coyote time. Level one of Super Mario Bros remains the gold standard as far as I can tell!


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Q: How did you strike a balance between mixing traditional platforming vs the drilling elements when creating Pepper Grinder?

Hester: Pepper isn’t particularly fast on foot and can’t jump as high as a lot of other platformer protagonists because she’s lugging that huge drill around. But when she’s using the drill to burrow through the ground she’s much faster, and can burst back out again at high speeds to jump a lot higher than she could otherwise. From a design perspective, that means I can set up interesting platforming sequences based on the placement of drillable dirt or sand or mud or whatever vs impassable stone. It’s a repeating cycle of setup (containing the player with stone for some traditional platforming) and payoff (the player breaking free of containment by reaching something they can drill into). The really satisfying bit is when you get skillful enough with the drill to skip setup breaks and extend the payoff as long as possible, which incidentally is the cornerstone of getting good times in each stage’s Time Attack mode!

pepper grinder drill powered gun gameplay

Pepper Grinder, Modern Platforming Inspirations, And Character Design

Q: Did you also look to any modern platforming games for any inspiration when creating Pepper Grinder?

Hester: I actually referenced 3D games more than 2D ones for inspiration on a lot of things. While Pepper Grinder is very much inspired by similar 2D classics, I think you get more interesting results from trying to pull ideas from one format and changing them to work in another, even if it’s something very simple. For example, a mechanic that will already be familiar to anyone who’s played the last stage of Pepper Grinder’s demo has to do with Flip Panels, which are sort of hatches that can open with the extra speed and leverage you have while drilling. There are two different colors of flip panel and flipping one will flip all the others of the same color. I use this interaction to construct a number of puzzles throughout the game, and they’re basically just a twist on the Flip Swap Galaxy from Mario Galaxy 2.

Q: Where did the idea for Pepper come from and her passion for prospecting? Were there any characters that inspired her design or her drilling tool?

Hester: Pepper is largely just a product of the game’s mechanics. She digs underground and collects buried treasure, so she’s a treasure hunter in a world of pirates that want to steal it. Really simple stuff! But in terms of her personality, she’s a mix of different aspects pulled from Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl, the work of Yoshitomo Nara, and various friends and acquaintances. I think the only thing they all have in common is a good appreciation for mischief.


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Underwater Levels And Platforming In Pepper Grinder

Q: Underwater levels in games can sometimes be challenging to do well. How well did the Grinder lend itself to the underwater vs land elements in the level design and were there any challenges?

Hester: The biggest issue most people seem to cite with water levels seems to be short-term time pressure from drowning, and a close second is usually slow, floaty controls. I tend to agree on drowning, and don’t mind having to wonder how Pepper can hold her breath forever if it means I don’t have to give players anxiety attacks over it like Sonic 2 does. And while navigating through water does slow pepper down, swimming is really just drilling again but with the added complication that you have to work against sinking as you move. Most water sections are short and used mindfully in relation to the pacing of the stage, and when there are long, open stretches of water there’s an optional way to go MUCH faster if you can figure it out. I think that keeps it fresh!

pepper grinder skimming along water

Q: How do you think Pepper Grinder stands out compared to other 2D platformers today?

Hester: Seems like when they first see it in action it just looks extra satisfying to a lot of people, and luckily they all say it feels how it looks when they get their hands on it! I never went out of my way to make it stand out, I just made something I wanted to play, so it’s kind of a happy coincidence that other people want to play it too.

And it’s not like it’s a wholly original idea either. I might have arrived at it on my own but quickly learned that Sonic Colors had already done something similar, and when I was maybe three years deep on Pepper Grinder development, Ori 2 came out and also explored very similar ideas in one section. But I’m pretty sure Pepper Grinder is the only game that built everything around this movement style as a core mechanic and really takes the time to flesh it out this much, so I guess it stands out that way too! I don’t think too much about it though.

Q: Ecco the Dolphin was known to be a challenging platformer. How challenging is Pepper Grinder by comparison, and how did you maybe factor in appealing to new players plus veterans of the genre?

Hester: A casual playthrough is definitely easier than Ecco and I hope it will be fairly accessible to new players. I did my best to take the low floor, high ceiling approach in that most people should be able to complete the game without getting frustrated, but there’s a lot of room for mastery, which is required for tackling the time attack mode and 100 percenting the game.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Hester: I just want to thank fans of the game for all their support leading up to release, and I really hope everyone has a great time with it!


Pepper Grinder releases March 28, 2024, for Nintendo Switch and PC.

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