I'm a little early for my appointment with indie developer Witch Beam Games at the Eurogamer Expo, so I take a moment to hang back and observe other people playing Assault Android Cactus, the game I'm here to see.
Everyone seems to be having a great time. It helps that the game is so easy to understand -- left stick moves, right stick aims -- but it's also testament to the high-quality, old-school arcade action that the game offers. Its old-school sensibilities only go so far, though; at its core, it's a thoroughly modern game that all but dispenses with traditional, arbitrary and (argubaly) outdated concepts like "lives," instead choosing to focus on providing the player with a fun, fast-paced experience in which it's relatively difficult to "fail," but in which it's equally quite difficult to do well, too.
Assault Android Cactus, in case you haven't come across this game in its present pre-alpha Steam Early Access incarnation, is, in developer Sanatana Mishra's words, a blend between two branches of the "manic shooter" tree -- Japanese danmaku ("bullet hell") shooters, and more typically Western twin-stick blastathons such as Smash TV and Geometry Wars.
It's all very well saying you're inspired by bullet hell shooters, I think, but were there any specific--
"Radiant Silvergun," says Mishra, almost before I've finished asking about the game's inspiration. "And Ikaruga. Particularly the use of color in Ikaruga. We also liked the way that Cave shooters tend to have character-specific weapons."
Indeed, all these influences are readily apparent almost from the moment you start playing -- the intricate bullet patterns of Radiant Silvergun, the differently colored bullets of Ikaruga -- in this case, some of which damage only you, others of which damage both you and the enemies and others still damage only enemies -- and the fact that each of the selectable android characters in the game has their own distinctive loadout of weapons. Mishra specifically cites Dreamcast-era games as a big influence on Assault Android Cactus, too -- particularly those which made use of that distinctive, colorful and arcadey aesthetic that will forever be associated with Sega games. I ponder out loud that some of the character designs also bear more than a passing resemblance to the cast of Rare's underappreciated N64 classic Jet Force Gemini, but I'm assured that this is coincidental. Mostly, anyway; Mishra does admit that he's a fan and that he spent several hours talking to a fellow developer about Jet Force Gemini just the previous evening.
The actual gameplay of Assault Android Cactus sees one to four players -- local only, sadly, since online co-op apparently hasn't been practical for the three-man team at Witch Beam to implement -- taking on a variety of levels in which they must blast their way through hordes of enemies and occasionally take on a boss. The bullets come thick and fast and the level layout has a habit of dynamically changing midway through a skirmish -- eat that, "Levolution" -- but through careful use of your androids' two weapons, you'll be able to build up a combo of kills and score big to your team's communal pool of points. Score penalties come if a player gets knocked down by being hit too many times, but the only way to actually fail a level completely is to run out of battery -- a resource shared between all four players that can be recharged by collecting powerups. At the end of each level, you'll be shown your worldwide leaderboard ranking and be given a letter grade -- a sure-fire, proven recipe for addiction to those who simply can't stop until they S-rank everything in a game or top the leaderboards for ultimate bragging rights.
The current Early Access version available on Steam is fully playable and even includes leaderboard support, but doesn't include a lot of the content that will be in the final game. Only 16 out of the 25 campaign levels are available, for example, and the "Endless" and "Boss Rush" modes are both absent. Mishra is particularly pleased with the game's implementation of Endless mode that we'll see in a later version, since it incorporates a dynamic difficulty level that increases the challenge factor -- and scoring potential -- as you prove your skills, but makes things a bit easier for you if you're obviously struggling somewhat.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the final game, though, is the implementation of "EX options" -- another Sega influence, this time from the relatively recent After Burner Climax on consoles. Mishra was coy about exactly what these special modes would incorporate, but did show me one option that forced the game into an isometric perspective -- think Shadowrun on the SNES or Terry Cavanagh's recent browser game Naya's Quest, albeit without the perception-manipulating trickery -- and caused it to play remarkably differently. I was sworn to secrecy on some of the other options I happened to catch a glimpse of in the game's debug menu, but rest assured that each of them will significantly change both the look and feel of the game -- and consequently will disable the leaderboard function as a result. "They're just for fun," explains Mishra. "Think GoldenEye's cheats."
Witch Beam has a clear roadmap in place for Assault Android Cactus' future. The game's currently in Early Access having been rushed through Greenlight following a win at the Intel Level Up competition earlier this year, and the full game is set for release on PC, Mac and Linux this November. Mishra sounded a little frustrated when he told the story of the Level Up win and the game's subsequent arrival on Steam -- the timing of the announcement was shifted to align with PAX, and consequently found itself being buried by another story around the same time of 100 new games making it through the Greenlight process. Despite this, he remains confident in Valve and Steam, and enthusiastically declared to me that the game would be there "day zero" when SteamOS launches.
Steam's not the only platform Assault Android Cactus is coming to, though; we'll also see it on PS4, Vita and Wii U, although not until early next year. Mishra had nothing but good things to say about both Sony and Nintendo, particular Shahid Kamal's involvement in discovering, signing and showcasing indie games for Sony platforms. While porting to consoles is proving more of a challenge than getting the game to work on the closely related PC, Mac and Linux (and, by extension, SteamOS) platforms, the game's use of the popular and flexible Unity engine means the porting process is very smooth and straightforward.
"I couldn't have believed two or three years ago that it would be this easy to work with Sony and Nintendo," says Mishra. "Both of them have been incredibly helpful and supportive."
What about Microsoft, though? Any plans for an Xbox One release?
"They turned us down," says Mishra. "Though that was at E3, and they didn't have a self-publishing option then. They do now. You'll have to talk to them about what it means to go back on your word," he quips. "But we're already launching on six platforms and we're just a three-man team, so it's probably not going to happen just yet."
Your loss, Microsoft; Assault Android Cactus is looking like a lot of chaotic fun, and players seem to agree -- our conversation at EGX is interrupted several times by people who want to tell Mishra how enjoyable his team's game is. If you want to try it for yourself right now, you can pre-order and get immediate access to the current version via Steam.