Justin Stander's hit video game Katana Zero has been nominated for some of the gaming industry's top prizes


Building a video game smash between classes

When he wasn’t working on his computer science courses at McGill, Justin Stander, BSc’15, was laying the groundwork for Katana Zero, one of 2019’s hottest video games.

Story by Erik Leijon

February 2020

In Katana Zero, an old school side-scrolling action game not unlike Super Mario or Mega Man, players must be patient and resilient if they hope to survive the onslaught of obstacles facing them.

Game creator Justin Stander, BSc’15, required a similar resolve when it came to making the hit video game, which began in the blueprint stage during his sophomore year at McGill and lasted beyond graduation.

In all, it took five years for Stander to complete his opus, but the effort paid off: since its release in April 2019, Katana Zero has been one of the highest rated games on game downloading service Steam, and Stander joined elite company by being named to Forbes’ annual 30 Under 30 for video games.

The gaming site Nintendo Life praised Katana Zero for its “tough, hair-raising action sequences, gripping narrative, and impeccable sense of style.” Katana Zero was nominated for Best Independent Game at the Game Awards in Los Angeles last year and it is in the running for “Excellence in Design” at the 2020 Independent Games Festival.

“I expected Katana Zero to take only one or two years to complete, but obviously things ballooned out of scale,” says Stander, who divides his time between Montreal and Albany, New York. “No one ever expects it to take so long, but it’s a common thread in gaming.”

Katana Zero has been critically heralded for offering a deeper experience than your usual action-packed platformer (another name for the Super Mario-like genre). In the game, protagonist Zero is an assassin with special abilities. Unfortunately, those powers come from an addictive drug that has taken a toll on the rest of his life. The game is purposely tough, with players forced to repeat difficult passages until they succeed.

These types of difficult games are incredibly popular, but also commonplace, making Katana Zero’s success amid a sea of like-minded titles all the more impressive.

“I think the draw of platformers is entirely to do with the amount of information the player is given,” Stander says. “I don’t play many video games, but when I do I focus on what I like and don’t like about them. What I don’t like about 3D games is you don’t have all the information available to you, because depending on where you’re looking you might get hit by something you can’t see. It’s frustrating.

“In a platformer, you’re given all the possible information you need to react to at all times, so it becomes a pure game of skill. It’s never unfair.”

When Stander began work on the game, it was to satisfy the need for a personal outlet while at school.

“I would say honestly that at the time I was a little more focused on the game than on school,” he admits. “My approach to school involved a lot of cramming for finals and getting through those, while most of my time was spent working on the game at home.”

Some of that McGill coursework did prove to be useful as he refined his game.

“It did help grow my overall sense of how to program correctly and keep things elegant,” he says.

Stander found other McGill students interested in making games through the Mount Royal Game Society, a now defunct developer meetup group. The core of the game also started to take shape at this time: Stander wanted to create a platform game that solved the biggest problems with the genre, notably that there are invisible barriers preventing players from leaving the field of play and long-winded dialogue that players are often stuck scrolling through.

“My biggest design principle is to never waste the player’s time,” he says.

As development on Katana Zero stretched into years, Stander cycled through artists and other collaborators, which is normal for an indie project with a limited budget.

“I describe it as being like a director of a movie,” Stander says. “You can’t do it all on your own, but it’s your vision and you’re involved in every little aspect of it. I did the programming and the design. Writing was a back and forth where each scene was redone 30 times. Every scene was boiled down to its essential component because we edited so much.”

There was even a period of about a year where Stander moved back home and made little progress on the game. Because of the game’s strict design requirements, just adding a simple element like a turret would mean tinkering with 20 different systems, like lighting and replay, to make it all cohesive.

Stander said these painstaking revisions became demoralizing, but what finally got him back on track was finding his final, core artists who pushed him to the finish line.

The game arrived on Steam and Nintendo Switch to little fanfare in April, but over the summer as critical acclaim grew, Katana Zero started to find a wider audience.

Stander’s standout year was capped with the Forbes’ honour. The distinction was a chance to reflect upon Katana Zero’s long road while Standers ponders his next move.

“In a way, Forbes was my first big public appearance,” he says. “I don’t think most people who followed me online even knew what I looked like. That’s by design, as I don’t really like mixing my personality with the work I do. I feel like that’s when you start to get a weird cult following where they know more about you than your games. I want my games to be front and centre. But Forbes was also a chance to step out [from behind] the curtain. I’m becoming more open to the public aspect of being a game developer.”

Back to top