DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — A mobile game made in Detroit Lakes, starring a cute little dolphin and other cartoon sea creatures, is making waves in the niche world of retro pixel art gaming.
“Sonar Smash,” created by Detroit Lakes couple Derek Sonnenberg and Bonnie Thompson, was released April 8 and then featured a few weeks later in the Apple App Store as one of the “New Games We Love." It’s now been downloaded more than 22,000 times.
With thousands of new mobile gaming apps released every day, that kind of attention is cause for celebration.
“When ‘Sonar Smash’ was released, it was a five-star (rating) on Apple and had lots of great comments,” Sonnenberg said. “It’s really inspiring, all the good things we’ve heard. “
The game is a “super-cute, fast-paced shoot ‘em up” that requires players to smash their way through waves of ocean life “using unique and powerful sonar abilities,” according to a news release. It’s designed to be reminiscent of old-school arcade games, with intentionally pixelated characters and scenes.
“Sonar Smash” is the second pixel art game to be released by Sonnenberg and Thompson, who in 2018 founded Pixel Pajama Studios, a “tiny indie game studio,” as they describe it on their website. Their first game, “Astral Defense,” was released in 2019.
A classically trained artist born and raised in California, Thompson is the lead artist and animator for the games, while Sonnenberg, who has lived in Detroit Lakes since he was about 10, is the programmer and marketer. He’s self-taught, and he said he’s proud of how much he’s learned and accomplished over the past two years.
In addition to the two games already released, the couple has developed prototypes for several more, one of which Sonnenberg said they hope to release to the public by the end of the year. He’s also built the Pixel Pajama Studios website and created media kits and other promotional materials for the business.
For now, Pixel Pajama Studios is “basically a hobby,” Sonnenberg said, but, “Eventually, we’d like to turn this into our main business, our actual income earner, to focus on something we really enjoy, which is just being creative in general.”
When his and Thompson’s son was born, about two-and-a-half years ago, he decided to become a stay-at-home parent, and that was also when the initial seeds for Pixel Pajama Studios were planted.
Meanwhile, Thompson continued to work full-time as a fountain programmer for water shows. She creates elaborate fountain “dances,” in which the water moves to the beat of accompanying music (like the famous Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas). It’s a job she was doing from her California home when she met Sonnenberg four years ago, and she continued to do it from her new home in Detroit Lakes after she moved here to be with him. She also continued to create her own original artwork on the side, including pixel art.
Inspired by Thompson’s work, Sonnenberg entered the pixel art world himself, and what started as a hobby for the couple quickly evolved as they began to turn their art into full-fledged games.
“I got into pixel art because it was the easiest art style for me to learn,” Sonnenberg said. “I just decided I wanted to make my own images, about two years ago, and then I just kept going with it, and she did, too. And then we, a couple of months later, decided to try to make a game out of it because it was looking so good.”
They work well together, Sonnenberg said, brainstorming theme ideas for games, coming up with characters, doing the market research and more. Thompson sketches things out, and then they hone their plans through a little trial and error.
“Everything’s a learning process,” he said, adding, “It’s been great. I really like what we’re doing right now.”
Moving forward, the couple’s plan is to push out more similar content as much and as fast as possible. Sonnenberg said that’s the best path to making a living in the indie gaming business.
“It’s really a big exponential slow climb, so we’re going to put out as many games as we can, as much content as we can,” he said.
“Sonar Smash” is available in the Apple App Store, on Google Play, or itch.io. For more information, visit pixelpajamastudios.com.