All of us have dreams. They vary in different ways. But underneath it all, buried within us, our dreams have a single latent focal point. Because humans aren’t so different when it comes down to it. We all want the same things. I, like you. and like everyone else, have had dreams of becoming an anthropomorphic snake with arms that flies around RFK Stadium firing lasers at oversized raccoons. Dear friends. Dear readers. Dear loved ones I have not yet come to know. I bring good news: Dream no longer.
With the Philadelphia Union set to welcome D.C. United to Subaru Park on July 17 (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+), the Union have released “Iron Phang”, a 16-bit side-scrolling video game that pits the Union’s mascot, Phang, against Talon, the D.C. United eagle and the not-so-friendly raccoons of RFK Stadium. You can try it right now at IronPhang.com. It’s a blast. It’s also the kind of unneeded, but wholly welcome project that makes you think “Wow, someone had a lot of time on their hands.” And that’s because it exists due to the fact someone had a lot of time on their hands.
In this case, that’s Union Digital Video Producer Greg Fallon. Fallon picked up coding during quarantine and spent his time inside progressing from making a Mega Man-esque sprite dash across the screen to, eventually, making a full-fledged side-scroller with various stages and boss fights.
“It took at least 80 hours. Probably more,” Fallon said. “It was a lot of nights where I was just sitting in my room while my girlfriend was off in the corner asking like, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Oh, I’m coding this thing. I’ve almost gotten Mega Man to dash.’
“It was a lot of that combined with 20, 30 on-the-clock hours just testing and messing around with things, in addition to doing all the other things I was supposed to do for my job.”
As Fallon put in the hours, he learned how to do make his creations do increasingly impressive things. For example: ”Greg just keeps going on his own and he's like texting me updates every once in a while,” Union Creative Director Shaun Kreider said. "And he'd say, ‘Mega Man can jump now.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, great.’”
With the sprites becoming increasingly talented under Fallon’s care, the Union creative team realized they had to use them for something. There were talks of a game coinciding with this year’s kit rollout. Something smaller scale. They finally landed on a way to not only promote an upcoming rivalry match, but turn Phang into a superhero.
From there, they simply needed to take Fallon’s sprites and turn them into a couple of mascots and a whole bunch of raccoons. They found Camila Canuto, an artist in Sao Paolo. Camila was willing to take on the challenge. Even, if explaining what that challenge was and why it existed would have taken almost as long as creating the game itself.
“There were surprisingly few questions to be honest. I knew the concept is very out there and very kind of confusing to someone that's not in our environment. So I tried to outline the basic story of the game in the immediate scope of work discussions. Like, ‘This is the idea. We want them to start here in this place and go here. And we want them to jump on enemies that vaguely look like anthropomorphic raccoons. Also there's an Eagle mascot from the other team’ and she didn't bat an eye at any of it,” Kreider said.
“I think there's a language to video games. Anybody who's in the world of playing or creating video games understands that there's wacky stuff. It's just kind of in the realm of Ratchet & Clank or Mario. It's really not that big of a deal to have a snake jump on a raccoon.”
I don’t want to spoil too much, but the art and Fallon’s programming combine to create a polished game with instantly recognizable settings and characters you can delight in as you cruise past each enemy with minimal effort in a game that reassures you that you can actually be competent at something for once in your life and hahahahha I’m totally kidding, it’s absolutely soul-crushing.
I’m not joking. I have played a lot of Iron Phang over the past few days. A lot. I am by no means good at video games. I knew this coming in. I still fire up my Xbox360 to play NCAA Football from time to time and that’s really it. However, I didn’t expect to get sent back to the start screen multiple times before making my way through the first stage on the easiest level. After a longer amount of time than I want to admit, I made my way through the entire game and felt like I had genuinely accomplished something.
Then, just for fun, I thought I’d try the game’s “insanity” mode out. It’s not doable. If anyone makes their way through this thing on insanity mode, they deserve a signed hoodie from Jim Curtin. Something truly special. Because Fallon did not mess around here.
And maybe that’s the lesson to take away. That, like the Union’s rise to the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings last season and their run to the Concacaf Champions League semifinal this year, the best things are earned with hard work, clever moves and persistence. Or maybe Fallon just wanted to prove how good he got at coding over the course of quarantine. Either way, it’s impressive.
“I'm very proud of that. I'm a huge video game fan and I love sort of delving into how the games are sort of built and designed to challenge you. I think at this point that I have a decent idea of what makes a game fun and hard. And my biggest fear when we set out on this was that I was going to try and do this myself and I was going to make something that was too easy,” Fallon said.
“So when people coming back and say, ‘ I keep dying on this level’ and it's not because there's a glitch in the game where it's broken, it's just because what I built is difficult, that is rewarding to me. I want the people who win the game and finish it to feel like they accomplished something. Even if it is a short game.”
It may be short, but let’s focus on what’s really really important here. In some ways, what’s important is the fact the MLS community is unstoppably creative and can produce special works of art like this that help us connect and have fun beyond the pitch. In much more real ways though, what’s important is that after playing the game a ton I figured out an extremely cheap way to rack up points and absolutely none of y’all are going to beat my high score.